The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 1:31:37

Can an “irregular union” ever not be adulterous?

Katie van Schaijik, Sep 25, 2017

Amoris Laetitia is back in the news, and friends have asked me to lay out my interpretation of chapter 8 more concretely. I said I would, though I do it with some trepidation and lots of caveats, including that I am neither a theologian nor a canonist. I'm just a layman who's done a lot of reflecting on personalist principles and themes—on what JP II called "the priority of subjectivity."

Let me say first that I don't here mean to tangle with those who claim that Amoris Laetitia is heretical. It seems to me a waste of time and energy to argue with people who present themselves as staunchly upholding every jot and tittle of Catholic doctrine, while they make no practical provision for the central tenet of papal authority. Some of these go so far as to publicly heap scorn on the Vicar of Christ on earth in the name of Catholic fidelity. It's, inconsistent, schismatical and toxic, in my view.

I also decline to dispute with those (like the bishops of Malta) who pretend that AL allows for blanket exemptions for all divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. They seem to me unwilling (perhaps unable) to deal with the document honestly. 

Likewise, I'd like to set aside for another day the problem of how "other people"—e.g. liberals and dissenters, or anyone who is flatly unconcerned with preserving Catholic doctrine in all its purity and splendor—are likely to interpret the document. That's not my concern. My concern is with the true interpretation of AL, viz, the one that both fully accords with Tradition and adequately captures "what the Spirit is saying" to the Church in our day. 

On that question, some disagreement remains among the faithful. By the faithful—to keep clarifying—I mean those who receive the document within a spiritual context of lively trust and confidence in the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit over the Church. They recognize the Pope as having divinely-given authority to teach truly in the areas of faith and morals; they recognize AL as papal teaching.

Among these latter, I find two basic groups.

1) Those who think that since it's impossible for the Pope to change the teaching of the Church, AL can and must be interpreted in a way that excludes the divorced and remarried from Holy Communion, unless they are committed to living celibately. (I count Cardinal Müller and Archbishop Chaput in this group.)

2) Those (such as Cardinal Shönborn and my former professor, Rocco Buttiglione) who think that AL allows for certain exceptions to that general rule, by making changes to Church teaching in its inessential aspect—a perfectly normal occurrence in ecclesial history.

I myself am in group 2. I believe with all my heart that the Pope lacks the authority to change the essential moral teaching of the Church. The Church has always taught that there is such a thing as intrinsically evil acts. Adultery is among those acts. Anyone who is committing adultery is ineligible for Holy Communion.  And, according to  Amoris Laetitia, there may well be cases of divorced and remarried individuals who are in a state of grace, discernible by their spiritual director.

How is it possible to hold such apparently contradictory beliefs? Bear with me while I try to explain.

When Rocco Buttiglione defends the document, he focuses on cases of "objective adultery," where moral freedom and responsibility on the part of an individual involved are practically null. I don't doubt such cases exist, but I'm here interested in another sort, one wherein the unions in question are "objectively irregular," but not adulterous.

Keep in mind that when the Church declares a marriage null, she isn't ending a marriage; she is formally finding that a marriage had never taken place. 

Feel your way into the following two scenarios. They are fictional, but not far-fetched. They are the sort of cases that priests are increasingly coming across in our post-Christian, broken and volatile world.

A woman who grew up in a conventionally Catholic family, but who then abandoned religion in college, meets, falls in love with, and marries an evangelical Protestant. He had been married before, briefly, to a woman who turned out to be mentally ill and an addict. The experience had traumatized and embittered him, but his new-found Christian faith helped him heal, and he is now a changed man. Joining her husband at his lively, Bible-believing church, his wife's faith reawakens, and with it, unexpectedly, a hunger for the Sacraments of her youth. She begins to attend mass, watch EWTN, and read Scott Hahn books. Over time, the conviction deepens in her that Catholicism is the one true faith, and she returns to the Church. It causes serious tension in her marriage, though. Her husband has been taught to believe that the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon. He doesn't acknowledge the authority of the Pope; he doesn't understand her intense yearning for the Eucharist. He even worries that it's idolatrous. Now his wife starts refusing to have sex with him, because she's been taught to believe that until he gets an annulment from his first marriage, sex with him is adultery in the eyes of the Church. He finds her refusal not only offensive, but sinful, selfish and manipulative. He quotes the Bible saying that a husband and wife should not abstain from relations, unless by mutual agreement and for the purposes of prayer. The alienation between them grows. She resents her husband for pressuring her to act against her faith; he resents her for becoming Catholic and refusing him his conjugal rights. Their children are suffering horribly.

