The Best Example of Why We Need a Theology of Relationships

I have been continuing to think about Ross Douthat's column from Sunday.  One of the things that strikes me about Douthat on this subject is that he seems to really, really find the current status quo position regarding divorce and remarried couples sensible and correct, in a way that seems genuine and heartfelt.  That is of course his right to do so, but it highlighted for me the degree to which I am not similarly persuaded.  It has taken me a while to work through why I am not satisfied with the current position, but I think I have found the heart of the problem.

First, let's set out the text that we are all arguing about--Matthew 19:3-9:

Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’

Let's begin with what might seem to be a stupid question--what exactly is Jesus condemning here?  Clearly, what Jesus is against here, in the first instance, is divorce (let us put aside for now the entirely plausible argument that what Jesus is really against is men unilaterally divorcing women, which is how it works in Leviticus).  The prompt is about divorce, and the majority of Jesus's discussion is about divorce. That is, until we get to the last sentence of the quote, when he tacks on this bit about "whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery." (let's also bracket the contentious question of what me epi porneia, "except for unchastity" [NRSV translation], means).  That last bit appears to be something of a throw-away, or at least a way of emphasizing the basic point that divorce is bad--"oh, and another thing. . . ."

The problem with all of the discussion surrounding this issue inside Catholicism is that it has been entirely focused on the last sentence of the quote, to the exclusion of the rest of the passage.  And that fixation on the "adultery" part leads to strange results.  For example, several more conservative commentators have made of point of noting that traditional Catholic thinking says that a second marriage in which the couple live as "brother and sister" (i.e. don't have sex) would allow that couple to receive Communion.  The general response to this notion is to dismiss it as impractical and unrealistic to expect a couple to abstain totally from having sex.  But it seems to me that the more fundamental problem with the "brother and sister" solution is that it undermines the principle that Jesus was trying to articulate in the passage--divorce is not OK.

Consider this hypothetical.  I am married; one day, I decide to up and leave my wife, divorce her, and run off with some other woman.  I build a new life with this new woman, to the exclusion of my former life with my former wife.  However, notwithstanding that I have built, and continue to build, a new relationships with this new woman, we decide never to have sex with each other, and we stick faithfully to that.  We, as they say "live as brother and sister."

Or let's take the example further---I run off, divorce my wife, and never get into another relationship with any other woman.  I just, I don't know, travel the world or something.  I nevertheless have cut off any contact with my wife.

Here's the key question--does that fact that I am not having sex make what I have done to my wife any better or any more justifiable?  I would argue, and I think most people would agree, that the answer is "no."  I still left my wife in the lurch, I still broke the bonds of my marriage to her.  That's the decision that harmed my wife, far more so than what I do, or do not do, with some new woman.

But, according to current Catholic doctrine, under either version of my scenario, I am fully entitled to take Communion, because I am not "committing adultery."  But I am committing adultery if I am with woman #2, regardless of whether or not I am having sex with woman #2, through all of the interpersonal interactions I am having with woman #2--interactions I should be having with my wife.  It is only by distilling down my relationship with woman #2 to the binary question of "sex or no sex?" can you conclude that the "brother and sister" arrangement changes the basic equation.  And while I am not committing adultery if I just run off, I am still doing enormous harm to my wife by leaving, regardless of what I do after I'm gone.

So, the question is not really "is it sinful to get remarried after a divorce?" but rather "where is the sin located in the divorced and remarried scenario?"  It seems clear to me that the sin is located in the divorce.  It is the breaking of the bond of marriage, and the promises that attach to those bonds, that is harmful to the other spouse, and to the children of the marriage, and to the community as a whole.  And I am absolutely on board with the idea that, in general, getting a divorce is sinful, and that the default position should be that it is not acceptable or allowable.

All of this demonstrates a core problem with the current Catholic approach to thinking about the morality of marriage--everything is reduced to sex.  This is the point Thomas Bushnell makes in his essay that I keep referencing--despite the rhetoric of things like John Paul II's Theology of the Body, the morality of marriage becomes exclusively co-extensive with the morality of sexual acts connected with marriage (or not connected with marriage).  Once you strip out all of the high-minded and romantic rhetoric and get to the bottom line, marriage is nothing more than a license to have morally-acceptable sex.  That's a very narrow and impoverished understanding of what is important in a marriage or what marriage is about.

The current debate on Communion for remarried folks is thus a symptom of the more systemic problem, and that is a lack of a robust framework for moral analysis of relationships.  One can come up with a truckload of reasons why divorce does serious damage to relationships, beginning with the relationship between the now-divorced couple, extending to any children of the marriage, and then rippling out from there to the community as a whole.  I think that most so-called "progressive" Catholics agree with this basic principle--there is a reason why Catholics divorce at far smaller rates than Protestants.  But we are not talking about that issue, and instead talking about this collateral issue of what happens after the divorce has already occurred.

Rather than talking about what to do after the horse has left the barn, we should be talking about why divorce is bad, why it harms the people around you, and how people can experience healing and reconciliation even in the aftermath of profound personal and communal ruptures in relationships.  Instead, we are having a conversation that basically is about whether and how much we should punish divorced people for having sex ex post.  No wonder people are not interested.

