Quick Hitter: Why Pastoral Discretion Is Not a Panacea

There is an excellent series of pieces on Bill Lindsey's blog about the state of things with regard to the Catholic priesthood that I would direct your attention to (and not because he says nice things about me).  In particular, he points toward a rather amazing piece in the Guardian entitled "The War on Pope Francis," and more specifically to the following quote:

"What I care about is the theory," said the English priest who confessed his hatred of Francis. "In my parish there are lots of divorced and remarried couples, but many of them, if they heard the first spouse had died, would rush to get a church wedding. I know lots of homosexuals who are doing all sorts of things that are wrong, but they know they should not be. We're all sinners. But we've got to maintain the intellectual integrity of the Catholic faith."

For those who are not deeply immersed in the world of conservative Catholicism, that quote surely comes across as word salad and nonsense.  But, here's what I think he is getting at.  It is critically important, under this view, for everyone to acknowledge and accept in principle this black-and-white rule that places some people into a clearly defined and unambiguous category of "sinners."  For this particular priest, it is absolutely necessary that divorced-and-remarried people publicly accept the judgment that they are sinners, and that LGBT people accept the judgment they are sinners.  Once they have done this, it may be possible for those in charge--i.e., the priest--to cut them some break, or at least not publicly hound them for their transgressions (our priest lets the gay folks and the adulterers come to Mass, doesn't he?)

But, that's the key--it is up to the priest to decide whether or not these people are allowed to continue to operate in the church context, and on what terms.  The suggestion that the people themselves, that divorced and remarried people or LGBT people, are able to determine their own status and their own situation before God without the need for adjudication by clergy is beyond the pale.  "Theory" and "intellectual integrity" are really place holders for "the unfettered discretion of the priest."  This unfettered discretion is really the best of all worlds for a priest--it allows him to be seen as merciful and kind when he wants to cut people a break, and when he wants to hammer people for whatever reason, he can deflect blame onto "the rules."

What is most ironic about all of this is that Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis's encyclical that suggests that divorced-and-remarried people can take communion under certain circumstances, is on paper of a piece of this maximal understanding of clerical power.  Amoris Laetitia takes pains to point out that this discernment of the status of the divorced-and-remarried couple is to be done with the clergy and without any sort of concrete framework.  It is basically the Orthodox oeconomia system all over again.  If the Catholic Church were to actually implement the system as set forth in a literal reading of Amoris Laetitia, clerical power in this sphere would be maintained, and even perhaps enhanced.

The problem, though, is two-fold.  First, it forces all of these shadow compromises out into the open, where they become subject to some small measure of accountability on the part of the priest.  When none of this was technically OK, it was easy to convince the people getting the break to keep quiet, while those not getting a break are getting nothing other than what is expected.  Amoris Laetitia creates expectations on the part of the laity that they will get an accommodation, as well as encouraging a more public climate for this discussion.  Priests don't want to hear, "Father lets Susie and Bob go to communion, but doesn't let Cindy and Dave take communion, because he likes Susie and Bob better" (or "because Susie and Bob give more money").  It does, on some incredibly minor but still uncomfortable level, make the priest answerable for his actions in a way he was not previously.

Second, conservatives assume that, if a particular couple is denied an accommodation, they will simply ignore the priest and make their own decision on whether they should take communion.  This is a dumb concern because this is what happens already now, but through some combination of naivety and formalism conservatives never seem to grasp this point.  The fear about losing "the theory" is a fear that the laity will just cut the clergy class out of their decision-making process altogether.  Again, this particular ship has left the dock many years ago, but the fear of losing the hammer of the rules is so great that folks of this ilk are desperate to hold on to whatever shred of it is left.

Here's something that is true of both civil laws and religious laws--when evaluating a law, you must evaluate from the point of view that it will be enforced fully and without exception.  If enforcing it fully and without exception makes the law unjust, then it is an unjust law.  Giving "outs" and discretion doesn't fix the injustice, and can in many respects compound the injustice, because such discretion always empowers the adjudicator.  For example, a regime which enforces draconian punishments for possessing and using marijuana, one that if actually enforced as written would completely disrupt society, ends up being enforced only against marginalized people--such as, in the United States, African-Americans--and so becomes a club to further injustice.  Likewise, if truly excluding everyone who is in a second-marriage from church will inevitably result in people who are marginalized from church life for whatever reason end up getting the shaft.

A set of fair rules, imposed uniformly, is a bulwark against this sort of injustice.  Or, if you are not going to go for a clean rule, then you should go the opposite way and make it clearly and 100% discretionary on the part of the adjudicator, so that he or she is made accountable for the exercise of that discretion.  Both of which would significantly reduce the power of the priest, which is precisely why these conservatives are opposed to any such change.  At the heart of all of this is clerical power, and the preservation of it.


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