Friday, March 14, 2014

Tolerating the Unacceptable: Same Sex Marriage, Part 2

In my last post I noted that the idea of 'tolerating' what we cannot 'accept', in relation to remarried divorcees, is not terribly satisfactory, since it creates a situation in which there are 'really' married Catholics, and 'tolerated' co-habiting Catholics. It has already been pointed out that if this 'toleration' is given to those in invalid marriages, then it would not seem logical or just not to extend it to cohabiting couples who have not attempted to enter any kind of legal marriage, and to polygamists. Even at the level of a pragmatic pastoral policy, it looks as though it may create more problems than it solves.

On the other hand, applying this to Same Sex Marriage (SSM) looks very attractive indeed, from the point of view of avoiding a confrontation with secular values. Without such a strategy the clash will be extremely difficult to manage: I emphasise this because it is important to understand the attraction of this proposal. The media has a well-established narrative, 'the Catholic Church hates gays'. Gay couples already make a point of presenting themselves for Holy Communion, identifying themselves with rainbow sashes to avoid any possible misunderstanding, in order to test the discipline. With SSM the sashes will be less necessary; the presentation of people in a public state of sin for Communion will happen every day; they will wear wedding rings, change their names, and call each other 'husband' or 'wife'. Many, many priests will give them Communion, out of what they will call 'compassion'. The Church's discipline will be the focus of ferocious pressure by lobby groups on the look-out for continuing discrimination against gay couples, discrimination which in practice denies them the full rights of marriage. It will take another step or two of legislation to make this a legal problem for the Church, but it is certainly going to be a political, social, and pastoral problem, a running sore in fact which will make it impossible for the Church's positive teaching about any subject, let alone marriage, to gain a hearing.

So let's not underestimate the problem. The proposed solution is glorious in its simplicity. If the Church chooses to 'tolerate' what it cannot 'accept', priests will be able simply to ignore the legal marital status of those coming up for Communion. We will all be able to pretend SSM does not exist. After all, Pope Francis has just said

Secular states want to justify civil unions to regulate different situations of cohabitation, pushed by the demand to regulate economic aspects between persons, such as ensuring health care. It is about pacts of cohabiting of various natures, of which I wouldn’t know how to list the different ways. One needs to see the different cases and evaluate them in their variety.

Sax Sex Marriage does not, after all, necessarily imply an immoral sexual relationship. Perhaps they just want to avoid inheritance tax. 

But in fact this is beside the point. The same is true of those in illicit heterosexual unions, and there are ways of dealing with this without always insisting the couple obtain a legal divorce or even separate: they can undertake to live as 'brother and sister'. The status of a public sinner can be dealt with privately with a priest. The problem we are faced with is where the couple have no intention or desire to affirm before the priest that they are not in an immoral sexual relationship, but on the contrary want this relationship to be accorded public recognition by adopting the terminology and legal status of heterosexual marriage.

What would be the effect of the Church adopting the 'toleration' strategy? At the moment Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law states:

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

To allow the 'toleration' strategy to be officially permissible, the second half of this canon would have to be expunged, or an indult created to waive it. Those in illicit marriages are 'obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin': sex outside marriage is grave, the public legal status of marriage makes it manifest and obstinate.

Such an indult, say for 'exceptional' cases, or leaving it more explicitly to the 'judgement of the pastor', without (we will be told) changing the Church's teaching on the Indissolubility of Marriage, might either lift the canon-legal obligation on priests to refuse Communion, or, even more easily, make that obligation completely unenforceable. The latter would no doubt be enough for practical purposes: as far as the public policy of the Church is concerned, as understood by the world's media, the prohibition on gay couples receiving Communion will have been lifted.

The problem, however, is that while the Supreme Legislator (the Pope) can always, in principle, change Canon law, he cannot change the Divine Positive Law or the Natural Law. Even if the canonical obligation were lifted completely, the moral obligation on priests, from these sources, would remain.

