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Is the status quo really the best way to have a better church?

 |  NCR Today

I would like to take issue with a few points made by Ross Douthat in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

The piece offers a critique of Cardinal Walter Kasper's remarks to assembled cardinals and his follow-up interview with Commonweal magazine. Kasper was presenting a moderate approach to addressing the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. He was looking for a middle path between rigor and laxity, with a focus on mercy and compassion.

Douthat notes that such a path already exists. He says a Catholic whose conscience tells him he can receive Communion can find a pastor or parish who will admit him to the sacraments. I am confused by this position. Is Douthat happy that this loophole exists? Does he believe that there are indeed remarried Catholics who should be able to receive the sacraments? If so, why would he choose to leave such a possibility outside the teaching realm of the church? Such a procedure simply leaves many faithful Catholics confused and in doubt. Surely, it would be better to make the position of the church clear so Catholics would know what recourse they may have if they find themselves in an untenable situation.

Douthat's next point is that if there is such a change, people will stop seeking annulments. He doesn't know this to be true; it is merely what he thinks may happen. Yet one clear expectation of the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family is that the granting of annulments will be made easier. Some annulments may even be granted at the local parish or diocesan level.

In general, the thrust of this opinion piece seems to be that the status quo should be retained because of possible consequences. He says he is not talking about a slippery slope, but he is. His focus is on what might happen: fewer annulments, a loss of belief in the indissolubility of marriage, an increase in the Catholic divorce rate. He is even concerned that the press may misconstrue the significance of any change. Can he mean that we should not help members of the faithful in need because the press may not grasp the meaning of what we are doing and why we are doing it?

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For Douthat, the conversation seems to be about rules and the need to maintain what Scripture and the church have said about divorce. Much could be said on this topic, and the debate rages on, but let me make two points. In Matthew 19, Jesus says there can be no divorce except for "porneia." Scripture scholars cannot agree on what this Greek word actually means. In any case, it is clear that an exception is indicated. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul speaks about divorce. The important point is that Paul feels comfortable in adapting the words of Jesus to his flock. He tells them, "Jesus says, but I say." From day one, the apostles adapted the words of Jesus, and the church under the Holy Spirit was precisely the venue given to us to ensure that Jesus words continue to have meaning for us today.

One approach to such human problems is to stick to a rulebook that admits no exceptions. Such an approach backs the church into a corner where there is no longer the possibility of responding meaningfully to the world in which we live. We should want to avoid being like the fundamentalist who is stuck with reading Genesis, where it clearly says that the world was created in six days.

The better alternative, I believe, is to focus on people rather than laws. We need to focus on people, their individual circumstances, and the reality of the challenges they face. We need to respond to them with the love and compassion of Jesus. It is sometimes hard to understand how a religion founded on love and mercy can so often fail to reach out to the faithful that are the object of the church's mission. We know the Jesus of history resisted aspects of the law. He healed on the Sabbath, and he made clear that it was not ritual purification that made one clean. We cannot be faithful to Jesus and ignore the cries of the poor and those in need of spiritual comfort and nourishment.

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