Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bishop Bullwinkle and His Funny Hat

Bullwinkle engaged in
profoundly merciful thoughts
I was mildly amused when I ran across a recent headline at Global Pulse: Bishop Offers a Solution on Catholic Divorce and Remarriage. I say amused, gentle reader, because I suffer from the occasional bout of black humor. In reality, there's nothing funny about divorce, and nothing even smirk-worthy when it comes to remarriage. It's serious business. But it was one of those mornings, and the first thing to flash across my mind was the running gag from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show:
Rocky: And now...
Bullwinkle: Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat!
(rips off his sleeve)
Bullwinkle: Nothin' up my sleeve.
(puts his hand in the hat)
Bullwinkle: Presto!
At this point, Bullwinkle would pull out his hand, at the end of which would be one of a variety of animals - all of them very angry and none of them even remotely rabbit-like. As I clicked the link, I wondered what feats of sophistic magic I was about to witness.

Msgr. Jean-Paul Vesco, bishop of the Diocese of Oran in Algeria, was recently interviewed by the French-language weekly magazine La Vie on his proposed theological and legal solution for Catholic who have divorced and "remarried". As a student of Canon Law, Bishop Vesco understands quite well the legal situation of these Catholics. He describes it as follows:
By virtue of the indissoluble character of the first bond - over which the Church has no authority - the Magisterium today considers the state of life of the "divorced and remarried" comparable to obstinately persisting in a state of grave sin (adultery) and they are not admitted to Holy Communion (Article 915 of the Code of Canon Law). The notion of obstinately persisting in a state of sin is the stumbling block that distinguishes "divorced and remarried" individuals from ordinary sinners like all the rest of us because it forbids them from receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. There can be no sacramental pardon without a firm determination to renounce one’s sin. Yet, only this sacramental reconciliation after a grave fault can open the way to the sacrament of the Eucharist.
It looks like a relatively straightforward, open-and-shut case: no renunciation of sin, no firm purpose of amendment, no absolution, no Holy Communion. But remember: Bullwinkle's hat looked empty, too. This is a magic trick, after all.

Bishop Vesco continues:
However, this notion of obstinate persistence in a state of grave sin has, of course, no relation to the life of so many of these couples, who put their hearts into (re-)building a real, fruitful conjugal life, day after day. Their life has nothing to do with the disorder and duplicity of an adulterous life, which presupposes a simultaneous relationship with two people, which is not the case here.
At this point, you might well be wondering if the man who built his house upon sand really put his heart into it, and whether that made one bit of difference when the floodwaters came. But let's not spoil the trick. 

His argument, essentially, is this: Because so many divorced and remarried Catholics don't feel like they're sinning, they're not really sinning at all. 

Apparently, Bishop Vesco thinks that adultery is limited to secretive weekend rendezvous in seedy motel rooms and alcohol-induced frivolity at the company Christmas party, where those involved agree, either implicitly or explicitly, to keep the affair under wraps. This, we may presume, the Bishop would condemn as actual adultery. When, however, it emerges from the shadows to become an established, public relationship, it is no longer right to refer to it as an adulterous affair, but must instead be recognized as a legitimate marriage. This is all the more the case when the spouses involved have really "put their hearts into building a real, fruitful conjugal life." To label such individuals as adulterers would be an "outrage", an "act of violence" perpetrated against the "genuine love" present in such relationships. For, as the good Bishop informs us:
It is not the sacrament that makes the marriage indissoluble; it is the indissolubility of any genuine relationship of love that makes the sacrament possible. Jesus did not invent indissoluble marriage or decree it, but he revealed the sacred character of all genuine human love from the first union of man and woman. Thus the Church recognizes the indissoluble nature of the civil marriage of two non-baptized individuals. Indissolubility does not exhaust the meaning of sacramental marriage, which is the recognition by the spouses that God is present at the heart of their love. This makes marriage a consecration.
Like all good magicians, the Bishop is using what is referred to as a "flourish" to direct our line of sight away from the real action taking place, called the "switch", so that we are thoroughly surprised when he appears to bring forth what is, in reality, an impossibility.

Bishop Vesco is entirely correct when he says that it is not the sacrament which makes a marriage indissoluble. Even natural marriages, i.e. marriages contracted between non-baptized persons, are indissoluble according to natural law, and recognized as such by the Catholic Church. That's the "flourish", meant to confuse you because most people assume that the sacrament is precisely what makes a marriage indissoluble. What he fails to mention is what does make a marriage indissoluble: validity. He's betting that you don't know the actual, objective criteria of validity, and will thus allow him to introduce his own, entirely subjective criterion: genuine love. And that is the "switch" that makes the magic of dissolving the indissoluble possible.

For if the indissolubility of marriage depended upon the presence of genuine love, then one could rightly argue that, where that love is lacking, no true marriage exists. At the same time - and this is key to Bishop Vesco's argument - one could still maintain that the sacrament of marriage is holy, unique and inviolate. For, as the Bishop claims, it is the presence of genuine love which makes the supernatural sacrament possible. Thus, not only could one divorce one's former spouse and marry again without committing the sin of adultery, but one could even have the second marriage - or the third, for that matter - blessed by the Church in the sacrament of matrimony. 

But, like poor Bullwinkle who, though successful in conjuring up an animal, was never quite able to pull a rabbit from his hat, so, too, does the Bishop come up with a legal and, perhaps, even "spiritual" union, but one nothing like a Catholic marriage.

Catholic marriage, while certainly thriving through the presence of genuine love, is rooted in objective truth, not subjective emotion. In evaluating the validity of a marriage, the Church, precisely out of her profound respect for both the union and the partners of that union, must use objectively verifiable criteria. A valid Catholic marriage is an objective, supernaturally grounded reality which no power on earth can dissolve. As Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, recently clarified regarding this "divine and definitive dogma of the Church:"
One cannot declare a marriage to be extinct on the pretext that the love between the spouses is "dead," because the indissolubility of marriage does not depend on human sentiments, whether permanent or transitory. This property of marriage is intended by God Himself. The Lord is involved in marriage between man and woman, which is why the bond exists and has its origin in God. This is the difference.
To identify human emotion, subject to the passions, as that which grounds the indissolubility of marriage is to empty marriage of its objective validity and effectively transform it into a mockery of true marriage as intended by God. But as this is very unlikely his conscious intent, we shouldn't be too harsh on the good Bishop. Perhaps, like old Bullwinkle, Bishop Vesco, too, simply has the wrong hat.

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