Shifting Sands Part II

Ross Douthat posted another fantastic column in the NYT that tracks nicely with last post’s theme of the shifting view of law, morality and ethics with the Catholic Church in the United States.  Douthat rightly questions the view of conservative Catholics as “order-obsessed absolutists desperate to believing in an unchanging, unchangeable Catholicism.”  He points to the myriad ways the Church has changed dramatically is the last half-century:

A transformation in the church’s attitude toward liberal democracy and religious freedom. A transformation in the church’s attitude toward other Christian churches and non-Christian religions. A total renovation of the church’s liturgy, one with inevitable implications for sacramental life, theology, biblical interpretation, the works, that was staggering in hindsight but accepted at the time by everyone except a tiny minority. A revolution in sacred architecture, albeit one that stalled out once it became apparent that it was, you know, kind of terrible. Massive shifts in church rhetoric around issues of personal morality (sexual morality very much included) even where the formal teaching remained intact. Stark changes in the way the church talks about sin, hell and damnation, and openings (again, including among conservative Catholics) to theological perspectives once considered flatly heterodox. Clear changes, slow-moving or swift, in the Vatican’s public stance on hot-button issues like the death penalty and torture (and perhaps soon just war theory as well). The purging or diminution of a host of Catholic distinctives, from meatless Fridays to communion on the tongue to the ban on cremation to … well, like I said, it’s a partial list, so I’ll stop there.

Speaking of marriage and the reception of divorce and remarried Catholics to communion, Douthat  suggests that conservative Catholics have drawn a line at “certain essentials of the faith.”  Whereas conservative Catholics saw an ally in these essentials with Popes JP2 and B16, they are unsure (at best) about Pope Francis, who has consistently emphasized the pastoral over the doctrinal.  However, as I mentioned in the last post, I think a lack of acceptance towards human failure goes against the natural Catholic inclination.  So why the adamant opposition to these particular changes?

One answer could be the heavy infusion of former Protestants into the Catholic intellectual tradition, with the associated Protestant inclination towards strict adherence to church law/ethics/morality.  In fact, Douthat’s article is a response to Damon Linker, who initially came into the church because he “longed to find an absolute moral Truth and craved a sense of belonging with others who recognized and ordered their lives according to that Truth.” Although he seems to have abandoned that need, it is a real phenomenon that should be taken into account.

However, I think there may be something different happening here, and why this issue has spurred such angst in both “conservative” and “traditional” Catholics. Douthat notes that “the church’s understanding of marriage is so close to the heart of Catholic moral and sacramental theology.”  The current primary point of contention, Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, is essential to the sacramental theology of the Eucharist.  Most conservatives are focused less on the argument over relaxing the standards for declarations of nullity, but rather more on the issue of allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Holy Eucharist.  Conservatives and traditionalists see the Eucharist as so central to the faith that officially endorsing reception by unrepentant sinners strikes at its centrality in Catholic sacramental life.

As a side note, it says something very interesting about the modern psyche that this is such a point of contention between liberals and conservatives.  From what I read (I wasn’t alive then), up to fifty or sixty years ago a much smaller percentage of Catholics received communion when attending Mass.  This wasn’t because they were all divorce and remarried, but due to what Archbishop Chaput referred to as “an excessive fear of our own sins.”  A Catholic who was aware of having committed a mortal sin would not have thought about receiving the Eucharist until they had received absolution. Now, as Chaput puts it, “far too many of us receive Communion unthinkingly, reflexively, with no sense of the urgent need for our own self-examination, humility and conversion.”

So, are conservatives saying enough is enough and drawing a line in the sand on the issue of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, or is there something particular about this issue?  I think it may be the latter for an interesting reason: this issue blends the boundary between pastoral practice and doctrinal change to an unusual degree.

To a liberal, allowing the divorce and remarried to receive communion is about meeting spiritually wounded people where they are at and making them feel welcome in the community.  They understand the powerful place the Eucharist has in the church and to deny someone the Eucharist may drive them from the church.

To a conservative, allowing someone to receive Eucharist who is in an acknowledged state of sin, for which they cannot be absolved while they choose to stay in the relationship, undermines the entire doctrinal framework of sin, absolution, and the Eucharist. They see an already devalued Eucharist resulting from poor liturgical practice, and view reception while mortal sin as undermining its sacramental understanding as well.  Again, given the centrality of the Eucharistic to the Catholic faith, it’s understandable why conservatives are so upset.

To conclude, I think Douthat is correct in stating conservatives aren’t “order-obsessed absolutists” resisting change in any form.  They have seen dramatic upheaval in the church and are understandably concerned the fundamental nature of the Eucharist is being undermined.  Whereas a church liberal may see heartless adherence to outdated doctrine, there is something unique to this particular issue and it should be viewed in this context.


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