The following comes from a December 1 New York Times opinion piece by Ross Douthat:
From the beginning of the controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia there has been a stress, from Cardinal Walter Kasper and then from others, on the idea that the reform proposed by the document is modest, limited, confined to a small group of remarried Catholics, and thus in no way a public sign that the church no longer believes marriages indissoluble in general. For instance Rocco Buttiglione, an ally of John Paul II and now a prominent defender of Pope Francis, recently responded to the four conservative cardinals questioning “Amoris” with the following comments:
The first question the eminent cardinals ask, is whether it is in some cases acceptable for absolution to be granted to people who despite being tied down by a previous marriage, live more uxorio, engaging in sexual intercourse. It seems to me, that the response should be affirmative given what is written in Amoris Laetitia and what is stated in the general principles of moral theology. A clear distinction needs to be made between the act, which constitutes a grave sin, and the agent, who may find themselves bound by circumstances that mitigate their responsibility for the act or in some cases may even eliminate it completely. Consider, for example, the case of a woman who is completely financially and mentally dependent on someone and is forced to have sexual intercourse against her will. Sadly, such cases are not just theory but a bitter reality, witnessed more often than one would imagine. What is lacking here are the subjective conditions for sin (full knowledge and deliberate consent). The act is still evil but it does not belong (not entirely anyway) to the person. In criminal law terms, we are not in the realm of the theory of crime (whether an act is good or bad) but of the theory of liability and subjective extenuating circumstances.
This does not mean unmarried people can legitimately engage in sexual activity. Such activity is illegitimate. People can (in some cases) fall into non mortal but venial sin if full knowledge and deliberate consent are lacking. But, one could argue, is it not necessary for a person to have the intention of never sinning again in order to receive absolution? It certainly is necessary. The penitent must want to end their irregular situation and commit to acts that will allow them to actually do so in practice. However, this person may not be able to achieve this detachment and regain self- ownership immediately…
So here we have Buttiglione asking us to imagine a painful and complicated case, a second marriage (though of course it need not be a civil marriage; the same logic might apply to cohabitation or a same-sex relationship or a polygamous union or even — especially? — to a prostitute) defined by cruelty and domination, in which the psychological pressure is such that a prudent confessor might regard an imperfect contrition, a halting desire for amendment and escape, as sufficient to grant absolution and distribute the body and blood of Christ. Such cases certainly exist, and let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that they might provide a possible point of synthesis between the church’s traditional teaching on mortal sin, confession and communion and the new rhetoric of “accompaniment” for divorced and remarried Catholics – an example of how it might be licit for someone in the process of trying to escape from a toxic situation to receive communion along the way, even though their promise of amendment is inherently infirm; an instance where the current pontiff’s stress on gray areas might be consonant with the teaching of his predecessors; a case where John Paul II’s distinction between “sincere repentance” and “the judgement of the intellect concerning the future” might be plausibly applied.
Stipulate all of that, for argument’s sake. But then turn your eyes to the teaching document recently produced by San Diego’s bishop, the Francis-appointed, beloved-of-progressives Robert McElroy, following a diocesan synod convened to discuss the implementation of “Amoris.” The whole thing is worth reading, but here are some excerpts where Bishop McElroy is writing on (theoretically) the same moral issues as Buttiglione:
… many Catholics who have been divorced and remarried conclude for a variety of legitimate reasons — many of them arising out of caring concern for the effects that an annulment process might have on the feelings of adult children or former spouses — that they cannot initiate the annulment process. What is their status in the Church?
… no abstract rule can embody the many complexities of the circumstances, intentions, levels of understanding and maturity which originally surrounded the action of a man or woman in entering their first marriage, or which surround the new moral obligations to a spouse or children which have already been produced by a second marriage. Thus, Pope Francis rejects the validity of any blanket assertion that “all those in any (second marriage without benefit of annulment) are living in a state of mortal sin and deprived of sanctifying grace.”
