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The Family Synod and Practical Atheism

2 October, 2014 1 Comment

By Lyle Dunne

Pastoral concerns seem to focus on emotional states and feelings of inclusivity as ends in themselves, rather than looking toward salvation as the final aim.

Be afraid

I’ve been reflecting further on (and worrying about) the forthcoming Bishops’ Synod on the family, and in particular the “Kasper Theorem”.

I’ve had a conversation with an optimistic friend who put to me the view that eternal truth is big enough to look after itself, and the one thing we can be sure will not emerge from the summit, sorry synod, is the formal adoption of heresy.

That’s true, but I’m still worried, for reasons I’ll elaborate.

Cardinal Burke’s article on the integrity of marriage and the family, which we recently published, and his interview with Catholic World report quoted by Fr Zuhsldorf on his excellent blog, shed some light on the situation.

My own view on the “Kasper Theorem” is fairly straightforward. It comes down to a few simple propositions:

  1. Sacramental marriage is indissoluble;
  2. Adultery is a mortal sin;
  3. People in mortal sin should not attend communion.

I’m tempted to ask which of these propositions people supporting the “Kasper Theorem” reject. But I think I know the answer – despite concerted attempts to obscure it.

The issue has been proposed, in particular by Canberra theologian Fr McGavin, as a conflict between pastoral practice and the “syllogistic” approach to moral theology.

It is not possible to do justice to Fr McGavin’s position in this article; a more detailed response, Mercy vs Truth? follows.

Cardinal Burke’s take on this conflict, expressed in the interview with Catholic World Report, is that

It simply makes no sense to talk about mercy which doesn’t respect truth.

This pretty much sums it up, in my view. The problem is not simply that even the best pastoral practice cannot change theological principles; the greater problem is that a pastoral approach based on mistaken theology will not succeed, even in pastoral terms.

Effect of practice on theology

Let’s think about the first part of this statement for a moment – the (supposed) effect of pastoral practice on theological truth.

As the general level, I don’t see how this is supposed to work. Certainly the facts of a particular situation can affect the morality of an act, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The live question is whether the Church’s ancient teachings about marriage, at the level of principle, can be overturned because “pastoral experience” supposedly invalidates them.

There are some distractions here:

  • the Church, while recognising the validity of natural (ie non-sacramental) marriages, can set them aside in certain circumstances.
  • media reports such as those of the Pope “marrying divorcees” don’t distinguish between sacramentally married Catholics with living spouses, and those who have been granted annulments (and perhaps also also a civil divorce.)
  • what appears to be a Sacramental marriage may not be one, for example because of a defect of intent; this defect may be discovered and recognised through the granting of an annulment – or it may not.

But it is clear that the Church has always taught that a Sacramental marriage, once validly contracted, is indissoluble except by death.

(And even if this were not the case, it is far from obvious that one would be able to detect the cessation of the sacrament by observation, as Fr McGavin apparently believes.)

Humanly speaking, many of us seem to be shackled by our decisions. But we are assured that none of us will be tempted beyond our strength to resist. To deny this is to doubt God’s mercy, to despair.

It seems that Cardinal Kasper does not believe that sacramental marriages can, after a time, cease to exist – or be dissolved. Rather, his position seems to be that we can simply set aside the question of the continuing status of the marriages of divorced Catholics, along with the related question of whether any subsequent relationship is adulterous, and quietly re-admit people to the sacraments.

I don’t understand the principle here. Is it simply that if enough people violate a commandment, we should repudiate it, or at least pretend that it no longer applies?

Or is this a special case, because those affected are in some way “locked in” to the effect of their choices?

It is true that, humanly speaking, many of us seem to be shackled by our decisions. But we are assured that none of us – prostitutes, tax collectors, hit men – will be tempted beyond our strength to resist. To deny this is to doubt God’s mercy, to despair.

What is Truth?

But the worry I have is that the question will not be presented in terms of truth at all. No-one will claim that the Church can or should set aside sacramental marriages, or that re-marriage of the sacramentally married (whose spouses live) is acceptable, or even that it’s acceptable to receive communion while in a state of mortal sin. They will in fact avoid the use of terms like mortal sin, adultery, State of Grace, and manage to convey the impression that people who use those terms are not so much wrong as old-fashioned, not so much mistaken as lacking in compassion.

(This is how most people leave the Church, it seems to me: not by rejecting particular teachings, but by gradually moving to the position where they live, speak and think as though those teachings were unimportant.)

It will be said that what is at stake here is not so much what the Church has taught, always and everywhere (and therefore infallibly, though they certainly won’t use that word.)  It will be expressed as purely a question of pastoral practice, of what the clergy do rather than what they teach.

In the process, it will be found useful to conflate two things that I think it important to distinguish.

