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Synod of the Family: Revisionist Proposals, part 1

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Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna echoes a few points that will no doubt be discussed at the upcoming Synod on the Family.  (No disrespect is intended to this brilliant man who was the secretary that helped assemble the universal catechism.)  Here is one of the controversial points:

A civil marriage is better than cohabitation because it signifies “a formal public commitment.”

I am not sure about this statement.  Both, in my estimation, are bad.  Might we say that one is worse than the other?  And which is worse?  Cohabitation might leave emotional strings, but after a breakup there would be no civil or ecclesial ties to unravel.  The good cardinal seems to think that people are thrown together chiefly because of financial worries; I suspect he is too quick to dismiss the carnal elements and the attitude that “living together” constitutes either a trial marriage or a viable alternative.  He asserts that civil marriages are better, but for the Catholic, what is it really?  Sure, the state would recognize the bond.  Two Protestants or non-believers married in such a way would be truly married, even if only in terms of a natural bond.  However, the Catholic has turned his back on marriage as a sacrament of the Church.  Indeed, in this age of same-sex marriages, we would not even define marriage as does our secular culture.  The bond is not recognized by the Church and thus has no standing before almighty God.  If the marriage fails, a quick declaration of nullity because of lack of canonical form proves this point.  The bond is not worth the paper it is written upon.  Their sexual congress still constitutes fornication and if there were a prior bond, adultery.  How is this good or better?  Will the Church now seek a demarcation within mortal sin?  If the soul is darkened or dead, the persons are no longer disposed to saving grace.  The role of the Church is not simply to help people feel happy or whole but to give them true mercy and joy in the Spirit.  Our mission is to save souls, not to pamper people who have turned their backs on the Church, her sacraments and basic values.  It may be too harshly said, but where Catholics are involved, civil marriages are to cohabitation what Nevada houses of ill repute are to prostitution.  It might give the profession a certain public recognition and standing, but it is no less damning.

Here is another point listed by the cardinal:

“Instead of talking about everything that is missing, we can draw close to this reality, noting what is positive in this love that is establishing itself.”

The good cardinal applies this, not only to cohabitation and civil unions, but also to second unions and same-sex unions.  I will neglect the last possibility in this reflection because I think there is sufficient cause already to reject the assertion for heterosexuals.  That which is missing is paramount and ignoring or excusing its absence leads to a false analysis of the problem.  The fact remains that sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral and sinful.  Marriage is an institution to foster both spousal fidelity and the propagation of the species.  If you are not married, then you have no right to these goods, even if they are feigned.  What do I mean by feigned?  Pretending to be husband and wife does not make one husband and wife.  Similarly, even in marriages, the marital act is what it is.  If distorted by violence or lust, it becomes a parody.  If couples are made sterile through contraception then the basic meaning of the marital act is short-changed and it no longer signifies the bond or renews the marital covenant.  Let me attempt a silly analogy.  A cowboy facing bandits will be thankful for his gun.  However, he will be intensely disappointed when the fighting starts to find that he has no bullets.  Again, that which is missing can be crucial to any scenario.

This notion of finding the positive in sin or wrongful relationships can lead to a distortion in values.  We can say that such tolerance will not affect doctrine, but this has not yet been proven.  Usually the praxis or discipline is imposed to insure a doctrinal teaching.  Certainly I can appreciate compassion and mercy.  We might also admit that certain relationships will take time to correct and heal.  But the problem that many refuse to acknowledge is that there are some relationships and actions that can never be made right.  If a person is married in truth, a second union is adultery— yes, no matter how satisfying and loving is the irregular union.  Living together and sharing sexual congress outside of marriage is not only wrong, it is the cooperation in another’s sin or a spiritual exploitation.  Many couples acknowledge that they cohabitate because this makes sexual activity more convenient.  Is this the positive element we are seeking?  No!  Civil unions provide little extra in terms of foundational substance, especially when there is “no fault” divorce and half of such unions fail.  Couples might say they grew apart, but increasingly the unstated cause of marital breakup is adultery.  Would not kindness to adulterers be demeaning to spouses who struggle to maintain fidelity?

If we look hard enough, we might imagine something positive in the most tragic of situations.  Indeed, I was asked one time about this in regard to hell.  My response was that it was unlikely the devils would find fulfillment in simply torturing damned souls for all eternity.  I suspect that if there be one positive element it might be the intellectual life.  The demons have incredible intellects, albeit without divine illumination.  As creatures without bodies there would be nothing that corporeal pleasure could offer them.  They would probably seek an escape into their minds.  Of course, no matter how high calipered the debates, hell would still be hell.

The love of fornicators and adulterers might be very tender and gentle.  It might be incredibly affirming and life-giving.  The problem is both what is missing and what is supplied instead.  The sacrament is absent and that which should sanctify them brings scandal and grievous sin.  Their union is built upon a foundation of broken promises and a basic deception.  They give what belongs to another.  They give what they have no right to give.  Like a thief, they steal what does not belong to them.

This proposition collapses entirely with a proper definition of love.  Love is ever so much more than feelings.  Love is sacrificial.  Love is a promise kept.  Love is consecrated by God and such lasts a lifetime.

Increasing numbers cohabitate because of financial insecurity.  The bishops should ask, “Are we here to deplore this phenomenon instead of asking ourselves what has changed?”

