To outsiders, the proposal of communion for the divorced and remarried seems
a modest adjustment. But it has provoked adamant resistance among the
faithful because it throws in doubt the basic logic of the gospel. From her
beginnings, the Church has known that the baptized, while born again in
Christ, fall back into sin, sometimes seriously so. This poses a problem.
How can the adulterer, murderer, or thief who draws near to Christ in
reception of the Eucharist be doing anything other than uniting himself
with Christ as a sinner, not as one delivered from his sins? And if we can
be united to Christ as sinners, the promise of the gospel is
falsified, for that promise tells us that union with Christ delivers us from sin.
Historically, the solution was to develop a theology of penance and reconciliation. This allows us to say that the penitent adulterer unites himself with Christ. As penitent, he comes as one who seeks deliverance from his sins. In the Catholic tradition, confession (reconciliation) becomes a distinct sacrament that prepares the soul for reception of Christ in the Eucharist. Confession is not a sacrament for most Protestants. Nevertheless, in some forms of Protestantism there are traditions of public confession before a saving profession of faith in Christ. Protestant liturgies also often include a corporate confession and pronouncement of Christ’s absolution preceding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. And so, the ecumenical consensus holds that the promise of the gospel—that union with Christ delivers us from our sins—requires renunciation of our sins in one form or another. This is what prepares us for sacramental communion with Christ in the bread and shared cup, a communion of those being delivered from sin rather than in bondage to it—which is to say, communion in the gospel.
Many regard as unobjectionable the changes in church discipline to allow civilly divorced Catholics who have remarried to regularly receive communion. It seems to them a reasonable accommodation to the unfortunate reality of widespread divorce. But this change disrupts the logic of penitential preparation, which maintains the truth that union with Christ delivers us from our sins. Under the proposal, marriage is not permanent and a remarried person is not committing adultery. Or adultery is not a serious sin. Or Christians have always misunderstood the gospel, and we need not renounce our sins to unite ourselves with Christ. The logic forces us to affirm at least one of these fundamental changes in Christian doctrine. We can’t evade this unpleasant prospect by saying that “we’re all sinners” or that the Church is not the “Church of the pure,” as Pope Francis has on many occasions.
The proposed pastoral approach does not purport to solve theological problems by clarifying which of the three prongs is being decisively altered. It simply muddies things sufficiently to obscure the contradictions. This evasion of explicit change follows a post–Vatican II pattern, which has been one of ad hoc accommodations to contemporary sensibilities, undertaken in the context of the collapse of an older scholastic theology that supported precise analysis and clear conclusions. The theological culture of today’s Catholic Church lacks rigorous philosophical discipline. A great deal of theology now runs on evocative and free-floating concepts. Pope Francis uses “mercy” in this way.
The general trend away from theological clarity and toward muddled gestures encourages a technological approach to the spiritual life. We often hear that the truth that God transcends our human capacity to know means we can’t have firm and clear knowledge about anything that matters for our salvation. Or we’re told that the truth of Christ must always be expressed historically, and thus it must take a new form in our era. These and other false truisms turn the Church’s sacramental life into a plastic resource to be deployed and redeployed to encourage “spiritual growth”—or worse, to promote an atmosphere of “inclusion.” Instead of God coming to us in and through Word and Sacrament, we use the “Christian tradition” to engineer our way toward him.
The proposal to provide communion to Protestant spouses raises other difficulties. St. Paul teaches that through the cross of Christ, God has overcome division and made us one body. With characteristic confidence in God’s power to make real that which he promises, Catholicism has insisted that this oneness is objective, not “spiritual” in the sense of simply being a matter of shared beliefs or sentiments. Unity is visible, not invisible. The community gathered around the shared Eucharist serves as both the most powerful sign and most perfect realization of that unity.
For this reason, Catholic sacramental theology has treated as obvious a fundamental discipline of the altar. Those who receive the Eucharist must be in visible unity of faith, doctrine, and discipline. Put more succinctly, those who receive communion must be in communion; otherwise, the sacrament of the Eucharist is contradicted in its very enactment.