The first of these is the quite rare situation where clergy refuse Communion to those in public mortal sin. This is a situation that arises rarely (for better or worse), and an action that I’m sure would cause most priests palpitations. It’s concerned primarily with questions of scandal rather than the intrinsic gravity of the offence, and involves difficult subjective judgements and controversial actions. Accordingly it will be the main focus.

The second, which will be downplayed, is what the Church teaches about when Catholics should present themselves for Communion. This turns on questions of mortal sin, and sacrilegious Communion. (This last is an aspect that should resonate with traditionalists, if we mean what we say about reverence for the Eucharist.) The Church’s teaching on these questions (in this context) is ancient, unvarying and clear. It essentially comes down to the three numbered points above.

Accordingly it will be downplayed.

“Look, St Thomas, there’s no arguing with your syllogisms – but have you considered the pastoral dimension? And what about Wales?”

Effect of theology on practice

But let me come back to the second part – the effect of belief on practice. Let’s suppose for the moment that we’re concerned solely about pastoral considerations. We want people to be attracted to the Church, we don’t want to drive them away – even if we have to downplay “hard sayings”.

So we might adopt a series of suitably vague statements, which give the impression that the Church has changed its position on marriage, taught for millennia, for which martyrs have died (“Look, St Thomas, there’s no arguing with your syllogisms – but have you considered the pastoral dimension? And what about Wales?”) and kingdoms been lost (“Come back Henry, it was all a terrible misunderstanding!”)

What, do you think, would that do to the reputation of the Church for truth, for consistency, for speaking the truth in and out of season without fear or favour?

Alternatively, let us suppose that we don’t even want to make vague statements about the Church’s ancient teachings, but may imagine that there’s rather more “wiggle room” in respect of practical guidelines, which after all do not purport to be statements of eternal truth. Cardinal Kasper recently said

Doctrine cannot change. No one denies the indissolubility of marriage. But the discipline can change and has changed many times, as we have seen in the history of the Church.

In that case, we need not even change the way teachings are presented – just a bring in a certain vaguing-up of guidelines, a re-nuancing of instructions so that the clergy are tacitly encouraged not to mention the difficult stuff, a series of statements which emphasise mercy and compassion and openness and nonjudgementalism, without expressing or even directly implying heresy. The effect might be that priests are more likely to say “well the sacramental theology is unchanged, but nowadays we place a greater emphasis on the individual conscience…” but it would be hard to prove that was the subtext.

How long would it be, do you suppose, before people started to think, consciously or unconsciously, that these things were not as serious as they once were? That the indissolubility of marriage has gone the way of birettas and fish-on-Fridays? And maybe divorcing that irritating spouse, and marrying that person from the office who really understands them, might not be such a bad thing after all – especially if the PP is prepared to welcome them back with a nod and a wink after a decent interval?

In short, how many people are we prepared to lure into mortal sin for the sake of “Pastoral Considerations”? For whatever individual clergy may connive at, adultery remains a mortal sin, as does sacrilegious Communion. And even at the subjective level, trying to manufacture invincible ignorance is a deadly game for all parties.

So, how “pastoral” is an approach which values short-term psychological comfort over eternal salvation?

In fact, considerable damage has been done already at the pastoral level. Fr Zuhlsdorf quotes Cardinal Burke:

The danger, Cardinal Burke continued, is that “the media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible.”

Even with the best possible outcome from here on – a complete re-affirmation of traditional teaching, and a statement that nothing fundamental has changed – we’ve already had a re-run of the injudicious lead-up to Humanae Vitae, with structures almost designed to generate unmeetable expectations.

It is understandable that Cardinal Burke mentions only the role of the media here. But it was not they who chose to give Cardinal Kasper a free rein.

Practical Atheism

Finally, as well as philosophy, theology and ecclesiastical politics, there’s some complex psychology going on here. It’s always seemed to me that liberation theology arises at least in part from a lack of real belief in Catholic eschatology: the realities of Heaven, Hell, death and judgement – but also in sin and redemption.

There’s a position I think of as “Practical Atheism”: people appear to believe in these things – perhaps even believe that they believe in them! – but when it comes to the crunch, the concerns of this life are what they think of as real; those of the next life are too vague, distant and uncertain.

It strikes me that there’s something similar going on here: pastoral concerns seem to focus on emotional states and feelings of inclusivity as ends in themselves, rather than looking toward salvation as the final aim.

Perhaps this is unsurprising when the typical Sunday Mass is big on inclusion, but takes a softer line on sin and repentance, downplays the transcendent, and doesn’t make a fuss about reverence for the Sacrament.  Meanwhile confessors focus more on psychological counselling, and less on contrition and absolution.

My wife has pulled out a heavy-duty novena for a good outcome from the synod. This may be the best response.

Comments (1)

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  1. Michael from WARAMANGA says:

    Nicely put.

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