This does not mean that there is not a deep level of contradiction in the life of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, as the Lord himself noted in the Gospel of Matthew. But Pope Francis explains that even in the face of substantial contradictions between the Gospel and the existential life of a disciple, the inexorable logic of divine grace seeks ever more progressive reintegration into the full life of the Church …
… In conversation with a priest, the believer with humility, discretion, and love for the Church and its teachings seeks to reflect upon their level of responsibility for the failure of the first marriage, their care and love for the children of that marriage, the moral obligations which have arisen in their new marriage, and possible harm which their returning to the sacraments might have by undermining the indissolubility of marriage. It is important to underscore that the role of the priest is one of accompaniment, meant to inform the conscience of the discerner on principles of Catholic faith. The priest is not to make decisions for the believer, for as Pope Francis emphasizes … the Church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
… Some Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist. Others will conclude that they should wait, or that their return would hurt others.
In pointing to the pathway of conscience for the divorced and remarried, Pope Francis is not enlisting an element of the Christian moral life which is exceptional. For the realm of conscience is precisely where the Christian disciple is called to discern every important moral decision that he or she makes.
You will notice a few things about McElroy’s teaching, as opposed to Buttiglione’s analysis. The first is that the language is completely different: Nothing gets called a “grave sin” or an “evil” or even “illegitimate” by the bishop; every tension and contradiction is resolved through gradual but inexorable processes that resemble a conversation rather than a confession. (Indeed, the word “confession” appears nowhere in the entire document; the word “sin” appears only in the quotation from Pope Francis suggesting when the term does not necessarily apply.)
The second is that the priest’s sacramental role and responsibility diminishes dramatically. There is no sense that a confessor might have an active role himself in deciding whether to absolve a sinner, or that a priest might have some obligation (as indeed the priest does under canon law, which San Diego’s priests are effectively being instructed by their bishop to ignore) to protect believers from sacrilege and the eucharist from profanement. Instead the priest becomes basically a counselor, there to help validate the individual Catholic in a decision that only he or she can make, with no supernatural power or responsibilities of his own.
The third is that unlike in Buttiglione’s unhappy example, the cases being considered by the bishop do not seem extreme or (as he says) “exceptional” in the slightest. Instead, McElroy gives every evidence that he’s talking about the most stable and happy and high-functioning of second marriages, with no hint that abuse or emotional blackmail any other extremity is involved; the only factor constraining the people he’s addressing from taking steps that Catholic teaching requires are the “moral obligations” incurred by the new marriage and the desire not to wound others by going through the annulment process.
Which means that is not at all a vision under which a small group of remarried Catholics in psychologically difficult situations might receive communion discreetly while they seek to sort those situations out. It is, in fact, by implication almost the reverse: The only people who might feel unready for communion under Bishop McElroy’s vision of spiritual maturation are Catholics whose lives are particularly chaotic and messed-up, who don’t feel sure at all about where they stand with God, to say nothing of their kids and ex-spouses or lovers or boyfriends or whomever. Is Sonia the prostitute from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ready for communion in the diocese of San Diego? Maybe not; maybe she should wait a while. But the respectable divorced father of three who gets along well enough with his ex-wife and has worked through all his issues in therapy can feel comfortable receiving ahead of her. This is not communion for the weak; it is communion for the stable and solid and respectable.
This is a teaching on marriage that might be summarized as follows: Divorce is unfortunate, second marriages are not always ideal, and so the path back to communion runs through a mature weighing-out of everyone’s feelings — the feelings of your former spouse and any kids you may have had together, the feelings of your new spouse and possible children, and your own subjective sense of what God thinks about it all. The objective aspects of Catholic teaching on marriage — the supernatural reality of the first marriage, the metaphysical reality of sin and absolution, the sacramental reality of the eucharist itself — do not just recede; they essentially disappear.
The way out of all these difficulties proposed by the bishop of San Diego is a way out of the traditional Catholic understanding of marriage, period. Drop the mention of annulments and the pro forma nod to “indissolubility,” replace “priest” with “pastor,” and there is nothing in his language that couldn’t be reproduced by a Protestant church dealing with the same issues and seeking to reintegrate its remarried members to fellowship and the Lord’s table.