Again, the current proposals for pastoral accommodation run against core theological convictions. Including non-Catholics in Eucharistic celebrations on a regular basis teaches by action that visible membership in the Catholic Church is not necessary for unity in Christ. Of course, some remarkable exceptions aside, this always has been the Protestant view. A stream of Protestant theology holds that the one, true, and apostolic Church is not defined institutionally. It is made up of those who share the same saving faith in Christ and profess true doctrine, wherever they may worship. This runs counter to the Catholic view, which affirms shared apostolic doctrine as a mark of the Church but also regards the historical succession of bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome as an essential element of the body of Christ. Thus, according to Catholic teaching, to be united in Christ requires membership in the body of believers who live and worship under the supervision of a bishop in communion with the bishop of Rome.
This institutional dimension of Catholicism has deep theological roots.
Years ago, while studying the Council of Trent, the authoritative Catholic
response to the Reformation, I came to see that the council mirrored back
to Protestants their most potent charge, which is that Catholics rely on
their own “works” rather than trusting in the promise of Christ. The
fathers at Trent did not dispute the solus Christus premise of the
Reformation. Instead, the Tridentine response chides Protestantism for
limiting the power of God’s love. When Jesus says to his followers, “I will
be with you until the end of the age,” he meant to be true to that promise.
The visible Church and her sacramental system incarnate Christ anew. This
is why Catholics often use the word “Church” where Protestants typically
This can seem like a juridical, ritualistic mentality to an outsider. But for Catholicism, it underlines the theological truth that God’s kingdom is not one of sentiments, feelings, or even orthodox dogmas. It is a real, living body, a polis or city with its own principles, laws, and leaders. To invite non-Catholics to receive communion on a regular basis—especially non-Catholics who could easily enter into full communion with the Catholic Church—blurs the Church’s boundaries, which are essential if the body of Christ is to have visible, enfleshed form rather than becoming a projection of our spiritual imaginations or a creation of our religious fellowship. Over time, the blurring of boundaries “spiritualizes” Catholicism. It erodes confidence in the objectivity of grace and the power of God in Christ to claim territory in the world—and in our lives.
We are made for fellowship with God. This is a common Christian affirmation. But in the Catholic tradition, it is taken up with boldness, leading to the confidence that God has already consecrated a people. The people of God are not incapable of sin, but they are called to dwell in God’s household here and now. We don’t just proclaim his divine Word; we see, touch, and serve holy things. We naturally seek to walk upright in the Lord’s presence, bringing not just an inner spirit of love, but also outward behaviors in ritual forms that accord with his promises. This ambition, which is falsely described as “pharisaical” or “legalistic,” reflects the Tridentine genius of Catholicism, which grows out of confidence in the power of God’s love, not supine obedience or vain attempts to earn divine favor. St. Gregory of Nazianus said of the incarnation, “That which is not assumed is not redeemed.” This applies to us, as well. He comes to us in the flesh; we follow him in the flesh. Catholicism’s sacramental objectivity (which has analogues in Protestantism) is rooted in this fundamental truth.
Priests serve; technocrats manage. The integrity of the Church’s sacramental system is today threatened by the instrumentalization of sacred things. In good Jesuit fashion, this trend toward pastoral technocracy is being justified as an emergency measure, a necessary means to shepherd the people of God in our disintegrating age of failed marriages and eroded religious boundaries. The sentiment is understandable, even honorable, up to a point. But as a theological program, it is perilous and must be resisted. For we live in a time that tempts us to believe that nothing is sacred and everything is raw material for this or that project of human design.
The University of Michigan set up a “bias response team.” It was established
to respond to and manage “bias incidents.” The university administration
considers the team part of their larger efforts to create “a respectful and
welcoming environment for all to live, learn, work, and thrive.” A Michigan
advocacy group, Speech First, filed suit, claiming that conservative views
were not welcomed and conservative students could not thrive under the
aegis of the Bias Response Team. The Trump Justice Department is backing
the legal challenge, which claims that the university’s new policies
violate constitutional protections of free expression.
A “respectful and welcoming environment” is an admirable goal. But the university’s bureaucratic and regulatory efforts aren’t likely to work very well. Respect and welcome require social virtues and functional norms. When virtues are hard to find and social norms break down, legal and regulatory agents replace them, seeking to restore a modicum of enforced order to dysfunctional human relations. This, in turn, creates grievances and counter-grievances in a litigious atmosphere.
