“Father, when you talk you sound like a coach.”
We all play, all the time, the most challenging and sublime of all sports: getting to heaven.
The moral law never struck me as rocket science. God comes first. No sacrileges, swearing, disrespecting legitimate authorities, killing, adultery, stealing, lying, lusting, or being greedy.
The Sixth Commandment binds neither more nor less than any other commandment. That said, the Sixth Commandment certainly means: Husband and wife lovingly conceiving babies = good, sex otherwise = bad.
Raymond Arroyo interviewed one of the prominent Synod-on-the-Family Fathers last week. “Two different Cardinals interpret paragraph 86 in polar-opposite ways, Your Eminence. One says divorced-and-remarried can receive Holy Communion without an annulment. The other says no way. Explain, please.”
Raymond’s expression, as the Archbishop of Washington replies that disagreements like this “are just a part of life”–priceless.
Here’s the thing: We priests need to know what we are about when we hear people’s confessions. People sin against the commandments all the time. People sin against the Sixth Commandment all the time. God forgives. Christ shed His Precious Blood so that we could be forgiven.
That said, in order to give absolution, we confessors have to hear a resolution like this: “I’m sorry I did it, and I won’t do it again.” One of the fundamental ‘dynamics’ of a confession, if you will.
Now, as noted above, sex is either 1) marital or 2) sinful. Between “I’m married to him/her” or “I am not married to him/her,” we do not find any middle categories. I really do not intend here to wax rhetorical. And Lord please preserve me from being obtuse. For me, this is a purely practical matter. The question simply is: How is a priest supposed to give absolution to someone who confesses sex outside of marriage, but does not intend to stop?
Yes: Plenty of people receive Holy Communion without also practicing the equally important habit of going to Confession regularly. And maybe some people exercise “discernment in conscience” about their marital status without going to a priest to confess. I have nothing to say about any of that, other than: Everyone should go to confession once a month. (I try not to make it my business to judge the actions of people who don’t ask me to judge them.)
But I feel like I am completely missing something when high-ranking prelates suggest that maybe I could handle penitents somehow differently…??? Doesn’t a penitent’s marital status determine everything, when it comes to the Sixth Commandment? And doesn’t it really go without saying that neither the penitent nor I have the authority to settle disputes about someone’s marital status?
I don’t think I exaggerate if I say: If either the penitent or I thought that we could unilaterally annul marriages, then we really might as well not bother with the business of a confession in the first place. After all, have I not received the authority to absolve sinners because of a public ceremony in front of an altar involving an irrevocable commitment on my part? If public commitments, entered into as acts of religion, do not really bind, then… well… ah… consecuencias muy malas.
“Pastoral accompaniment,” “reaching out,” “emphasizing mercy.” What do these shibboleths mean? I enjoy visiting people in their homes; I enjoy sitting and talking at coffee hours. I have never refused Holy Communion to any adult who approached either with hands folded and mouth open, or with two hands open and ready.
But if someone comes to confession and mentions having sex outside of marriage, what am I supposed to say? You have to make a decision to live without that, at least until it’s not a sin anymore. What kind of coach would I be, if I said anything else?
I think that, perhaps, the more genuinely merciful thing for us to say, when we speak about things like divorce, would be:
We believe marriage is for life. We believe in big families. The world might greet divorce with a ho hum. But we weep. The world might think weddings mainly mean clothes, cake, and photos. But we think a wedding means an unbreakable covenant with the Lord of life.
Also, when we human beings recognize that the game we play ends with death, and we win by getting to heaven, then whether or not I get to have sex with this or that person right now becomes a matter of relative insignificance.
PS. I still think the most truly and fundamentally confusing thing that has happened in decades/centuries is what happened on February 11, 2013. If we find ourselves confused now, it’s because somebody took a liberty that does not really belong to us shepherds, on that particular day.
Also, my man Ross Douthat can count me in as one of his spear-chuckers on the 21st-century R.C. battlefield.