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German bishops should emphasize mission, not change rules

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Feb 06, 2014

The assessment of attitudes on sexuality, marriage and family life by the bishops of Germany, while not surprising, is extraordinarily telling. In the end, the bishops ask for rule changes to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, as well as formal blessings for such couples. Some changes in discipline are probably possible in theory, but it seems to clear to me that the German bishops are on exactly the wrong track.

The German report, which was developed in preparation for the next Synod of Bishops, captures the extent of the problem and will almost certainly be mirrored in the reports of many other Western national hierarchies. The plain fact is that only a very small minority of active Catholics in Germany have any conception of natural law, feel confident enough about their Faith to pass it on effectively to their children, frown on cohabitation before marriage, understand the moral difference between natural methods of spacing births and contraception, commit themselves to chastity, regard divorce and remarriage as “irregular”, and understand that a sound conscience must be formed in accordance with objective moral criteria derived from Divine Revelation.

In other words, there is a huge gap, in Germany and elsewhere, between Catholic and secular habits of thought, a gap which makes it difficult for people to understand why the Church does not simply write off failed marriages and let people start over, instead of violating their (perceived) spiritual rights by treating them as second class citizens. In many reports being prepared for the Synod, this is very often going to be the key issue.

It is not a simple issue. Faced with a near total loss of Catholic sensibilities by those who have remained (practically speaking) within the Church, it is difficult to imagine that any moral conflict between the Church and modern culture would be easy to resolve. Moreover, a moment’s reflection reveals that, in theory at least, much of this problem could be made to go away simply by treating admission to Communion following transgressions of the indissolubility of marriage in the same way the Church treats most other serious sins. After all, in most instances the individual must ultimately decide for himself whether he is guilty of unrepented mortal sin and should refrain from communion, and no priest or bishop is going to second-guess that judgment.

This is true even for most public moral issues. For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, slaveholders would not have been barred from communion, though everyone knew they owned slaves. Similarly, soldiers who may be known to have voluntarily participated in decidedly immoral conflicts—or who have raped and stolen and murdered even within just wars—must ordinarily make their own judgment about worthiness for communion. So too with countless numbers of people who, in a host of ways, admit that they cheat or steal from their employers. And obviously contraception is in this category as well, since so many people seem so eager to talk about it. St. Paul taught that receiving Communion unworthily is to eat and drink one’s own condemnation, but in the vast majority of cases—including many cases in which others know of the sin—Catholics must make their own decisions in this matter. The Church does not exclude them.

To describe this ordinary and proper feature of the Christian life somewhat more cynically, we can see at once that it provides pastors with tremendous latitude to ignore major points of difference between the teachings of the Church and the values of the larger culture. It is easy enough to condemn from the pulpit what the surrounding culture condemns, and to score appearance points by encouraging the corresponding virtues. But very often the condemnation of sins which the surrounding culture does not recognize, and the encouragement of the opposite virtues, can be conveniently overlooked. This provides a significant opportunity for the steady erosion of the Catholic sense of the gravity of many sins, such that certain sins become habitually venial, and peace and comfort are preserved simply because it appears that no difficult personal decisions need to be made.

Why Is Marriage Different?

One can argue that divorce and remarriage, which constitutes living in adultery, is a persistent public scandal, because the continuation of a false marriage indicates that no private repentance has yet taken place. In another sense, of course, one could argue that it is not a scandal at all because it is so widely accepted (which unfortunately makes permissiveness a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy). In any case, if the only issue is public scandal for purposes of being barred from communion, then one can think of many other scandals which should lead to a similar exclusion, for Canon 915 prescribes denial of communion to those who are “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin.” It seems clear, then, that scandal is not the principal reason, for the Church treats divorce and remarriage differently from almost everytthing else, so much so that she specifically bars communion for the relevant parties as a matter of general law.

So no, it is not scandal that makes marriage different; it is that matrimony is a sacrament. Divorce and remarriage for a Catholic is not analogous to murder or racism or theft. It is analogous to repudiating one’s baptism. Divorce and remarriage for Catholics is a personal rejection of the formal dispositions of grace through which Christ has graciously sought to effect their salvation.

Properly understood, this issue strikes at the very root of what it means to respond to Christ, to accept the ministry of His Church, and so to be Catholics not just in appearance but in truth. For this reason, Catholic marriage must be witnessed by the Church, and this witnessing is in fact a milestone in the Church’s life, becoming a matter of the Church’s public record. Moreover, the sacrament of matrimony dramatically changes the husband and wife in the order of grace and in their relationship to Christ in the Church. In the supernatural order, a sacrament is not something that “fails” because we do not live up to what has happened, any more than the Church ceases to exist because some members fall away.

