… the real tensions arise from an attempt to separate doctrine from practice; teaching from pastoral action; eternal salvation from earthly “integration’.
By Kerry Mellor
The first session of the Synod on the Family, as it has come to be known, has set up some pretty formidable tensions in the Catholic Church. It remains to be seen whether the second session, due in October of this year, will see those tensions resolved, or, God forbid, intensified.
At the superficial level, that of the newspaper commentary, or the Radio/TV sound bite, the game appears to be a struggle between “Progressives” and “Conservatives”, a.k.a. “the Orthodox”. But the real tensions arise from an attempt to separate doctrine from practice; teaching from pastoral action; eternal salvation from earthly “integration’. In a metaphysical sense, there is a body of theological scientists who are attempting to split the atom. And we know from the physical world where that can lead.
For the sheep of the flock of Christ, tended by their shepherd Peter, now is a pretty nerve-wracking time. A majority of us are milling about at the far end of the meadow, not sure which way we are eventually expected to go. Some of us, to be sure, are standing contentedly in the shade of trees planted long ago by the Church, and watered by the sweet springs of magisterial wisdom. They see that what is being attempted by some of the assistant shepherds is the impossible. These sheep are the ones who have been lucky enough to have been grounded in the faith by authentic catechesis, and have been prudent enough to seek nourishing pasture in those difficult-to-get-at gullies and on the reverse slopes of the hills.
There is no shortage of good fodder to be had if the effort is made. The Church, through Holy Scripture, the Fathers, saints and great popes has furnished the barns and haystacks with a practically inexhaustible supply of the most nourishing sustenance. We are not confined to the pasture now growing at our feet; pasture that is sparse, of variable quality, and sometimes toxic.
Good grazing can sometimes be discovered in unexpected places. The greatest poet ever to have lived, William Shakespeare, would not ordinarily be thought of as a source of, solid, sound Catholic doctrine. Earthly wisdom is to be found in abundance in his writings, and his understanding of the human condition is nothing short of sublime, but his treatment of moral theology is mostly subtle and often concealed in coded ambiguity. Not so the soliloquy of King Claudius in Act 3 Scene 3 of Hamlet.
For those not familiar with the story of Hamlet, or whose Shakespeare is rusty, the story is set in Elsinore Castle in Denmark, where a series of dramatic events have all but unhinged the principal character, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. His father, the King, has been murdered by his uncle, who then has proceeded to seize the crown and marry Hamlet’s mother the Queen. Hamlet, having had the dreadful facts revealed to him, is pretty upset and plots revenge.
His uncle, King Claudius, is not travelling all that well, either. Stricken with guilt, he explores in the Act 3 soliloquy the ways in which he might be forgiven. His crime is murder; but if we substitute adultery for murder in our understanding of the principles Shakespeare is illuminating in the thoughts of Claudius, we can see an uncanny portrait of the tragic dilemma faced by those divorced and “remarried” Catholics who seek to be reconciled with Christ in the Eucharistic Sacrament, without sacrificing their conjugal status:
O, my offence is rank; it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t.
A brother’s murder. Pray I can not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Be thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down? Then I’ll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder”?
That cannot be; since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardoned and retain the offence?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law; but ‘tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell’d
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?
Try what repentance can; what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well.
After an appearance and exit of Hamlet, unobserved by Claudius, the scene ends:
Claudius (rising from prayer):
My words fly up; my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
There is much here to ponder in our present circumstances. To those who would set doctrine and mercy at odds, Shakespeare asks, “Whereto serves mercy but to confront the visage of offence?” To those who would separate practice from teaching he asks “Can one be pardoned and still retain the offence?” To those who would see in pastoral concern and compassion a means of ameliorating unhappiness in this life, he draws a comparison of how things are in “the corrupted currents of this world” and in the next, where “There is no shuffling, there the action lies in his true nature’
There is, of course, no substitute for the Church’s treasure trove of teaching, guidance and her unique means of access to the infinite graces of Christ. But to find evidence of just how deeply her influence has seeped into the highest expressions of our culture, is to discover allies in what at times can seem such a lonely and alien world.