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."