On September 1 of this year, the bishop of Antwerp, Belgium, Most Reverend Johan Bonny, produced a twenty-one page series of “wishes” concerning the upcoming Synod with the title, Synod on the Family Expectation of A Diocesan Bishop. Also, an Australian priest-theologian from Canberra and Gaulburn has written a smaller piece entitled, A hermeneutic on Divorce and Remarriage, which discusses the possibility of persons in an invalid marriage receiving Holy Communion without a declaration of nullity.
As I read both pieces, they reminded me of the 1970s, when theology was oversimplified and there was a desire for the teaching of the Church on contraceptives to be changed—to accommodate and accept couples as non-sinners who use them in difficult conundrums. This was seen as a merciful solution. However, this was proposed instead of challenging people to excellence and eminent virtue based on the assisting grace of God. Bishops and priests alike preferred to be benevolent and tolerate sinful solutions to their problems. This meant that on their own, couples could decide what was right for themselves and so fulfill their values on their own “steam”, as it were. Such a course of action necessarily implied that they would rely on themselves and their consciences rather than sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium supplying the truth for their actions. It is similar to Adam and Eve who decided that Yahweh was wrong about forbidding them to eat of the apple of good and evil. They would decide what was best for themselves. In a sense, this was the beginning of the heresy of Pelagianism, a do-it-yourself means of acquiring virtue and heaven itself.
Synthesizing the contradictory praxis and teaching is yet another example of the loss of logic and metaphysics since the Council, as if being and not being, good and evil, truth and falsity are ultimately reconcilable. What McGavin and to some extent Bonny seemed to have forgotten then in the 1970s and now concerning both Humanae Vitae and Veritatis splendor, is a sentence from the Council of Trent: “For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes you to do what you can, and to pray for what you cannot (do alone), and helps so you are able to do it.”
My confreres of the Pontifical Faculty at the Dominican House of Studies (among several others) penned a long study of the question of the reception of Holy Communion by divorced and invalidly remarried couples. They show from arguments of reason and faith, as well as authoritative documents of the sacred Magisterium, that receiving Holy Communion for the divorced and invalidly married a second time is not possible (with the exception of when they are living as brother and sister). It is clear that this teaching is part sacred Tradition and not merely a disciplinary matter found in Canon Law. Their study was sent to many bishops throughout the world and will be published soon by Nova et Vetera. McGavin simply dismisses these theologians.
The evolution of moral or dogmatic doctrine does not imply a complete break from past decisions of the Magisterium, which is why teaching in continuity with the past is called “homogeneous” evolution, while a contradiction is called “heterogeneous” evolution. These contradictions cannot be harmonized or synthesized logically. The Holy Spirit can surprise us with deeper insights into revealed moral norms and with greater understanding of the natural law, but never in contradiction to settled teaching, which is what He did in Gaudium et Spes concerning marriage and family life.
Sins of sacrilege, fornication, adultery, sodomy etc., as understood by the Magisterium of popes and bishops for centuries going back to St. Paul (1Cor. 6, 1-11) cannot become a virtue in 2014 by a seeming possible decision of bishops and popes finding new “values” in these sins. To claim that the present Church teaching on these matters is merely a brand of ahistorical fundamentalism, or an easy answer, or a mere ready formula, or a rule or restriction is utterly naive, theologically speaking. Moral prohibitive norms are deep shafts of light into what will help a person flourish and be fulfilled both humanly and, in grace, divinely. Behind forbidding certain human acts is a positive “yes” to human flourishing. Pastoral desires to have an accommodation to “sin” encourages a dehumanization by making an apparent good seem like a secondary good or a value away from a received gift of light from the Holy Spirit. Difficult circumstances for married people that require them to become heroic is the stuff of the holiness. As Lumen Gentium (#3) reminds everyone, “All are called to holiness”, which means the perfection of virtue (theological and moral) and not the transformation of a vice. The lust of contraceptive acts or living in an invalid marriage or just living together without marriage cannot be transformed into virtue. Difficult and heroic marital problems are unable to be solved with good intentions—or worse encouragement by bishops or priests. One can hope these sins will lead to virtue by a special grace of God, but one cannot do moral evil that good may come from it.
The understanding of moral norms is not a monolithic body of doctrine based on St. Thomas Aquinas and does not exclude rationality, dialogue, tolerance, compassion and mercy. Centuries of thought have gone into the Church’s teaching on these matters and her theologians still grapple with many unsettled issues in bioethics, social teaching of the Church, sexuality et al. However, there is a short list of definitive and immutable precepts revolving around intrinsically evil actions. There are acts that substantially eviscerate sanctifying grace out of the soul, which we can know only by revelation. Jesus forgave sinners who repented, but warns us about not having a “wedding garment” (Mt.22, 1-14), and also about the possibility of perpetual death.
If only more episcopal conferences had reiterated Trent’s fine advice when Humanae Vitae was published: “For God commands not impossibilities, but, by commanding, both admonishes you to do what you can, and to pray for what you cannot (do alone), and helps so you are able to do it.” Perhaps then we would not be witnessing the chaos of millions contradicting the Church’s teaching and discontinuing their attendance at Mass.