We’ve seen this happen in domestic life. More than fifty years ago, social norms about male–female relations, marriage, parental responsibility, and autonomy were clear. Those norms were enforced by the informal mechanisms of honor and shame. The sexual revolution called them into question. Their power eroded and collapsed. The result: an expansive body of “family law” that did not exist two generations ago. Legal control fills the void.
Something similar is happening in higher education. I’ve spoken to a number of recent graduates. They tell me that the first thing one learns after arriving at college is not to say what you think. Apparently, the rising generation of otherwise intelligent and ambitious students cannot discuss moral, political, and religious questions without fear of being hurt, of hurting someone, or of being punished for hurting someone.
I’m not sure why this has happened. Maybe the poisonous ethos of social media infects their face-to-face interactions. Maybe university administrators have conceded campus culture to the shrill voices of the most psychologically unstable and damaged students. Maybe the metaphysical poverty of our professoriate has turned debate into assertions of power.
Or maybe the causes go deeper. Just as domestic and intimate relations were
deregulated decades ago, so now with social and civic relations. These
days, well-educated, high-status adults have terrible manners. They
text-message while ordering lattes, treating those who serve them as
nonentities. They think nothing of hurling epithets and obscenities. TV
hosts toss f-bombs. Former president Barack Obama lionizes foul-mouthed rap
stars whose songs are full of verbal aggression. Our current president
specializes in derogatory put-downs. Meanwhile, the once staid and
restrained liberal establishment brims with accusations of racism, fascism,
Nazism, and other crimes. These terms serve as flame-throwing verbal
assaults meant to kill careers.
In these circumstances, something like the University of Michigan’s bias response team becomes inevitable. In conditions of inter-human dysfunction, people look to the authorities for relief. They want liberty, yes, but they want ordered liberty, not hostility, rancor, and the war of all against all. They demand regulatory and legal control when social control breaks down, and rightly so.
This is why libertarianism makes so many false promises. The more rigorously the utopian dreams of libertarianism are pursued, the weaker social controls become. The result is not freedom, but instead an environment of disorder and dysfunction in which regulation and bureaucracy grow ever more powerful. We are free to fashion meaning for our own lives these days, much more so than we were when I was young. We can even define ourselves as male or female, if that suits our fancy. At the same time, we live within a web of regulatory restraint that grows tighter and tighter.
In 1973 or 1974, in our middle school hallway, a classmate escalated a long-standing conflict with one of my friends by spitting out a particularly pointed epithet. On impulse, my angered friend bloodied his nose. Teachers immediately intervened. Gripping my friend’s arm with painful force, one of the teachers asked him why he’d hit the other kid. He told the teacher what had been said. The teacher’s grip relaxed, and though he marched my friend to the principal’s office for discipline, it was clear by his changed manner that he approved of my friend’s violent response. After school, I learned that the principal had chastised my friend but given him a moderate punishment of a week’s after-school detention.
The libertarians are not the only utopians. Progressives also participate in magical thinking. They imagine a world with no boundaries to protect, no honor to defend, and no norms whose enforcement requires punches. These sorts of people run our universities. And they wonder why young students today are incapable of ordering their common life in sane, sensible, humane ways.
Mary, Seat of Wisdom (continued)
In the last issue, I reflected on how the Virgin Mary’s virginal purity can
illuminate the intellectual life. She embodies a perfect humility, as well:
“Behold, I am the handmaiden of the Lord.” Like purity of heart, this
virtue characterizes a life of truth-seeking. John Henry Newman writes,
“Good thoughts are only good so far as they are taken as means to an exact
obedience.” There is no intellectual integrity when the words “I want”
dominate our thinking. We should seek to form our intellects in obedience
to what is true, not what serves our interests, allays our fears, or
reduces our anxieties. The all-demanding ego must be tamed. Humility turns
us away from me-centered thinking.
Self-doubt is a quality any bright person should cultivate. By that I don’t mean doubting one’s abilities, as if we must pretend that we’re not capable or talented. Nor am I commending a crippling skepticism that shrinks from strong truth claims. Instead, reminding ourselves of what we don’t know helps us attain a proper and healthy self-doubt. Know-it-alls are not just bores; their intellectual arrogance inures them to new knowledge and insulates them from salutary criticism.