I think we should also recall that the couple administers this sacrament to each other, complete with solemn vows. Fidelity to any sacrament is an enormous source of grace, but how much more true is this for a sacrament in which the participants are the ministers!

In any case, the deep sacramental realities of life in Christ—realities which it is precisely the Church’s identity and mission to secure for us—are necessarily reflected in her juridical structure. The external realities—the papacy and the sacred hierarchy, Canon Law, the recording of the sacraments in the Church’s permanent records, the celebration of the liturgical rites throughout time and place in the life of each individual parish—both reflect and serve the spiritual realities which lie at the heart of the Catholic mission. Like the person of Christ Himself, the Church is a deeply incarnational reality.

I mentioned earlier that the sacrament of marriage does not “fail”; it either takes place or it does not. It is possible to discover that a marriage is null and void in the same way that a baptism or confirmation could be null and void, if the requirements for the validity of the sacrament are lacking. The sacrament of matrimony does not take place, for example, if the required consent is lacking. But just as we repudiate a valid baptism or confirmation only in defiance of Christ and the Church, the same is true—however little we may recognize it—when we turn our backs on a valid marriage. Husband and wife are made two in one flesh by matrimony, and what God has joined together, no man may (or can) divide (Mk 10:5-8). The Church’s very identity is rooted in these sacramental realities. She cannot pretend they do not exist any more than she can pretend that the Incarnation did not happen, or that Our Lord did not rise from the dead, or that all authority in heaven and earth has not been given to Him (Mt 28:18).

Assessing Solutions

While the bishops of Germany will not be alone in recognizing that most Catholics do not have a Catholic understanding of the most fundamental realities of human life, I can only hope they will be alone in recommending that the Church ought to be like Moses, permitting divorce and remarriage owing to the hardness of our hearts (cf. Mt 19:8; Mk 10:5). Of course, the Germans do not actually advocate this, but they have for some time now been the weakest conference on marriage, constantly pushing for admission to communion for those who are divorced and remarried, and now calling for some sort of special blessing—admittedly less than the blessing of matrimony—for “people in difficult situations”. In the context, this clearly means some sort of blessing of couples, precisely as couples, for those who, by Divine dispensation, the Church is bound to regard as living in grave sin and formally rejecting one of the sacraments they have already received.

We all know how difficult it is for people to remain faithful to their wedding vows, especially after a spouse has left the marriage or after the confusion of civil divorce. In our culture, this clearly requires heroic virtue. We can also recognize the incredibly tangled situations we make for ourselves through our infidelity to the irrevocable meaning of matrimony, sometimes even creating multiple families, so that all human solutions seem impossible. But let us also recognize the immense difficulties the Church would create if she formally treated any type of adulterous liaison as if it had the same status as holy matrimony, or at least had an approved if lesser status in the Church. This is a recipe not only for rooting our culture’s confusion into the very structures and rites of the Church, but for massively discouraging all those who struggle to remain faithful to the sacramental grace they received when they made their own marriage vows. Easy, insufficiently-justified declarations of nullity produce the same horrendous bitterness and discouragement in those who wish to remain married.

While some forms of accommodation may be technically possible, I am convinced that those on offer so far strike at the very heart of the Church’s identity, her sacramental system, and her salvific mission. The German bishops have refused for many decades to embrace the mission of the Church by making her positive positions on sexuality and marriage a significant part of the experience of those in the pews. Indeed, the evidence is in their report: “The encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) on responsible parenthood is only known among the older generation”—presumably much, much older. In this the Germans are not unlike the bishops of the rest of the Western world, and one can certainly acknowledge the difficulties presented by the secularization of our culture. But there is something disturbingly tendentious about bishops who, having manifestly failed in their duties, now choose to argue that a change in rules is the only alternative.

A Revival of Catholic Mission

Oddly these recommendations come within living memory of the last ecumenical council and just when the buzz in the Church is all about a new evangelization! One would think this would help any group of bishops to make a more accurate guess at a constructive solution. For does the real solution not lie in a thorough revival of the sense of the missionary character of the Church in every level and layer of her membership? This was one of the great themes of the Second Vatican Council, which is supposed to serve as a kind blueprint for contemporary renewal, and which every pope since 1960 has upheld for this very purpose. For fifty years now the Church’s bishops have certainly loved to speak of the Council. Yet even now too many remain unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to implement what is arguably the Council’s foundational principle: The missionary character of the Church.

