With the Extraordinary Synod on the Family having recently concluded, the news is filled with columns on the hot topics under discussion: cohabitation, premarital sex, gay relationships, birth control, and the issue that has been most heavily under the spotlight: whether divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Holy Communion.
Former politician Louise Mensch—herself a divorced and remarried Catholic—recently penned an article for The Spectator, provocatively titled: “I'm a divorced Catholic. And I'm sure it would be a mortal sin for me to take Communion.” Says Mensch:
It has never occurred to me to present myself for Communion when I have not sought – for various reasons that I won’t discuss here – to have my first marriage annulled. I know I am not a good Catholic …
People in my state are explicitly encouraged, in the Catechism, to attend church, and to make a spiritual communion, as I do each week. I have the hope that one day I will be in a state of grace and able to receive Holy Communion again. I hope that, despite my ongoing sin, God nonetheless hides me in the shadow of his wings; that Mary, hope of sinners, has her cloak of mercy cast about me. I am a poor Catholic but I am also a believing Catholic.
Mensch does not refrain from receiving Holy Communion merely because it is magisterial policy. Rather, she argues as a matter of conviction against any change in either doctrine or pastoral practice:
Catholic reformers are full of hope that … the bishops will liberalise the Church’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics. The liberal Tablet magazine devoted a cover story to the subject … called ‘The Case for Mercy’ and, reading it, I felt like [it was] pleading for us suckers who actually believe the basics: sin, confession, absolution, the Real Presence and the like. What Cardinal Kasper appears to want to do is to tempt a generation of people into weekly mortal sin. How is that merciful?
Reactions to Mensch’s piece fell predictably into two camps. On one side, “liberals” decried Mensch for being self-loathing, for not dancing to the beat of the modern, sexually enlightened drum. On the other side, “conservatives” were baffled as to why, if Mensch really believed the Church’s teachings, she would not abandon her lifestyle as an “adulteress.” What both critics share is the belief that Mensch’s situation makes little sense because one cannot simultaneously uphold a set of moral standards and fall short of those standards.
Yet, until fairly recently in Catholic history, women and men like Mensch were easily understood by others in the Church as conforming to a particular type: the type of the “bad Catholic.”
“Bad Catholics” knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex. They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.
Sometimes bad Catholics confessed, made a half-hearted attempt to mend their ways, and then slipped back into their old sins like a comfortable pair of slippers. They were never, on that account, excluded from the Church. In countries where Catholicism and Protestantism co-existed it was the tolerant attitude to moral recidivism traditionally taken by the Catholic clergy that scandalized Protestants.
The Church never condoned the sins that made bad Catholics bad, but in traditional Catholic discourse the bad Catholic was nevertheless accorded a certain kind of qualified honor—seen in the fact that the figure of the bad Catholic is ubiquitous in traditional Catholic literature. Read St Alphonsus Liguori, for example, and you will come across scores of pithy tales about prodigal sons of the Church who wasted their lives in morally dissolute living only to be granted the grace of dying a penitent death because they always faithfully said a Hail Mary at bedtime.
Such stories appear to us now as quaint oddities, because the figures in them are no longer recognizable characters in the contemporary Church. Someone like Louise Mensch appears to us as a time traveler from yesteryear. The sort of person who, 70 years ago, would have been a “bad Catholic” will now usually end up either a “progressive Catholic” or simply an “ex-Catholic.”
Partly, this is because the de-Christianization of our culture offers bad Catholics other options than sticking with the Church. But it is also due to unfortunate developments within the Church that have pushed the morally weak out of the door.
The English traditionalist writer Michael Davies once said that the Church exists to get as many people over the threshold of purgatory as possible. This view of the Church’s mission corresponded to a tolerant attitude toward moral failure, as Ross Douthat observes:
In the longstanding, not-unjustified stereotypes of Western religious conflict, Roman Catholicism was generally seen as far more accommodating and tolerant – or, alternatively, more decadent and lax – than its Protestant rivals on matters related to the human body and the human heart … The emphasis that the church’s sacramental life placed on the cycle of confession-sin-repentance … tended to create a moral economy in which fallenness was taken for granted, and wider latitude extended to people who persisted in their sins than was sometimes the case in the sterner, Calvin-influenced precincts of Christendom. (The old Protestant image of Jesuitical confessors performing elaborate logical contortions to minimize the gravity of moral faults had – and has – some basis in reality.)