In my experience as an academic, I was struck by the arrogance of my fellow professors. We tend to treat the genuine insights of our disciplines as sufficient and comprehensive. (Psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and economists can be particularly egregious in this regard.) Or we imagine that our expertise licenses us to speak with authority on any number of topics. One colleague used to write foreign policy diatribes on the basis of his expertise in ancient Roman military history. That’s not a bad idea in itself, but he spent no time learning contemporary details, confident that his knowledge of ancient strategy gave him the intellectual Rosetta Stone. The best minds cultivate humility. A brilliant physicist knows many things, but he knows that he does not know all things, which is why, even if he’s at the top of his field, he relishes learning about art history or political theory from people he readily acknowledges know more than he does.
A proper self-doubt deflates the authority of academic pedigrees and credentials. We should keep in mind St. Paul’s warning: “Knowledge puffs up.” Expertise does not make one wise, or even interesting. The most tedious people at dinner parties are usually academics. We hold forth. I’m reminded of the joke about a Harvard professor who took a bright graduate student to lunch. After talking for thirty minutes, he caught himself and apologized, then prompted his student, “I’ve talked too much. Why don’t you tell me what you think about my work?”
Speaking to the Father, Jesus observes, “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” Very often the learned can’t see the forest for the trees. The active politician can know a great deal more than the political philosopher, even though he lacks the technical education necessary to put his insights into the best and most useful forms. We must not lose sight of the fact that expertise with words and concepts—something rightly prized among intellectuals—is not the same as knowledge of reality.
Listening is the active form of proper self-doubt. Some people are so
corrupted that their statements are not worth our consideration. However,
most seek truth. We can learn from the Virgin Mary to listen and ponder the
meaning of what others say. This kind of listening is especially necessary
today, when political polarization discourages us from seeking to draw out
the truth in political or moral views that seem rebarbative.
Recall the words of Jesus: “Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise.” Often people don’t really know what they are saying. Even when spouting wrongheaded opinions, they speak truths by accident, as it were. This is not surprising. As a species of evil, falsehood is a lack or privation of the good, which means it always piggybacks on some element or shred of truth. So it pays to pay attention to what people say, parsing their words and sifting their opinions.
The difference between the merely clever and truly wise turns on the Marian virtue of pondering what others say. Those who don’t listen tend to become more and more enclosed in their own ideas. They are often lousy writers and teachers, too. Not paying attention to what others think, they don’t know their audience.
Truth comes from the outside. It can come through books or lectures. These are focused moments of listening. But we choose our books and select our classes. This is perhaps why, in my experience, the most important moments of insight come in conversations. One rarely gets fully formed ideas, and certainly not “theories,” from these unplanned moments. But the unpremeditated, uncontrolled nature of conversation can bring unexpected insights. My own thinking has been deepened and redirected by the strange and even shocking things people say.
Silence is still another way of cultivating humility. As Josef Pieper
observed, “To perceive is to listen in silence.” In a certain sense, of
course, this is tautological. You can’t listen while you’re doing the
talking, as my wife sometimes reminds me. But what Pieper means by silence
is an interior quietness, a stilling of the grinding gears of the arguments
and counter-arguments we often formulate in our minds while reading or
listening. The Dominican A. G. Sertillanges wrote, “We do not know very
well how the mind works; but we know that passivity is its first law.”
Interior silence cultivates passivity, stilling the motors of the soul. As
with the Virgin Mary who humbled herself to receive God’s Word, this
interior silence allows our intellects to hear a truth from the
outside—which is where that which we do not know resides.
Prayer, whether spoken or meditative, is a discipline of humility. It silences the chattering of me-centered existence, which is essential for the intellectual life. Prayer must be central to our intellectual lives. This is the case not just because we should consecrate everything we do to God’s service, but also because we desire to be overshadowed and taken captive by truth.
while we’re at it
♦ A study shows that only the children of the wealthy conform to
stereotypical patterns in which girls dominate as English pros and boys
rule as math whizzes. The explanation? The “paradox of high-earning
parents.” According to the New York Times (“Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math”), those who are well-educated and wealthy “are more likely
to say they hold egalitarian views about gender roles. But they are also
more likely to act in traditional ways—father as breadwinner, mother as
caregiver.” This mischievous behavior sends subtle messages to their
progeny, leading the girls to underperform in math as compared to the boys.
This fascinating claim implies a bit more than the reporters imagine. Consider this argument:
1) With greater wealth comes greater material freedom to act upon your desires.
