In modernity, monogamy is often defined to mean “one partner at a time” or, in other words, “anything short of a harem.” As the Sexual Revolution enters its third generation, the figures are becoming clear: a greater number of sexual partners corresponds to a lower success rate in a later marriage.
Marriage as we know it cannot coexist with free love, yet weddings continue to be performed.
We govern ourselves by our decisions, not by averages, but we must acknowledge averages if we are to avoid following courses of least resistance into traps laid for us. In the same vein, the legislator’s whip hand should be tempered by the understanding that, taken against the backdrop of demographic trends, even comprehensive knowledge of an individual’s private life will fail to elucidate the contents of his wallet, handbag, mind, or soul. All the same, universal edicts must relate to demographic realities. For our purposes, it is right to generalize.
My remark concerns the current debate among Catholics who probably lament the current sexual climate but whose conclusions are simultaneously driving it.
In our theology, divorce is not recognized, and anyone who sleeps with someone who is not his original and only spouse is thereby committing adultery. A Catholic living in adultery may not receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, effectively severing himself (and his fellow adulterer) from communion with the Church. Those rules cannot be changed, even by a pope.
The councils that hammered this out could never have predicted the conditions that have made our era’s unprecedented carnal binge possible. Catholics are not immune from the awesome effect that free love has had upon marriage. As our civil divorce rate rockets just behind the societal mean, so too rises the demand for that holy grail of the “monogamous” Catholic: the “subsequent marriage.”
Will Rome hold the line for its professed dogma?
Although we don’t recognize divorce, Catholics may receive a “declaration of nullity” — an official proclamation that the marriage was actually invalid — so a valid marriage may subsequently take place. The Church appears to have ramped up the annulment mill year on year to meet the demands of the civil divorce rate. Whether we will see an equal and opposite effort to ensure that null marriages do not occur in the first place, free love now seems to have another contingency plan. In 2016, Pope Francis released Amoris Laetitia, which appears calculated to straddle the aforementioned line of legality regarding divorce and remarriage, containing ambiguities about who may receive Communion in subsequent sexual relationships where a declaration of nullity has not been obtained.
A number of senior clergy and academics have asked the pope to clarify that the Church’s position has not changed — because it hasn’t. Their dubia have gone unanswered for nearly half a decade.
At the heart of this stalemate is an attempt to recreate something that resembles the Eastern pastoral oikonomia in terms of Catholic dogma. Typically perceived as a standoff between mercy and dogma, deliberations over Amoris Laetitia may follow a reduction to absurdity for some time yet. That, after all, is the point. As long as the pope fails to settle this, subsequent sexual unions may seem permissible to still married Catholics without necessarily debasing the fiat value imparted to the Roman wedding rite by its dramatic vows and legal absolutes. Despite appearances, however, the pope has not achieved the impossible. This is actually a standoff among mercy, dogma, and the Church’s authority. To the extent that the pope may reconcile the first two elements of the trilemma, he will debase the last.
Pope Francis’s opinions on fashionable subjects such as Mother Earth are not all promulgated in encyclicals; however, they do give us a strong idea as to the thinking behind those that are. “God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, nature never forgives” is a favorite aphorism of his. But nowhere is our understanding of nature so warped — and deliberately warped — as in matters of human sexuality.
Marriage exists as a fact of human ecology because societies must tackle the complex task of persuading individuals to stay together with their children when at any moment they might want to pair up with someone else. Scolded libertines may attempt to silence their critics with a tu quoque sneer, but they tend to promote sexual deregulation only while the carnal marketplace is in their favor.
This brings us to perhaps the greatest unacknowledged truth of the Sexual Revolution: there is a stage of the fornicator’s strategy thatdemands socially enforced monogamy in the other party. Our culture responds by attempting to make virtues of this necessity, upholding smokescreens of chivalry and rite that cater to the libertine’s needs. Whether hypocritical or cynical, marriage becomes the go-to tool of social control.
Three generations into the Sexual Revolution, less suitable spouses have become more necessitous of the heavy hand of dogma and law. But dressing the default in the mantle of Christian responsibility is neither dignified nor sustainable. It lures people unsuited to marriage with the impression they can substitute religious fervor for personal qualities and even turns marital strife into a kind of virtue-signaling.
It doesn’t work.
Powerless to uphold the law in the face of the demographic reality of divorce, Rome’s response appears to be a default on its own canons. Like every edict of the Sexual Revolution, the chaos surrounding Amoris Laetitia serves carnal instincts unfettered from social and human oversight. It is, literally, dehumanizing.
The tragedy is that acting in accordance with fashionable modern interpretations of natural law rather than abiding by canon law succeeds in upholding neither. The status quo promotes a lopsided notion of marriage that holds the chaste and obedient more and more accountable for a situation in which they have less and less agency. Those who stand by Rome’s true teaching sometimes live out solitary lives to honor a marriage that long ago broke down — and possibly to the credit of their eternal soul. However, the Church, which upholds that marriage as a legal fiction, now appears to be accepting their canonical spouses’ philandering elsewhere. Catholics cannot dismiss their Church as just another secular agent of white martyrdom when it is the very embodiment of their spiritual cause.
Refusing to be clear about what the rules are across its universal jurisdiction, Rome risks opening a crack across its entire sacramental stave — for it is impossible to abuse one without abusing all the others. A die-hard core of the Church will surely keep vigil as Western Christendom crosses the nadir, but the hierarchy above them must realize what is happening. Like the parent who settles disputes by telling his children to “fight it out among themselves,” Rome is undermining itself as a source of moral authority.
I would hate for any faithful Catholic reading this to believe himself deceived by his faith. All the same, this problem needs ruthless and un-hypocritical examination in light of secular trends.
The bottom line is that people are at risk of being misled to believe that marriage will be upheld less by individuals’ diligence and chastity and more by legal structures. Never has this been less true than today.
Alexander Francis Shaw is a ship’s captain and broadcaster for the Polish ministry of finance, specializing in offshore tax.