The Great Conservative Fail

This is a well-detailed article worth the read.  One opinion that was expressed at the Synod in October 2015 and has been expressed repeatedly in articles on various venues is that the problem is not the divorced and remarried receiving Communion but the denial of Communion at all and that only because of sexual sins.  This author does a good job of untangling and making understandable the various issues surround that very topic……Reynna

Denying Communion to the divorced ignores the entire inheritance of Catholic moral theology

By Jeanne Follman                     January 25, 2016          GlobalPulse Magazine on-line

As the Synod of Bishops on the Family passes into history and the new Year of Mercy kicks off, Catholics continue to debate the impact of these events and their meaning for the future of the Church.

In particular, they debate the unresolved issue of whether or not to continue the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not had their marriages annulled.

This has become a flashpoint, crystallizing the conflict between two separate camps among the bishops and Catholic commentators, most easily characterized as the “development of doctrine” camp vs. the “no change” camp – or in more politicized terms, the progressives vs. the conservatives.

The “development of doctrine” camp thinks the ban should be modified or lifted; the “no change” camp thinks the ban should remain.

The “no change” camp’s argument was nicely elucidated by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column called Letter to the Catholic Academy.

He says that “if the church admits the remarried to communion without an annulment … the ancient Catholic teaching that marriage is ‘indissoluble’ would become an empty signifier.”

Furthermore, “such a change would unweave the larger Catholic view of sexuality, sin and the sacraments – severing confession’s relationship to communion, and giving cohabitation, same-sex unions and polygamy entirely reasonable claims to be accepted by the church.”

The upshot from the “no change” camp is that any change to long-held teachings, or any attempt to pass off such change as “pastoral,” is merely a failed accommodation to the secular world. Such change would not deepen church teaching but reverse it, and must be fiercely resisted.

Yet what if the rethinking of a church teaching ends up correcting a teaching that was flawed in the first place, and ends up deepening another, even more important church teaching?

I argue that this is the case, based on two realities: first, that there have been many such flawed teachings, each promulgated in its time with the utmost pontifical seriousness, that have in fact been rethought and corrected (or more typically left to fade quietly into oblivion), and second, that the Catholic moral tradition already holds the answers to such a rethinking and deepening, not just on the question of the divorced and remarried, but on the whole Catholic view of sexuality.

The Church no longer condemns freedom of conscience or freedom of the press (Pope Gregory XVI, Mirari Vos, 1832). It no longer expects that Catholicism be made the established religion of the state; it acknowledges that non-Catholics can openly practice their religion; it allows that people should be at liberty to express their ideas (Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors, 1864).

It no longer forbids Italians to participate in elections, either as voters or candidates (Pope Pius IX, Non expedit, 1868). It no longer denounces democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, historical analysis, ecumenism, literary criticism of the Bible, and the study of the early Church Fathers (Pope Pius X, Lamentabili and Pascendi, 1907).

The historical record is rich with teachings that have quietly (and rightly) been abandoned.

If we looked into the heart of the Catholic moral tradition for an argument that rethought and deepened – not only the teaching on the divorced and remarried, but – the whole Catholic view of sexuality, what would that argument be?

Let’s consider three concepts from the tradition to frame the argument: the point of morals, the hierarchy of laws, and the gift of grace. And let’s ask that most orthodox of philosophers and theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, to help us out.

The point of morals

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the point of morals is to give us a way to judge our individual actions based on the purpose of attaining our ultimate good: the flourishing into the love of God and fellow creatures in charity. Thus, any individual’s actions are either morally good or morally bad depending upon whether those actions move that person toward or away from this end.

Morality is primarily about using reason to decide how to act in order to flourish into goodness. Our principal moral imperative is thus to recognize what we are – seekers of happiness via possession of goodness – and act accordingly.

Along with this understanding of morals as a way to achieve our ultimate good, Aquinas identifies two other forces that help us on our path to loving God and fellow creatures in charity: law and grace.

Hierarchy of laws

Aquinas sees four kinds of law at work to guide our actions, in the following hierarchy: God’s Law, Divine Law, Natural Law, and Human Law.

God’s Law is the reality that existence is infused with the presence of the divine, so goodness is part of the very fabric of the created universe. God also created us to flourish over time into our own individual goodness through love; this is what he calls providence.

“It is not only in the substance of created things that goodness lies, but also in their being ordained to an end… This good order existing in created things is itself part of God’s creation” (Summa Theologica, 1a. 22. 1). Aquinas put the love-driven nature of the real at the top of his hierarchy of laws.

Divine Law is God’s guidance as revealed in Scripture, in the Old Testament (the Old Law), and the New Testament (the New Law), and in particular in the model of the life of Christ. Christ instructed us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Aquinas says that Christ changes the context of faith from one of obedient behavior to one that seeks goodness through love. It is a “law of freedom,” allowing us to grow into the love of God and fellow creatures, “a disposition that accords with one’s nature acting from oneself” (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae. 108. 1).

Natural Law is a way to figure out what makes actions right and wrong. It is based on our use of reason to grasp God’s Law and Divine Law, and deduce rules of moral behavior from it, specifically that good be done and evil avoided.

Aquinas tells us that things are good simply because they exist; they are good when they are alive and growing; and thinking creatures like us are good in a distinctive way when we exercise reason to do good. Since our ultimate good is the flourishing into love of God and fellow creatures, anything that moves us in this direction is a good thing.

Human Law is based on natural law as applied to society, with the goal of tranquility to ensure the happiness of individuals living in community.

This is the hierarchy of laws that Aquinas gives us. It also prioritizes the various church teachings that we have inherited.

The next concept we need is the gift of grace.

The Gift of Grace

If all created things naturally seek to grow into their own goodness, the thing that powers this growth is the gift of grace. Grace happens in the soul, and when it does, we are changed, as in a healing.

