Ross has written a moving and eloquent response to my post and other critiques of his recent column. I urge you to read it – it has all the usual marks of Douthat’s extreme intelligence and nuanced reasoning, with more than a little humility thrown in. It reminds me once again how converts can sometimes see the faith with more stringent acuity than those of us for whom Catholicism is both a faith and the background music to our entire lives.
And I’m not going to differ with him on the radical nature of Catholicism’s teachings on sex and marriage. The prohibition of divorce made Jesus different – although you can interpret the context and meaning of that prohibition in different ways (such as Jesus defending women’s dignity and rights within a marriage, as opposed to mere aversion to adultery). I’m not arguing – and I see no one arguing – for an end to this prohibition as such. What the Pope is proposing is a new pastoral approach toward those who, for truly human reasons, have seen their marriage fail, have managed to construct a new one, and who want to be fully part of the church again. That is all.
But for Ross, this proposed change is far more significant. By allowing such individuals to receive communion, he worries that the entire edifice of the church’s sexual teachings – and possibly more – will crumble. For me, that’s an exaggerated fear. There is a balance between truth and mercy here, as I think we all agree. The question is: where does that balance best lie? I find the church’s withholding of the sacraments from one class of flawed Christians as a way to buttress a particular doctrine to be far too lacking in mercy. But then I find all deliberate withholding of the sacraments to be lacking in mercy. To publicly say to an entire group of people, “Sure, you can come to Mass, but never approach the altar for communion” is to create the very division between the outwardly obedient Catholics and a phalanx of black sheep that Jesus so often railed against.
What is more integral to our faith: that we do not mistake the outward signs of virtue for virtue itself, or that we uphold the doctrines even if they give us two classes of Christians? I think what Francis is saying is: God will judge, and the church’s primary mission is to treat the sick, nourish the wounded, and bring everyone to Christ’s table who seems to be earnestly seeking to follow God. Yes, in an individual case, a priest may decide that someone is not really ready for communion – but only on an individual, pastoral basis. And he may also come to the opposite conclusion. But to insist on an absolute rule for an entire class of people can damage the church and distort its deepest mission. That’s the core of Francis’s message about gay Catholics as well: how do we really know that these long marginalized Christians are really the problem, and that an arrogant and self-righteous hierarchy isn’t? That’s why I immediately associate this question with the teachings on how “the last shall be first and the first last,” or with the deeply counter-intuitive parable of the Prodigal Son.
In that parable, we really do have justice pitted against mercy; and Jesus is clear that God is about mercy before anything. It is indeed not fair that the faithful older brother is utterly taken for granted and never given the extraordinary mercy and love that the younger son is suddenly showered with. But what matters is the sincerity of the younger son’s desire to be with his father again. Ross will counter that the prodigal son isn’t asking to retain some aspects of his previously sinful life. But in the parable, the father does not put any conditions on his welcome for the younger son. It is unconditional:
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
The older son has a legitimate grievance. If he has walked the walk of no sex outside marriage, and entered into a life-long, monogamous marriage always open to life, what on earth is the church doing embracing someone who has failed to live up to these standards? But the father is pretty clear in his response:
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
I think that is what the Pope is trying to say in these respects: that the church should not become a club for insiders that turns away those who have publicly failed in some of its strictures. And when you come down to it, actually enforcing the rules that Ross favors requires believing that the debate is
over whether to admit the divorced-and-remarried, people in unions that the church has traditionally considered adulterous, back to communion while they’re still in a sexual relationship with their new spouse.
So this is the real stopping point.
Are you now or have you ever been having sex with your re-married spouse? And here again, I think the Pope is saying: do we really have to go there? And do we ask these kinds of questions of others more publicly and outwardly obedient to the church? Do we ask married couples how much sex they’re having, if any? Do we actually inquire into their use of contraceptives? Their porn-habits? Their sexual objectification of their spouse? The truth is: as a practical matter, we don’t police these sins as a class when it comes to giving communion. So why should the relationships of gay couples or re-married ones be so marked for exclusion? Just because they are more easily labeled and identified?
Does less judgment and more mercy in these respects threaten the entire super-structure? Ross quotes another convert, Richard John Neuhaus, to the effect that it will. And there lies a key difference. I believe that the truths of the church are far, far larger than any teachings about sex; that adherence to an edifice of unchangeable and detailed orthodoxy is not the core reason for being a Catholic; that we have emphasized sexual morality in the recent past – to the exclusion of so much else – far beyond what is justified by a healthy perspective on these matters; and that a little Catholic mercy in these murky waters is not the beginning of the end of everything.
I may be wrong. But I do know, from my own experience as a gay Catholic, that the hierarchy has been terribly rigid, cruel and mistaken about sexual matters in ways that have inflicted enormous pain and anguish on many people simply trying to love God and their neighbor. The hierarchy’s own sexual crimes – where mercy toward child-rapists was, for a long time, the reflexive response – brought the hypocrisy of this into a more glaring light. We can learn from this and enter into a debate about how to move forward without fearing at every moment that everything is at stake.
Or as John Paul II once said:
Be not afraid! Of what should we not be afraid? We should not fear the truth about ourselves.