Monday, April 1, 2013

Pope Francis gets it...

Someone recently quipped on Mark Shea's blog that "“Progressives hate the idea that Peter and the Apostles can bind. Traditionalists cannot fathom that Peter and the Apostles can loosen.”

Now exactly what can be loosened or bound needs to be understood.  A lot of "progressives" are looking to Pope Francis to loosen the Church's teachings on homosexuality, contraception and other "pelvic issues", the male priesthood, and the general sense of the Vatican as hide-bound by legalism and rubricism.

For instance, in an unfortunate NRO editorial, Conrad Black demands that "Pope Francis, Say 'Yes' to the Pill".
There must be a dogmatically respectable way to execute a dignified climb-down and declare the sexual act a consequential moral commitment appropriate to and generally reserved to marriage, but sometimes unexceptionable when undertaken with contraceptive precautions, and reprehensible only if entered into wantonly.
Evidently National Review is still in the mode that Church is Our Mother, but not Our Teacher. Going on 50 years since Humanae Vitae, it is hard to argue against the view that Pope Paul VI was prophetic in his concerns:
Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. 

Thinking through Cardinal Bergolio's position on domestic partnerships

Likewise, there has been much gainsaying that Pope Francis supposedly supports gay unions, with a view that this portends a shift in direction on the Church's stance against homosexuality. The question gets confused because the Church recognizes, in a way the secular world cannot, that the civil order and its laws and the way the human community navigates social relationships can only roughly be ordered to the divine order. The Church can rightly hold in tension that (A) while homosexuality is an appetitive disorder (in as much as the object of sexual desire is not conducive to sexual complementarity and procreation), (B) all persons in a civil order have rights to the goods of the society which include protection under the law, civil rights of property ownership, survivorship, insurance and medical coverage, tax equity, and a basic human right of free association without government intervention.

Once it is agreed that the State can create and regulate artificial corporations for specific purposes in the mutual interests of the volunteering parties -- whether a business to make and sell things or a non profit to support the local arts -- and endow the corporation with rights and responsibilities so as to be able to conduct business, enter contracts, own assets, be liable for damages, etc., the question of justice for homosexual persons to have access to the goods of the society suggests that some form of corporate status (a "registered domestic corporation", "domestic partnership, etc.) may be allowed to resolve the matter in a reasonably equitable manner.

This however, is a separate and distinct social relationship from natural marriage: marriage between persons of complementary sexuality properly has its own distinct and unique place in society since it is only through such relationships that humans are engendered, and it is proper and healthy that the society promoted natural marriage to be exclusive, permanent, faithful, stable, monogamous, and fecund when possible for the sake of the spouses and any children born to the relationship.  It is important to note in this that the State (government, society) can only recognize and register marriage (and to a very limited extent regulate marriages) since marriage is a natural bond between two persons that precedes the State.  The State does not create marriage -- the couple does. The State only recognizes so that society knows who has rights and responsibilities in regard to others, both the spouse and the children born of the marriage.

This last point helps to illuminate the essential legal difference between natural marriage from all other voluntary social relationships and contracts: marriage must be able to accommodate the rights and responsibilities of third parties -- any children born to the marriage -- where as all other social and legal contracts are necessarily closed to those who voluntarily enter into relationship.  A third party cannot be bound unwillingly to a contract, nor can their consent be assumed or imputed, yet all societies through all ages always and everywhere recognize the natural rights of parents over their children, along with the natural responsibilities of parents to their children, and the natural rights of children to be cared for by their parents.  None of this applies at all to any other sort of natural, voluntary social relationship, which is why no other social relationship can be justly equated to natural marriage.

Thinking through the question of homosexual adoption of children

This, parenthetically, also gives insight into the adoption question: two or more persons have rights of mutual association, but adoption is an artificial legal accommodation regulated by the proper authorities to meet the dire needs of a third person, the child to be adopted. No one has any intrinsic right to adopt another person, that is something properly under the regulation of the courts. So in such exceptional cases, what principles should the courts consider?

First, and paramount, where the natural family precedes the State, all other legal corporations are created by the State.  The State does not "create" marriage between man and woman -- all the State can do is order that relationship by some regulation and to publicly register marriage so as to protect the rights and enforce the responsibilities of the spouses and their children. But all other corporations are artificial (what is called a "legal fiction") to make some accommodation for the special interests of individuals in society. In the dire and exceptional cases that require adoption, it seems reasonable for the good of the child (which is the ONLY good that ought be considered) to best approximate the natural family of natural marriage between one man and one woman, so that the spouses can serve the child as surrogates to the natural parents that the child does not have.

