Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Terrible Speed of Mercy

Anyone who begins with ‘hard cases make bad law’ needs to end with the corollary that therefore law alone cannot answer hard cases.

Melinda Selmys

He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY.

—Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

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The latest sky to fall on us here in Rome has been the publication, and lack of reply to, the dubia sent to Pope Francis by four Cardinals (Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner). These dubia, ‘doubts’ in Latin, are questions about the recent exhortation Amoris Lætitia, which discussed, among other things, relaxing the discipline of refusing Communion to those who have divorced and been remarried.1 Chapter VIII of the exhortation, ‘Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness,’ is the chapter to which the Cardinals’ concerns are addressed.

I must admit I never finished reading Amoris Lætitia when it originally came out: Pope Benedict’s intense, contemplative style captivated me, but Francis’ casualness doesn’t suit my palate very well. However, I made a point of reading chapter VIII before writing this, and my immediate reaction was that it was not only right, but so unremarkable against the backdrop of Catholic and Scriptural tradition that I can hardly understand where the difficulties are coming from.

A great example of what I mean can be found in II Kings 5,2 in the story of Naaman the leper being healed by Elisha.

Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. And he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and came, and stood before him: and said, ‘Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel … Thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the LORD. In this thing the LORD pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon thy servant in this thing.’ And [Elisha] said unto him, ‘Go in peace.’3

Now, monotheism is kinda the lesson of the Tanakh. I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt; thou shalt have no other gods before me. It was, moreover, the lesson that Elisha’s master and predecessor, Elijah, had been most concerned to urge on King Ahab and his subjects, culminating in the massive showdown on Mount Carmel that concluded with the slaughter of four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. And Naaman comes, receives a miracle, and says in so many words that there is no god but God.

And then he confidently requests forgiveness for a sin he hasn’t even committed yet, and that sin is pretending to worship another deity, a nice mixture of idolatry and dishonesty. And Elisha dismisses him with a blessing.4

There is absolutely no question that idolatry is wrong; and yet here, God makes a concession. The same thing happens with astonishing frequency to the (topically relevant) marriage bond in the Old Testament: not only did Jacob, the progenitor of the nation, have two wives, but he and his grandfather both fathered children on concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah in Jacob’s case, Hagar in Abraham’s), who weren’t even wives per se; David, the man after God’s own heart, had eight wives and an undisclosed number of concubines. But from the beginning it was not so; yet here we are, drawing water from the well in Sychar—and challenging this strange newcomer, who seems to think he’s even greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well, to produce his credentials.

The dubia themselves, with my translations into the vernacular, are as follows:

1. … [Has it] become possible to grant absolution in the sacrament of penance and thus to admit to holy Communion a person who, while bound by a valid marital bond, lives together with a different person more uxurio5 without fulfilling the conditions provided for by Familiaris Consortio … [?] Can the expression ‘in certain cases’ found in Note 351 (305) … be applied to divorced persons who are in a new union and who continue to live more uxurio?

Vernacular: Are you saying that people who divorce and remarry can be absolved and receive the Eucharist, even if they continue sleeping with their new ‘spouse’ and don’t even try to live otherwise?

2. … Does one still need to regard as valid the teaching of St John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor, 79 … on the existence of absolute moral norms that prohibit intrinsically evil acts and are binding without exceptions?

Vernacular: Are you saying morality is relative?

3. After Amoris Lætitia (301) is it still possible to affirm that a person who habitually lives in contradiction to a commandment of God’s law … finds him or herself in an objective situation of grave habitual sin … ?

Vernacular: Are you saying that sin isn’t even still a thing?

4. After the affirmations of Amoris Lætitia (302) on ‘circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility,’ does one still need to regard as valid the teaching … [that] ‘circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice’?

Vernacular: Are you saying that whether something is evil can depend on the circumstances?

5. … Does one still need to regard as valid the teaching … based on sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church … that conscience can never be authorized to legitimate exceptions to absolute moral norms … ?

