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The Footnote that Roared

WITH THEIR SHOCKING publication of new norms for permitting divorced and remarried Catholics to return to the reception of Holy Communion, the bishops of Malta have shown how great errors can grow from tiny seeds.

When Pope Francis’s encyclical on marriage, Amoris Laetitia (AL), was published last year, many observers zeroed in on its eighth chapter, which treats the question of pastoral care for those who were divorced and then subsequently entered into an invalid second union. Following two synods on the family held in Rome in 2014 and 2015, at which the subject dominated the debate and the headlines, portions of the chapter seemed to hint at a change in Church practice. Particularly in a footnote (351) that became notorious for obliquely referring to people in “irregular situations” receiving “the help of the sacraments,” some readers saw the stage being set to move away from the Church’s historical pastoral praxis of requiring couples in such cases to live “as brother and sister.”

As philosopher Michael Pakaluk pointed out last spring, however, the attention given to footnote 351 may have obscured a potentially more-problematic one—footnote 329:

In [second marriages], many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers” (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 51).

Here AL claims to draw on Gaudium et Spes (GS) to support the idea that when couples in a second, invalid union abstain from sexual intercourse with each other, faithfulness and children are harmed. Left unsaid but not un-suggested is that because of this, (adulterous) sexual intercourse in such circumstances could be a lesser evil than abstinence.

But GS says no such thing. In its official Latin it uses the phrase bonum prolis, which the English translation referenced by AL renders “the good of the children.” As Pakaluk points out, however, that phrase refers not to children’s welfare (their “good”) but to the good that children are. In other words, it’s pointing out, somewhat obviously, that lack of sexual intimacy in a marriage deprives that marriage of the good of children; that is, procreation. It notes further, and equally sensibly, that it may make marital fidelity more difficult.

Footnote 329’s hijacking of an innocent expression from Gaudium et Spes was troubling at the time. Co-opting a magisterial phrase about how sexless marriages don’t produce babies and using it to claim that two unmarried people living chastely is bad for children was either so disingenuous or so ignorant that surely no good could come of it.

Which brings us back to Malta, that tiny Mediterranean island that stood as an indomitable bulwark against the Turks centuries ago but now is the first casualty in the war on Catholic marriage teaching. Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII off Amoris Laetitia, promulgated by Malta’s two bishops, lays out an official pathway for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. In so doing it mouths many of the arguments put forward by Cardinal Walter Kasper and other bishops and theologians who after years of agitating for change found themselves in a new position of influence prior to the synods and the publication of AL.

For instance: that psychological or external factors may remove guilt for the sin of adultery; that the Church must gradually call people back to faithful living rather than presenting “black and white” conditions with “extreme rigor”; and that, conscience being supreme, those who sincerely discern through the internal forum that they are “at peace with God” may present themselves for Communion without a change in their external way of living.   

And we also find our old friend, footnote 329:

9. Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).

The importance of this (bogusly sourced) footnote cannot be overestimated. The entire project of those in favor of overhauling Church practice—and, in tail-wagging-dog fashion, teaching—regarding divorce and remarriage depends on it.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. And the argument in favor of permitting Catholics to receive Communion while committing ongoing adultery is only as strong as the premise that living chastely is either too hard (“impossible”!), or too harmful, or both.

Remember, divorced and remarried Catholics (those, obviously, who have not had their first marriages determined to be invalid by the annulment process) are not prohibited from receiving Communion because the “failure” of their first marriage was a sin. They are prohibited because, in maintaining a sexual relationship with a person who isn’t their spouse, they are committing adultery. This grave sin is incompatible with the state of grace required for worthy reception of the Eucharist (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1415).

The remedy for such people, as affirmed for example in John Paul II’s encyclical Familiaris Consortio (84), is first to stop committing adultery. Even if life circumstances practically or even morally require them to continue living in a common household with someone who isn’t their spouse, in no way would those circumstances ever require them to continue having sexual intercourse with someone who isn’t their spouse.

The bishops of Malta, on the strength of footnote 329, are now saying that circumstances might do just that. Because not having sex with someone may be impossible, adultery and Holy Communion are now compatible.

 

What an appallingly defeatist idea, and one that is without analog in Catholic morality. Where else do bishops teach that it’s impossible to do what’s right? In what other area does the Church offer people this kind of moral compromise? After all, sexual continence may be hard for other people, too:

. . . for a boyfriend and girlfriend watching a movie on the couch.

. . . for couples practicing NFP or abstaining for health reasons.

. . . for a married man or woman tempted to infidelity by a coworker.

. . . for lonely single people and the widowed.

. . . for priests, nuns, and everyone who has made a vow of celibacy.

And sometimes, because of our human imperfections, the burden of abstinence can strain relationships. It can make people irritable and cause them to take out their frustrations on family members. In none of these cases, though, has the solution ever been to reject the apparently unattainable “ideal” of cheerful chastity in favor of a negotiated compromise that permits just a little bit of immorality in the name of a greater good.

Married men, tell your wife you’re going to cheat on her but you’re “at peace with God” about it. Let me know what she says. Or next time you read about a priest having an affair with the parish secretary remember that the “law of graduality” allows it, and be sure to praise him for not being “black and white” about sex.

In such examples the absurdity is thick. But according to footnote 329 and the bishops of Malta, apparently not when it comes to divorce and remarriage. My earnest prayer is that the pope will repudiate this document, affirm the traditional pastoral discipline regarding marriage and divorce, and help the Catholic flock view all of the gospel’s moral prescriptions not as mere ideals or options among many, but as the Narrow Way: difficult for fallen man but definitely possible by God’s grace.

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Photo: Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech of Malta. (credit: thechurchinmalta.org)

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