Catholic memory loss.

One of the most feared diseases of our time is Alzheimer’s disease. As those who have dealt with this disease know, it is particularly sad to watch a family member gradually lose their intellectual ability and with it, their memory of important events, and even people in their life, often including children, and spouses. Ultimately the disease claims its victims as individuals lose even more basic brain functions, including the ability to walk, talk and eat and ultimately dying from the consequences of immobility and debilitation. It is troubling to watch and a great burden for those afflicted. As is recalled during Ash Wednesday “pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris mementoque”. We all have a short time in this veil of tears and therefore the eternal things are what really count.
But sad as Alzheimer’s disease is, it is a limited evil since all temporal goods; even life itself is finite goods. Worse is to see the Church afflicted with a kind of “Alzheimer’s disease” that is if the Church for a time and in a specific place loses her memory. This can lead to not a loss of life, but because the Church’s mission is to help us get to heaven, it can mean a loss of souls. This is an eternal loss and therefore much worse than any human disease.

This spiritual Alzheimer’s afflicting the Church is manifested by a loss of connection, and in some cases even an attempt to refute what has been said and done before. The current Church appears often to forget its own prior teaching and practice, and indeed the very people whose lives were formative to the Church are also lost in the memory hole. When are Aquinas or Cardinal John Henry Newman mentioned?  While we respect Vatican II, and revere St. John Paul II, they are not the last word in every Church controversy. Where issues exist that appear to involve a conflict between what was said and done by the Church via previous Pope’s , Councils and even the daily practice prior to Vatican II and what was said and done by Vatican II, more recent Popes, and the current daily practice of the Church we cannot simply regard the “new” as correct. (Similarly we cannot just regard the “old” as correct either but that is a different focus than what we will pursue over the next couple of posts.) Instead we must find a way to reconcile the conflict. The conflict must be in principle reconcilable, because otherwise the Church could not be a source of truth, if she could contradict herself, she would be a fraud. This is a central point we make in this blogs title, the Church did not begin or end with Vatican II.

Now this problem is critical to a number of issues. We see it again and again in the way the Church approaches moral issues ( the issue of divorce and remarriage for example, more about this in a moment) We see it in questions regarding politics, the relation of faith and science, liturgical traditions etc. A particularly troubling display is the Pope’s recent comments regarding divorced Catholics, in which he pondered the question why divorced and remarried individuals cannot be godparents. I find this amazing as a few years ago your average Catholic 10 year old could answer this question. In any case It has been reported Pope Francis said:

“In the case of divorcees who have remarried, we posed the question, what do we do with them? What door can we allow them to open? This was a pastoral concern: will we allow them to go to Communion? Communion alone is no solution.
“The solution is integration. They have not been excommunicated, true. But they cannot be godfathers to any child being baptized, mass readings are not for divorcees, they cannot give Communion, they cannot teach Sunday school, there are about seven things that they cannot do, I have the list over there. Come on! If I disclose any of this it will seem that they have been excommunicated in fact. Thus, let us open the doors a bit more.”

The Pope continued:


“Why can’t they be godfathers and godmothers? ‘No, no, no, what testimony will they be giving their godson?’ The testimony of a man and a woman saying ‘my dear, I made a mistake, I was wrong here, but I believe our Lord loves me, I want to follow God, I was not defeated by sin, I want to move on’.

This is breath taking! After I read it I wondered if the Pope can recall up until recently the Church had been teaching this:


That is, as has been pointed out, until recently the divorced and remarried were not just defeated by sin in the past, but continued to live in sin. The remarriage constitutes ongoing adultery as mentioned in our last post and implied in the above cartoon therefore they had not “repented”. So you could be a godfather if you had an adulterous affair, broke off the affair, reconciled with your wife, and received absolution. You could not be a godfather if you continued in the adulterous affair. In fact the obvious reason is that to be a godparent one must be living a life “consistent with one’s own baptismal vows”, that is avoiding notorious sin. (Notorious meaning “public”, we can never know with certainty about someone’s private failings!)



Now to be sure your average divorced and remarried Catholic does not believe they are committing adultery, and in fact may not be subjectively guilty of this sin. This is because it is highly probable that they reject the teaching of the Church on this matter. They believe the Church is wrong and as such they do not believe the Church is what it claims to be. They are not really Catholics. How much moral culpability someone bears for this is known only to God, but its clearly problematic for such folks to be godparents.Now in some cases the Church will allow a non Catholic to be witness to the baptismal ceremony, but technically they are not a godparent. A person who openly lives in a way that rejects the teaching of the Church may be a really nice person, but they are not suitable for being a godparent. (A more detailed discussion of this can be found here .) There is nothing particularly mysterious here.



Now the Pope went on to say a bit more:

“And what if one of the political crooks among us, corrupt people, are chosen to be somebody´s godfather. If they are properly wedded by the Church, would we accept them? What kind of testimony will they give to their godson? A testimony of corruption? Things need to change, our standards need to change.”

With all due respect this statement is crazy! I ask myself if the Pope understands what he is saying, because the obvious answer, is assuming the political corruption is public, of course we don’t accept them!  They are also not “living according to their baptismal vows”, although “political corruption” is often not public knowledge since it is done surreptitiously. Public officials rarely say, “You know I am taking bribes”. This statement of the Pope is at best is an argument to be more scrupulous about who gets to be a godparent in general, but it is illogical if used as an argument to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to be godparents.

