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The human price of theological chatter

February 24, 2014

I’m just old enough to remember when Catholic theological rumination, especially moral speculation, was restricted to scholarly journals and professional conferences. The understanding in those days was that, whatever merits the latest theological or moral theories might enjoy, it was inappropriate for experts to parade such novelties before rank-and-file faithful lest they jump to premature or erroneous conclusions thereon.

In our day, however, the internet, to a degree that dwarfs the impact of the printing press in its day, has destroyed the old physical and technological restraints on the dissemination of doctrinal or disciplinary speculation. As a result laymen (in the sense of that word implying non-experts) are at the mercy of any Catholic intellectual—and for that matter of any Catholic prelate—who thinks that swaying public opinion in this direction or that is a good way to prove the soundness of this idea or that.

Well, as a Catholic academic with a prominent website and an easily locatable email address, I’m here to tell those recently tossing novelties out of ivory towers or chancery clerestories that real people are being hurt by such conduct.

Of many examples, and I paraphrase for privacy: “Dear Sir, I recently heard that [divorced-and-remarried] Catholics can go to Communion again. This is great news. Can you tell me where this applies? I am glad the Church has changed. When does the new rule go into effect? Thank you.” Where, I wonder, does one begin to sort out the undemonstrated assumptions and faulty conclusions packed within this admittedly honest and polite query, a query prompted, obviously, by all the attention being paid to calls (some of them sporting the veneer of scholarly research) for divorced-and-remarried Catholics to be re-admitted to holy Communion?

Well, I replied saying there has been no change in the rules on reception of Communion by divorced-and-remarried Catholics, and added that, in my opinion, there would be no change on that point because Church teaching (on marriage, Communion, etc.) had not changed, and thus rules based on those teachings were not likely to change either. The reply note saddened me: “Glimmer of hope gone.”

In short, a badly-catechized Catholic takes the widely-reported discussion of changing the rules on reception of holy Communion—a discussion that is often scarcely distinguishable from agitation for changes in such rules—as “hope” (whatever that means in this context) and, when informed that no such change has been made, and that such a change (in my opinion at least) is not likely to come about, despairs!

I have invoked many times Canon 212 § 3 on the canonical freedom to exchange opinions in the Church. But Canon 212 § 3 is not a license to exploit the faithful in pursuit of one’s ecclesiastical agenda. Promotion of personal views in the Church must be carried on, for example, “without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals . . . and attentive to the common advantage and dignity of persons.” Treating pew Catholics as pawns in a campaign to rewrite Church teaching on the permanence of Christian marriage and/or the reception of Christ in the Sacrament is hardly to respect “the common advantage and dignity of persons.”

Not where I come from, it isn’t.

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