Why “Relaxing Pastoral Practice” is a Bad Idea

In little more than a year’s time, Catholics who hope for a potentially disastrous relaxation of the Church’s doctrine and pastoral practice on marriage have made remarkable progress toward achieving that goal.

Last October’s “extraordinary” assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family and the controversial relatio post disceptationem (report after the discussion, issued midway through the meeting) were important steps in that direction. Now a confused and acrimonious debate taking place among Catholics testifies to what has already been achieved. If the proponents of change have their way, the “ordinary” synod assembly next October and Pope Francis’s post-synodal document some time later will bring the process to what they imagine will be a successful conclusion.

There is little doubt that, if they succeed, other elements of Catholic moral teaching will be targeted just as the teaching on marriage, and especially indissolubility, have been. To a considerable extent, in fact, it’s already happening. This makes it doubly important that traditional Catholics understand the arguments for change now being advanced.

To my mind, they boil down to three.

First, the Orthodox in some circumstances permit people in second marriages whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to receive Communion. Since the Orthodox do it, so should we.

Second, the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage isn’t in question here. We’re only talking about pastoral practice, not doctrine.

Third, the teaching is true, but it’s an ideal, not a norm, and it’s unrealistic and unreasonable to insist that ordinary people consistently live up to ideals. The Church needs to show compassion to people with problems, not burden them with rules that it’s impossible for them to keep.

Let’s take these arguments one at a time. First, the Orthodox permit people in second marriages to receive Communion. The best response to this is also the simplest: So what? It’s easy to think of many areas where other churches believe and do things that conflict with what the Catholic Church believes and does. Does it follow that the other churches must be right and the Catholic Church must be wrong?

Yes, the Catholic Church can learn from other churches (as other churches can learn from the Catholic Church). But the case for jettisoning Catholic beliefs and practices in favor of someone else’s must be more rigorous than simply “They do it so we should too.”

“Christ and the Adulteress” by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1540
“Christ and the Adulteress” by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1540

That’s so, especially, because the change envisaged would bring the Church into line with the conventional wisdom of the secular culture. In the present situation, the change being advocated runs head-on into Christ’s stark declaration that someone who puts away a spouse and marries another “commits adultery” (Mt 19:9). Surely that carries more weight than “they do it, and so should we.”

As for the notion that what’s at issue is pastoral practice but not doctrine, that rationalization won’t wash. Pastoral practice and doctrine are distinguishable but not separable. As New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan said recently, “doctrine and pastoral practice are inseparably linked.” Not only that, he added, “the purpose of pastoral practice is to faithfully present the truth of the Gospel precisely as good news for today’s families.”

True, there are some really hard cases involved here – women, especially, who were the innocent parties in the breakup of their first marriages, who remarried for the sake of their children, and who now are genuinely distressed at not being able to receive the sacraments. It’s for their sake that the norms and process of marriage annulment require reexamination, even as these people are offered all the legitimate pastoral solicitude the Church is capable of providing. But none of this should be at the expense of doctrinal integrity.

Finally, there’s the idea that indissolubility is an ideal but not a norm. In real life, it’s said, people always fail to realize ideals inasmuch as these say how things would be in a perfect world, which this one emphatically is not. That being so, the Church not only can but even must make generous allowance for people who fail to realize the ideal of indissolubility, instead of punishing them for not doing something it’s unfair to expect them to do.

Don’t expect, however, to hear anyone say, “The indissolubility of marriage is a beautiful ideal, but it’s only an ideal, and ordinary people can’t be expected to live up to it.” That’s putting it too bluntly. But the principle can be seen already in operation in the case of the teaching on contraception, which often receives the ideal-but-not-a-norm treatment in popular religious discourse.

The great advantage this approach offers to those who buy into it is being able to say sincerely that they accept the doctrine – on contraception or indissolubility or whatever it may be – even as they deny its binding force. If accepted in regard to indissolubility, this will soon spread to other matters: e.g., lying to cover up an honest mistake, having an occasional adulterous fling, aborting a seriously deformed fetus, killing a prisoner in wartime to make other prisoners talk, and much else.

Pope Francis memorably has described the Church as a field hospital busy treating those wounded in battle. Note, though, that he significantly developed this metaphor in his talk at the end the October synod when, along with castigating rigidity, he also cautioned against “the destructive tendency to goodness” [buonismo—perhaps better translated as do-goodism] “that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This, the Pope said, is “the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals.’”

Whether they recognize it or not, this is what proponents of weakening doctrine and distorting pastoral practice in order to excuse Catholics who’ve divorced and remarried without annulments advocate doing. Let’s hope they don’t succeed.

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.