One of the problems of a Church which has been around for a long time is the tendency toward stasis, toward exactly the kind of habitual self-satisfaction with institutional identity that Pope Francis so repeatedly condemns. The initial fervor wears off; people forget their purpose; they fall back toward thinking and acting just like everybody else, simply enjoying the benefits of the institution they have inherited from the past. The old fire burns low; leadership becomes more concerned with institutional maintenance and less concerned with mission. Under these circumstances, mission not only fails to reach those outside the Church, but also fails to reach even the Church’s existing members. And yet this is contrary to the Church’s nature as the living trajectory in history of God’s plan of salvation. The Church is always primarily the active continuation of the mission of Jesus Christ.

I have argued repeatedly that this does not mean sinners are to be excluded—quite the contrary (see, for example, The Church’s Mark of Unity, and How It works). But the Church’s members are supposed to be not just sinners but sinners on the way, sinners who recognize that they need continued healing and grace, sinners seeking virtue, sinners who accept the Church’s authority as the means through which Our Lord makes their own growth preeminently possible. We need to consider, therefore, that to forge this sort of ecclesial membership, to constantly nourish a dynamic membership that is capable of getting out of its own way, bishops must be perennially willing to emphasize the mission of the Church even when it might cause her membership to shrink.

I am not suggesting massive excommunications! Nothing could be more counter-productive (unless it is going on in the same old way). What I am suggesting is that if bishops take it upon themselves to aggressively foster a clear sense of the Church’s mission in the priests and deacons and religious operating in their dioceses, then the very witness of the Church’s ministers to the fundamental realities of both human and Christian life will attract some and repel others. Some will respond positively, and with surprising vigor. Others will find this to be a “hard saying” (Jn 6:60), deciding to walk with the Church no more. This is not a bad thing at all. If the numbers who identify as Catholics are reduced, then perhaps each local church and each Catholic institution (including the universities) will be more easily recognizable as a group of people who are neither wayward nor even stagnant, but definitely on the way.

That is why it is so necessary to imbue the Church once again with this vital dynamic, this self-understanding of a community actively engaged in a positive response to Jesus Christ. Otherwise, there is only the downward spiral so evident in the report of the German bishops. For mark this well: The future does not lie in changing rules to accommodate hard hearts; it lies in changing hearts to accommodate hard rules. And at an even deeper level, allowing Our Lord to change our hearts is also the only way to make our burdens light.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Feb. 11, 2014 1:21 PM ET USA

    Given that our bishops show little disturbance at the complete absense of humility and repentence in everyday spiritual life, no reminder of reality is likely to challenge them to man up and challenge their people to worship God instead of themselves.

  • Posted by: lak321 - Feb. 07, 2014 11:09 PM ET USA

    Being barred from the Eucharist is charity, a weekly reminder of exactly where they stand with God and where they will be when they die. Anything else would be a lie and a grave disservice. It is a hard truth, but better to hear it now than later. Fr. Faber wrote about how few bishops go to Heaven, because of their great responsibilities. It is scary but it appears to be true! We need to pray much more for our bishops.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 07, 2014 8:16 PM ET USA

    The problem today is an identity crisis; the baptized do not know who they are nor why they ought to be martyrs, witnesses, to the generous heart of Christ. St. Paul explains that in the mystical sense marriage reflects the relationship of Our Lord with his Church. These might prove to be hard sayings to some, but we are called to participate in God's love; this helps hearts to love the hard rules. These are difficult times for those who identify with Christ. "Know yourselves" and be true.

  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Feb. 07, 2014 7:36 PM ET USA

    You are a sincere person, Jeff, and I agree with most of what you are writing but if I may add this: one of the problems of the Church is that the bishops wax on about the sanctity of marriage and family on the surface but underneath, they are rubber stamping tens of thousands of annulments each year, and that's just in the U.S.! The challenge of the German bishops is also a challenge for Rome to be consistent in what she teaches. Anything less, leads to confusion and lost souls.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Feb. 06, 2014 7:42 PM ET USA

    "...Of course, the Germans do not actually advocate this, but they have for some time now been the weakest conference on marriage, constantly pushing for admission to communion for those who are divorced and remarried...,..But of course it is far "easier" for them (the bishops). How nice to only have to offer cookies instead of vegetables...! But with the unfortunate child it would only be "the body..." But horribly enough for adults, the soul.

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