Vernacular: Are you saying that, if you’re sincerely convinced that something that’s evil is okay this time, it really is?

My ‘translations’ are obviously ham-fisted, but, I hope, correct on the whole. From my reading of chapter VIII, the answers are ‘Yes’ to dubium 1 and ‘Of course not’ to dubia 2-5, largely because I don’t see what in Amoris Lætitia even prompts dubia 2-5. His Holiness stresses, repeatedly, that any relaxation of current disciplinary norms cannot be treated as a new norm, that it is not to be applied lightly nor without careful discernment and a deep devotion to the Church and her doctrine, and that the divine ideal remains exactly what it always was. The difference lies precisely in the pastoral application of the norm, not the nature of what is and isn’t norm-al. Given the precedents set by Scripture, and by the actual practice of Christendom,6 that all sounds extremely normal to me.

As to granting absolution and holy Communion to those who are, in the old-fashioned phrase, living in sin—well, for one thing, that’s already done all the time for people who are living in the sins of gossip, conceit, pettiness, uncharity, or self-righteousness. Those sins aren’t testable in quite the same way as adultery or fornication, but they are far more perilous to the soul. To insist on keeping a discipline with respect to ‘quantifiable’ sins, while ignoring sins that are just as public and just as scandalous but harder to ‘specify,’ I think we’re following a deeply misguided approach to Christian holiness.

After all, it isn’t as though our Lord’s approach to morality was free of scandal. He regularly ignored the detailed regulations that the Pharisees had laid down around the Sabbath, even while saying that the Pharisees ‘sit in Moses’ seat’ and ought to be obeyed; he advised us to make friends for ourselves by unrighteous mammon and compared God to an unjust judge, a thief, and a usurious tyrant; he told religious scholars and respectable pastors that the local hookers would get to heaven before they did. Flannery O’Connor’s Francis Tarwater, who puts so much energy into denying and desecrating his vocation as a prophet (and, even once he accepts it, is a heretical and schismatic prophet), is more like the Gospels than many even of the saints.

For another thing, it must be kept firmly in mind that when partaking of the Eucharist is discussed, we’re talking about discipline, not doctrine. The Christian East, both Orthodox and Catholic, has never had the rule that one must go to Confession after a mortal sin before receiving the Blessed Sacrament; indeed (if I’m rightly informed), they don’t even use the distinction the West makes between mortal and venial sins. Does that mean the discipline of the West has no value and should be changed? Not necessarily. But it does help to put it in its proper place: discipline, unlike doctrine, is indeed a relative thing, because discipline and all pastoral practice is the process of relating eternal truth to temporal, contingent situations. That’s always going to be messy. And while changes should never be made lightly or to suit our personal convenience, they can be legitimately made. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. And the application of the law has to be done with sensitivity to both the spirit of the law (for the letter killeth, but the spirit bringeth life) and the needs and capacities of the person in question, neither denying the possibility of graces nor presuming upon them. Only then can the law actually help people—and apart from that, well, the strength of sin is the law.

And does all this mean that right and wrong are relative, or subjective, or conditional, or something? No. It means that people aren’t machines where you can type in moral data and expect a correct response to come out. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man: but I see another law at work in my members. If you find that difficult to accept, just think of that one sin—you know the one—that you have to confess over and over and over and over. Where would you be, if God had withheld his grace from you until you defeated that?

And you needn’t worry: the people who really aren’t interested in God will be damned. You don’t have to be afraid that anything other than total, unconditional love will be found in the kingdom of heaven.

