Stalking Horses and the Next Synod

If the bishops wish to uphold the true definition of marriage, they also need to stand their ground on denying communion to the divorced and civilly remarried

As the result of yet another brazen act of judicial fiat, Florida has become the 36th state where same-sex “marriage” is now the law of the land. The bishop of St. Petersburg, Robert Lynch, reacted to this judicial overreach on his blog and in a January 6th op-ed piece he penned for the Tampa Bay Times.

Bishop Lynch’s view on how the Church should respond to the civil redefinition of marriage provides perhaps the most forceful argument to date for maintaining the Church’s teaching on a different, but interrelated issue: namely, denying communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

Most bishops sympathetic to the same-sex “marriage” agenda are too intelligent to make a case for de jure acceptance of it in the Catholic Church. I would suggest, however, along with Cardinal Pell, that the issue of permitting communion for the divorced and remarried can be used effectively as a stalking horse to gain de facto acceptance of same-sex “marriage” in the Church. During last October’s Synod in Rome, Cardinal Pell stated:

Communion for the divorced and remarried is for some — very few, certainly not the majority of synod fathers — it’s only the tip of the iceberg, it’s a stalking horse. They want wider changes, recognition of civil unions, recognition of homosexual unions…

Therefore, if the Church wishes to be a consistent and effective witness for the true definition of both sacramental and civil marriage—an impossible task without, at the same time, rejecting even de facto acceptance of same-sex “marriage”—the bishops and cardinals at the upcoming Ordinary Synod of the Family must not change the practice of denying communion to the divorced and civilly remarried.

It’s not my place or desire to speculate about Bishop Lynch’s intentions. Whether intentionally or not, however, Lynch’s view on how the Church should respond to the civil redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples—combined with his view on permitting communion to the divorced and remarried, and his focus on looking to the positive aspects of other similarly objective grave sinful situations (same-sex unions and cohabiting heterosexual couples) in the “spirit of Pope Francis and the Extraordinary Synod”—does lay the perfect groundwork for de facto acceptance of same-sex “marriage” in the Church.

While he does not touch on it explicitly, Bishop Lynch’s views nevertheless bring out into the open an issue that was not faced squarely at the Extraordinary Synod on the Family: The Church cannot permit communion for divorced and civilly (re)married heterosexual couples yet, at the same time, deny communion to civilly married same-sex couples.

This is especially true if Bishop Lynch is correct when he says—in terms strikingly similar to the Extraordinary Synod’s midterm relatio—that same-sex couples, like divorced and remarried couples, are capable of “sharing relationships marked by love and holiness” and are, thus, capable of “contributing to the edification of both the church and the wider society.”

In other words, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Or, to formulate the issue in more properly theological terms: The Church cannot permit communion for one category of people in a state of objective grave sin, but deny communion to a different category of people in a state of objective grave sin. This is particularly true when both states are determined to be objective grave sins for a similar reason: i.e., when both states are so designated precisely because both are cases of Catholics entering civil marriages that gravely violate the Church’s teaching on marriage.

Some might argue that these two instances of violating the Church’s teaching on marriage involve a difference in kind, not simply a difference in degree. And, according to such a view, there might be a legitimate reason to permit communion for the civilly (re)married heterosexual couple, yet deny communion to the civilly married same-sex couple. I’m not so sure, however, this argument would carry water.

Is there really a rational justification for denying communion to the latter, while allowing communion for the former, simply on grounds that the same-sex couple violates the Church’s teaching on marriage in a different “kind” of way than the heterosexual couple? Or, to put the question in its most trenchant terms: Is there any bishop who would defend “a difference in kind” with respect to such a contentious issue—especially since he’ll—justly?—be charged with speaking out of both sides of his mouth? In any event, it would surely (and perhaps rightly) open the Church to the charge of unjust discrimination toward persons with same-sex attraction.

Bishop Lynch makes three essential points in his op-ed. First, he affirms that the Church must uphold her sacramental understanding of marriage: “We strive to preserve the traditional sacramental understanding of marriage even as the law now accommodates couples of the same sex. The Catholic Church upholds marriage, one of our seven sacraments, as an indissoluble relationship between a man and a woman committed to mutual consolation and open to procreation.”

