Our Lady's E-Newsletter: September2015

The Twilight of Catholic Doctrine

In Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy on World War II, there is a remarkable exchange between two British officers as the allied debacle that was the Battle of Crete nears its end. Officers are ordered to remain with their units as the Germans close in, thus ensuring their certain capture and subsequent imprisonment. To one officer, following orders and becoming a prisoner seems to serve no useful purpose: it is merely a demand made by an outmoded and fast-fading code of honor. Avoiding capture appears to him the practical and sensible option, and he has a means of escape.

He asks a fellow officer what he would do were someone to challenge him to a duel. The officer says he would laugh. His companion says that he might well laugh now, but there must have been a time of transition when the general attitude toward dueling was ambivalent: it was still seen by some as a matter of honor, and by others as an anachronism. The officer about to desert his post makes his point: a custom whose perceived relevance is waning passes through a phase during which it becomes a matter of individual predilection rather than strict obligation. (See: Sloth, Disillusionment, and the Higher Chivalry: Evelyn Waugh's Elegiac Sword of Honour Trilogy.)

We might in this respect ask the question: Does society now largely regard marriage as a custom that has reached the twilight of its day? Is it seen as a creature of time or part of a lasting covenant with the timeless? Catholic doctrine, of course, maintains that marriage is indeed a sacrament, a holy covenant with no expiration date. But the winds of change are blowing with great force, and even within the Church, sacramental marriage is twisting in the wind (see: “‘Synod of Doom’ Update: Blueprint for Subversion”).

And many who identify as Catholics conform to cultural norms rather than Church teaching (see: By the numbers: Most Catholics are being run by the culture).

As we near the fateful time of the Synod on the Family in Rome, much excited commentary is coming from various quarters, both within and without the Church. Outside the Church, of course, marriage is regarded by many as a social convention that some find attractive and others do not. It can be dissolved, like any contract, following due process of law. And civil statutes have made access to divorce widely available, regardless of means. Scarcely a poor neighborhood exists now without a business front advertising “quick and easy” divorces for under $400 tucked between the bail bondsman and the liquor store.

The Catholic Church appears poised to offer its equivalent of “quick and easy” divorces through a papally mandated annulment reform that allows a marriage to be annulled within 45 days by single decree of the bishop, or his delegate. (See: “Socci: With Papally-Mandated ‘Catholic Divorce’ destroying a Sacrament, Schism Looms Large on the Catholic Horizon”.) Cost is minimal. Grounds for annulment are various and nebulous and even after they are listed an “etc.” is thrown in to cover any missed possibilities. One can now obtain an annulment on the grounds of “etc.” It makes that great fuss about Henry VIII appear rather silly in retrospect.

Artificial birth control first divorced procreation from marriage. Deliberately sterile unions then divorced sexuality from procreation. The inevitable result of these developments is that any insistence on heterosexual unions as rooted in natural law is now regarded as mere bigotry based on personal preference. And although a child must still issue from a mother’s womb, adoption by homosexual couples has become common, so procreation merely has to do with the point of physical origin.

Family is now redefined as a do-it-yourself affair, with lesbian or gay couples sometimes opting to become parents. Polygamy and polyandry and polyamory are also raising their heads and demanding the removal of any remaining social stigma. The most acclaimed sitcom on network television is called “Modern Family” and it presents the new normal: homosexual unions, conventional heterosexual marriage, adoption by homosexuals, divorce and remarriage, fornication, lesbianism — all are part of the mix; all are welcome; all enjoy parity in the enlightened society that is aborning as we emerge from the darkness of fundamentalist religious bigotry and oppression.

And as bishops from throughout the world head to Rome for the Synod on the Family, they do so following Pope Francis’ radical reform of the annulment process (see: “Pope appoints leading opponents of Catholic doctrine to Ordinary Synod”). The cheap availability of quick annulments will take the edge off discussions about the divorced and remarried receiving the sacraments, as such couples can easily arrange to have their formerly adulterous unions recognized as genuine marriages by the Church. O death of marriage, where is thy sting?

Of course, the situation in most parishes already makes whatever is decided in Rome largely irrelevant in terms of practical result. Divorced and remarried couples are already widely received in Catholic parishes and offered free access to the Eucharist as well as participation in Church activities. The stigma of divorce and remarriage and the bar to the sacraments that is supposed to accompany it are for the most part de jure, not de facto. The new annulment procedure takes care of whatever de jure concerns may linger among the scrupulous. But the typical Catholic parish in the West has long been in step with the modern family.

But the importance of maintaining the integrity of doctrine, even when it is largely ignored in practice, cannot be too greatly stressed. We can recover our good sense and return to the principle of right conduct, so long as that principle remains intact. Once the principle is discarded or forgotten, we are condemned to live in error, for we have no corrective available to us.

As the Synod on the Family nears, Catholics need to be aware of what is at stake: if the indissolubility of marriage can be rejected, along with the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are intrinsically evil, then no doctrine is safe, no moral teaching beyond questioning. This is a moment of unprecedented crisis. (See: “Müller Warns of German Schism. But Only in Germany?”.)

We are indeed in the final battle Sister Lucy foretold, a battle that she said would be about marriage and the family. Our Lady’s Apostolate will be in Rome during the Synod, doing all we can to encourage the bishops to remain faithful to Church teaching. We need your support. We need your prayers. Most of all, the Church needs you now, as faithful Catholics, to stay rooted in the Faith, no matter what happens.

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