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1There are certain exceptions. To begin with, Catholics don’t simply believe that you shouldn’t get a divorce; they believe that, for a valid and sacramental marriage, divorce quite literally isn’t a real thing. That spiritual bond remains in place until one of the spouses dies, even if they get legally divorced (as a man who’s been enslaved has a moral right to autonomy even if he is legally considered property). Because of this, in certain desperate circumstances, like getting children away from an abusive parent, civil divorce can be tolerated by the Church; it just doesn’t end the marriage, sacramentally—neither party is free to remarry, and if they do, they’re committing adultery. Sometimes exceptions are also made if an invalidly married couple want to return to the Church, and are willing to attempt to live as brother and sister rather than as spouses, but cannot completely separate for some serious reason (such as having children to raise). Additionally, a marriage may be found to have been invalid in the first place (e.g. they discovered that they were too closely related to contract a marriage in the Church’s law), in which case it doesn’t bind the parties. A civil divorce will probably be needed for practical purpose, but what’s needed from the Church is an annulment, which certifies that this truly was an invalid marriage, and not just a royal pain in the ass that they don’t want to put up with anymore.
2Aww yeah, bringing out the Old Testament, gonna go evangelical all up in this bitch.
3II Kings 5.17-19. Rimmon was one of the baals, the various local gods of the Levant (El and Molech were others); this particular baal was an Assyrian deity, Ramanu, ‘the Thunderer.’
4Elisha, too, was a sinner, and could have blessed wrongly. But the Old Testament is keen on object lessons, the books of Kings particularly so, and we can reasonably suppose that God could have made his displeasure known if Elisha had given Naaman a bad blessing—we see that displeasure fall on the prophet’s servant Gehazi for his lying just a few verses later. I think the plain sense of the text is that Elisha blessed and God ratified.
5More uxurio: literally, ‘in the wifely style,’ i.e. boning.
6Louis XIV of France is a good example. His Most Christian Majesty kept a large number of mistresses, who were not only not married to him but generally married to some other noble to satisfy social expectations, thus making them even less appropriate objects of his … attention than concubines. And yet he was a famously pious monarch, never (to my knowledge) publicly reproached by the clergy for his continual and well-known unfaithfulness to his wife. Either this is some of the rankest hypocrisy ever practiced by French clerics, or they were exercising a certain disciplinary latitude. Or both.


  1. I totally chuckled at footnote 2. Thanks for that.

  2. Even if we allow that sins such as gossip, conceit, pettiness, etc. are more dangerous to the soul than either adultery or fornication, doesn't the mere fact that we can specify the latter two demand a specific response? Further, on matters touching marriage and sexuality, isn't an exhaustively clear response much more important in today's cultural climate? Lastly, I'm having trouble imagining a scenario where a more permissive pastoral approach to this issue would not also serve to undermine Eucharistic and Marital theology.

    1. To answer your remarks entirely out of order: I think part of the difficulty is that, while there can be intelligent and loving guidelines, there probably can't be a genuinely exhaustive treatment of pastoring human behavior. I mean, it'd be intrinsically possible, if the person writing it had an IQ of 160, was an utter saint, and lived to be a hundred and ten years old, while devoting all of his time to that one thing; but that doesn't seem likely, and if it does happen one day, we'll need guidance in the meantime.

      I agree that specifiable sins, as it were, are much easier to give a concrete response to. But I'm truly not sure that they do truly demand response of that kind, more than the intrinsically graver sins, I mean. The specifiable sins are easier to respond to because "sleeping with someone you aren't married to" is, as it were, scientifically provable, whereas "thinking you're better than other people" is not. But then, when His Holiness talks of discernment and mercy in dealing with the adulterer, he's trying to get precisely at that invisible root of why the wrong behavior is happening; conversely, the invisible sins always manifest themselves in some concrete way -- the snide reply, the hurtful joke -- and, though it may be challenging to do so tactfully, rebuking those visible symptoms is as important as rebuking the other visible sins.

      Personally, I feel that a solid preaching of Eucharistic and matrimonial theology, indeed of sacramental theology in general, would be enough to quell the danger of scandal -- as much as it can be quelled. (There will always be some possibility of scandal, about everything, just because the human will is free and the human mind is not omniscient.) I do also think that's needed anyway; the situation we seem to have in the States right now is almost the reverse of what Pope Francis is promoting: we have a host of people who are refused Communion for reasons they don't understand, rather than being admitted as a concession because they truly do. And the latter seems to me far more in accord with the gospel: the prostitute precedes the Pharisee into the kingdom of heaven. Where that's true, there will always be some risk of scandal; but where that's false, I think Christ is, to that extent, absent.

