Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”Matthew 19:3-9
I was exchanging e-mails with a friend recently. I was making an argument about poverty, subsidiarity, and the social teachings of the Church regarding economics. I wrote that some conservative Catholics take the Gospel's message about care for the least only as a suggestion, much as many of the same people have found ways to ignore the radical pacifism we also can find in the Gospel. My friend pointed out, of course, that the Gospel hardly is unambiguous about violence, and the Catholic tradition for centuries has found ways to accommodate the ugly demands of worldly living. That is why we have a theological tradition of just wars, after all. Good point.“As Christians, we follow Christ. Some may wish Jesus might have been a little softer on divorce, but he wasn't. And I’m sticking with him.”George Cardinal Pell, October 8, 2014
I was thinking about that e-mail exchange while I read Cardinal Pell's comments on the synod. For, it seems, Cardinal Pell has found one passage of the Gospel that must be interpreted literally and unambiguously. He appears to believe that the Gospel allows us no latitude to accommodate the worldly reality of divorced and re-married Catholics in the same way that, say, the just war tradition permits a cardinal to announce, full-throated, his support for the Afghanistan war.
For some people, there are casuistries we will permit, and there are casuistries we will not.
But I disagree with Cardinal Pell far enough to say that I think there is a lesson for us and for the Extraordinary Synod in the intersection of economic justice, warfare, and these questions affecting family life. As Luther counseled the sinner to sin boldly, let us boldly and consistently apply our most Jesuitical casuistry to the problems facing Catholic families in the contemporary world.
It will profit us to look just a little further into Matthew 19:
Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “ ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” The young man said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.Jesus is astonished by the rich young man's question. "Why do you ask me about the good?" Isn't it obvious?? Keep the Commandments. Everybody knows that. But the young man is looking for something more. He is asking about spiritual perfection, and Jesus is ready to help him find his way. "If you wish to be perfect," Jesus tells him, sell all you have. The young man cannot do it. He went away sad. He was not perfect. But was he sinful?
I discern a persistent theme in Matthew 19. There is a path of spiritual perfection for "those to whom that is granted"(Mt. 19:11). For others, there is a path of mercy that acknowledges imperfection. The young man can enter the Kingdom if he keeps his possessions as long as he also keeps the Commandments. It would be preferable to sell all that he has. But salvation is not only for the perfect. It is for all who live as though they long for the Kingdom, even as they routinely fall short of deserving it.
Lost in all of our blustery shouts about traditional marriage is this little piece of Matthew 19:
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”Where is the papal pronouncement or the catechetical teaching that "it is better not to marry?" Why is that not a topic of discussion for the Extraordinary Synod? After all, if we're 'sticking with Jesus' then we really should stick with Him, shouldn't we?
And, it's not only Jesus. Here is Saint Paul:
Now in regard to the matters about which you wrote: "It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman," but because of cases of immorality every man should have his own wife, and every woman her own husband….Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control. This I say by way of concession, however, not as a command. Indeed, I wish everyone to be as I am, but each has a particular gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. Now to the unmarried and to widows, I say: it is a good thing for them to remain as they are, as I do….Paul also is rather clear. Marriage is not preferable. It is an accommodation to worldliness, a way to contain the sexual impulse and avoid "cases of immorality."
I Corinthians 7:1-3, 5-8
But the Church does not insist on universal celibacy. In fact, Humanae Vitae teaches quite the opposite. Thank God the Church follows the path of mercy, sees the goodness in family life that Jesus and Paul never talked about. Of course, it wouldn't have occurred to them. They were unmarried. They followed that path of perfection, as today so do clergy and vowed religious.
But Heaven is not only for unmarried men like Saint Paul and Cardinal Pell. And, perhaps, now is a good time to remind the Carindal that the path of mercy leads to the same place as the path of perfection.
Just as Moses could permit divorce as an accommodation to worldly reality--"the hardness of your hearts"--so the Church can overlook the imperfections of divorced and remarried people who long for the Kingdom, whose lives have placed them in imperfect circumstances.
It is a short leap to say the same thing about homosexual relationships, too.
The answer is there if you want it. You can reach that answer only by applying the same kind of reasoning that we apply routinely to war, the same kind of reasoning Jesus and Paul applied to marriage. The world sometimes gives good people only imperfect choices, and we need not punish them for doing their best.
We should encourage Cardinal Pell, and others like him. They're not bad people. They just haven't thought it through.
And, after all, nobody's perfect.