Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Living in Sin

In a National Catholic Reporter piece which seemed to sum up the building progressive frustration and anger at the direction of the synod as it neared its end, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese wrote:
The problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex. Since they will not stop having sex, they cannot go to Communion. There is no willingness to accept the first marriage as irrevocably broken and destroyed, which would allow the parties to move on with their lives.

I think this shows pretty well the way in which progressive Catholics seem to think about marriage, and why they think it should be no big deal to change Church practice in regards to couples in marriages which the Church does not consider valid receiving communion. In this reading, any sin involved in the break up of a marriage is a one time event. You should be able to repent of this sin, and then move on with your life and seek another, happier relationship. Of course, the problem with this view is that it assumes something contrary to Catholic teaching: that marriage is dissoluble. If instead we assume what the Church teaches, that marriage is a lasting bond which cannot be broken except by death, then living as a spouse with someone you're not married to is not a one time sin which you can repent of and then have blessed, it's an ongoing moral problem. Reese comments on this view, and any hope of Catholic parishes reaching out to those who are divorced, with bitter sarcasm:

Meanwhile, bishops are talking about pastoral outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics that does not include Communion. They are using words like “accompany,” “listen,” and “welcome.” This has been caricatured as “You are welcome to come into our house, but you can’t eat dinner with us.”

And how do you “accompany” people you believe are in such serious sin that they cannot go to Communion? What does “listen” mean if you have already decided that you will not change your mind no matter what you hear?

In any case, this is better than referring to such couples as “living in sin.” Perhaps the progressives believe that bishops will be changed by such ministry, while conservatives hope to give couples absolution on their death beds.

The phrase "living in sin" has a somewhat prudish, old fashioned cast to it at this point in our cultural and linguistic history, so I'm not surprised to hear Fr. Reese poo poo it so vociferously. And yet, it's actually a good term for capturing the moral ambiguities which seem to so easily confuse the modern mind.

For all that we moderns say that we believe in the "gray areas" and reject a black and white view of moral absolutes, a great many people these days seem to absolutely reject the idea of sin and virtue being mixed in our lives. A week or two ago I found myself in an argument with another Catholic about precisely these issues of divorce and remarriage and he presented the following argument:

Right, so the jerk who leaves his crippled and practically newlywed wife and child but maybe chooses to remain single afterwards is "not an adulterer", but the man who marries her, adopts her child, raises a loving family together with her for SIXTY-EIGHT YEARS *is* an "adulterer"? Sorry, I don't have an imagination big enough for that.

The fact is, there are a lot of people in our current society who are living in relationships which are not what the Church would view as valid marriages (they were married before and their prior marriage has not been ruled invalid, they are living together without having gone through a marriage ceremony, they are Catholics who got married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation, etc.) and yet who seem to all appearances to care about each other, to be raising children together, to be happy because of the relationship which the Church labels as sinful.

How can we account for that?

Because in this world of ours, sin and virtue often get mixed up. People do things that are wrong, and those wrong things get mixed up with things that are right. The fact that starting a relationship was wrong doesn't mean that those people never help each other, never love each other, never raise children together. Indeed, people often do all those things.

I remember being struck by this some years back when MrsDarwin and I watched the movie Walk The Line about singer Johnny Cash. In the movie, Cash treats his wife (with whom he had four children) badly: abusing drugs and alcohol, cheating on her, etc. He eventually abandons her for singer June Carter, with whom he'd been having an affair while both of them were married to other people. Watching this as a happily and newly married couple, it was pretty hard not to loathe the characters, and yet Cash and Carter (who divorced their spouses and married each other) went on to be together for 35 years, raise a child together, and loved and helped each other through many hard times (admittedly a lot of them self inflicted via substance abuse, etc.)

Was that an adulterous relationship or a loving relationship? Who's to say it wasn't both?

Just as we humans have a natural capacity for sinning, for choosing our own will over God's, we also have a natural capacity for loving, for taking care of and helping others. It's not surprising that even in a relationship which should not have happened, which is sinful in nature, we often also find ways to love and help each other.  And if your primary family relationship is a sinful one, this means that ending the sin means possibly losing the main relationship which gives happiness and stability to your life.