Once you place the emphasis where it belongs, on the divorce, the analysis of the divorced and remarried scenario changes.  For example, let's take my wife in the above scenario.  She never broke any vows; she was committed to the marriage until such point as it became clear that I was never going to come back.  One could easily say, under such a scenario, that she is mostly innocent of any sin--she didn't "divorce me," I divorced her.  And, once you say that, there is no reason to prevent my hypothetical wife from getting married (and, yes, having sex with) someone else.  Why should she be prevented from entering into a new bond when the first one was ended by the other party against her will?

Sure, my wife could pursue an annulment.  But the grounds for any annulment do not line up with the real reason why she should be allowed to get remarried--that she was not at fault for the dissolution of the marriage.  What she or I did or did not understand or know at the time of the wedding is ultimately irrelevant to the fact that I unilaterally terminated the marriage against her will.  Certainly you could find a way to shoe-horn the real situation into the established canonical grounds, but ultimately this is missing the point.

And one can understand why my hypothetical wife might be mad that the Church insists that the validity of the marriage turns on what her deficiencies were with regard to consent, etc., when I am the one responsible.  That anger, in large part, stems from the fact that the annulment process does not address, or even consider, the sinfulness involved in the end of the marriage, because it focuses entirely on problems at the beginning of the marriage.  Worse, if I was able to get an annulment, then my sins stemming from walking out on my wife would be completely unacknowledged, let alone dealt with.  My hypothetical wife would be right to feel as if the Church was in some tacit way blessing or facilitating her being cast aside.  That's hard to justify on any level.

This also brings up a criticism of the way the progressive case for changes to the current rule has been made.  The word "mercy" is being thrown around a lot, and conservatives have been asking "mercy for what?"  That is a legitimate and appropriate question, one that I do not see adequate answers being provided.  It seems to me that the relevant "mercy" here is, first and foremost, mercy to the people who are divorced as a result of event outside of their control and decisions.  These people, such as my wife in my hypothetical, are deeply wounded as a result of the actions of someone else that they loved (and maybe still love).  The Church's mercy needs to be ready to provide them support in moving on from this tragedy, a moving on process which may (and, perhaps, hopefully) involve meeting, falling in love with, and marrying someone new.  Making people in this scenario rehash the origins of the failed marriage via the annulment process is not merciful, but rather cruel.

We also need mercy for people who are not innocent in events leading up to the divorce, which truthfully describes most people who get divorced.  Divorce is a terrible wounding of relationships, but so is murder and so is rape and so are other forms of exploitation.  If the murderer and the rapist can get absolution, thus such mercy should be available for the divorced person.  Concerns about being too lax with divorces, such to diminish the seriousness of Jesus's command, are legitimate but must not be allowed to crowd out the possibility of reconciliation.

Look at my hypothetical situation.  I'm clearly the bad guy here.  But, my sin is ultimately located in a singular, specific act--I left my wife.  As terrible as that is, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is there for people who do terrible things.  And, crucially, we don't run into the basic retort of those opposed to changes in this area that "you can't validly confess a sin if you don't intend to stop the behavior."  I do intend to stop the sinful behavior--I will not break up a marriage I am in ever again.  I am addressing the true locus of my transgression, which is located primarily with my behavior regarding my first wife.

The "adultery" component of my relations with the new woman flow from my status as being responsible for the break up of my first marriage--sex with my new wife is adultery insofar as it occurs in the context of my unacknowledged sins related to the first marriage, as opposed to be adulterous per se.  If I can get absolution for the divorce, then sex with my new wife is no longer adulterous.

Plus, appropriately, I am still subject to censure for breaking up my marriage even if I never get married or enter into a new relationship.  Ending a marriage is still sinful, under my view, regardless of what happens after the fact.  Under the current regime, as a practical matter, getting divorced has no consequences whatsoever unless or until you get married again.  That does not track the actual impact and consequences stemming from divorce.  Divorce harms people, regardless of whether those people remarry.  To really drive the point home, if you are going to take the position that unaddressed divorce should be an impediment to receiving Communion (which, as I have said before, I have concerns about), it should apply to all divorcees, regardless of whether they are remarried or not.  The notion that a civil divorce is no concern of the Church until the person tries to get remarried is nonsensical, and completely and utterly counterproductive to the goal of taking seriously Matthew 19:3-9.

It seems reasonable for me for the Church to require certain things of the divorced person prior to allowing them to be back in good standing and get married again--especially, where possible, restitution or reconciliation of some kind with the former spouse and any children of that first marriage.  Just going to Confession once may not be appropriate or sufficient, and the "penitential path" suggested by people like Cardinal Kasper may make sense.  But the focus should always be on the divorce and its consequences--not on the origins of the first marriage or the potential initiation of the second one.

So, contra Douthat, this discussion is not about people who take Jesus's words seriously and those who don't.  It is, or at least it should be, a discussion about what is important about what Jesus says, and how best to take seriously those commands and apply them to the concrete situation in which people find themselves.  There are ways, I think, to take Jesus's command regarding divorce more seriously than what the Church is currently doing.  We can do better by placing the focus where it belongs--on the relationship and the consequences of the severing of the relationship--instead of the incessant focus on sex.


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