Controversy over Divorce and Remarriage

A Philosophical Analysis of the Catholic Controversy over Divorce and Remarriage

 

The tendency of philosophers to work in a given paradigm weakens comparative perspectives, and so weakens dialogue. This also happens where articulation of the paradigm uses “God language” – theology – with the result that dialogue is diminished, and conflict exacerbated. This is seen in the Extraordinary Synod of the Catholic Church that is underway in Rome, where cardinals and bishops engaged discourse defending adversarial positions rather than dialogue. A comparative philosophical perspective that highlights the methodological differences helps us to understand the divergences that surfaced in the lead-up to and during the Extraordinary Synod.

Paul Anthony McGavinThe focus of conflict was the question of admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Sacramental Communion. Cutting through the complexities of this controversy, one can identify the key persons for dissent as Cardinal Walter Kasper, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity,[1] and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.[2] Müller moved early for maintaining the practice of non-admission to Holy Communion, and Kasper has become the focus for re-admission to Communion. Truthfully, however, Kasper is surrogate for Jorge Bergoglio, Pope Francis. The conflict is between Francis and conservative cardinals and bishops. Pope Francis claims a purpose of dialogue. What divergences in philosophical perspectives have inhibited this dialogue?

Those upholding the status quo position speak as though well-schooled in a kind of analytical philosophy that focuses on “validity”, and does not attend to “soundness”. The status quo position proceeds in a syllogistically tight and noetic manner from the premises of sacramental theology in which the sacrament of marriage establishes an ontological status of husband and wife that endures until the death of one or both spouses. Impediments prior to and at the time of marriage may be of a diriment nature and allow an invalidation of the marriage. So, for example, a defect of intention or a lack of free consent are reckoned as diriment impediments, and grounds for annulment, not divorce.[3]

“Those upholding the status quo position speak as though well-schooled in a kind of analytical philosophy that focuses on “validity”, and does not attend to “soundness”

The mentality of this perspective is noetic insofar as no account is taken of evidentially-based considerations subsequent to the celebration of marriage unless these are imputable prior to marriage. In this mentality, marriage essentially exists in noetic ontological terms, and phenomenological evidence of the death and or dissolution of the marriage is not admissible in adjudging the reality of matrimonial status. In brief, the sacramental theology position and associated juridical position are assessed on validity criteria, and soundness criteria are not engaged. This methodological position is at the core of the divergence between positions typed by Müller and Kasper. But this is indicative of a wider methodological divide.

The method of the status quo position essentially draws upon a philosophical theology (and philosophical in the sense of a restrictive analytical philosophy) that is cast as sacramental theology. The core to the Kasper positon is that consideration solely in terms of sacramental theology is inadequate to the question of admission to Holy Communion of Catholics who following the failure of marriage have obtained a civil divorce and remarried in a civil ceremony. Kasper contends that the question needs consideration from other theological perspectives, and needs to comprehend phenomenological evidence.

“Marriage essentially exists in noetic ontological terms, and phenomenological evidence of the death and or dissolution of the marriage is not admissible in adjudging the reality of matrimonial status”

For Kasper, the key to this consideration is mercy.[4] This raises difficulties, because in Catholic theology the formal focus for the administration of mercy is another sacrament, named Penance (or, more commonly, Confession). And Penance is formally articulated using an analogous sacramental theology that involves an act of contrition and an expressed purpose of amendment not to sin again. From the current Latin canonical/catechetical position, this means a purpose not to perpetuate a deemed status of adultery as a condition for the granting of absolution and the readmission to Sacramental Communion. But this manner of thinking is not that of Kasper, whose thinking is better understood in virtue terms than in deontic terms. For Kasper – and for Pope Francis – consideration focuses on whether it is possible in phenomenological terms for the subject or subjects to retrieve the prior matrimonial state and – where retrieval is not possible – on whether the lessons from matrimonial failure have been learned and present commitments are toward the building or rebuilding of virtuous living.

Essentially, Kasper proposes not a deontic ethic, but a virtue ethic – with the consequent methodological difference. The focus is not on lawful obligations and the violation of precepts, whether of natural law or of positive law. The focus is on assisting those whose marriages have failed in their movement toward virtuous living that involves assisting such persons in their demonstration of penance and their seeking mercy.

Methodologically, this perspective avoids reasoning from a single system, whether a closed-system sacramental theology or a closed-system deontic ethics. The perspective involves bringing together a variety of perspectives that can generate a response of practical wisdom for a forward-looking furtherance of virtuous living.

A response that calls on a variety of perspectives and eschews a single methodology seriously challenges received perspectives. For those wishing to uphold the status quo, such an approach violates the dominical words, “He who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Mark 10:11). For these persons, such a perspective violates the ontological reality of marriage, “and the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8). From a status quo position, the conditions for dispensation of sacramental absolution are violated. From the status quo position, the moral conditions for sacramental communion are violated. From the status quo position, the enduring character of sacramental marriage is violated. The reckoning of these violations all proceed syllogistically in the closed-system reasoning that is adopted. And all are largely supported by past declarations of Catholic doctrine and practice. The defence by those against development within the Catholic tradition does not comprehend that consideration of these issues may reasonably involve recourse to perspectives and methodologies other than those already defined in the received teaching and formal practice of the Catholic Church.

