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Mercy vs truth? a Response to Fr McGavin

2 October, 2014 1 Comment

By Lyle Dunne.

One could perhaps speak of a “marriage” having ended – but not a “marriage” in the main Catholic sense:  not the sacrament.

This is a companion piece to in The Family Synod and Practical Atheism, and contains a slightly more detailed response to the article by Father McGavin.

I may as well begin by nailing my colours to the mast.

When people say “You only believe this because you’re a Catholic”, I think the best response is something like this:

“You’re probably right. If I were like most people these days, I’d probably just work out what I wanted to do and retro-fit a rationale. But I belong to a tradition which teaches that the truth is knowable by reason, that moral truth is real and we have a duty to use our intellects to discover it.

“Catholics don’t spend their time arguing that the evidence of our senses can’t be trusted, or the rules of inference are arbitrary. We don’t hold that an all-powerful God can contradict Himself if he likes.

“As GK Chesterton might’ve said, Catholicism is more rational than rationalism.”

Canberra theologian Fr Paul-Anthony McGavin in his article Reconciling anomalies: a hermeneutic on divorce and remarriage, has a more sophisticated approach. He “draws upon the methodological approaches of Joseph Ratzinger and of Jorge Bergoglio to suggest a way toward reconciling” what he sees as the “anomalies” arising from the conflict between those who, like Cardinal Kasper, “want to permit second marriages while the first spouse is still alive”, and what I think Fr McGavin would agree was the traditional teaching of the Church, that the Church not only should not but cannot permit such marriages.

This is his response to what’s seen as a conflict between pastoral practice and the “syllogistic” approach to moral theology.

Fr McGavin is an academic philosopher, to whom an analysis of the “methodological approaches” of the last two Popes makes sense as a way to explain the present situation. For the rest of us, though, I’m not sure it helps. In any case, there’s more than philosophy going on here.

However I want to start further back.

It is clearly a great pastoral challenge that large numbers of people in Catholic marriages (whose validity is not in doubt) divorce and remarry, placing themselves out of the reach of the sacraments while they remain in that state.

But I’d argue that even speaking of conflicts and anomalies in this way is begging the question – and based on an idea of the pastoral that is not merely limited, but fundamentally flawed.

For a start, the basic theological ideas here – sacramental marriage and its permanence; the mortal sin of adultery; sacrilegious communions – cannot and will not change. They are part of what the Church has taught always and everywhere, and is therefore regarded as an example of the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium. The real worry in relation to the Synod is not that these doctrines will be repudiated: it is that they will be downplayed, and that people will be encouraged to speak and live as though some or all of these doctrines have been suspended, as I’ve described in The Family Synod and Practical Atheism.

McGavin, though, seems to have adopted the position of the philosophers in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who, faced with an omniscient computer, went on strike, demanding “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”.

He asserts (correctly) that further development “cannot be ruled out” here – but implies, less correctly, that this leaves open the possibility that what we know already, what the Church has always taught, may be found to be false. (This is central.)

He draws a distinction between “syllogistical validity” on the one hand, and “soundness”, and the empirical (or existential or phenomenological) on the other – a defensible distinction, but expressed in a way that over-complicates it, and seems to imply a tension between fact and principle.

He speaks of natural law as

a congruency between premise (which may be a deontic articulation of law as in the Decalogue) and empirics that witness to the coherence and integrity of a living witness

which appears to mean that the reality of an act is determined by the interaction of principles and observed facts.  This is of course true – but it does NOT mean that moral principles can be overturned by physical facts. (This is perhaps obscured by the terminology.)

The relationship between spiritual and physical realities is not straightforward, especially in relation to sacramental theology.

Nonetheless it seems to me obvious that one cannot argue on the basis of empirical observation, as Fr McGavin seems to do, that the sacrament of marriage has ceased to exist. Here again, terminology seems to be a problem. One could perhaps speak of a “marriage” having ended – but not a “marriage” in the main Catholic sense:  not the sacrament.

It’s true that the Church can in some circumstances set aside natural as opposed to Sacramental marriages. But Fr McGavin appears to believe that Sacramental marriages are capable not so much of being set aside by the Church, but of expiring of natural causes, independently of their members – and independently of the Church.

I say “appears” because it is not always clear in what sense Fr McGavin is using the term “marriage”.

He refers to “when a marriage has been fundamentally violated and has ‘dissolved’ to a degree that it is not recognisable as marriage” and “the existential facts[sic] of the dissolution of the relationship of a man and woman previously joined in marriage”. (“Previously joined” also seems a little question-begging.) He may not be seeking to conflate the sacramental marriage, its visible appearance, and the “relationship” – but this is certainly the effect of the passage.

He also asserts that refusal to recognise such “existential facts” amounts to “a refusal to encounter reality” and “a refusal of mercy”.

At this point I have to admit my frustration at terms like “existential facts”, “phenomenological realities”, and “received paradigms”. It may be that I lack the wisdom or intelligence to understand the issues here. Or it may be that such terminology, especially in articles apparently intended for general readership (unlike some of Fr McGavin’s other writings), has the effect of obscuring, or somehow rendering secondary, the question of whether a statement is actually true. I leave it to readers to decide.

In any case, it seems to me that there’s some dangerous imprecision here. Does “recognising the existential facts of the dissolution of the relationship” mean believing that the sacrament has gone; believing that the “relationship” has gone; or acting in accordance with one or other of those beliefs?

It seems odd to refer to any of these as “mercy”, especially globally: is it always merciful to declare a suspect marriage dead? Should there be an approach opposite to that of marriage tribunals, with a presumption against the bond?

In short, I think this article runs the risk of obscuring the concept of truth through its use of esoteric philosophical terminology. It may have arisen out of genuine distress at the circumstances of people who have placed themselves out of the reach of the Church – although, as I argue in the main article, the supposed “pastoral response” is cold comfort for anyone with a Catholic view of life after death.

I don’t think most supporters of the “Kasper Theorem” will endorse this position – though they may welcome it as providing additional fog around the traditional position. Rather, I think they will simply treat the question of truth as unimportant, and concern with it as uncaring.

It’s hard to know where this attitude comes from – though I venture some suggestions in The Family Synod and Practical Atheism. But it’s difficult to reconcile with a sincere belief in the traditional Catholic views on Heaven, Hell, sin and redemption.

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