      I suspect a controversy of this kind was inevitable, once St Pius X's encouragement of frequent reception became normal. Without pastorally discerned concessions to human frailty, you won't in fact have frequent reception except among a tiny minority of virtuous people.

  3. I largely agree that the dubia are baiting and disingenuous given that the Cardinals' explanatory letter attached to the dubia comes right out and admits that, "the distinction referred to by Amoris Laetitia between the subjective situation of mortal sin and the objective situation of grave sin is indeed well established in the Church’s teaching"...which is basically what the whole approach of Amoris rests on, and which suffices to quell any doctrinal worries about the whole thing.

    Nevertheless, I found a few points in your presentation confused. Mainly: no one, not even Francis, is claiming that limiting reception of communion to those in a state of grace is mere "discipline."

    I don't know what the East does (truth is I had always heard the opposite of what you say: that they *always* go to confession before communion just as a matter of course, serious sin or not).

    But everyone in this current debate, including Francis, admits that taking communion outside a state of grace is, by divine law not merely discipline, a further mortal sin and constitutes no benefit ("eating their own damnation" and all that).

    The argument of Amoris rests more on the fact that the internal forum of conscience and the external forum don't always match. There are, of course, the culpability mitigating factors of ignorance and duress. But Francis also seems to imagine more complex casuistic cases beyond that such as "lesser of two evil" situations involving the welfare of children, or a catch-22 sort of gradualism wherein the new relationship would be broken by an attempt to impose abstinence immediately, but where the relationship also represents, in the long run, the best hope for virtue (including, paradoxically, chastity itself). Certainly, in all this I think he is correct and a keener pastor than many recent authorities.

    He also seems to be giving his implicit endorsement to the so-called "internal forum solution" to annulments; namely, that annulments are not infallible, and that since they don't create a new fact, only determine a fact that is supposedly true all along some cases where the annulment process either gets it wrong or is going too slow or expensive (from the perspective of conscience)...people might know in conscience that their first marriage was invalid, that they didn't really commit with an understanding of indissolubility the first time, and judge that "God supplies" in terms of the validity of their second marriage (which, after all, is only being prevented by the requirement of canonical form, which is a positive creation of canon law that is being denied due merely to the invalidity of the first marriage not being publicly established yet; of course, he could solve this even canonically if he'd just get rid of the requirement of canonical form...)

    But I don't think anyone is saying that the question of state of grace being a requirement for reception is a mere matter of discipline. It's more about how conscience means that state of grace doesn't necessarily always line up in a straightforward way with mere external behavior and evidence.

    1. Oh, I didn't mean to imply that the state of grace was either unimportant or a mere question of discipline. You're quite right, that is rooted in Scripture. What I'm saying is, essentially, what His Holiness said, that being in a state of grace and living in a morally compromised relationship can't be automatically said to be mutually exclusive. On further analysis, they very well might. But they might not. The reason I mentioned Flannery O'Connor is that I think she writes that condition, the combination of objective sins and errors with the operation of grace, extraordinarily well, the Tarwaters being her masterpiece.

      I don't quite like to say that the Cardinals are being disingenuous with the dubia. It's possible; but it's at least equally possible that they're trying to provoke a clarification that would put a stop to abuses of Amoris Laetitia on the part of irresponsible pastors.

  4. If there's a discipline question, it's really more surrounding canon 915, which is directed at ministers in terms of actively denying communion (not at Catholics in terms of self-refraining). Ministers are directed to deny people who demonstrate "manifest and obstinent" grave sin. There is no judgment implied here of an actual determination of mortal sin (we can't read souls), merely an "external forum" judgment based on appearances.