In other words, it was understood that the salvation of those caught up in sin would hardly be helped by driving them away from the Church. Since the Second Vatican Council, this tolerance has been effaced by the idea of the “universal call to holiness.” In itself this was sound teaching, but poor catechesis has meant that it is misinterpreted as teaching that the Church on earth is a club for holy people. As a result, in most parishes, Catholic morality is either softened and bowdlerized to reassure people that they are already saints, or it is put forward with such intolerant rigidity that sinners are driven out of the Church, made to feel that their mere presence in the congregation is a source of “scandal.”
The ecumenical movement and its closer cooperation between Catholics and Protestants, has also—despite good fruits—opened Catholicism to the toxic influence of puritanism, especially in English-speaking countries where Protestantism is culturally ascendant. Take, for example, the increasingly rigid approach of American bishops to homosexuals who do not live up to the ideal proposed for them by Catholic teaching. It seems less characteristic of Christ’s Catholic Church and more of Calvin’s Church – where the morally weak who are not among “the elect” are chased out to maintain the purity of the congregation as a whole. It is an approach that says more about the cozy relationship between conservative American Catholics and evangelicals than it does about the integrity of Catholic moral doctrine.
The disappearance of the bad Catholic from the landscape of contemporary Catholicism impoverishes the Church in two ways.
First, it impoverishes the Church culturally and aesthetically. Many great Catholic artists and writers could hardly be categorized as scrupulous adherents of the Church’s moral teachings. To a certain extent this is to be expected. How can one write, paint, or make music about the great drama of salvation history—the dialectic of shame and grace—having only ever viscerally experienced one side of that dialectic? There is a reason that so few canonized saints have produced truly outstanding art, and that those who have—such as St. Augustine, whose theological writings in themselves constitute aesthetic masterpieces—are usually those who know what it is like to live a far from saintly life.
Secondly, and more seriously, the disappearance of the bad Catholic impoverishes the Church theologically. It is not a sign that Catholics are holier than they used to be. It is a sign that today’s Church is less capable of creating a space in which the individual can experience the reality of the human condition: that is, the frightening gap between the Command of God the Lawgiver and the deeds of a human life. And yet, the creation of such a space is essential to the Church’s mission. Without it, true conversion of heart cannot take place. Learning how to faithfully uphold a set of moral standards while consistently falling short of them is something all Christians must master, not just “bad Catholics.” Bad Catholics simply show the rest of the Church how it is done in a particularly illustrative way.
I am not a sacramental theologian. I offer no opinion on whether the divorced and remarried should receive Holy Communion. Nor do I have an opinion on what sort of recognition (if any) ought to be given to unions outside the boundaries of sacramental marriage (although my suspicion is that those who think radical change is imminent are likely to be disappointed, as they were in 1968).
What I do know—to take a cue from Jesus—is that “the sinners you will always have with you.” Regardless of what decisions are made about Catholics in second marriages, there will always be some group of people in the Church for whom the pain of not being able to receive Christ in Holy Communion, of not being able to conform their lives to Christ’s demanding teachings despite repeated effort, cannot just be swept under the carpet. The Church as a whole needs to learn again how to look on this pain, to feel at home with it, without fleeing from it either to the right hand or the left. If the Church cannot do that, it cannot enable people to grow morally.
I was impressed by Louise Mensch’s honesty, by her courageous willingness to refuse the cheap grace offered by Cardinal Kasper, but also by her evident refusal to consider the cheap grace offered by conservative apologists—Pollyannas and hucksters who tell everyone what a joy the Church’s teachings are to live out (St Paul, evidently, did not agree, to say nothing of Jesus), like used car salesmen trying too hard to make a sale. I hope that the Synod Fathers, too, have the courage to refuse cheap grace, in whatever form it offers itself.