A Matter of Honesty, Part IV--No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition


I talked in the last post about the motivations behind the apocalyptic stance of Ross Douthat's Sunday column.  However, whatever his motivations, his core position--that "allowing" (more on that in a bit) divorced and remarried couples to receive Communion will be the end of everything--is a crazy position.  And it is a crazy position for a couple of reasons, but the most basic reason is this:  Douthat is concerned about Pope Francis softening a disciplinary rule of the Catholic Church that is not only not being enforced, but is one that cannot be enforced, given the culture and socialization of the U.S. Catholic Church in 2016.

Let's break that down.  First, despite yeoman's efforts to make all of this into some central doctrinal and theological Rubicon, what we are really talking about here is a disciplinary rule--under what circumstances can a Catholic come up and receive Communion.  Canon law in the Catholic Church (Canon 988, p.1) says "[t]he faithful are bound to confess, in kind and in number, all grave sins committed after baptism, of which after careful examination of conscience they are aware, which have not yet been directly pardoned by the keys of the Church, and which have not been confessed in an individual confession."  Included in the definition of "grave sin" is adultery, which is understood to encompass entering into a second marriage where the first one is not annulled.

In addition, Canon 916 says "[a]nyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass or receive the Body of the Lord without previously having been to sacramental confession, unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition, which includes the resolve to go to confession as soon as possible."  In other words, absent exigent circumstances, anyone who is "conscious of grave sin" (i.e. in a second marriage) must go to sacramental confession (which includes absolution) in order to receive Communion.  But, a person in a second marriage cannot get sacramental absolution because he or she cannot say that they have "firm purpose" to stop committing the sin (i.e. having sex with spouse #2, see Canon 987), and so cannot get Communion.  That's the problem.

But, here's the thing.  The Pope has unfettered discretion to change these Canons.  If he wanted to, he could simply delete Canon 916 from the Code.  If he did that, there would be no disciplinary impediment for divorced and remarried people to go to Communion.  Or he could reword Canon 916 in any one of a number of ways to make this problem disappear.  Or, in theory, he could rework the Confession Canons in some manner that would open a door to letting these folks make a valid Confession.  The point here is that there is no question that this matter is squarely within the prerogatives of the Pope to fix via any one of a variety of vehicles.  Pope Francis could simply change the rules to let every divorced and remarried person go to Communion, or for that matter let everyone go to Communion.  The convoluted "internal forum" solution that is hinted at in Amoris Laetitia is really the restrained approach to the problem.

But all of this pearl-clutching is particularly silly because most Catholics ignore Canon 916 already, anyway.  
Back to the Canons for a moment, and we see that Canon 989 says "[a]fter having reached the age of discretion, each member of the faithful is obliged to confess faithfully his or her grave sins at least once a year."  Now, it is technically true that if one does not commit any "grave" or mortal sins you don't have to go to Confession, but note that mortal sins cover an enormous amount of territory, making it extremely unlikely that a person gets through the year without becoming subject to this Canon.  Thus, as a baseline level a Catholic should be going to Confession once a year, and if a Catholic is taking Communion regularly (remember, you can't have any unconfessed mortal sins and take Communion, per Canon 916), he or she should be going to Confession more frequently--once a month, likely, but maybe even once a week.

So, what do Catholics actually do?  Well, what they don't do is go to Confession.  In a 2005 survey by CARA (a research arm of Georgetown University focused on Catholic life), 38% of Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week ignore the requirement to go to Confession at least once a year. (page 2).  An additional 25% only go once a year, which is consistent with Canon 989 but unlikely to be consistent with Canon 916, especially as well over half of those who go to Mass receive Communion every time or most of the time.  Likewise, on page 6, we see that 54% of the every week Catholics say that "I can be a good Catholic without celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year"--which, according to Canon Law, is simply false.  Remember, these are not the occasional or "lapsed" Catholics--these are the hardcore pew warriors.  Some of them probably don't go to Confession because they know they can't receive absolution because they are in "unapproved" relationships of one sort or another, but some of them could go to Confession but don't because they don't believe they need to.