    Francis seems to be saying that *this* discipline based on external appearances or canonical situations could be loosened in some cases, that pastors can be comfortable giving communion in some cases if there is discretion to avoid scandal, and if they sincerely believe that "internal forum" data suggests that the recipient really is in a state of grace subjectively in spite of their "objective" irregularity.

    Of course, I never quite understood why (the couple's sex life being private) the sex in the new marriage was considered "manifest" anyway (and yet living as brother and sister, a fact likewise private, is somehow enough to solve the issue...)

  5. Just to be clear, while the Orthodox Church doesn't have a rule that one can't go to communion without confessing "mortal" sins, it is not as if sin and abstaining from Communion are wholly unconnected. For example, unlike in the RCC where once you confess your sins, you are completely free to commune, in the Orthodox Church, some sins require abstaining for a time after confession as a "penance" of sorts. For example, killing of any kind (including killing in war-- even "just" wars) requires abstaining for years. Actual murder and abortion sometimes requires life-long abstinence. But even for more ordinary sins like fornication or masturbating, some priests will ask that the penitent stay away from communion for a few weeks after, depending on the circumstances. These things are left up to the priest, and he can loosen the requirements as he sees fit, but as I said, it's not like in the Orthodox Church, one can just go on sinning and still receiving communion. Though there isn't a prescribed rule about it, we still believe that receiving unworthily will harm you more than help you. You can receive communion with sin on your soul, but it has to be with the intention that this communion will aid in delivering you from your sin, healing your soul, and still with the intention to go to confession and amend your life asap.

    Catholics sometimes have an incomplete knowledge of the inner workings of the Eastern Churches and how they play out for real Orthodox people. Many things in the Orthodox Church are difficult for Western Catholics to understand, but which Orthodox Christians have a more complete picture of. Perhaps you knew all that stuff I wrote, but as an Orthodox reader, to my mind you made it sound a little more simple than it is. Can orthodox Christians receive communion without confessing a mortal sin? Yes, but like many things in the Orthodox Church, it's more complicated than that. :)

    1. I didn't know any of that; thank you for sharing it. Unfortunately my acquaintance with Orthodoxy comes almost exclusively through Kallistos Ware, raised Anglican and a convert to Greek Orthodoxy; so far as I know I've represented his writing correctly, but I did (mistakenly) assume that it was much more generally true of Orthodoxy than it apparently is. I also didn't mean to leave the impression that Orthodox thought you could go on sinning without confession indefinitely and still receive -- only that the specifically Roman formula didn't obtain there. Which, apparently, is true, though not in the way I'd supposed. :)

    2. Certain Orthodox jurisdiction require attendance at Vespers and Confession the night before receiving Holy Communion, or at the very least praying the pre-Communion Canon. Orthodox Christians are also less accustomed to receiving Communion on a regular basis. In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the practice varies from eparchy to eparchy. Though no Eastern Catholic Church (at least the Byzantine ones) formally acknowledge the mortal/venial sin distinction, it is sometimes seen as a healthy rule of thumb when discerning with your spiritual father.

  6. Kallistos Ware is a good place to start when learning about Orthodoxy and I am sure whatever he wrote on this issue was correct (it's been a while since i've read his books), but maybe didn't give a complete rundown of the confession/communion sitch. There is a reason most Orthodox priests guiding people into the catechumenate won't give you much to read and instead advise that you simply start coming to church and living amongst the Orthodox. I learned so much more by osmosis than by reading.

    1. That makes sense. And I expect it applies to most ecclesiastical cultures. :)

  7. This is the type of reasoning the Church will use 10 to 30 years hence to bless sexually active gay relationships--or at least "allow" them.

    1. Possibly. Personally I doubt it. There are many other doctrines regarding which she could have done the same thing, and had much more universal support both in this country and abroad -- contraception springs to mind -- and yet her teaching remains what it was a hundred years ago. And conversely, this kind of awareness of the subtleties by which grace sometimes operates isn't new; classics of Catholic literature like "Brideshead Revisited," "Silence," and "The Power and the Glory" are about that very thing.