The Vatican's L'Osservatore Romano has published a document by the bishops of Malta to the priests of their diocese, approving Holy Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics sans annulment. The document first spends a paragraph on cohabiting couples and those who are only civilly married. “These situations call for ‘pastoral care that is merciful and helpful,'” say the bishops. The document goes on to say that if, during the discernment process between a priest and a couple, the priest has a “reasonable doubt” about the validity of the first marriage, then the priest should advise the couple to seek a declaration of nullity. The bishops then move on to advise priests what to do with a couple who have no recourse to a declaration of nullity: In a nutshell, discern until they believe they are “at peace with God.” When this happens, the couple “cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.” The bishops make reference to notes 336 and 351 of Amoris Laetitia.
Throughout the document, the bishops tell their priests that not all cases are the same, that there are a variety of situations, and so on. But they never offer guidance for a case in which the couple must do the hard work of obeying what the Church has taught for two thousand years. With the exception of two sentences that give lip service to continence, the bishops tell their priests that it is “humanly impossible” to obey God in sexual matters.
In truth, the bishops of Malta, and other bishops around the world who go about exclaiming that it's impossible to obey God regarding sex, are setting in motion two very destructive ideas. First, they undermine obedience to God in all areas of life, and circumvent the suffering necessary for holiness. Second, they are setting the stage for class division within the laity.
Undermines Obedience and Circumvents Suffering
If a person can't control his sexual impulses, what can he control? Are we not the Church of the living God? Have we not the Scriptures and the Councils of the Fathers, and the examples and testimonies of the saints who have gone before us? Yet the bishops of Malta believe we are impotent, powerless, and subject to the whims of our sexual drives.
In Session VI, Chapter XI of the Council of Trent, the Fathers write: “For God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes thee to do what thou canst and to pray for what thou canst not, and aids thee that thou mayest be able.” The entire history of the Church testifies to this. Men, women, and children, young and old have sought and found the grace of God in order to live chaste and humble lives.
It is not that we don't have the capacity to obey, it is that we are presumptive and self-indulgent. I do not relish exposing my sins and failings, but I know well of presumption and self indulgence. As I wrote recently in The Treachery of Divorce, divorce was offered to me as a door to hope and happiness, an answer to my emotional and mental suffering. It was supposed to bring healing. But this decision, which I naively assumed would solve my problems, betrayed me. Divorce was treacherous. Twenty-two years later, I still reap the results of foolish and shortsighted decisions.
Divorce only multiplied my suffering.
A person’s philosophical view of happiness and suffering, obligation and sacrifice, is where it all begins. At the heart of what these bishops and others have called a “merciful” path is a frenzied desire for happiness and for the avoidance of pain and suffering, supposing that these people have suffered enough. This stands in direct contrast to the Scriptures, the Fathers, and the saints, whose premise is that suffering is not something to be avoided at all costs—one can learn to live through it. And happiness comes primarily from love and self-sacrifice, not by seeking the fulfillment of my personal desires. For two thousand years, the Church has proclaimed Christ, who calls us to suffer.
These instructions by the bishops of Malta not only have the potential to undercut obedience to all that Christ asks, they also circumvent his path to holiness for his people—which is a path of suffering. I remember a few years ago, while we were in the annulment process, praying for the priests and the people in the tribunal who had our case, entrusting them to God, knowing that God through his Church has created a fitting path for people in my situation. For me to bypass that road and rely on my personal “discernment” would be to recapitulate my first sins, which is an evasion of God's way for my way.
In an address to the diocesan clergy of Aosta in July of 2005, Pope Benedict XVI said this to a question about communion for the divorced and remarried:
We must suffer with them, because they are bearing an important witness and because we know that the moment when one gives in “out of love,” one wrongs the Sacrament itself and the indissolubility appears less and less true. …
The second point that we should teach and also make credible through our own lives is that suffering, in various forms, is a necessary part of our lives. I would call this a noble suffering.
Thanks be to God for the Council of Trent, which reminds me, as the Scriptures everywhere proclaim, that Christ works in us—that with grace I can obey God. Session VI, Cannon 18 of the Council of Trent states: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.”
Class Division within the Laity
Obedience, suffering, and grace is for all of us. One of the glories of Catholicism is its unity amid diversity. The community that gathers before the altar for Mass is variegated: race, sex, heritage, economic and social standing, education, and Christian maturity. This unity centered on Christ stands in direct opposition to the stratification and division we find in the world.
In his book and film series Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, Bishop Robert Barron tells how this unity of “rich and the poor, both the educated and the uneducated, both the housekeeper and the grande dame … kneeling side by side” impressed Dorothy Day when she was considering her conversion. And then he tells this scenario which has stayed with me since I first time heard him tell it:
The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson upon telling his mother that he was converting to the Catholic faith from his native Anglicanism was met with this response: “It's not so much the doctrines that concern me; it's that now you'll be worshipping with the help!'’
Bishop Barron goes on to say that “both Dorothy Day and Mrs. Dawson intuited the properly subversive nature of the way Catholics gather for prayer.” But it's not just when we gather for prayer. Catholicism is subversive because it preaches the gospel to all mankind and calls all mankind to friendship with Jesus Christ.
The teaching of the bishops of Malta, by contrast, stratifies the faith. Bradford Wilcox, in his National Affairs essay “The Evolution of Divorce,” discusses social science data showing a class divide in the percentage of Americans marrying and divorcing. He writes:
Marriage is increasingly the preserve of the highly educated and the middle and upper classes. Fewer working-class and poor Americans are marrying nowadays in part because marriage is seen increasingly as a sort of status symbol: a sign that a couple has arrived both emotionally and financially.
The essay goes on to discuss the divorce divide:
College-educated Americans have seen their divorce rates drop by about 30 percent since the early 1980s, whereas Americans without college degrees have seen their divorce rates increase by about 6 percent. … This growing divorce divide means that college-educated married couples are now about half as likely to divorce as their less-educated peers.
Wilcox writes that “both cultural and economic forces are at work” in widening the marriage and divorce divides. The teaching of the bishops of Malta sets up a cultural environment that will exacerbate both divides. Social science data have shown that the decline in morality affects the working classes to a greater degree than the upper-middle and upper classes. By telling people that they cannot obey God in this area, the bishops undermine the human dignity of the working classes, and degrade their morality further. They feed a preconception that “ordinary” people cannot obey God, and therefore cannot be good Christians. These ideas will have consequences, and not just for church attendance.
Jesus said: “if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lost it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The document of the bishops of Malta hinders the people of God by redirecting them from their crosses. For what will it profit a man if he gains access to the sacraments by forfeiting the true path to holiness?