The question most hotly debated at the recent Synod on Marriage and Family is that of whether divorced and remarried Catholics – without a decree of nullity for their previous marriage — should be permitted to receive communion. It seems that Henry VIII or Thomas More would have different perspectives on the issue. Cardinal Kasper, the main proponent of communion for the divorced and remarried, seems unconcerned whether the doctrine of the Council of Trent (Session 13, Chapter 7; 33) and even the current catechism (CCC 1650) are being contradicted. Perhaps he sincerely believes that communion is indeed impossible for one who has committed a mortal sin without repentance. The question of whether it is correct or incorrect to allow such a thing is, I believe, unimportant to him. He – and those who support his position – appear to have a differing epistemology of sin and general lack of confidence in knowledge when it comes to immaterial realities. In short, incomplete philosophy is giving rise to bad theology.
The certitude of knowledge has been replaced instead with a skepticism concerning judgments. It is no secret that Pope Francis is not a fan of theologians and intellectuals, as they tend to remain inside the walls of buildings. His favorite quote about ecumenism comes from a conversation between Blessed Paul VI and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras: “If we were to close ourselves off in a room together and leave the theologians outside, we would accomplish ecumenism in one hour.” It is Francis’ vision that the Church will evangelize through attraction rather than the strength of its concepts. His repeated statements admonishing the “Doctors of the Law” show these to be, in his view, among the main enemies of Christian harmony. In the question of communion for those living in marriages which violate the Sixth Commandment, these same academics and theologians – these “Doctors of the Law” – will characteristically conclude that a person is out of communion based on clearly-defined criteria used to evaluate actions. This moral clarity, however, stands in the way of certain conceptions of “mercy” and “integration”. This way of thinking was perhaps most directly expressed by close adviser and friend of the pope, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. Last January, Maradiaga spoke publicly on the opposition of Cardinal Müller to a “pastoral solution” that would provide communion to the divorced and remarried:
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Gerhard Müller, “is a professor of German theology;” “he sees things in black-and-white terms,” in terms of good or bad …” But “the world isn’t like that, my brother. You should be a bit flexible when you hear other voices, so you don’t just listen and say, ‘here is the wall’ … for now though, he only listens to his group of advisors.”
And yet, it is precisely more knowledge that naturally leads to better judgments about the world.
What is the source of this dilemma?
The first passage of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics served for many centuries as a template for ethics. Analogous to the art of shipbuilding, a human being was described as having a nature which could be perfected. We can judge degrees of perfection in ships depending on how well they float and sail, as that is their purpose. The type of actions a man takes that help fulfil his human purpose are good actions which ultimately lead to profound happiness, and those against it are bad, leaving no ‘middle ground’. The person is considered culpable insofar as he is aware of the action’s benefit or damage to his nature (the notion of conscience). It may be the case that an individual is unaware that he is acting to make his human “ship” less able to fulfil its purpose (as often happens in the case of habitual sins), but that does not diminish the damage he is doing to himself, or the relative responsibility others have to help him perfect his ship.
From the time Descartes ushered in modern philosophy, Western Civilization has been questioning precisely what type of judgments man is able to make about the world. The answer to this question has been worked out to be the muddled mess of relativism, which relegates all judgments of human nature to the individual conscience and so that an individual might know a better way to build a ship, if only for themselves. To extend our analogy, relativism makes the error of refusing to accept any objective standards for shipbuilding. This is all well and good when it comes to the freedom to choose a masthead or the color of a sail; but things begin to fall apart when it is denied that a ship needs a rudder or a hull. While the Church generally held on to scholastic philosophy, which asks the metaphysical question before the epistemological one, the rest of the world took this reverse approach and ended up despairing about metaphysical science. Aristotle’s shipbuilding analogy – and all it applied – was summarily thrown out.
In the question at hand, it appears Cardinal Kasper doesn’t have a problem coming to conclusions which our ancestors – under the guidance of a more trustworthy ethical framework – would have considered deeply problematic. Kasper may well believe that he holds the same doctrine the Church always has, and that he is merely viewing it through a different lens. The Catechism teaches us that “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.’” Given the ‘advances’ of science, which no longer includes metaphysics and the spiritual realities it represents, emphasis is given instead to the physical causes for any given sin. Rather than an acceptance that free will leads an individual to sin (a concept not so neatly or empirically demonstrable) it is instead asserted that “so-and-so was abused when he or she was a child, and he grew up in a broken home and she never received affection from his or her father, which causes his or her neurons to fire a certain way.” This preeminent explanation by a different cause, a more psychological one, if you will, thus (in the minds of those who propose this way of thinking) mitigates the individual’s culpability, if not negating it entirely. The negative formative experiences of a person are seen as so powerful that they eclipse free choice. This reaffirms the idea that individual conscience trumps objective judgments about human nature; if every person’s experiences are unique, so must any moral judgment about their actions be subjectively considered in relation to those experiences.
The closer we get to an iron-clad determinism, the less sin can actually be believed to exist, and the more cruel it appears when judgments are applied to people’s lives based on objective principles of theology or nature. “There can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ moral solution,” the determinist argues; “If people can hardly be held accountable for their sins – which are mere artifacts of their environment and experiences – it would be an ugly thing indeed to bar them from full communion with the Church, which might serve as an instrument of their consolation and healing.”
The danger in such thinking should be readily apparent.
Given that there is a pervasive doubt that a universal human nature exists along with a subsequent imposition of “dictatorship of relevance” when it comes to human conscience, is there any sin which should exclude someone from receiving the Eucharist?
To be “in communion” means to belong not in some ethereal way, but to be one with Christ’s body – a union perfected physically and substantially by reception of His flesh and blood in the Holy Eucharist. Historically, it was not considered a merciless action to judge someone outside of such union due to grievous sin; rather, this was necessary to avoid an amorphous community where no one is sure who is actually a Christian and who is an impostor. Communities are formed by people aware of and living for a united – and specific – purpose. If a member of PETA were found to be involved in the building and ownership of slaughterhouses, there would be no surprise if he were expunged from the organization. For such an individual to act in direct contravention of the organizational principles means he is not, in any true sense, committed to the organization’s mission. If he were able to divest himself of his conflicting interests, he might be reconciled to the organization. But he can’t go on packaging meat and calling himself a part of a cause that demands people stop eating it.
Under the premise that we can’t know an individual’s intentions and therefore can’t judge their actions – or whether they’re being hurt by them – it’s only logical to see an approach that seeks to intervene less and allow individuals to make their own decisions about receiving the Eucharist, guided only by the subjectivity of their conscience and an undefined process of being “led by God.” This sort of ideology leads the Church to the same place popular culture has already set up camp on moral issues — that the only sin is to judge someone of sin. In many respects, it appears that large sections of the Church are already there.
It seems clear that there is an epistemological cause to the problem we currently face, but it is not my intention to argue that it is any less a spiritual battle as well. This is exactly the point: just because we don’t have empirical knowledge of an aspect of reality does not mean this aspect does not exist. If our theory of knowledge continues to absorb modern principles and abandon the classical conception of goodness, our certitudes will be exchanged for contradictions.
God may be a God of surprises, but subverting objective reality and replacing it with nonsense isn’t among them.
Jon Haines received an MA in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an adjunct professor of philosophy near Chicago and a supplemental educator in various liberal arts subjects. He blogs at jonhaines.com