Mercy My Foot! Anathema Sit!
The Church has always taught–has it not?–that anyone who sins mortally must abstain from Holy Communion until they repent and receive absolution. Further, that a valid marriage is indissoluble and that a civilly-remarried person is living in adultery. However, in the interests of “mercy” an attempt is to be made at the Synod on the Family in October, with support at the highest level, to overturn this perennial teaching, or at least to evade its consequences.
It is therefore good to know that five Cardinals of the Church and four other scholars have launched a powerful counter-attack, in a book entitled Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press). The various studies in this book lead to the conclusion that the Church’s longstanding fidelity to the truth of marriage constitutes the irrevocable foundation of its merciful and loving response to the individual who is civilly divorced and remarried. So the book challenges the premise, put forward by Cardinal Walter Kasper in particular, that traditional Catholic doctrine and contemporary pastoral practice are in contradiction. The authors therefore believe it is vital to uphold the Catholic Church’s sacramental discipline concerning marriage and communion.
One of the arguments put forward for admitting civilly-remarried divorcees to Holy Communion is that the Orthodox Church allows this in certain circumstances, under the principle of what is called oikonomia . It is suggested that the Catholic Church should adopt this concept and follow the Orthodox example in this area. It is therefore reassuring to read the comments of Pater Augustinus, a former Orthodox monk. I’m reproducing his argument at some length. I hope you find it as helpful as I did.
I’m a monk of the Orthodox Church converting to Catholicism. I have decided to do this on many grounds, pretty much all of them dogmatic. But though my realization of the Truth of Catholic dogmatic theology was a gradually increasing thing, there were two things from the get-go, that made me realize Catholicism’s doctrinal witness had to be taken seriously. Having read the Fathers on how to discern a vocation either to married or religious life, it was clear that the Fathers had a very definite understanding of marriage and sexuality; this specific understanding led them to recommend the celibate life to all who could embrace it, and to insist that if a Christian did want to keep one foot in the world, his or her sexuality was to be exclusively reserved for marriage, marriage itself being directed to a particular end: the raising of godly offspring in a committed unit that formed the basis of society and mirrored the indissoluble bond between Christ and the Church. In the whole context of their views on marriage and sex, two things were inescapable: first, contraception is incomprehensible for the Christian marriage, since they tended to view marriage itself as a good, albeit as still a sub-optimal concession to worldly desires that was only justifiable on the grounds of producing children and raising them in the Faith; second, marriage is necessarily permanent so long as both spouses live, both because of its duties and obligations under natural law, and also because of its sacramental character. Orthodox may attempt to pride themselves on greater fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition in some external custom or other (ancient calendars, fasts, seasons of kneeling vs. not, etc.), but it was absolutely clear to me that she has come adrift from basic Christian doctrine on marriage and sexuality. This is a matter of doctrine, not mere practice, and this should give many Orthodox pause, as it gave me: I reckoned to myself, “If Catholicism is false and Orthodoxy is true, why is it that Catholicism still teaches the truth about marriage and contraception, while we have abandoned it?” The doctrinal vagaries surrounding the Filioque and Papal Infallibility can be debated until one is blue in the face; the crystal-clear Patristic and Apostolic (and Scriptural) teaching that marriage is forever and excludes contraception, can not (at least, not by honest, above-board people). I think it would be tragic, to see Catholicism even flirt with this “oikonomia” idea, when her doctrinal fidelity was, for me, a very clear witness to her real claim to be the Church.
And as one who was in the Orthodox Church, allow me to tell you that this “oikonomia” concept has been utterly abused within Orthodoxy to justify any and every breach of canonical discipline. This is nothing that Catholicism should want to introduce. The proper use of “oikonomia” is “good management of an household” (which is what the word means). That means that, often, stricture is just as much a part of “oikonomia” as indulgence. The proper way to use economy is found in the Latin term “dispensatio,” which is how the Greek term was always translated. The Latin term means “to weigh out,” “to measure out,” “to pay out.” The idea is that a dispensation tries to attain the same good as the law was intended to attain, by weighing all the variables in particular circumstances. One does not simply “do away with” the law; one tries to achieve the law’s intent by another means. Sometimes this may result in relaxing the discipline of the law, when circumstances indicate that enforcing the full brunt of the law would actually do harm to a particular person in particular circumstances. But obviously, this power of attaining the law’s good intent through selecting a different approach after the prudent weighing of all factors, does not extend to violating truth or corrupting morality, since this is never the law’s intent. It would be the opposite of the law’s good intent. Catholics! Take it from an ex-Orthodox monk: flee this spurious “economy” that flouts the authentic understanding of that term! So distorted has Orthodox theology become, that they regard non-Orthodox sacraments as always invalid, but still believe they may be considered valid “by oikonomia”. How does a principle that allows for making prudent judgments in the administration of canon law, have anything to do with making sacraments valid or invalid retroactively? What good is such a befuddled concept of oikonomia? I knew an Orthodox priest, married, who worked as a psychiatrist; he had an affair with one of his patients, which even secular folk regard as crime that merits losing one’s right to practice medicine, yet his bishop allowed him to divorce his wife, “re-marry” with the patient, and “return to priestly service”, all in the name of “oikonomia.” Mercy my foot! Where was mercy for the man’s wife? For their kids? For the community that would rather not have a lying, fornicating adulterer for their parish priest? For the other women the man may victimize, now that he knows there are no consequences for his action? This is where such an idea of “oikonomia” naturally tends, and to this understanding of “oikonomia,” I say: anathema sit! It should be a great shame to the Orthodox that they tolerate this mealy-mouthed treason against the faith; Catholics should pride themselves on having none of it. It is one of the reasons I took Catholicism seriously, and eventually came to confess her as holding the true faith.
I am indebted to Fr John Zuhlsdorf’,whose blog What Does the Prayer Really Say? carried this eye-opening statement by Pater Augustinus.