Catholics have a hard teaching on divorce and remarriage—hard for the married to live by and lately, it seems, hard for the bishops to uphold. In its teaching on marriage, the Church merely follows Christ, who said that a man who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery. Many things, perhaps, can be said against Christ's view of marriage; one thing that can be said for it is that it applies equally to rich and poor. It recognizes no distinction between the laborer who ruts the village whore and the king who brazens his way with pomps and ceremonies and all the justifications that canonists can provide. Following Christ, the Church has recognized that rich and poor sin alike—though only the rich have the means to make their sin respectable.
If the bishops advocating for a more accommodating approach to the divorced and remarried at the Vatican’s Synod on the Family have their way, this will soon change. While the details of their proposals have varied, the basic thrust has not. If done with sufficient “stability”—that is, if the couple stays together, has children, and gets involved in the community—adultery can be looked at in a more positive light. Achieving these things requires time, money, and social support. For those who live in conditions of precarity, it is very nearly impossible.
Not enough attention has been drawn to how the liberal proposals at the Synod conflate righteousness and respectability, communion and “community.” The starkest statement of this conflation came on Monday, from Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Australia. In a Vatican press conference, Coleridge said: “A second marriage that is enduring and stable and loving and where there are children who are cared for is not the same as a couple skulking off to a hotel room for a wicked weekend.” For this reason, “just to say that every second marriage or second union whatever you want to call it is adulterous, is perhaps too sweeping.”
Coleridge has spoken with admirable candor throughout the synod, and his comments here bring the issue into sharp relief. Does the church oppose sin, or only sordidness? When a man abandons his wife, does it matter whether the other woman waits for him in a house or in a hotel room? Is adultery a sin committed only by the impulsive, the cash-strapped, the time-pressed? Or can it also be executed by men with ample capital and orderly habits?
This new notion of sin was propounded also by Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx, in his Synod intervention. Cardinal Marx asked why the divorced and remarried who “take an active part in community life” should be refused “participation in sacramental Communion.” How, he asked, can one “be in full community with the Church and at the same time excluded from the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist . . . ?”
There is a curious snobbishness to all this. Marx assumes the special worthiness of people who “take an active part in community life.” His assumption would be appropriate if he were the leader of a condo board or social club, rather than a prince of a church founded by an itinerant and at times downright anti-social Jewish peasant. Volunteerism and community involvement may be admirable, but they are not criteria by which access to communion has ever been granted. The only criterion has been sincere contrition, which is available equally to rich and poor (it requires less leisure time than the parish council, and less money than the church tax). Yet such a criterion is less than convenient for those who have everything in the world except ears to hear Christ’s hard word.
It is perhaps unsurprising that two Catholics who saw most clearly the distinction between righteousness and respectability were converts of the English educated class. Graham Greene made a socially suspect choice when he became a Catholic in 1928. He went on to dramatize the terms of that choice in the novel Brighton Rock, which pits the hygienic liberalism of a “cheery” and “healthy” middle class lady against the hard-boiled Catholic faith of a gangster and the girl who loves him. The middle-class woman addresses the girl:
“I know one thing you don't. I know the difference between Right and Wrong. They didn't teach you that at school.”
Rose didn't answer; the woman was quite right: the two words meant nothing to her. Their taste was extinguished by stronger foods—Good and Evil.
Greene perceives an almost elemental conflict between holiness and what might be called moral hygiene. More balanced is the view of John Henry Newman, an earlier convert, who saw social polish as sometimes encouraging, sometimes suppressing, Christian action:
It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. . . . He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home.
The advocates for accommodation at the Synod on the Family wish to avoid “inflicting pain” with harsh language. Words that “jar or jolt” must be eschewed. All “gloom” and “resentment” should be purged from Church teaching. These bishops' great concern is to “make everyone at ease and at home.”
So far, so gentlemanly—which is precisely the problem. Newman describes the Victorian gentleman in terms that sound flattering but are meant to scathe. Social grace does not vouchsafe divine grace. This distinction is lost on the bishops who have made “pastoral” a synonym for “polite.” These men wish to turn the church, not into the field hospital stirringly called for by Pope Francis, but instead into a country club. Having once stood outside of it themselves, Newman and Greene realized that what the Church offers—and what we need—is not “full community” but full communion.
Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.