Human beings are amazingly resilient—but there are times when something inside buckles, and a person comes to the point of collapse. Suicide, or a surrender to drink and drugs, seem like the only way out. At such moments of agonized distress, Christians believe, God’s grace nevertheless allows us to choose good and avoid evil. In the depths of the Gulag, rejected even by his fellow prisoners, Walter Ciszek could still say: “Under the worst imaginable circumstances, a man remains a man with free will, and God stands ready to assist him with his grace.”
This truth is urgently relevant to the current Catholic debates about divorce. According to traditional Church teaching, the divorced and civilly remarried can only receive Communion if they resolve not to have sex with their new partner. But if Ciszek was wrong—if it could be shown that some couples are not free, that they simply cannot avoid having sex—that teaching would be discredited.
In his new book, Pope Francis, the Family and Divorce: In Defense of Truth and Mercy, Stephen Walford experiments with such an argument. The book includes a preface by Pope Francis—though it’s worth bearing in mind that the Holy Father’s English is limited, that he gives only the vaguest endorsement (“I feel certain that this book will be beneficial to families”—that’s it), and that the preface was written a whole year before the book’s publication. Still, the enthusiastic blurbs from prominent cardinals such as Maradiaga, Wuerl, and Farrell imply that the book tallies with fashionable thinking in some powerful circles.
Walford asks us to imagine a divorced-and-remarried couple who have tried to live “as brother and sister” (i.e., not having sex). Unfortunately, “their attempts have caused great tension and constant arguments,” which “may turn the children away from the faith.” The couple “risk breaking the fifth commandment”—whether by suicide or murder is not clear, but in any case, getting it on could indirectly save a life. Asking this couple to choose between receiving the Eucharist and having sex, Walford says, is excessive.
Walford knows that the Church forbids adulterous sex acts without exception, but he suggests that such acts may sometimes be inevitable. For his imagined couple, “this celibate life is not realistic.” They “cannot continue,” they “don’t have the strength,” they “cannot fulfill” their duty to live as brother and sister. “The circumstances don’t allow for sexual relations to end at the moment.”
But this collides with a further authoritative teaching: that there is no room for “cannot” in choosing to obey the commandments. As Pius XI put it, “There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted.” God does not abandon us to our sins, but stretches out a merciful hand.
Walford knows all that too, and so he wavers. The couple are “very close to acting in an involuntary capacity,” he writes, and have “seemingly no moral way out” (both my italics). Anxious scare-quotes suddenly appear around the word “‘necessity.’” Walford even writes that “we cannot use as an excuse the idea that sufficient grace is not available.” But the wavering is brief, and he soon insists again that “These people have every intention [of avoiding adultery], even if at present it is not possible to carry out.” There is sufficient grace available, but it is impossible to act on? If this is the best defense of Communion for the remarried, the proposal is even more confused than I thought.
Walford, it must be said, comes across as thoroughly likeable: How can you not have a soft spot for a pious father of five and music teacher who has presented Pope Francis with a Southampton Football Club shirt, and who tells us that writing this book stopped him from tackling the piano works of “Ravel, Rachmaninov and Kapustin”? But I began to wish that he had put off Rachmaninov a little longer. This book’s besetting problem is its hastiness: It sweeps through highly controversial subjects without pausing over awkward facts or obvious objections.
For instance, Walford claims that Amoris Laetitia completes a “doctrinal development” begun by John Paul II, in that “no longer is marriage seen as just a baby-making factory.” But he gives no evidence that the Church has ever seen marriage in this way. In two separate places, meanwhile, Walford appeals to Joseph Ratzinger’s 1972 essay that was sympathetic to the idea of Communion for the remarried. Only in the notes (endnote 14, chapter 1) do we discover that Ratzinger later repudiated these paragraphs and excised them when the essay was reprinted.
Most remarkably, in a book that makes some bold claims about the scope of papal infallibility, Walford gives little weight to the various papal condemnations of Communion for the remarried, including those of John Paul II. The book does cite John Paul’s major interventions, and quotes the paragraph of Familiaris Consortio that declares, “the Church reaffirms her practice.” But to Walford, this merely shows John Paul’s personal “rigorist position on Holy Communion.” That was not how John Paul saw it: In a 1997 speech, the Polish pope described the doctrine as “by virtue of the very authority of the Lord,” and five years later he urged Brazil’s bishops to defend the teaching alongside those on birth control, euthanasia, and abortion.
Presumably, Walford passes over all this because he believes he has a knockdown, unassailable argument. He is entirely convinced, both that “Popes are always free from error in faith and morals no matter what level of authority a teaching is given,” and that Pope Francis has taught that some divorced-and-remarried couples can be admitted to Communion without resolving to avoid adulterous sex acts. On neither point, however, is this book persuasive.
To deal with the formidably complex matter of papal infallibility, a writer needs to pin down the terminology with scrupulous care. (When do a pope’s words cease to be “private,” for instance, or start to be “magisterial,” and in what sense?) Walford’s treatment fails the test. Sometimes he even changes the subject mid-argument: In arguing “Popes are always free from error in faith and morals,” he discusses John XXII, who preached heterodox sermons and had to be corrected by theologians. Walford tells us that this “cannot be considered heresy” because the doctrine wasn’t yet defined, so John “did not qualify as a heretic.” OK, but how did we get on to heresy and heretics? The question is about the broader category of error: whether, when the pope makes a doctrinal statement and a bunch of theologians disagree with him, the pope must automatically be correct. John’s case suggests not.
Perhaps, dear reader, you are nervously bracing yourself for a comparison with Pope Francis. But as many scholars and a few cardinals have observed, Francis’s teaching is not so much erroneous as ambiguous. Walford claims to have found a clear message in Amoris Laetitia: “footnote 351…is (along with 336) where Pope Francis has in fact altered sacramental discipline for the divorced and civilly remarried.” One could point out that footnote 351 (like the equally vague 336) does not even mention adulterous sex acts, let alone the sacramental discipline regarding them. But it is simpler to leave the last word to Pope Francis. When asked about this supposedly momentous statement, the Holy Father replied: “I don’t remember the footnote.”
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.