Pride, Ecumenism, Contraception, and Divorce

There is often a disturbing element of ecclesial pride, even arrogance, in magisterial discussions of the moral and ethical (and usually gender, sexual, and reproductive) issues over which the Roman Catholic church increasingly finds itself differing from other Christian traditions. As I quoted from Häring’s essay on Humanae Vitae,

I frequently heard from the man who worked on Humanae Vitae the argument that it was impossible the Anglicans could be right. [They had approved “the responsible use of means to regulate births” at the Lambeth Conference in 1930.] That would dishonor the Catholic Church.

This probably sounded less startling in the sixties, but to my ears — conditioned by the achievements of the modern ecumenical movement, the participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the WCC Faith and Order discussions, and dozens of bilateral and multilateral dialogues — the intense othering of the Anglicans stopped me in my tracks. They can’t possibly be right, because that would dishonor us? What’s that about? That’s some serious institutional narcissism going on there.

We see the same dynamic expressed less blatantly in Cardinal Mueller’s dismissal of Orthodox practice with respect to marriage and divorce, as David Cruz-Uribe comments and quotes in his post on Two Vexing Questions:

With regard to the solutions adopted by the Orthodox, a practice which under narrow circumstances allows divorce and remarriage for the good of the faithful, Cardinal Mueller dismisses them without engaging them:
Of course, in the Christian East a certain confusion took place between the civil legislation of the emperor and the laws of the Church, which produced a different practice that in certain cases amounted to the admission of divorce.

From a liturgical perspective, it seems far more likely that the sacramental theology of marriage was unduly influenced by civil legislation in the Roman West than in the Orthodox East. Western medieval sacramental theology is intrinsically bound up with legislative imagery. The sacraments were often understood in terms of conferred authority, as in a scheme of licensing: baptism legitimated access to the other sacraments; ordination legitimated administration of the other sacraments; and marriage legitimated access to sex. The Western form of the marriage rite mirrors the contractual understanding of civil marriage that existed in Roman law. “Marriage vows” are considered to be central to the sacrament of marriage, and usually emerge as central to theological discussion of the question of divorce. In rhetoric and colloquial discourse, “marriage vows” serves as a synecdoche for marriage itself.

The Orthodox marriage rite does not include a formal exchange of vows.

Although the marriage ceremony includes a preparatory rite in which rings are blessed and exchanged, signifying consent, the “sacrament proper” is constituted by the Office of Crowning:

On the heads of the bridegroom and bride, the priest places crowns, made among the Greeks of leaves and flowers, but among the Russians of silver and gold. This, the outward and visible sign of the sacrament, signifies the special grace which the couple receives from the Holy Spirit, before they set out to found a new family or domestic Church. The crowns are crowns of joy, but they are also crowns of martyrdom, since every true marriage involves an immeasurable self-sacrifice on both sides. At the end of the service the newly-married couple drink from the same cup of wine, which recalls the miracle at the marriage feast of Cana in Galilee: this common cup is a symbol of the fact that henceforward they will share a common life with one another.
— Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin, 1963), 301

Much of the insistence that the church has no authority to permit divorce is grounded in a model of marriage as a contract which involves three parties: the bride, the groom, and the Lord; and because the Lord never goes back on His word, the contract is irrevocable and indissoluble.

You can’t even make that argument without treating the contract-model of marriage as essential and intrinsic.

What the Roman Catholic church should properly do with the testimony of other churches and/or ecclesial communities is inherently bound up with the operative ecclesiology and ecumenical theology. If Rome is the universal church of Christ on earth, and all other churches are in schism from it, then their testimony can be dismissed: they’re sinners, they’re wrong, that’s why they’re not Catholic.

But if, per Vatican II, our separated sisters and brothers are already in partial communion with Rome through the participation in the life of Christ and the indwelling by the Holy Spirit brought about by baptism — if Catholic and non-Catholic Christians recognize each other as belonging to the Body of Christ — then we all must consider each other’s testimony very seriously indeed.

There is no place here for ecclesial pride, that insists that the Anglicans couldn’t possibly be right, or dismisses the Orthodox practice for its mote of confusion with Byzantine law while overlooking the log of the Holy Roman Empire.

And there should be no dishonor in the church of Rome admitting error, precisely because of its traditional association with Peter. In the gospels, after all, Peter gets it wrong over and over again: then accepts correction without shame, and carries on.

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