Second, natural marriage is naturally ordered to building a family (procreation) of other persons in a way that homosexual relationships can never be. Homosexual relationships can be ordered to the other goods found in marriage -- mutual affection and support, domestic tranquility and stability, companionship, and the like -- but they are not inherently transgenerational between the persons. This best shows the artificiality (not in any pejorative sense, but the experiential sense) of a domestic partnership/civil union, and why such social relationships ought to be properly understood and regulated for their specific purposes. 

There is nothing inherently unjust in the State making an accommodation for a heterosexual couple in a natural marriage to assume legal responsibility and parental rights for an adopted child, and to withhold these from a homosexual couple, any more than to prohibit Wal*Mart or McDonald's from adopting children. Civil unions and legal corporations may well have their place in society for accommodating specific interests of the parties, but the third party of the child whose interests must be most zealously protected in the unfortunate event that adoptive parents must be provided for the child. It seems eminently reasonable that in such unfortunate cases, the State ought to find a natural marriage which most closely emulates the relationship that the child lost with his or her biological parents. This is a matter of justice to the child, without judgment on the capacity of homosexual persons to love or raise a child. 

Thinking with St. Thomas on the question

Regarding domestic unions then, in short, what may be in the eyes of the Church a moral issue is not necessarily a legal issue. 

Thomas Aquinas was crystal clear that the State ought not try to make perfect citizens out of us ("because human law does not exact perfect virtue from man, for such virtue belongs to few and cannot be found in so great a number of people as human law has to direct"), and that the purpose of the civil law (the peaceful ordering of the society, "the temporal tranquility of the state") is different from the purpose of the divine law (the perfection and sanctification of the person, or "everlasting happiness"). 

The "goods" of persons can be entirely private and not impinge on the common good, and as such the State has no authority to coerce against human acts unless they are against justice in society itself. Aquinas interestingly notes that there is an obligation in justice to pay the prostitute for her services, even if intrinsically sinful, and more to the point follows Augustine in holding that the State ought not criminalize prostitution even while sinful, since "those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred". This last point is somewhat of an aside, but it gives insight into the way the Church views the proper role of the civil authorities in regulating common life.

Such an accommodation of regulated civil unions, as Cardinal Bergoglio suggested, would continue to uphold the primacy of the natural family (true spouses of complementary sexuality and the children naturally engendered from that union) while redressing the problem that homosexuals do not enjoy the same social benefits pertaining to their free will association between persons, and their own natural desire for companionship, domestic stability and tranquility, and equal access to protection under the law, which is an inherent part of the common good. 

So with these principles in mind, no one ought be scandalized by Cardinal Bergoglio's proposal, especially given the charge in the Catechism, no. 2358:
"[Homosexual persons] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition."

Holding bound and loosening....

Both of the issues brought forward recently, of contraception and homosexual unions, as if Pope Francis would or could change the Church's teaching, miss the central point about the Church's doctrine: if it is a matter of doctrine (faith and morals: what we ought to believe and how we ought to act so as to be in conformance with the Gospel), then it cannot change. The Keeper of the Keys can only bind and loosen what has been given to him to bind or loosen, which is the matter of grace and forgiveness, and not the teachings that have been given as the deposit of the Faith, entrusted to the Church by Christ and the Apostles.

But it is not just the "progressives" who fail to understand this. The "traditionalist" also fail to see that there is a whole bandwidth of prudential judgments, Church practices, lower-case "traditions", pastoral approaches, organizational systems, liturgical expressions, and conventional symbols that certainly admit of "loosening". This too is a prudential judgment -- the human person is made for tradition as much as for Tradition.

The altar rail is not an apostolic-era architectural feature, but it was surely a gross violation of human dignity to unceremoniously rip them out of churches in the 1960s. Expecting folks who had devotedly received the Lord since their First Holy Communions at the communion rail to suddenly stand and hold out their hands to receive, and not begin to call into question the whole enterprise, is at best naive and at worst uncaring and offensive to human dignity. Shocks to the Body of Christ need to be administrated only for the true good of the patient -- like a cardioversion or chemotherapy -- and only with respect the the organic nature of the whole Church. They are not to be made merely to make a point or to make changes only with respect to one's own inner lights. So here we must be able to differentiate what is essential from the merely accidental, although these do not easily admit of mutual exclusivity -- after all, we only experience the essential through the accidental.

