The Catholic Church and Sexual Morality

Andrew Brown for The Guardian writes this incredible piece on the Catholic church's theological conflicts introduced by Pope Francis. It focuses on Francis's openness to looking at issues of sexuality morality with grace an grayness, as opposed to the more conservative forces in the church's stance of legalism and black and white thinking.

The church holds a series of condemnations as official positions. These positions are not opinions. They are God's own law as interpreted through the authority of the church over its history. Any sex that happens outside of a cisgender, heterosexual, first marriage, and intended to produce children, is sinful and condemned completely by the church and God. This stance bans birth control, abortion, anything on the spectrums outside of strict heterosexuality and the gender binary. It also bans divorce.

I mean, the church can't stop someone from getting divorced, or being bisexual, or using a condom. But they can withhold communion from you. The church's official policy is to not serve you communion, to prevent you from encountering the nourishment of Christ, if you dare get a divorce.

Except the church doesn't do that. In practice, divorced catholics all around the world are served communion. The low level clergy, the priests directly serving their parishes recognize the incomprehensible cruelty of withholding God's grace from the broken and struggling. There is a massive rift between low level practice and high level theory in the Catholic church.

From Brown's piece:

“What I care about is the theory,” said the English priest who confessed his hatred of Francis. “In my parish there are lots of divorced and remarried couples, but many of them, if they heard the first spouse had died, would rush to get a church wedding. I know lots of homosexuals who are doing all sorts of things that are wrong, but they know they should not be. We’re all sinners. But we’ve got to maintain the intellectual integrity of the Catholic faith.”

With this mindset, the fact that the world rejects your teaching merely proves how right it is. “The Catholic Church ought to be countercultural in the wake of the sexual revolution,” says Ross Douthat. “The Catholic church is the last remaining place in the western world that says divorce is bad.”

I have a lot of problems with this philosophy. But I must admit that there is something attractive about some of it. Being convinced that your beliefs are based on a unassailably true axioms and that no matter how perverted the rest of the world, or even sometimes your own feelings can be, the truth is dictated to you through the authority of heaven. This belief provides incredible security comfort to the believer. It excuses all other beliefs and reactions to it. Withholding the eucharist from a gay teenager struggling with their own belief can feel like an evil, but your intellectual integrity to the axioms of faith will comfort you. The cognitive dissonance faced in this belief is too much, so the safety of rigorous theory is attractive.

But if it's not obvious, when implemented, this behavior is damaging. There are millions of people in the Catholic church who don't live inside of the strict doctrines of sexual morality. Even when they are served communion, they are still taught from the pulpit that their behavior is sin, that their lives are lived in abhorrence to God. The two truths: that your non-binary gender is your true identity, that God created and loves, and that your church officially condemns your life as sin, are irreconcilable and incredibly damaging to the people living under this conflict.

My personal experience intersects with this idea because I'm divorced. I'm not Catholic, but thinking about this still hurts. Being divorced is an interesting scenario, because unlike the other behaviors the church condemns as sexually immoral (birth control, sex outside of marriage, non-heterosexuality, and non-binary gender, etc.), I agree with the church that divorce is bad. In a perfect world, people wouldn't get divorced. (Whereas, a perfect world would still include gay people.) But no divorced person needs the church to tell them that being divorced is bad. We know that. It does no good for the religious institutions of our lives to remind us of the brokenness and pain in our lives.

In what is upsettingly one of Francis's more controversial statements as Pope, he chooses the stance of grace and healing.

Even the footnote, which says that such couples may receive communion if they have confessed their sins, approaches the matter with circumspection: “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.” And: “I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’.”

“By thinking that everything is black and white,” Francis adds, “we sometimes close off the way of grace and growth.”