2) With greater education comes greater critical consciousness and freedom from generic social stereotypes—which is to say, greater psychological freedom to identify and act upon your desires.
3) Add the reported fact: The most wealthy and well-educated American couples tend to fall into traditional sex roles when it comes to work and child-rearing.
Therefore, given 1) and 2), the reported fact suggests that, on average, what men and women really want is an updated form of traditional sex roles.
♦ During his campaign, Trump said, “Our country is being run by very, very stupid people.” I increasingly agree. “Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math” suggests a number of things, none complimentary of our ruling class. The first is that the rich and powerful people who run our country are either so mindless that they don’t recognize that what they say about men and women does not accord with their own patterns of life—or they are feckless cowards who fear the slightest transgression of political correctness. One way or another, they shirk their main cultural responsibility, which is to articulate norms that help ordinary people live in accord with their natural desires. That’s especially important when it comes to the always difficult work of being a good husband and father, a good wife and mother.
♦ I’m also impressed by the fact that the writers who wrote the story for the New York Times are so ideologically blinded that they can’t grasp the implications of what they are reporting on. Either greater education does not liberate people from prevailing opinion, or men and women naturally desire traditional marital complementarity, at least to some degree. Lack of native intelligence is not the only source of stupidity. In fact, it’s the least decisive. More common is a brainless, mechanical mentality that confuses today’s truisms with actual truths and turns away from inconvenient realities.
♦ Which brings me to Connecticut. In the state track finals in June, two sophomore boys who call themselves girls took the gold and silver in the 100-meter race. It was the second year in a row for the runner-up. He won the girls’ race last year as a freshman. The high school track association running the meets has little choice in the matter. Connecticut’s state government interprets its anti-discrimination laws to include “gender identity.” Some parents are upset. They’ve circulated a petition and collected signatures. A trans activist responded, saying that this sort of response is “discriminatory” and wrongheaded. “We can’t just assume that these athletes are winning because they’re transgender. It’s possible that they’d be beating these other student-athletes if they were cisgender.” Roughly translated, maybe these boys would be beating the other girls if they were actually girls—which is to say, if they were someone else. As Trump said, our country is being run by very stupid people.
♦ In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign platform included a plan to defer and in some cases forgive student loans for young entrepreneurs who start new businesses. The underlying assumption is neo-liberal, bipartisan, and implicitly Randian: The future of our society depends upon unshackling the creative energies of the talented. The common good is best served by helping the winners win. I can only wonder that people wonder why our political establishment is failing.
♦ The myopia has other dimensions. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jon Kamp reported on the homelessness problem in Philadelphia, where drug trafficking has reached crisis proportions. He offers the usual analysis, courtesy of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty: “Homeless encampments have become common sights around the U.S., with numbers exploding in the last decade due to rising housing costs and stagnant wages.” Rising housing costs and stagnant wages explain the gangs of feral youths in San Francisco who shoot up in BART stations, the tent cities in Seattle, and the dramatically increasing number of people living on the streets? This is magical thinking. It’s painfully obvious that the causes stem from our laissez-faire culture, which has led to dysfunctional families, self-destructive behavior, and the breakdown of basic moral norms among the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.
♦ The first stanza of Elizabeth Jennings’s poem, “Euthanasia.”
The law’s been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?
♦ A bunch of folks are stepping up to organize Readers of First Things Groups (ROFTERS). These groups offer opportunities to discuss the latest issue.
• Jeff Hartline in Nashville, TN. You can contact him at email@example.com.
• Noelle and Brandon Brown in Indianapolis, IN. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 317-517-7307.
• Daniel Barbero in Pittsburgh, PA. Contact him at email@example.com.
• James Pezzulo in Hartford, CT. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-463-2079.
• Joseph Robinson in Boston, MA. Contact him at email@example.com or 614-218-4448.
• Samuel Berg in Madison, WI. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 262-498-6853.
• Michael Rowe in Fort Myers Beach/Bonita Springs, FL. Contact him at email@example.com.
• For those in Canberra, Australia, Mike Swan is forming a group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ The spring fundraising campaign was a great success. We exceeded our goal of $500,000. Many thanks to our readers for your generosity and commitment. Your financial support ensures that First Things remains a strong, independent voice.