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Why the gathering storm over divorce might be worse than was that over contraception

March 13, 2014

Interesting parallels are being suggested between, on the one hand, Paul VI’s dithering over contraception in the 1960s (which, though reversed by his reassertion of Church teaching in Humanae vitae, contributed to widespread repudiation of that teaching by Catholics), and Francis’ recent mixed signals (or what are widely perceived as mixed signals) over the future of Church teaching against divorce-and-remarriage and the reception of holy Communion. Notwithstanding some important differences between the two men and situations, I write to suggest that the stakes for all might actually be higher this time around.

Consider two points:

First, Church teaching against contraception had to be teased out over the centuries from natural law theory and what we call now ‘theology of the body’. It rests today largely on conclusions of logic, philosophy, and theology. Church teaching against divorce-and-remarriage, in contrast, is expressly proclaimed in the New Testament and any literate Catholic can read Jesus’ strong words about it in the Bible. This teaching was heatedly and repeatedly defended by the Church Fathers, was reiterated consistently in numerous Councils, and has been expounded by all major theologians.

Second, short of personal admission, there is no way to tell whether this Catholic couple or that is practicing contraception, and so there are virtually no ecclesiastical consequences possible in the external forum for disregard of Church teaching by pew Catholics. Indeed, with exceptions too rare to mention, there weren’t even official consequences for high-profile Catholics defending contraception in the ’60s. But cohabitation and post-divorce ‘marriage’, in contrast, are public acts falling squarely with the parameters of well-established (if inconsistently applied) public consequences (withholding of Communion being the best known). Millions of Catholics abide by this consequence. The millions of others who do not abide by it pretty much know they do not.

What does this mean?

It means, I suggest, that the complexity of the arguments underlying Church teaching on contraception allowed for the ecclesial equivalent of “plausible deniability” in regard to acceptance of that teaching by rank-and-file faithful, and the nature of the contraceptive act virtually excluded public enforcement measures. But Church teaching against divorce-and-remarriage is utterly obvious to any but the deliberately blind and the appropriateness of public consequences for public violation of that teaching has been unanimously upheld, and usually observed, for two millenia. Those factors combine to imply, I think, higher stakes in the divorce debate today than those confronting the Church over contraception a generation ago.

Now I think Church teaching against divorce-and-remarriage will, in the end, be squarely upheld in principle. My concern is different: what if Church teaching is duly upheld but, as happened after Humanae vitae, that teaching is allowed to twist slowly in the wind? For ecclesiastical officialdom to look the other way on contraception was, in a sense, possible; but for it to do so in regard to divorce, remarriage, and the reception of holy Communion would be immediately recognized as the practical abandonment of a major doctrino-disciplinary point.


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