While becoming a Christian, I was given a lot of space to figure out what needed to change in my life. No one handed me a stern list of my sins. No one suggested that I discern ways of minimizing the gap between my life and the demands of the gospel, either. Traditional Christian morality, for me, was treasure hidden in a field (with map and digging implements provided), not moral nourishment force-fed to me while I was strapped helplessly to a gurney.
In a similar vein, I know priests who vocally support maintaining the prohibition on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion, though they don’t enforce it firmly in their own parishes. Presumably, they think shaming someone in front of parishioners who don’t know their marital situation is more harmful than an unworthy communion. One can disagree with the prudence of their decision. But these supporters of traditional discipline are not the modern-day Pharisees of progressive demonology, who care only for enforcing rules.
The attitude of these priests reflects, for the most part, the historic Catholic modus operandi: on the one hand, clear and demanding moral standards, known to all (or easily discoverable by all who care to know); on the other hand, a lackadaisical approach to enforcing those standards. In other words, a preference for the Southern European approach to rules over the Anglo-Saxon model that demands law be rigorously enforced or else scrapped.
This modus operandi is delicately balanced, however. When moral standards themselves are relativized, what emerges is not a Church in which everyone simply moves on from the idea of mortal sin. It’s a Church in which remaining moral standards are increasingly contradictory. When one group is excused from obedience to law, more exacting standards are required elsewhere, in an attempt to re-balance the mystic scales of justice—deflecting attention to the sins of group B to excuse the sins of group A.
Consequently, the current direction in the Church is not (as conservatives fear) toward adopting progressive sexual mores, but more in the direction of conservative Protestantism—which, for the most part, has jettisoned or twisted biblical teaching that conflicts with those aspects of the sexual revolution that appeal to heterosexual males, while ramping up the opprobrium against everyone else. While gay evangelical teens kill themselves in despair, heterosexual adults who shame them live indistinguishably from non-Christians.
The same approach is gaining a foothold in the Catholic Church. Want heterosexual sex without its natural consequences? No need to breed like rabbits. Having an affair? We’ll accompany you while you discern how your new sex life accords with God’s will. Want to cohabitate? Your relationship might have the grace of a marriage anyway. But a Google news search for “gay teacher fired by Catholic school” returns over 13,000 results.
This double standard seems well represented at high levels in the Church. I was unenthusiastic about the 2014 Synod interim report, which spoke of welcoming the “gifts and qualities” of gay people, but it is revealing that the 2015 Synod junked this language while waving through an ambiguous compromise on the communion question. Some prelates who take a hard line on homosexuality are evidently willing to soft-pedal Catholic teaching on adultery.
Practically, it matters little whether this hypocrisy was officially authorized by the Synod or Amoris Laetitia. Post–Vatican II, faithful Catholics expended enormous energy vindicating the orthodoxy of conciliar teaching on liturgy, for example, while around them statues were smashed, altars bulldozed, and racks of clown costumes wheeled into the sacristy. It will be the spirit of the Synod that the average Catholic must live with.
To call remarriage after divorce “adultery” now invites the accusation of “black-and-white” thinking, a failure to see the world in the “shades of gray” lauded by Amoris Laetitia’s self-appointed partisans. But here’s the thing about gray: It’s dull.
Recall the story of Paul Verlaine. A major French Catholic poet of the fin de siècle, Verlaine abandoned his wife for a homosexual affair with the younger poet Arthur Rimbaud. After a quarrel violent enough to warrant police attention, Verlaine was imprisoned for sodomy. In prison, he underwent a dramatic conversion to Catholicism, and he spent the rest of his life oscillating between periods of fervent devotion and drunken escapades with prostitutes. He was widely celebrated as an artist, not only for his frank erotic poetry, but also for what some literary critics have called the most magnificent Christian verse in the French tongue.
Imagine, however, that Verlaine had lived not in the 1870s but in the 2070s, that he had converted into a Church stripped of black-and-white thinking about sin and grace, in which priests are schooled in the arts of “discernment” and “accompaniment.” Verlaine could then have been assisted to appreciate the positive dimensions of his relationship with Rimbaud (or of his encounters with prostitutes), relax, and let go of the rigid moral thinking that left him racked with guilt.
A twenty-first-century Verlaine would live a more respectable, bourgeois life, but he would lack the humility—the virtue—inculcated through repeatedly turning back to God. Verlaine’s life was squalid, but he lived it within a drama of sin and redemption that gave it direction and meaning; a life lived in blacks, whites, and bold colors, not shades of gray.
“Whoever believes that my faith is insincere,” Verlaine said, “does not know the ecstasy of receiving within his body the very flesh of the Lord. It is for me a delight which makes my head spin: it is a physical sensation. … [T]he last time I received Holy Communion, I felt myself instantly clean, washed of all my sins.” Without the tug-of-war between sin and grace in the soul, this kind of experience of the Eucharist is inaccessible.
If we tried translating Verlaine’s spiritual writing into the language of accompaniment and integration, we would be exchanging great religious art (in contemplating which we understand something vital about the human condition) for soulless bureaucratic jargon.
The disappearance of the Verlaine-style “bad Catholic” from the contemporary Catholic landscape is not a sign that everyone became holy in the 1970s. It is a serious impoverishment. Those who are forgiven little, love little. Sin is ugly, but it is part of the moral economy that makes grace intelligible. Without it, the narrative of salvation history looks somewhat ridiculous, for what do we need saving from? There can be something beautiful about the life of someone who genuinely struggles with sin instead of making excuses, and beauty is indicative of truth.
“The Catholic Church,” Oscar Wilde famously quipped, is “for saints and sinners. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” The Catholic Church is very much for adulterers, too (though they cannot be communicants without a firm purpose of amendment)—no matter how much the new regime may wish to redefine adultery out of existence.
Aaron Taylor is a research student in theology at Oxford University.
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