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Does Jesus Nod?

Although it looks like Cardinal Kasper’s proposal (to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion) has been rejected by the Synod of Bishops, it’s hard to avoid the impression that a great revolution is taking place in the Catholic Church – a revolution that involves selective abandonment of orthodox Catholic teachings.

At the Synod, high officials of the Church – cardinals and archbishops and bishops – said in effect that Jesus was in error when he declared that a divorced man or woman who re-marries is guilty of the sin of adultery.

Now the Kaperites didn’t say this in so many words. They didn’t stand up and shout, “Jesus was wrong” or “Jesus, like Homer, sometimes nods” or “We can forgive Jesus his unfortunate and not-very-merciful error since he, poor man, didn’t have the benefit of the moral wisdom readily available to those of us who are so happy as to live in the marvelous twenty-first century.” But this is the real meaning of what they were proposing.

They were saying that a marriage following divorce is not an adulterous union provided certain “penitential” steps are taken that will have the effect of purifying the union, of erasing its adulterous character; and therefore Catholics involved in such a purified union are free to receive Communion.

Is this anything other than a perfectly clear declaration that Jesus was mistaken when he banned divorce-and-remarriage?

If this Kasper proposal had been accepted by the Synod and ratified by the pope, it’s easy to see where things would have gone from there.

First, the penance needed to de-adulterize these unions, stiff at the outset, would later be relaxed in a spirit of mercy. Sooner or later you’d be able to divorce your first wife on Thursday, marry your second wife on Friday, say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys on Saturday, and go to Communion on Sunday.

Second, we’d find a way of blessing other sexual activities that Jesus, poor deluded gentleman that he was, considered to be sinful, e.g., fornication, unmarried cohabitation, and homosexual sodomy.

Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson (right) marries his male partner in 2008. They divorced in 2014.
Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson (right) marries his male partner in 2008. They divorced in 2014.

Third, while we’re in the process of tossing out some inconvenient and unfashionable elements of immemorial Catholic morality, why not also toss out certain doctrines that seem quite implausible to a college-educated modern mind, e.g., the Virgin Birth, the dual nature of Jesus, the Trinity, the Resurrection?

Were Catholicism to do all this, it would simply be following the well-worn path that has been trod for the last century or two by liberal Protestantism. Unless we are complete ignoramuses with regard to the history of Protestantism, we know where this path leads. It leads to institutional suicide. Look at Protestant denominations that have embraced religious liberalism – and by liberalism I mean the tendency to discard orthodox Christian doctrines and moral rules that the modern mind finds objectionable. Consider the so-called mainline Protestant churches in the United States today. They are terrifically up-to-date. And everywhere they are shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.

Is there any reason to believe that the liberalization of Catholicism will produce anything other than similar results? Of course not. You have to be an idiot – or a “progressive” ideologue – to believe that.

“But,” somebody will remind me, “Catholicism in America is already in decline, and this without having repudiated doctrine or morality.” Not quite true. There has been a liberal repudiation of doctrine and morals. But not a “hard” repudiation, like that of the Kasperites. Rather, a “soft” repudiation – repudiation by means of silence.

In the last half-century, how common has it been for Catholic leaders, that is, priests and bishops, to remind their flocks that the Catholic faith strongly condemns contraception, fornication, unmarried cohabitation, adultery, and homosexual sodomy? Even condemnations of abortion have been rare and muted – pace Pope Francis, who seems to imagine that our leaders have been “obsessed” with these topics? Silence, according to the old proverb, gives consent. The silence of our pastors has given an implied consent to the fashionable sexual morality (or immorality, if you prefer) of the modern secular world.

“Don’t worry,” I’ll be told, “for the Kasper proposal didn’t succeed. So the faith is safe.” Maybe. But I’m not optimistic. It is one thing for liberal Catholicism – that is, heretical Catholicism – to flourish in the pages of the National Catholic Reporter, or in the theology lectures of some bright young Jesuit, or in the after-Mass coffee hour at some upper-middle-class Catholic parish. It is quite something else for it to flourish among some of the highest officials of the Church, especially when it flourishes under the eyes of the pope – and apparently with papal connivance.

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.