In fact, Aquinas says that the healing of the soul is the first thing that grace achieves (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae. 111. 3)

Grace does five things:

first, it heals the soul,

then it prompts us again to seek our true good,

it helps us to actually do the good we seek,

to persevere in our actions,

and finally to “come to glory.”

Quoting Augustine, Aquinas then says: “It leads by healing and follows on when what is healed lives and grows.” And when that happens, grace modifies our very natures “through a kind of rebirth or recreation taking place in the nature of our soul.” Grace for Aquinas has this very specific meaning and comes to us via the sacraments, the most important of which is the Eucharist.

Now we have the framework from the Catholic tradition: the point of morals, the hierarchy of laws, and the gift of grace through the sacraments. They all hang together to describe the endpoint of growing into our ultimate good of loving God and fellow creatures in charity, the best means to exercise our judgment, and the gift of participating in the grace of the sacraments.

The argument

Given this framework, how should we judge the morality of an act? We should judge it first and foremost by actually using the framework.

Consider the point of morals: morality is primarily not about following rules, performing duties, renouncing desire, being nice, monitoring other people’s behavior, or adhering to doctrine, even though all those things play a part. It is first and foremost about moving us toward our ultimate good of flourishing into love of God and fellow creatures.

Consider the hierarchy of laws: the love-driven nature of the real, the commandment to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves, and the natural law built into all of us to do good and avoid evil. This is the hierarchy by which we should decide all moral questions, with the ultimate goal of flourishing into love at the top, as supported by Scripture and reflected in our natural desire to do good.

Consider how crucial it is to receive the gift of grace by participating in the sacraments, the most important of which is the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life. Christ gives us grace through the sacraments to help us love God and fellow creatures by healing our souls, and helping us seek our true good and persevere in doing the good we seek. The Catholic moral tradition makes clear we have no more important ends, and no better means.

This is the framework we should use to judge the entire gamut of acts, including the ban on Communion, the morality of all things sexual, and everything else we do.

And, of course, the moral agent in all of this is the individual, reasoning about particular acts in particular situations by exercising a well-formed conscience. Assuming it is well-formed, an individual’s conscience must always be obeyed.

The ban on Communion for people divorced and remarried sans annulment upends this entire framework. It dismisses the point of morals, ignores the hierarchy of laws, sets up an arbitrary, categorical block to our most significant source of grace, and ignores conscience as the ultimate moral arbiter.

A ban on the reception of Communion bypasses the traditional Catholic belief in the primacy of conscience by inserting a community, a cleric, or a bureaucracy between an individual’s conscience and God.

As the old Baltimore Catechism used to say about the sacraments, they “always give grace if we receive them with the right dispositions.” If one does not have the proper dispositions, “God would pour out the living waters of grace through the sacraments,” but “no grace would enter the soul.”

God has this covered. The pouring out of grace does not need to be enabled or blocked by some human agency. And it certainly doesn’t need to be blocked categorically.

The ban on the reception of Communion is a ban applied to a group of people, not to an individual. It reduces a person to a mere instance in a category. Such a utilitarian approach could hardly be considered Catholic.

A practice more in keeping with the Catholic moral tradition would return primacy of conscience to its rightful importance.

The ban also sets up an arbitrary block to our most significant source of grace in the Eucharist. Only those individuals whose marital status is known to the community could suffer such a ban; if marital status were unknown, a ban could not be enforced. So a person’s access to the gift of grace in Eucharist could easily be obstructed by community hearsay.

An individual’s access to the Eucharist could also be obstructed by the failure to execute the bureaucratic process of annulment. Successfully completing this process (one easily driven, like divorce, by only one of the two parties) gets the record changed in a diocesan file to reflect the couple’s now good standing in the Church; a failure does the opposite.

A practice more in keeping with the Catholic moral tradition would above all else safeguard the healing graces of the Eucharist, particularly for those in troubling circumstances, rather than holding it hostage to a bureaucratic process.

A ban on the reception of Communion inverts the hierarchy of laws by placing a diocesan bureaucratic process at the top of the hierarchy, making it more binding than God’s Law, Divine Law, the commandment Christ told us was the most important, our capability to use reason to do good and avoid evil, and the primacy of conscience.

A diocesan bureaucratic process belongs well below Human Law in the hierarchy of laws. A practice more in keeping with the Catholic moral tradition would put it there and keep it there.

A ban on the reception of Communion dismisses the essential purpose of morals by focusing on the arbitrary, categorical application of rules rather than what the tradition tells us is morality’s point.

The Catholic moral tradition makes clear we have no more important ends than loving God and fellow creatures in charity, and no better means than the gift of grace in the Eucharist. A practice more in keeping with the Catholic moral tradition would judge actions above all else by this end and with this means.

The great conservative fail is that the stand of the “no change” camp against Communion for the divorced and remarried (and the current Catholic stand on most things sexual) almost completely ignores the entire inheritance of Catholic moral theology.

The ban on Communion is not some immutable, do-or-die boundary that must be fortified and defended at all costs lest the whole magisterium collapse; neither is the current Catholic view of sexuality. Catholic moral theology is much more deeply rooted than that, and is much more resilient, wise, and merciful.

Likewise, there should be no real tension between the doctrinal and the pastoral; authentic doctrine is by its very nature pastoral, since it has the achievement of human goodness and love at its heart.

If a look into the heart of the Catholic moral tradition causes an unweaving of the current teaching on the divorced and remarried and a rethinking of the whole Catholic view of sexuality, it would be an unweaving and a rethinking that is richly warranted and long overdue.

It would result in a correction and a true deepening of Church teaching, not a reversal of it.

 

Because the source for this article is behind a paywall, it is printed in its entirety with the express permission of the publisher.

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