One of the distinctive things about Catholic moral doctrine is that it has a number of absolute or exceptionless rules, many of them involving or at least associated with sexual matters. For example:
- One must never perform or undergo an abortion.
- One must never commit adultery.
- One must never engage in fornication.
- One must never engage in marital contraception.
- One must never divorce and remarry.
- One must never commit suicide.
Most people, I believe, including most people who are on the whole sympathetic to the prohibitions just outlined, feel that some exceptions should be made to the above prohibitions. But their sympathies are partly misguided, and warrant serious clarification:
(1) Divorce. Almost everybody agrees that marriage should be a permanent and lifelong thing. Once you’ve promised to remain married “till death do us part,” you should make every effort to keep that promise. You should bear with your spouse’s shortcomings as long as they are bearable. But sometimes they are not bearable. In that case, you may resort to measures to remove those conditions that are making you miserable.
Of course, Catholicism agrees with this, after a fashion. It is willing to tolerate, if there is sufficient cause, divorce from “bed and board” – that is, a permanent separation. What it is not willing to tolerate is a divorce from “the chains of matrimony” – it is unwilling, in other words, to tolerate the kind of divorce that allows for remarriage.
Most people find this unreasonable. “Why,” they ask, “should a man or woman who made a foolish mistake early in life, the foolish mistake of marrying a very unsuitable partner, be barred from ever enjoying the many benefits and consolations of marriage, these including children, a shared marriage bed, shared values, shared ownership of property, and so on?”
The Catholic Church itself seems to share these misgivings as to the no-remarriage rule. And so the Church makes annulment available, allowing that the parties involved in an immature decision that was no real marital union the possibility of a declaration of nullity. Annulment is not divorce. It is simply a declaration that the apparent first marriage was not in fact a real marriage.
By maintaining this theory of annulment the Church remains faithful to Jesus’s ban on divorce-and-remarriage. Unfortunately, in practice annulment is, at least in many cases, little more than a legal fiction that allows Catholics to divorce and remarry just like their non-Catholic neighbors. It is then, as it has often been called, “Catholic divorce.”
(2) Adultery. Suppose you’re a married man or woman working for the CIA as a counter-spy, and suppose that by engaging in an adulterous relationship with a spy from Russia or China or Iran you will very probably gain information that will save hundreds or thousands of American lives – Catholicism says you mustn’t do this. As for the hundred or thousands of lives that may be lost as the result of your remaining faithful to your wedding vows, well. . .regrettable, but not to be saved by immoral means.
Or suppose, less dramatically, you’re a healthy young woman with normal sexual appetites, but your husband (like Lady Chatterley’s husband) is incapable of performing the sexual act; and let’s also suppose that your husband (again like Lady Chatterley’s husband) has given you permission to go to bed with other men – provided these men treat you with kindness and respect, and provided precautions are taken against pregnancy and disease. Again, Catholicism says: NO.
Even if aliens from a distant galaxy turn up and tell you, a married woman, that they will destroy the planet Earth and every person on it unless you have sex with, say, Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks, Catholicism will still say NO. As St. Paul warned when the Faith was still young, we cannot “do evil that good may come” (Rm. 3:4)
(3) Fornication. Suppose you’re an elderly widow, and you and an elderly man, likewise widowed, are in love with one another. You’d both be happy to marry one another. However, your late husband, who left you many millions, provided that in the case of your remarriage all these millions would go to the SPCA or, worse still, to Planned Parenthood. Would it be morally okay for you and your boyfriend, while remaining unmarried, to have sexual relations with one another? Catholicism says NO.
I’ve given enough hypotheticals to make my point. Readers can easily imagine what other hypotheticals I might offer about abortion, contraception, and suicide. In all these imaginary cases Catholicism would say, “No exceptions may be made,” while the average non-Catholic would say, “Surely some exceptions may be made.”
What justification can a Catholic offer for these exceptionless rules? I think there are three. Given space limitations, I won’t elaborate, at least not today.
First, the Catholic can say: “This is what divine Revelation tells us. These absolute rules have been revealed to us by God, speaking through Jesus, through the Bible, and through the Church. We dare not disagree with God.”
Second, the Catholic can say: “This is what natural law tells us, and by natural law I mean a moral law that is the common law of the human race, a law that all humans understand, at least in its fundamental principles. We must listen to the voice of nature.”
Finally, the Catholic can say: “Once you allow for a few exceptions, you’ll soon have to allow for more, and then more and more, until, finally, the rule collapses altogether. Make a few exceptions for divorce, and soon people will divorce for trivial reasons. The same with abortion, suicide, adultery, etc.”
In fact, as we’ve seen in recent decades, that’s precisely what has happened. The process begins with hard cases and has within it no limiting principle. And so the norms themselves essentially evaporate except as “ideals.”
I hope to analyze this problem, which has now gotten entry even in Church circles, in the near future.
*Image: Decadent Young Woman, After the Dance by Ramon Casas, 1899 [Museum of Montserrat, Barcelona]