So there has been a lot of kerfluffle about Pope Francis celebrating his first pontifical Mass in the Sistine Chapel on a temporary freestanding altar, and his decision to wear black shoes instead of the red shoes that signify the martyrdom of his predecessor (St. Peter was crucified upside down, as an expedient his body was evidently removed from the cross by amputating his feet, as the skeletal remains enshrined in the confessio indicate), and now he has decided to celebrate Holy Thursday in a prison, rather than at the Lateran Basilica. Are these matters of accident or essence? Are these shocks to the Body organic and for the good of the patient, with something to teach us about the deeper meaning of the Gospel, or are they mere caprices of a man who is stumbling into his papacy?

You won't get an answer from me, other than these seem to be matters well within the authority of the Holy Father to loosen. 

Furthermore, that I truly do trust that the Holy Spirit continues to lead the Church through the Successor of Peter. The Catholic faith is vast and multifaceted, and no one person --even a Pope -- encompasses all aspects in perfect proportion. The Holy Spirit used John Paul II to form two generations of Catholic youth with vitality and evangelical vigor in hope. Perhaps the greatest gift Benedict XVI gave the Church was to restore the dignity of the language to the English liturgy -- and it seems particularly providential since John Paul II didn't do so, and I doubt it would be high on Francis' agenda. Francis now is teaching us to return to the core of the Gospel in love and service to our fellow man with true humility, poverty in spirit, and above all compassion.

And yet, he does so without equivocating the least on profound matters of human moral concern, even when dealing with grave errors against priestly chastity:  
Bergoglio: If one of them comes and tells me that he got a woman pregnant, I listen. I try to help him have peace and little by little I try to help him realize that the natural law takes priority over his priesthood. So, he has to leave the ministry and should take care of that child, even if he chooses not to marry that woman. For just as that child has the right to have a mother, he has a right to the face of a father. I commit myself to arranging all the paperwork for him in Rome, but he has to leave everything. Now, if a priest tells me he got excited and that he had a fall, I help him to get on track again. There are priests who get on track again and others who do not. Some, unfortunately, do not even tell the bishop.
Skorka: What does it mean to get back on track?
Bergoglio: To do penance, to keep their celibacy. The double life is no good for us. I don’t like it because it means building on falsehood. Sometimes I say: “If you can not overcome it, make your decision.”
Pope Francis, he gets it. 


  1. Steven enjoyed reading this reflection, in particular the reference to how chance takes place in the Church -- not with regard to doctrine but with regard to approaches, and how a decision to change an approach can have unintended (or intended) consequences. Today I attended a "Year of Faith" lecture with about 60 other people about Vatican II and the Liturgy at St. Peters in the Loop of downtown Chicago and the presenter had the strongest homosexual lisp I think I have ever heard...and it's not surprising though that he taught the classic: In what four parts of the liturgy is Christ present? He is no more present in the bread and wine than he is in the people. He took shots at the new translation and the 1962 Mass as an erroneous expression of the faith. He cracked jokes about how before Vatican II priests didn't want the laity to understand the bible because it would mean losing power over them *and losing money*.

    It was rather disappointing to see so many Catholics, albeit old ones, nodding their heads with a sense of avengeance against their "repressive ancestry."

    While were on the topic, I read this today:

    I have always speculated though, what would happen if a pope were to get up and proclaim that, by his power to bind and loose, that Christ is now alright with female priests? Wouldn't Christ have given that authority, or is it a chronological matter of which pope binds once and forever the question?

  2. Good question (and may God protect us from ever having to deal with this). It seems clear from all orthodox understandings of Catholic doctrine and papal infallability, that the Keeper of the Keys can only speak in union with his predecessors and in conformity with the *depositum fidei* entrusted to the Church by Christ, and safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. This is the meaning of the 1976 CDF statement (quoted in John Paul II's "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis": "The Church does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination." The Pope's final statement: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." seems to answer the question. If a pope were to do per your scenario, it seems to me on every level that it would correctly rip the Body of Christ to shreds.

    God save us.