A woman grows up in a remote area of a nominally Catholic country, where poverty, violence, alcoholism and domestic abuse are endemic. She gets pregnant at 17. Pressured by her family, she marries her no-good boyfriend in the local church. They have four children before she is 25. He is abusive and unfaithful. Then he abandons her. She manages to emigrate to America with her children, where they live in the shadows, hand to mouth. Then she meets a man who loves her and provides for her and her children. They can't get married officially, because she is in the country illegally, and they are desperately afraid of deportation. Meanwhile, the church where she had been married has been caught up in the drug wars; its records are inaccessible. For the time being at least, it's impossible for her to obtain an annulment. But inwardly she is convinced that that first marriage was no marriage at all, and her current partner is her true husband. He's not a perfect person, but he is faithful and committed to her. Secure in her new circumstances (even though they are not easy), her heart is filled with gratitude to God. She begins to go to church again after years away. Over time, her faith grows and deepens, and with it her sense of Jesus' unconditional love for her. Her partner supports this development in her life, but doesn't share it. He had been sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. Just stepping into a church causes him waves of anxiety and gall. She hopes he'll find his way back some day, but she knows it will take prayer and patience and delicacy on her part.

How does the Church view these two women? How should she view them? As adulterers? 

It doesn't seem so to me. Their conjugal situations fall short of the ideal of marriage proclaimed by the Church, yes. Their unions are "objectively irregular," true. But not, I propose, intrinsically evil. I don't think they are committing sin when they have sex with their husbands.

These women are not flouting the moral law. They are not saying, "I don't care what the Church says, I'm doing what I want to do." Both of them, having found faith late in life, are genuinely striving for holiness. Their yearning for Communion doesn't come from defiance of the law, but from love and need.

They are not creating exemptions for themselves from absolute norms. They are not saying: "Adultery is okay in my case, since I don't feel guilty about it." Rather, they have good grounds for believing that the two first marriages were not real marriages. They hope and expect that they will one day be formally declared null. They are inwardly persuaded that the men they are with now are their true husbands. 

They are not saying, "I know it would be a sin to sleep with my husband, but sex is so pleasant, I can't resist it." Rather, they are worried that demanding celibacy of their husbands would be unjust and harmful. They are good men, trying to do right, but they are human beings, and they don't share their wives' commitment to the Church.

In claiming that these two women are not adulterers, am I indulging in Fletcher-like "situation ethics"? Do I posit that good intentions or circumstances can render an objectively evil act innocent? I don't think so. I'm proposing rather that a careful examination the subjective dimension in these cases reveals that the act isn't adultery.

Compare it to the case of a soldier killing an opponent on a battlefield. The fact that he's obeying legitimate orders in the course of a just war means that the killing isn't murder. When a doctor removes the fallopian tube of a woman with an ectopic pregnancy to save her life, the baby dies, but it wasn't an abortion. When (to use a case raised by Pope Benedict) a male prostitute puts on a condom to protect his client from disease, he's not committing the sin of artificial contraception.

These are messy scenarios—instances of what Veritatis Splendor calls "the obscure riddles of the human condition."  Some critics of AL prefer to dismiss such examples as adding to the confusion: "Hard cases make bad law"—as if the main objective of papal teaching were law-making, rather than grace-dispensing. 

There's a line in Amoris Laetitia that I found particularly arresting and important. I can't find it at the moment, so I paraphrase from memory: "I know there are some who would prefer stricter rules for the sake of clarity. I understand them, but I sincerely believe that Jesus wants this."

When the Vicar of Christ—a man chosen through the Holy Spirit to steer the Bark of Peter, and a man with a life-long reputation for personal holiness and deep prayer—says that he is convinced that this is a change Jesus wants, I think we should listen—especially considering how closely the "want" accords with the Jesus we meet in the Gospels—the one who caused scandal by dining with prostitutes and sinners; the one who talked about leaving the 99 sheep in the pen to search for the lost lamb; the one who said "I came not for the righteous, but for sinners", etc.

Critics of Amores Laetitia frequently claim that it's impossible for a priest to make a sound judgement in such cases, but is it? It may be impossible for outsiders, who know nothing of the couples in question—their history, the state of their souls. But why should it be impossible for the priest to whom they open their hearts and pour out their suffering and their longing?

Much more could be said, but this is enough for now.