What kind of Catholic are you?
That question lies behind a good deal of the controversy swirling around the Synod on the Family currently taking place in Rome. This is hardly surprising. Ever since the Second Vatican Council drew to a close in 1965, the Roman Catholic Church has been divided into blocs that mirror the culture war divide that has split the American people since the late 1960s.
From the start of the pontificate of John Paul II in 1978 down to the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, one of those parties held the reins of power. That created the appearance of greater unity than there really was. With Pope Francis, things have shifted, leading to excitement among those whose hopes were long dormant and discontent among those formerly in charge.
And so the appearance of unity has given way to the reality of division on full display surrounding the Synod.
On one side stand a group of European bishops (and maybe Pope Francis) that favors easing strictures against divorced and remarried Catholics receiving the sacrament of communion. Catholic teaching has traditionally held that those whose first marriages have not been annulled are in fact still married to their first spouses, and so any sexual relations with other partners is adulterous — and that living in such a state of persistent grave sin precludes receiving communion. The bishops who want to reform this rule believe that a remarried Catholic who genuinely wishes to receive the sacrament should be allowed to do so.
On the other side are numerous bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, many of them from Africa, as well as a pair of American writers, The New York Times’ Ross Douthat and my colleague at The Week Michael Brendan Dougherty. They claim that church doctrine on faith and morals is unchangeable in general and should certainly not be altered or reformed on this issue in particular — for two main reasons. First, because it’s rooted in the explicit, unambiguous words of Jesus Christ in all three synoptic gospels against the permissibility of divorce. Second, because the family and its struggles are uniquely pressing problems at the present historical moment. The last thing the family needs is for the church to make a concession to the culture of divorce.
If this were the only dimension of disagreement, the conflict would be straightforward. We'd have a debate between those who favor reform and those who reject it.
But the striking thing about the conflict is that it's taking place on at least two levels simultaneously. The factions not only disagree about the wisdom of reforming the rules surrounding annulment, divorce, and communion. They also disagree about whether such a reform would amount to a change in church doctrine — and about whether such a change would be anything very significant at all in the history and life of the church.
That's because underlying the dispute about annulment, divorce, and communion is a deeper divide about the nature of the Catholic Church itself.
Here is what the two camps sketched above look like when the depth of their disagreement is factored into a description of their positions on the Synod.
The reformers view the church as a community of believers founded by Jesus Christ on a message of universal inclusion, hope, love, and mercy. As the Jesuit priest Father James Martin put it in a recent column for Time magazine:
[T]he movement for Jesus was always from the outside-in. He went out to those who were officially excluded or who felt excluded — in his time, that meant primarily the sick and the sinful — and brought them in. He restored them to the community. This is something the church may need to do more of: welcome, meet people where they are, and listen. Certainly conversion is in order for everyone — including me. But how can we change hearts if we don’t welcome them first? [Time]
This helps explain why the reformers favor loosening the strictures against divorced Catholics receiving communion: because it's a gesture of inclusion, healing, acceptance. Just as Jesus consorted with the outcasts of his time, so his church should offer welcoming arms to any and all who want to receive the message of mercy and love and become active members of the People of God.
Those who oppose reform take a very different view. The church, for them, is primarily a rigorously consistent intellectual system that teaches a vision of the right way to live. Christ rejected divorce. Over the centuries, the church has developed a rich set of intellectually satisfying principles and procedures in response to this divine decree. A marriage can only be dissolved through annulment. Civil remarriage without an annulment is adulterous. Adultery is a grave sin. Communion is withheld from those living in a state of persistent grave sin. Therefore and with no possible exceptions, a Catholic who is civilly remarried cannot receive communion.
It really is that simple. Remove any of those steps and the whole edifice falls into incoherence. You can see Douthat making that point against Fr. Martin in a blog post written in response to the latter's Time column: The church simply has to uphold the traditional rules and procedures — not primarily because they're traditional but because they're systematic.
First you convert, which means you accept the church's fundamental teachings on morals and doctrine. If you fall short of them and sin — which you inevitably will — you must follow the rules and procedures that restore you to communion with the church. If you fail to do this — fail to make an effort to put an end to the sinful act and take part in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) — then you are barred from receiving the sacrament of communion (the Eucharist). If you receive the Eucharist without having first put an end to your sinful act and confessed it to your priest, then your sin deepens. And so on, with one path leading to salvation and sanctification, and the other to perdition.
When reformers hear these arguments, they don't respond by rejecting the conclusion. Instead, they reject the premises that lead to that conclusion. Doctrine isn't the most important thing, or even close to it. The church isn't primarily an intellectual system. It isn't primarily a set of rules and procedures about how to live and rightly worship God. No one is or should be policing the communion line. No one is without sin — and certainly not the clerics who empower themselves to decide who is in and who is out, who may partake of the sacraments and who may not. And besides, reforms would merely encourage a touch of pastoral sensitivity on the issue, not officially alter church teaching.
The two camps talk right past each other. What is the church? How did Christ want his followers to live and worship in his name? How much change, and what kind of change, is acceptable? The question of annulment, divorce, and communion has raised these deeper and potentially far more divisive questions.
Catholics these days can't even agree about how to disagree.