When we live in sin, with sin, around sin, it becomes entangled with a lot of the good in our lives. That's one of the reasons we should try so hard not to get into these situations in the first place, because after going far down that path there will be good as well as evil that will be disrupted if we try to end our sin.

This is also why the strange modern dualism -- the idea that if something is actually wrong it must be absolutely evil and repulsive in all its aspects, and on the flip side that if something is not utterly repulsive, if it seems to have good aspects or redeeming qualities, it must not be wrong -- is so problematic and ultimately morally incoherent: because virtually all sin ends up mixed with portions of apparent goodness. Instead people tell themselves that sin is something only done by "bad people", that goose stepping Nazi on the television, not by "nice people" like you and me. But, of course, sin is something that all of us "nice people" are quite capable of doing. That's why Jesus came preaching a gospel of repentance, not a gospel of "don't worry you're already a really great person and I sure hope God and the Church are good enough to deserve you."


BenK said...

Seems like someone confused confess and repent.

Joseph Moore said...

The thing that gets consistently ignored is the devastating effect divorce and remarriage/shacking up has on children and society. That's the ongoing part, the part that isn't a one-time forgive-and-forget issue, regardless of how the couples involved feel about it. Fr. Reese wants to make it all about sex, like it's the sex that is the only sin involved, and we must stop being prudes and get over it. But that's not it - over and over, in the real world we see, if we will only look, the vast collateral damage to children, families and our communities wrecked by divorce and remarriage.

Being deeply involved in a school, I get to know many families at least a little. and - wow. Over and over, I see children brow beaten one way or another into saying or at least not contradicting that it's OK and no big deal mommy and/or daddy stopped loving their other parent and now the kids get to live in two households and that's just fine - or whatever the relationships end up being. Kids who are articulate enough to say: I am being wronged by your selfishness are super-rare and pretended not to exist.

As an alternative school, we get a mix of True Believers - those who want our style of education for their kids - and desperate people whose kids are having serious trouble and so are willing to try something different. I'm trying to think of a family in my experience with both an intact original family and kids who are at our school because they are flunking out/expelled/suicidal, and I'm not coming up with any.

Further, the poster child for divorce is always that tragic case where one parent flips out or is thrown in jail or beats the kids or some tragedy - and those do happen. But in my experience, almost all divorces I've seen first hand over the last few decades have been utterly trivial, of the 'I just don't love you anymore so I'm leaving' coupled with the dogmatic assertion that the kids will be fine. Stupid, stupid, stupid! I've had a front-row seat on the devastation that these kids go through, as they have often been my kids' friends. How can they ever trust anyone again? How can they not curl up in fear from real relationships?

The Catholic Church is the only thing left standing against this insanity. Fr. Reese is saying the equivalent of 'Cocaine isn't all that bad for you! It's a one-time thing. We need to stop being so prudish' while ignoring the violence and destruction surrounding drug use. And guess what? You can find the occasional addict coping pretty darn well. Refusing to weigh that against all the destruction is willful dishonesty.

Agnes said...

I'm not sure that it's only the carnal act that makes a remarriage sinful, but also the whole partnership, life covenant with someone other than the one joined to you in the sacramental marriage.
The very idea of aJesuit priest referring to a sacramental marriage as "irrevocably broken and destroyed" is preposterous.

On the other hand, Darwin, I have some trouble with the argument you present here. You mention that some of these invalid marriages have a lot of valuable aspects, you even term those as "virtue" mixed up with the sin at the base of this relationship, and that ending the sin, ending these relationships will end some good as well. Yet, can the teaching of the church not require that you end the sin in your life? Can it allow for these people to remain in these relationships, and to remain in the community still - not receiving Communion, but not ostracized either? Is it God's will that these relationships be ended, all of them, by definition? Or is His will at work in the good that exists in these unions?

Darwin said...


I think you bring up a really important point. The advocates of change keep bringing up what they see as the sympathetic case: Oh, this family has been together for fifteen years and had several kids in a marriage the Church doesn't recognize. Surely we can recognize this is a real marriage and not exclude the parents from full participation in the sacraments?

But the thing is: No second marriage occurs without a first marriage breaking up, and that is a destructive, destructive process. If the Church were to try to wink at remarriage, it would only be encouraging more divorces -- even ignoring for the moment the sacred duty which the Church has to teach the truth.

