Claudius and Coriolanus at the Synod

Synod of Bishops Pope Francis

If I could have the floor at the Synod of Bishops in Rome, I would give this speech.

In William Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus winds up getting himself banished from his native Rome, even though he is the city’s most celebrated war hero. Bent on revenge, the exiled Coriolanus takes up with his old arch-enemies. Together, they march on Rome. The city lies practically defenseless before them.

Coriolanus’ mother comes to his camp, accompanied by her daughter-in-law and grandson. She succeeds in confronting her self-righteous son with his quandary: He has taken up arms against his ungrateful fellow Romans in order to preserve his honor. But he will besmirch his name forever if he sheds his own family’s blood.

So Volumnia counsels Coriolanus: Work out a peace. Preserve everyone’s life. She concludes by saying:

Say my request’s unjust,
And spurn me back: but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest; and the gods will plague thee.

She may know that Coriolanus will not long survive the peace she entreats him to work out. His old enemies, whom he has made his friends in order to avenge himself on his native city—the peace concluded, his old enemies will become his enemies again. He has sworn his loyalty to them for this campaign against Rome, and they will kill him for forfeiting their prize.

coriolanusFor his part, Coriolanus certainly does know that he will die–if he follows her advice. Yet he cannot deny that her request is just. Her “thou art not honest” skewers him, resounding in his ears with all the righteousness of heaven. Or, at least, the line skewers me, whenever I hear it. Her words resound with the penetrating authority of conscience itself.

Let’s imagine someone approaching the altar for Communion at Holy Mass. Imagine that he does not believe. Or, yes, he believes, but he has not examined his conscience at all. Or: yes, he has examined his conscience, and he knows, or at least half-knows, that he is not right with God. He has not worshipped as he should, or he has abased himself somehow. Whatever the case: in the total anonymity of a crowded parish Sunday Mass, he approaches to receive Holy Communion. Somewhere a voice speaks. Perhaps only the angels can hear. Nonetheless, the voice cries out: “Thou art not honest.”

This terrifies me. The honest cry of “thou art not honest.”

Just like this terrifies me:

What if I found myself engaged in the beautiful and sacred business by which we all came into being, the intimate moment of man and woman—what if I found myself in such a moment, but I have promised otherwise? In my case, of course, I have forsworn sex altogether. But imagine another man, one who had sworn fidelity to a different woman.

My point is: To find oneself engaged in a moment that communicates such trust, such complete giving-over of oneself—only to hear the voice cry out in heaven, “What do you think you’re doing? Thou art not honest!”


The commander who holds life and death in his sway. The communicant accepting the sacred Host. The intimates of sex. All alike bear the obligation that penetrates to the very center of a soul. Honesty. To fall under Volumnia’s condemnation in such moments would mean losing one’s footing altogether. Where do I find myself again, after I have received communion or had sex dishonestly?

In Hamlet, Claudius poisons his brother in order to become king and marry the queen. In Act III, after “The Mousetrap” goads his conscience, Claudius tries to pray and repent of his sins. He knows that, in order to have any claim on God’s mercy, he must of course renounce his dishonest gains. He must give up his scepter and his beloved Gertrude.

Another fundamental point of honesty: No one can serve as a judge in his or her own case. Have I made promises of marriage that I think no longer bind me? Then let me submit that claim to a qualified judge, who will hear both me and the one to whom I made those promises. Then, based on laws, the judge can render a decision. “Thou art not honest” would not apply if the competent judge declared: You, indeed, are not bound.

As I believe I have said before, I could see how the annulment process might be streamlined. The standards of evidence might be lowered. After all, these days, no one really has much to gain by lying to an ecclesiastical tribunal. But I am no lawyer, and such things would have to be studied by experts. The Holy Father, has, In fact, empanelled a commission of Cardinals to study just this.

What I simply cannot understand is how anyone could think that an honest person could receive Holy Communion while in a marriage that is unlawful according to the words of Christ Himself. We touch here on the deepest principles of conscience. Obviously no human authority can interfere with those; no human authority can silence the voice that says “thou art not honest,” when I am not honest.

The doors of the Church stand wide open to everyone, and no one should get in the way of anyone’s stepping inside. The doors stand open to people in second marriages. But to make out that conscience does not clearly proscribe approaching the altar under such circumstances; to try to say, “Don’t worry about it!”–that would actually close the door.

The honest person living in a second marriage walks into the Church to pray, knowing that he or she can’t go to Communion without something in his or her life changing. And then we hope in God that somehow it can; somehow a real path of honesty can be found. Because with God there is strength, and clarity, and chastity. And a future that only He knows—a future that will be happy, because it will involve complete honesty.

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