Second, taking Pope Francis and the “discussions at the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family” as his inspiration, he rejects (in my estimation) the role of bishop as culture warrior in favor of the role of bishop as pastor and shepherd: “I do not wish to lend our voice to notions which might suggest that same-sex couples are a threat incapable of sharing relationships marked by love and holiness and, thus, incapable of contributing to the edification of both the church and the wider society.”

Third, he encourages ongoing dialogue: “Any dialogue which reaffirms [the sacramental] view of marriage and which seeks to ensure that such a view continues to be respected and enabled to serve and edify both the church and the wider society is to be commended and supported.”

Notice that in his first point, while Bishop Lynch affirms the Church’s duty to uphold her sacramental understanding of marriage, he completely omits the Church’s additional duty to uphold the truth that marriage—as the union between a man and a woman open to procreation—is the immutable natural institution that serves as the basic foundation necessary for the flourishing of civil society. Interestingly, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, to which Lynch belongs, does make the case for the Church’s explicit duty to defend the natural institution of marriage against redefinition.

Lynch’s second point—that same-sex couples not only don’t pose a threat to the Church and civil society, but in fact contribute to the edification of both—is tantamount to an actual rejection of the aforementioned truth, which the Church teaches is accessible to all people of good will through the use of right reason and without the aid of divine revelation. Again, it is interesting to note that the FCCB does speak about the redefinition of marriage as a threat to civil society.

Finally, Lynch’s third point reinforces what could be understood to be his overarching goal: i.e., drawing a clear distinction between marriage as a sacrament which is governed by the Church, and marriage as a civil institution which is governed by the state. In other words, we’re no longer going to fight the state over the civil definition of marriage. Rather, we’ll only fight the state on religious liberty grounds. That is, our approach to the marriage debate will be similar to our approach to the debate over the HHS mandate: i.e., we’ll only fight the state if it threatens our religious freedom and the religious freedom of others who share our view on the sacrament of marriage.

I would like to suggest that these three points constitute the perfect recipe for having one’s cake and eating it too, at least for those prelates who desire de facto acceptance of same-sex “marriage” in the Church. It allows them to ostensibly uphold the Church’s doctrine on the sacrament of marriage, while leaving it open for them to change the Church’s practice. In other words, they can make the following case:

The Church’s doctrine concerning the sacrament of marriage as the union between a man and a woman open to procreation is immutable, as it was given to us by Jesus Christ himself. Thus, we wouldn’t dream of trying to change it. However, the culture is rapidly changing and moving away from the sacramental understanding of marriage, as demonstrated by its rejection of the indissolubility of marriage (permitting divorce and remarriage) and by its redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

It is impossible to expect that the faithful wouldn’t be profoundly affected by the secularized cultures in which they live. In this light and as the Lineamenta for the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family reminds us: we must “[bear] in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances, given that ‘imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors’” (n. 51, quoting CCC, 1735).

Thus, using our Bishop Lynch’s words: “We cannot promise [same-sex couples] that we will ever be likely to recognize the nature of their unions as sacramental but if they are willing to accept that reality, then they can be full participants in the life of the Church.” However, just as we should move towards an affirmation of the good and holy aspects of the civil “remarriages” of divorced Catholics and change the Church’s practice to allow them to receive communion, so we should do the same for Catholics in civil same-sex “marriages.”

As my father frequently says, “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” De facto acceptance of same-sex civil “marriage” in the Church—like de facto acceptance of heterosexual civil “remarriage”—is acceptance.

Therefore, if the synod fathers at the upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family want to continue making the case for both the sacramental and civil definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman open to procreation, and if they want to reject even de facto acceptance of same-sex “marriage” and “remarriage” in the Church, they must ultimately maintain rather than change the current practice of denying communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

About Bill Maguire 0 Articles
Bill Maguire earned his Master's in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He served for two years as the managing editor of Communio: International Catholic Review and has worked with youth and youth adults in various capacities: youth minister, campus minister, and adjunct professor of theology.