What Kasper views as a pastoral application of mercy, his opponents see as heresy and the undermining of Catholic morality. Methodologically, the status quo perspective is a reductive one that arises from a deontic and noetic worldview. I say “reductive”, because the status quo defence expresses a perspective that the whole is the sum of the parts. For them, any compromise on a particular truth of the Gospel is to compromise evangelical truth. Pope Francis – whose perspective is not reductive – has long held a contrary view, as seen in a 1978 talk recently published in English:

[Partisan conflicts]…end up placing greater importance on the parts than on the whole.[5]

A non-reductive and virtue perspective on the issue may simply be incomprehensible to a status quo mentality. For them it may be akin to “2 plus 2 equals 5”. Those who oppose Kasper – and therein oppose Bergoglio – would be astonished at a virtue perspective such as voiced by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue:

There is an objective moral order, but our perceptions of it are such that we cannot bring rival moral truths into complete harmony with each other, and yet the acknowledgement of the moral order and of moral truth makes [certain kinds of choices] out of the question. For to choose [one precept] does not exempt us from the authority of the claim that I choose against.[6]

In brief, the choice in a particular instance of a “mean” in an Aristotelian sense does not thereby involve denial of an objective moral precept. Using Ratzingerian language, an Aristotelian ethic does not present a “tyranny of relativism”. From a deontic ethics perspective, one precept cannot be set against another, all must be fulfilled. From a virtue ethics perspective, mercy does not stand in contradiction to a precept of marital fidelity. Moral choice involves the reckoning and enacting of a mean that promotes a teleological end. While Kasper – and Bergoglio – have not expressly argued in virtue ethics terms, their opponents fail to understand that neither is moving away from the scriptural teleology “and the two shall become one flesh” (Mark 10:8), nor from the dominical precept, “What God has joined, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9).[7]

“What Kasper views as a pastoral application of mercy, his opponents see as heresy and the undermining of Catholic morality”

In brief, the alarm of those who want an unchanged status quo is quite misplaced. It arises from their religious and psychological perspective of faithfulness to the Gospel. It arises from their fear of the weakening of the witness of the Church in the face of relativist cultures where pre-marital sexual relations are common and where marriage practically is “for as long as it works”. It arises from their reductivist understanding of fidelity to the Gospel that requires singular adherence to what are viewed as its constituent parts. This perspective is mistaken, methodologically mistaken.

I would not wish to read from the witness of the gospels that Christ propounded against reductive philosophies and propounded in favour of Aristotelian ethics. But the scriptural record of dominical sayings and discourses clearly witnesses to precepts that do not sit easily in a unitary reductive system. For example, “He who divorces his wife…and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32) and “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, Hosea 6:6). Neo-Thomism may be taken as a unitary reductive system, and it is versions of neo-Thomism that are challenged in consideration of proposals for admission to Sacramental Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics.

“In brief, the alarm of those who want an unchanged status quo is quite misplaced. It arises from their reductivist understanding of fidelity to the Gospel that requires singular adherence to what are viewed as its constituent parts. This perspective is mistaken, methodologically mistaken”

As seen in the Pope’s address to seminarians of the Pontifical Gregorian University, a Bergoglio word against closed-system thinking may seem a bit trenchant:

The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre.[8]

But the sentiments so expressed are akin to those recalled in respect of his seminary years by Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI):

The crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.[9]

Although Ratzinger is a far more refined thinker than Bergoglio, yet methodologically they share certain common perspectives. In neither does one find syllogistic analytical philosophy, nor does one find deontic ethics. Instead one can set alongside each other key quotes such as:

There is a persistent suspicion today, even among wholly Church-minded theologians, that orthodox theology is hopelessly condemned merely to repeat magisterial statements of doctrine and traditional formulae.[10]

The view of the Church’s teaching as a monolith to defended without nuance or different understanding is wrong.[11]

It is from this methodological perspective that Pope Francis speaks of theology in dialogic terms when he calls for “a theology…which is in dialogue with other sciences and human experiences….” (Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, #133). In that Exhortation – to date the only substantive writing of Bergoglio as Pope – “dialogue” is a key word (see, # 31, 133, 137, 142, 165).[12] It is dialogue that is needed if the follow-up Synod is to proceed constructively. Such dialogue calls for a readiness to listen across different methodological paradigms and to converse outside preferred mental sets. This involves some mobility in epistemologies and some flexibility in psychological preferences. Theologians, like philosophers, are often not well practised in thinking outside preferred paradigms. Cross-paradigmatic thought is necessary for understanding and constructive dialogue.

 

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Footnotes and References

 

[1] “The Problem of Divorced and Remarried” on 1 March 2014, reportedly praised by the Pope as “profound and serene” theology (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350729?eng=y).

[2] “Testimony to the Power of Grace”, L’Osservatore Romano of 25 October 2013.

[3] A summary of the Church’s teaching on marriage was presented in an earlier article by the author (http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350864).

[4] Thus the title of his 2014 English publication, Mercy: the essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life.

[5] “A conviction, a clarity, and a desire” [translation of “Una institución que vive su carisma”], in Philip Endean, “Writings on Jesuit Spirituality I by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ”, Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 45/3, Autumn 2013, 14.

[6] After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) 143.

[7] This is most recently seen in respect of the Pope in the terms of his establishment 27 August 2014 of a Special Study Commission on reform of matrimonial processes that includes in its terms of reference “safeguarding the principle of the indissolubility of matrimony”, L’Osservatore Romano 26 September 2014, 2.

[8] L’Osservatore Romano, 18 April 2014:13.

[9] Memoires (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998) 44.

[10] Ratzinger, The Nature and Mission of Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995) 95.

[11] Francis I, “A Big Heart Open to God: interview with Pope Francis”, America, 30 September 2013.

[12] See the author’s, http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350762?eng=y

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