I call it The Ironic Synod.
The main question before the Synod of Bishops is whether to admit the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion, when in fact this is already allowed, so long as the fees are paid and the right hoops all jumped through. It is called ‘annulment’.
Right now in this country anyone can get an annulment. Everyone knows this. The ‘new’ psychological criteria for judging one’s ability to contract marriage are so flexible as to be meaningless. It appears that if one is not completely psychologically integrated, at least in the illuminative way spiritually, and a love god or goddess in bed, his or her marriage is disposable.
Which is not to say that annulments are not sometimes entirely valid. I know of a marriage where the groom slept with a bridesmaid the night before the wedding. Clearly his vows were meaningless. And I know many other instances of invalid ‘marriages’.
But I also know too many cases of scandalous, if canonically correct, annulments.
To the point that no marriage feels safe. My own marriage, like many, had very rough spots early on. It would be an open and shut case, an easy annulment. I would not, could not do it, could not live with myself if I did, but if I chose to abandon the whole nearly two decades of growing and struggling and loving and enduring with my bride, of lovemaking and fighting and childbirth and pain and joy to embark on some new romantic adventure the Catholic Church would give me no grief.
Oh yeah, they have the convoluted theology, but in the end would give me no grief.
So a Church which has so undermined, maybe not Marriage as an abstract thing, but actual marriages, which will allow a church wedding for a couple even though they were adulterous lovers, which will celebrate a third church wedding so long as all the documents have been approved, which will wed two people who had previously been married to two other people in their small parish, is going to save marriage and the family?
It is a whole new world, and the Church needs to find a way of approaching it. The Christian sexual ethos has been widely rejected, and it is not hard to understand why. It has not done what it said it was going to do. Serious Christians are at least as confused about sexuality as anyone else, arguably more so, or at least confused in really strange ways. Their marriages are at least as prone to divorce. Which is not to say that they do not intuit some very central truths which evade the merely sensual.
In this changed world there are many people who are innocent victims of divorce. Sometimes they are denied communion because they, in keeping with the first thing revealed about human nature, that it ‘is not good for Man to be alone’, have sought the singular solace of human love. Meanwhile, a scheming moral weasel can get hitched to his new sweetie in a big Catholic wedding while abandoning his family with full Church approval.
If you are a famous millionaire politician, a bishop will say the Mass.
And annulments, which cost money, are by definition out of reach for the poor, whose numbers are growing.
But I have an idea.
Pope Francis is about nothing if not recalling us all to the encounter with Jesus, with embracing the simple gospel of Love. Francis is someone who believes that the Sermon on the Mount is not just beautiful poetry but marching orders, instructions for bringing Heaven into our hearts and our world.
So if we judge no one, love everyone, forgive everyone, have mercy on everyone, assume in charity the best of everyone, if we live as if Jesus meant what he said, how do we approach the new state of things?
I think there is a model for a response.
Since 1968 every poll has shown that most Catholics ignore the Church’s teaching on birth control. Very few observe it, and those few who do have formed a subculture that is not any less screwed up about sex and has no better record on divorce than the general population. As a hick philosopher, a non-academic, I don’t have to supply documentation for this claim. Actually, I do not think the studies have been done. What I do know is what I have seen and experienced with 35 years of pretty intensive living in the heart and at the margins of that subculture.
But faced with evidence of widespread disregard for its teaching, how has the Church responded?
With non-judgmental silence.
I am not saying that clerics did this to imitate Christ. Often it was just embarrassment at the situation, or the heartbreaking stories they hear in the confessional, or maybe concern about the collection plate. But I have never ever heard from the pulpit that married people who were not acting in accord with Church precepts about sex should refrain from receiving communion.
Shit, most bishops will not refuse the Eucharist to a politician who promotes abortion, or torture, or a belligerent foreign policy, or what amounts to war on the poor.
No one stops the couple who has been married fifteen years with two kids in the communion line to interrogate them. It is, in practice, left to the individual conscience and the confessional.
Why not adopt the same attitude toward couples whose first marriage failed? The Church need not revise its doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage to extend mercy to those in irregular situations. God has always condescended to human weakness. Look at the Old Testament, which allowed easy divorce, polygamy, and concubines. Yes, as Christ said, it was because of their hardness of heart. But those whose marriages have failed do not always, in fact rarely, have hard hearts. They have broken hearts. Unless they are provoking scandal there is no need to intervene.
In fact marriage is so intimate, so incomprehensible to anyone outside the circle of two, that it is hard to see how anyone can ‘objectively’ discern much about the reality of that mystery or unravel why it fails when it does. Any conclusions must be tentative.
This same nonjudgmental silence should apply to same sex companions. Just as one may not assume that any given wedded couple is contracepting, regardless of the polls, no one should assume that companions of the same gender are doing anything immoral unless they are calling attention to it. Recognizing that isolation causes great pain and temptation, persons with same sex attraction ought to be encouraged to be in affective and committed companionship. And treated with mercy if that companionship and affection leads to physically intimacy, surely the least of sins.
Let the annulment process remain for those clear instances of bad intent, impotence, rejection of children and the like. You know, the more ancient criteria for annulment. Ditch the psychological criteria. Adherence to the psychology establishment has a lot to do with the abuse scandal: men were returned to ministry time and again, with the assurance of the psychologist that they were healed. Not that it explains it all; there is plenty of just plain old clericalism to blame as well. But many well-meaning bishops put aside their reservations in light of ‘expert’ opinion. And many of us have seen bizarre instances of zealous Catholic couples, near thirty when married, begetting umpteem kids, involved in various apostolates and intentional communities, suddenly declared incompetent at the time of their wedding, free to start over.
Perhaps the Church should examine whether, as in Orthodox praxis, second, non-sacramental unions could be approved for those shipwrecked by failed unions. After all, the Church has never said that non-sacramental unions are evil. They are good things, even if lacking a certain higher dimension.
And in the infinite Mercy of God, who knows where nature ends and grace begins?