Said another way, Douthat is arguing that implementing the "internal forum" rule would result in radical and catastrophic changes in a Church where a majority of the most committed members are already ignoring in toto the system to which internal forum is a modest exception.  This horse has long since left the barn.

More to the point, there is no way to put the horse back in the barn.  That is because of a great secret of Catholic life, at least in the United States (and this has only become clear to me since attending non-Catholic churches)--going to a Catholic Church for many, and perhaps most, Catholics is kind of like going to the grocery store.  Here in Columbus there are two big grocery store chains--Kroger and Giant Eagle (I am a committed Giant Eagle man)--but many places have only one big chain.  In general, most people go to the branch of their preferred chain that is closest to where they live or where they work, because it is the most convenient.  Sometimes people have specific preferences that cause them to go to a different store than the one they would normally be expected to go to--the Giant Eagle closest to my house is small, so I tend to do my big shopping at the fancier, newer one near where I work, for example.  But, at the end of the day, every Giant Eagle is basically like every other Giant Eagle, so if I had to change Giant Eagles it would not be a meaningful disruption to my life.  Because, at the end of the day, my only connection and loyalty to a particular Giant Eagle is the fact that they provide me what I come to the Giant Eagle to get, and that is my groceries.  Any connection I would have to a particular Giant Eagle and the other people that shop there is either accidental or strictly utilitarian.

Likewise, people tend to go to the Catholic Church that is closest to where they live or otherwise most convenient for them.  You might go to a particular one because of some particular service (like access to a school, for example), but at the end of the day most Catholic churches are basically the same.  And, like a grocery store, generally speaking you don't have a meaningful relationship to the other people who attend a particular parish.  You might recognize this or that person every Sunday, just like I happen to remember the guy who works at the fish counter at my Giant Eagle, but this is both accidental and peripheral to the basic process of going to a Catholic church.  As a practical matter, the only way you get to know people at a Catholic parish is volunteer to do things above and beyond just going to Mass, and thus you meet other folks who are also volunteering.  Absent that, no one would know if you stop coming to a particular parish, and no one really knows if you start coming to a new parish.

These facts make it impossible to enforce Canon 916.  Let's say you get divorced and remarried, and your priest knows about this and decides to enforce Canon 916 strictly and denies you Communion (which I have never seen actually happen, but let's stipulate).  All you have to do is go to the next parish down the road, where no one knows you, and walk up to take Communion.  To truly enforce Canon 916, you would either have to brand the divorced and remarried folks with a Scarlet A, or otherwise completely reform the culture of Catholic parishes such that everyone (or at least the priest) knows the everyone in the parish well enough to be able to suss out these sorts of fugitives from Canon Law when they arrive at your doors.  Given the size of Catholic parishes, and the corresponding relative lack of staffing, that would basically be an impossible task.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out, and this isn't that much of a secret.  Folks like Douthat and other conservative Catholics have to know this.  And, I think they do, which brings me finally to the video at the top of the post.  In the famous Spanish Inquisition sketch, Cardinals Ximenes, Biggles, and Fang talk a big game about the power and ferocity of the Spanish Inquisition.  But, all of that rhetoric is a cover for the fact that their "tortures" consist of a dishrack and a comfy chair.  When you don't have the ability to enforce your rules, all you have to fall back on is theatricality and bluster, in the hopes that it will intimidate people into voluntarily abiding by a regime that you know you can't actually mandate.

All of these conservative Catholics, from Douthat to Cardinal Chaput to Cardinal Burke to the folks on EWTN, are engaged in a live-action version of the Spanish Inquisition sketch with regard to policing Communion.  By increasing the volume on the rhetoric regarding divorced and remarried people, they are trying to cover the fact that they have not been enforcing the rule, and they have no way to enforce the rule.  People are engaging in "self-help" in this area, and there is nothing those in power can do to stop it.  They talk a big game, but at the end of the day the worst they can do is banish people to the comfy chair.  And, like Monty Python's Cardinals, in the process they make themselves look ridiculous.

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