What one can infer from this is the idea that political corruption is a “real sin”, in contrast people can make mistakes and just “goof up” so a failed first marriage is not a “real sin” or if it is maybe a “sin” it is in the past and getting remarried is moving on. That is a defensible view perhaps, as it sounds quite reasonable and humane. It has a few problems however. It is not consistent with the historical teaching of the Church, and in fact it is in direct opposition to one of the key issues in the split between the Anglican Church and Rome during the Reformation. It is also less humane then it appears at first glance. Imagine if a successful businessman has an affair with an attractive younger woman, divorces his devoted, but perhaps middle aged first wife, and remarries the second younger woman. Suppose at some point he has some sort of “conversion” and regrets having dumped his first wife in some sense, or at least the circumstances of the affair, but he is happy with the new spouse and is living an otherwise moral life. Imagine if the first wife and her children still bear the pain of the divorce feeling abandoned and unloved. They periodically see the man in public, arm and arm with his new wife, perhaps some new children… Is there no ongoing offense to the first wife who was left? To the first set of children who were abandoned? Should this man be a godfather to his new brother in-laws children? Is this scenario not plausible? In fact most of us of a certain age are personally aware of similar situations in our immediate circle of friends and acquaintances.

Perhaps the Pope should be forgiven for answering a news reporter in such an off the cuff manner, and quite honestly I can envision situations in which one’s heart would ache for those in a difficult situation caused by a divorce. I am not making the case that divorced people are “bad”, nor that those in second marriages are always “evil” and I am not refuting that to the extent the Church can do so it should not facilitate a way back to full communion for some folks involved in some of these cases.
What I am saying is that the “facilitation” cannot logically just dismiss the prior 2000 years of Church teaching and history. It must be consistent with it, and it must be clearly articulated as consistent with it. I have some sympathy for the idea that in our recent culture many people do not enter into a marriage with an understanding of marriage as the Church understands it, and so in some, (perhaps many) cases it can be observed that an immature couple with a faulty understanding of marriage entered into an apparent “marriage”, were civilly divorced, and one or the other may have undergone a spiritual conversion such that a true marriage could now be entered into. Perhaps some of these could be treated via a facilitated annulment process, (although the well being of any children involved would also need to somehow factor in to all this…) but to be consistent with this line of reasoning we would also need to say a great many people who are “married” really are not truly “married” at all, and this is a great material evil which the church could not just ignore. This line of reasoning has at least some consistency with the past however. What is completely inconsistent is the idea that seems to be popular at present that we can just scrap the prior teaching on divorce as an..”Oops we made a mistake”, and then arrive huffing and puffing, barely catching up with the rest of the “divorce is no big deal” culture at the end of 2014. This makes the Church ludicrous. How can one take such an institution seriously? If that was the recipe for a religious revival the Episcopalian Church in the US would be growing instead of basically vanishing. And it is imploding as discussed in this article here.

We see more of the same thing in the recent discussion of torture by Catholic blogger Mark Shea. Mr. Shea has written a recent diatribe about the Senate report on enhanced interrogation techniques perfumed under CIA direction during the Bush years in order to extract information from suspected terrorists. You can read his comments on this site . Now I do not want to delve too deeply into this issue here. I would note parenthetically that that the report is a partisan exercise, written entirely by the Senate Democrats so not every aspect of it is likely to be accurate, I would also note that one might be quite justified in saying some actions were wrong and others not as wrong. What I want to focus on is the fact that Mr. Shea thinks it is a matter of Catholic doctrine that “water boarding” (that is the practice of exposing individuals, captured as Jihadist terrorists, at war with the United States,  to sensations of simulated drowning ) is torture, and that this is intrinsically immoral in the same way that abortion is intrinsically immoral. Regardless of your views of the merits of water boarding it is not clear that the state has no right on inflict corporal suffering on evildoers in theory. A detailed discussion of this was written by Fr. Brian Harrison of Pontifical University of Puerto Rico, much of which can be read here . It seems Mr. Shea is innocent of knowing any of this history that informs Fr. Harrison’s discussion . The simple fact is if you can morally put a bullet through the head of a terrorist when defending your people, or blow them up with a missile fired from a drone (something done frequently by the current administration without much of a peep from Mr. Shea) it would seem comparably less problematic to make them think they are drowning by pouring water over their face. Nonetheless, I have no intention of defending the Bush CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists in every instance, but merely to note the way it is handled by Mr. Shea is not entirely consistent with prior moral reasoning on this issue, or even terribly logical.



The point is that the way the moral issues involved are being handled by prominent Catholic commentators seems completely disconnected from the prior 2000 year history of moral reasoning of the Church. It is not so much the idea that we should be sympathetic to the plight of individuals who are divorced and remarried and find themselves at odds with historic Catholic teaching, nor do we completely reject the idea that the US government can go over a moral line in some actions aimed at protecting the United States. The real problem we have is with the obvious disconnect from the historical record of how these issues were approached in the past. If such a disconnect continues unaddressed it will not bring more people into the Church, but rather drive reasonable people away, because if the Church can simply ignore its own history it is not “infallible”, and indeed would not be what it claims to be.
More in our next post.

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