The key passage here is from St Paul (I Cor 11:27-29):

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

This passage from St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians is divine revelation, and the facts it reveals about the nature of the Eucharist are facts established by Our Lord when He made the Eucharist: they are facts of Divine Positive Law. Our Lord made the Eucharist in such a way that it is beneficial only to those not in a state of mortal sin. This cannot be changed by the Church.

This means that it is wrong for a priest to give Communion to a person known to be a sinner, other things being equal. This follows from the priest's nature and vocation to care for the souls of the Faithful: to be indifferent to them would be a dereliction of duty. This is another fact, of course, of Divine Positive Law, related to the establishment of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Why, then, do priests not refuse Communion to those known only to them to be sinners? Because to do this would cause scandal to anyone else present, and would harm the good name of the sinner. These considerations have great weight in the Tradition. But when the sinner is 'notorious', scandal would be caused by giving the Communion. Notoriety, in short, allows the priest to exercise mercy and pastoral concern.

What is being proposed, therefore, is that the Church sacrifice the souls of these sinners for the sake of a better media image. Such a sacrifice is wrong on the basis not of Canon Law but of Divine Law. Any priest who knowingly gives Holy Communion to a public sinner is committing a grave sin, regardless of what Canon Law may say.

This means that the proposed policy is a disaster. But even from the public relations point of view another disaster looms, from a factor which liberals consistently ignore in such cases. That is that not all priests, and perhaps not all bishops and cardinals, will go along with this merciless policy. This may or may not be a high percentage, but it is perfectly clear that there will be a group of hold-outs significant enough to provide ammunition for the media and the gay lobby. What will happen to those priests?

We have a good idea of what will happen, because we have seen closely parallel cases. The bishop and the relevant people in the Curia will say, when asked, that these priests are not obliged to do this; perhaps even that they are not following guidelines. Catholic commentators, including many priests and even bishops desperate not to be tarred with the same brush, will be on hand to describe these priests as extremists and homophobes, unrepresentative of the Catholic Church in the 'era of mercy'. Since these priests will not be able to appeal to the Church's official disciplinary documents to support the claim that they are under a religious obligation to do what they are doing, it is very easy to see them coming under legal threat. Stripped of the (limited) legal and social protection of religious freedom, they will be accused of acting out of malice towards homosexuals. It is not difficult to imagine them ending up in prison, the condemnations of fellow Catholics ringing in their ears.


  1. The only problem I have with these lines of reasoning is that it portrays the Divine moral law as a burden. Essentially, this is like trying to find ways to keep the law in the most minimal sense. I am not sure the attitude itself is a good one. If a person tries to get by with the bare minimum, then that person is more likely to break the law itself. So the Church that tries to reformulate to keeping the absolute bare minimum will only end up having many of it's members cross the line more frequently.

    The Church's pastoral policy from mercy should extend to repentant sinners. I see no valid reason for the Church to act mercifully (not even sure what that word means in the unrepentant case) and try to not upset those who are unrepentant sinners.

    From the perspective of practical considerations of this sort, can't one counter argue that the amount of persecution that will happen with the few resisting clergy through such a policy is far less compared to the whole Church resisting the gay movement? Because eventually, there will be a lot of clergy as a whole that will side with the gay movement (as it is already happening) and the "stand firm church" will be persecuted anyway by those within and outside. The only way your point will stand is if you can show that the Church as a whole standing firm against the gay movement reduces the chances of her being persecuted which honestly does not seem like it will be the case given current developments around the world.

  2. 'The status of a public sinner can be dealt with privately with a priest.'

    This doesn't appear to be self-evident. Isn't it the case that it's in everyone's interest for public sins to be followed by public repentance? The Church's teaching is vindicated, the faithful are spared confusion, and the penitent can be assured of warmer treatment now that society knows they have moved on. And isn't this in accord with the historical praxis of the Church?

  3. Anonymous8:13 pm

    Public sin must be publicly repented of, retractions made. It is not only justice, but necessary to undo the damage of scandal to souls.