It is true that there are financial issues that drive couples to live together, although formerly men and women took housemates of the same gender to share a home. Are they less likely to do so today because others will suppose they are gay when they are really straight? I think too great an emphasis is placed on economics as an excuse or rationale for what is happening. In truth, I think there has been an erosion of the meaning and importance of marriage. Many times I have heard young people, particularly those estranged from the Church, say that marriage is “just a slip of paper.” Boys and girls living together do so largely for what the good cardinal might demote as mere fringe benefits. It makes sexual intimacy easier. When young people start spending time with each other their friends will invariably ask, “When are you going to move in together?” A situation that was once judged as scandalous is now judged as routine or expected.

The good cardinal poses “either-or” questions when there should be a two-fold focus.  We are talking about more than living together or cohabitation, but rather about variations of sexual concubinage. The bishops by necessity should “deplore this phenomenon.” Nothing should deflect their disdain. Too often I hear the complaint that we should not shame the girl or couple, especially if they should conceive an illegitimate child. While the Church is pro-life and the baby is innocent; the parents are not. They should be ashamed of themselves, and this goes back to their living arrangements. These are situations where the rights of children are not properly served and there is a heightened likelihood of abortion. The Church’s moral outrage immediately focuses upon what has changed— a lack of shame and a diminution in the meaning of marriage. Of course, then the Church is attacked as intolerant and mean-spirited. We hear echoed a rhetorical question that emanates from those who have no respect for the Church or her authority, “Who are you to judge?” This repudiation of ecclesial moral assessment is then backed up with a listing of all the latest scandals in the Church, particularly regarding pedophilia and pederasty. By comparison, the Church is imaged as the biggest sinner and a hypocrite as well. Critics say we are looking for splinters while we have planks jabbed in our eyes. Unfortunately, objective truth and genuine moral scrutiny is the victim of this back-and-forth. Right and wrong remain what they are even if the one who cites the misdeed is the greatest reprobate on the planet.

Are we really being helpful?  “There is a risk of easily pointing a finger at hedonism and individualism, when it takes much more effort to observe the realities carefully.”

It may be that the good cardinal is critical of the bishops and the Church for making abstract moral judgments without a regard for how the practical situations of people make difficult any fidelity to the divine moral law.  However, the place for pastoral accommodation is in the Confessional, not in general statements of faith.  There has to be a universal standard.  The Church teaches us what ought to be.  The priest in the trenches deals in a proximate way with what is and the effects of original sin.  Saint John Paul II understood this.  He was concise and clear about questions in the moral order.  His theology of the body was the mastery of his genius.  And yet, this same Pope urged priests to show gentleness and compassion to penitents who struggled with the sin of artificial contraception and the manner of their sexual intimacy.  He urged ministers to take people where they found them.  Jesus ministered similarly.  He brought healing and forgiveness to others but nothing of the Decalogue lost its compelling power.  Indeed, some commands became more intense.  The mere hatred of another makes one guilty of violating, “thou shalt not kill.”  The woman caught in adultery is guilty but he saves her from stoning and opts himself not to condemn her.  Rather he forgives her with a warning to avoid this sin in the future.  The writ of divorce is dismissed and those who do so are charged with adultery.  This sounds harsh but it protected the rights of women who were often abandoned and left destitute.

Each case may have complications that surface.  But one would have to be blind not to see how our society is saturated by hedonism.  The natural desire for happiness and the avoidance of pain is amplified to the level where the pursuit of pleasure becomes everything.  While much of the planet suffers squalor and poverty, Western society is enraptured by self-indulgence.  Alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and lurid entertainments saturate our environment.  Keeping the proper custody of the eyes becomes virtually impossible.  Everyone from the elderly to the small child is touched by it.

A stark individualism is often praised in American circles and yet while we delight in freedom, often this can come at the price of another’s rights and the cohesion of duty or obligation for family, for community, and for church.  The slogan for the mentality, at least when it becomes terminal, is the cry, “No one can tell me what to do!”

3 Responses

  1. Thank You, Father Joe , for the eloquent and meaningful writings, I wish all the contemporary males who claim they are still Christians, had the level of your intelligence, shrewdness amd decency …

  2. [Comment Deleted.]

    banned2

    FATHER JOE:

    This person has been banned for some time but insists upon leaving derogatory posts. Here he would insist that no one had a right to question or challenge such suppositions or theories. And yet the good cardinal has sought dialogue, both pro and con, on these views. Indeed, the whole point of the synod is for churchmen to discuss and even debate. I am only one poor priest, but my reflections are rooted in orthodox Catholic teaching. Cecil is a dissenter.

    While some of the guys have blogs sponsored either by their dioceses or by entities like Catholic newspapers, this is a personal blog. Hector is banned from this site but he is desperate to silence priests and any who place Christian orthodoxy ahead of his dissent and vulgarity. That is why his comments are constantly deleted. He feels that priests forfeit their rights as Americans to free speech and any participation in the public forum. Keep the poor man in your prayers.

  3. I ask you father, in all good faith and with all due respect… why aren’t these Shepard of the church brought to heel? If even for their own souls, not to mention the many they lead astray?

    FATHER JOE: I do not know. Some repeat again and again that they intend no change of the doctrine. But what they suggest eats away at the teachings all the same.

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