You're right to bring this up, because allowing the dissenters to only discuss the sympathetic cases is a problem.


I certainly would say that the teaching of the Church requires that we end the sin in our lives. And when we see people who aren't willing to do that, who take the approach of not receiving communion but continuing to live in a relationship that the Church teaches is sinful, assuming that they'll have some chance to make it all right before the end, or that "God will understand", I think there's a certain amount of presumption going on. After all, one definition of sin is setting up our own rival good to God's and following that instead.

I'd say that the sense in which that virtue and sin get tangled up is just that our acts of virtue are performed in the context of where we live. If the family we live with is one based on adultery, then the person we love and care for is going to be the same person we commit adultery with, the children we love are the children born of that adultery, etc. Many of the good things that we do -- things good in themselves as loving someone will necessarily be -- will be things done in a context that we never should have been in in the first place.

So no, I don't think that means God wants these relationships to continue, or that we shouldn't recognize them as wrong. But I guess I am saying that I would at least see it as a reason to understand how much is being asked of people who are in this kind of situation.

Most importantly, I think it is a huge, huge reason to do everything we can to avoid encouraging sinful relationships -- because the process of getting out is often going to be incredibly painful and will involve asking people to give up much which seems good in their lives.

Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife said...

You have made an excellent point. Our society no longer sees "regular" people as being sinful. How can that poor woman be sinful by marrying that man who wants to be a father to her children who were abandoned by their daddy? We forget that even good Christian people can succumb to temptation, especially when it wears such a kind face.

We no longer have a sense of sin, it is no longer being taught in church, nor in many of the faith formation classes (certainly not the ones my children are participating in). It's no wonder our bishops and cardinals (not to mention the pope) think we need more "mercy" because otherwise they would need to face the fact that they have done a horrible job of explaining why people need to repent in the first place.

Agnes said...

Apparently, I was wrong: according to the Familiaris Consortio, repentance and (if there is a grave reason not to separate such as children) a celibate life together is the condition to receiving absolution for the divorced-remarried couple.

mandamum said...

Re: remarriage and living in sin --
A friend once pointed out (in a discussion about IVF and frozen embryos) that once you've made one wrong choice, you may end up with "no good options" - all options will be either wrong or painful, or both. Sin has consequences. Agnes, thanks for digging up the FC info - it sort of highlights the two options: wrong (go on as before) or painful (live as "brother and sister" in penitential recognition that you're still married to someone else, despite what your life looks like now, BUT you also have obligations to your children together to maintain a family for them)

Re: the abandoned spouse not being able to marry again -- People who are wounded by the breakup of the marriage may be innocent bystanders and still get wounded. Like someone in a hit-and-run, potentially crippled for life. It would be ludicrous for someone to say to a person in a wheelchair because of a hit-and-run, "It wasn't your fault, so get up and live your life to the full as you were doing before!" I think sometimes people blinded by false mercy feel that it should be possible to say something similar to an innocent deserted spouse in a real marriage, when they want to say, "go ahead, marry the good guy now that the jerk is gone." Since the debility isn't physical and obvious and something you can't help but see.... But in both cases, innocence doesn't guarantee immunity to pain or difficulty.

This all makes me so sad - especially since in so many cases it comes back to hurting kids as Joseph described.

Sharon said...

Darwin, thank you so much for this article. You are "strumming my pain with your fingers, singing my life with your words" here. I am divorced but ten years after the divorce, I would remarry my ex-husband in a minute - if it weren't for the fact that he has gone back to his second wife, to a bad marriage, for the sake of the two children he had been raising alone. Sure, we have eight together and I deeply wish we could share the adult stage of their lives together, but our kids have already grown up with the suffering caused by divorce. The two children from the second marriage have at least some chance to have their mother and father together. Their parents don't have to be happy, they just have to be together in order to show at least those two that when people promise to stay together, sometimes they really mean it.

I have a terribly hard time with people like Fr. Reese. It is as if, to him. the children of divorce don't even exist or are irrelevant, or that if their parents are just allowed to "move on", everyone can rejoice. The ignorance of his position is just breathtaking to me.