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Humanae Vitae Redux

Nobody is saying it, but many are thinking it.  The unfolding controversy over Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics looks eerily like the run up to the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968.

When, during Vatican II, Pope Paul VI remitted “certain questions [on birth control] requiring further and closer investigation” (GS, II, note 14 [1]) to an advisory commission, the message he gave was that the Church was considering changing its teaching.  He did not mean to mislead anyone.  His intention was to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance to a clear solution to a serious pastoral problem.  But the effect of his interventions (and the way others used them) was to cause large numbers of Catholics to believe that the Church’s teaching on contraception was up for grabs.

Cardinal Maximos IV, the Melchite Patriarch, baldly expressed this narrative for change during the debate on marriage and family in November 1964.  In an address to the Council, he said:

[The contraception controversy] is an urgent problem if ever there was one….  It is a question of a lack of alignment between the official doctrine of the Church and the contrary practice of the immense majority of Christian couples.  The authority of the Church is called into question on a large scale.  The faithful find themselves driven to live in breach of the law of the Church, far from the sacraments, in constant anguish, for want of being able to find the viable solution between two contradictory imperatives: conscience and normal conjugal life” (printed in F.H. Drinkwater, Birth Control and the Natural Law, Burns & Oats, 1965, p. 78)

It takes no reading between the lines to know where the Patriarch was going with these remarks.

Five months earlier, Pope Paul VI had announced to the world:

It will be necessary to look carefully in the face of the theoretical and practical development of the [contraception] question.  And this is what the Church is actually doing.  The question is being considered as amply and deeply as possible, that is, in the most serious and honest way as required by such an important matter.  We hope soon to conclude these studies with the collaboration of many distinguished scholars.  We will therefore soon put forth the conclusions in the forms which will be considered more adequate for the object dealt with and the target to be achieved” (The Tablet, June 27, 1964 [2], pp. 5-6).

It is clear that Paul VI was only interested in discovering the truth of the matter.  But his message undeniably signaled the possibility of a change in the traditional teaching.  The fact that his next words were “so far we have no sufficient motive to consider surpassed and therefore not compulsory the rules given [3] by Pope Pius XII in this connection” made little impression; the statement was drowned in the frenzy of enthusiasm for change.

When Paul VI published Humanae Vitae [4] in July 1968, large segments of the Catholic world felt duped and betrayed.  The de facto schism that ensued has been felt in the Church and her apostolates for 45 years.

Has not a similar type of expectation arisen around the question of whether the Church should change her teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion?

Cardinal Walter Kasper has defended a narrative similar to the one Cardinal Maximos IV recited at Vatican II.  In 2005, Kasper said [5]: “I cannot imagine that the discussion is closed…. It is a question that exists, and we have to reflect on it in order to be able to respond…and every bishop in every Western country recognizes that this is a grave problem.”  Recently, in an interview [6] with the magazine U.S. Catholic, he said: “It’s an urgent problem in Europe as much as it is here in the United States and in other parts of the world.  It’s a problem that, in our modern world, only continues to grow, and the church has to ask itself what it can do.”  The message he gives is that the problem requires that the Church change her teaching.

Pope Francis, perhaps only unintentionally, has contributed to the change narrative.  Recall the journalist’s question on his flight home from World Youth Day in August 2013: “With regard to the reception of the sacraments by the divorced and remarried, is there the possibility of a change in the Church’s discipline?”

Francis answered [7]: “I believe that we need to look at this within the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage….  [T]he Orthodox have a different practice.  They follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance, they allow it.  But I believe that this problem…must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.”

Similarly, in his well-publicized America magazine interview [8], speaking about “the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past,” Francis said, but “then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children….  She would like to move forward in her Christian life.  What is the confessor to do?”  The obvious answer for many is that her confessor should give her absolution and regularize her relationship to the Church and the sacraments.

After Pope Paul VI’s statement in June 1964, Cardinal Maximos IV said to his brother prelates at Vatican II:

How relieved the Christian conscience felt when Paul VI announced to the world that the problem of the regulation of births and of family morality “is being considered as amply and deeply as possible.”

I expect his statement was true, many contracepting lay people and their supportive confessors felt relieved at the pope’s words.  But it was a tenuous relief based on an unrealistic expectation.  For many who took the pope’s words as signaling a change, their relief did not facilitate a religious submission of mind and will to ordinary papal teaching.  It gave them false confidence that the Church was going to do what she could never do.  It set them up for disappointment.  And characteristic of all who feel that they’ve had their expectations falsely raised, disappointment was followed by anger and a temptation to intransigence.

Pope Francis wants all sincere Catholic voices to be heard.  He wants all bishops at the Synod on the Family to feel free to say what they believe is true.  This intention is laudable and its end is even essential for the world episcopate to function as a true collegium, in which truth is the central and singular aim and where unhealthy conformism and fear do not dominate discussion.

Having said this, I think that throwing into doubt the ancient teaching on remarriage and Communion has been pastorally unwise.  As in the 1960s, many people today find themselves at odds with the teaching.  The papal and episcopal statements have raised enormous expectation that the Church is going to change it.

But because of the dual dogmas of marital indissolubility and the Holy Eucharist as the sign of full communion with Christ and his body, the Church can no more change her teaching on this issue than she could 45 years ago on the issue of openness to procreation in every marital act.

When that finally becomes clear, there is going to be disappointment, anger, and, I fear, intransigence.

Human Sexuality
Nobody is saying it, but many are thinking it. The unfolding controversy over Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics looks eerily like the run up to the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968…