Pope Francis has issued important pronouncements on (1) the morality of voluntarily choosing to remain childless – many prefer the term “child-free,” but I won’t quibble – and more recently (2) on admitting divorced-and-remarried couples to receive Communion. (This is the original PDF for the latter.) If you are confused by the combination of these two statements, I would counsel you to take heart: your brain probably works just fine; you are most likely just well-informed. In fact, and not to put too fine a point on it, if you really can reconcile (1) and (2) without ruffling a single intellectual feather, you can be certain that something is wrong with your understanding of at least one. (To paraphrase Niels Bohr about quantum theory, if it doesn’t seem strange to you, then you don’t understand it.) For in terms of both pastoral and moral theology, the conjunction of (1) and (2) is, if not outright inconsistent, then at the very least highly problematical. But beyond internal consistency with other statements and religious doctrine generally, statements (1) and (2), singly and in combination, illustrate the kinds of problems that always – not “almost always”, but always – eventuate from founding morality on the basis of (any kind of) “command-centered” monotheism, and then proceeding to follow the resulting ideology with lemmings-over-the-cliff fidelity.
Back in February of 2015, I published a “Skeptic’s Collection” column on issue (1) dealing with the Pope’s categorically negative judgment about any couple’s decision to remain childless / child-free. Now, about 14 months later, I stand by everything I said in that column. But, in order to deal with the childlessness issue within the context of the divorce-and-Communion statement – below – I want to reiterate and to amplify what I said in that earlier column. In particular, I want to draw your attention to a characteristic of the Pope’s moral condemnation of childlessness whose significance will only be clear when we consider statement (2): the utter lack of qualification and nuance in the censuring of couples who voluntarily decline to have children. Indeed, it would not be at all an oversimplification of the Pope’s position – i.e., the Church's position historically – to paraphrase it as “If you are married and have the requisite functional plumbing to beget a child, then you must have children on pain of placing yourself in a state of moral turpitude”. (I suppose a moral theologian might point out that all that is strictly required is, not that the couple actually has children, only that they, in technical terminology, “remain open to life”. But need I point out that couples who decline to use artificial contraception in order to “remain open to life” are customarily described by the technical term “parents”?) In any case, the important point to note is that, between (a) the decision to remain childless and (b) the moral censure arising from (a), there are no intervening or intermediate steps, nor are any needed. Conclusion (b) follows immediately from circumstance (a), as it were, res ipsa loquitur. No reasoning whatsoever is required as to whether the couple would be competent as parents, whether they can support children, etc., etc., etc. – in fact, no considerations at all as to the welfare of the kids or the competence of their parents. Rather, the discursive “distance” between decision and moral censure is precisely zero.
Secondly, and as I briefly noted in my earlier column, this “damn the torpedoes … children at any and all costs” attitude would be considered, not only abnormal, but irresponsible, often even outright illegal, in most other areas of life. Parenting is the only human activity in which the mere expression of the desire to engage in that activity is taken prima facie as competence to do so. Of all other areas of human endeavor, we require some evidence of competence before we approve of someone participating in those endeavors. If a 14-year-old junior-high girl rings my doorbell and says “Mr. Cowles, I have always been fascinated by the human brain and neurology and neurosurgery, so … may I perform brain surgery on you?” If I say “Yes,” then I probably do need brain surgery. Otherwise, I am going to say “No” until she grows up, goes to medical school, and earns her professional credentials. Similarly, aspiring airline pilots and professional athletes have to prove their chops. But when the issue is having children, merely expressing the desire for children seemingly certifies one’s competence -- in, be it noted, both the ambient culture and the Church. Competence to parent is simply assumed by all parties -- except for a few professional cynics like your faithful Skeptic-In-Residence. (Of course, said Resident Skeptic has proposed a mitigating strategy which should, but of course, never will be, adopted.) No further are questions asked … unless and until a Dylan Roof shoots up a Bible study. Then -- but only then, after the damage has been done -- does society ask hard questions about parents' competence.
But now contrast the treatment of the childlessness issue with the issue of divorced couples taking Communion. Suddenly nuance proliferates like crabgrass on a suburban lawn, and the Pope evinces an abounding willingness to painstakingly diagram all the sentences of any sacramental-theological discourse. According to the Huffington Post account, Pope Francis seems open to any number of needle-threading stratagems aimed at the common purpose of permitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to return to the Altar and participate in Communion. Moreover – again, according to the HuffPo account – the Pope avowed that he could “not provide a new set of general rules ... applicable to all cases,” and, instead of an immediately applicable, rubber-stamp, one-size-fits-all rubric, asserted the need for “responsible, personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases”. (So why may not one practice a similar reticence about promulgating "general rules" and a similar respect for the "discernment of particular cases" vis a vis a couple's decision to not have children? Ah! Yes! That is the question, isn't it! You're getting the hang of this ... ) The contrast could hardly be more stark, more striking, between the case-by-case approach regarding divorced-and-remarried Catholics and the matter of couples electing to not have children. The question obviously being begged is: why is an agonizingly nuanced, individual, meticulous, case-by-case approach justified in whether to allow divorced-and-remarried couples to participate in Communion, in contrast to the indiscriminate and summary ethical carpet-bombing of couples who elect to not have children?
The following is my theory ... The decision whether to have children implicates two volatile issues in Catholic theology, both of which are subject to the "command ethic" of monotheism (i.e. acts are right or wrong because God declares them to be such) ... in this case, specifically Christian monotheism. The first such volatile issue is (obviously) sexuality. Monotheistic religion always has a Devil of a time -- as it were -- dealing with sexuality. This is true, not only of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, but also of Judaism and Islam. For reasons too complex to even hint at, sexuality is like nuclear energy, only more so: something that is so powerful, so potentially consuming, that it must, categorically must, be contained within the limits of rules and regulations indelibly stamped with Divine sanction -- rules and regulations, moreover, that are, that must be, utterly rigorous and not subject to mere human interpretation. When it comes to human sexuality, there absolutely must be no "play in the joints". In the Christian, specifically Catholic, case, this need for rigor is amplified by orthodox "natural law" teleological Catholic theology, whereby every element of Nature has a Divinely ordained telos (purpose) that must not be frustrated by mere human agency. The purpose of marriage -- the "containment vessel" for the energy of human sexuality -- is the "unitivity" of the married couple and the begetting of children. (Hence Catholic opposition to same-sex sacramental marriage: it stands squarely athwart the Divinely ordained telos of sexuality, and therefore of marriage.) Moreover -- and unlike sexuality -- whether to participate in Communion is a matter of sovereign individual choice, subject to the dictates of the individual's conscience. (In fact, the orthodox counsel of the Church for Catholics who are conscious of being in a state of mortal / serious sin is usually to refrain from Communion: hence "play in the joints".) That is why there is some "play in the joints" on the Communion-and-divorce issue, but none whatsoever in the matter of the begetting of children.
The problem , of course, is that, while there is no "play in the joints" of orthodox teaching about sexuality and the purpose thereof, there is plenty of "play in the joints" of the actual, lived reality of the human condition. The typical response of conservative Catholics to pointing this out is to say "Well ... people who, for whatever reason, do not want kids should not get married": in the ideal empyrean inhabited by "natural law" theology, one could argue this case in a manner consistent with the teleology of "natural law", because, in that case, natural law and reality would be pristinely consistent. (Personally, I would still disagree, because, being devoutly secular, I summarily reject natural law tout court.) But that is not the world we live in. In the actual world we actually live in, people often fall in love and get married who, for various reasons, are not suited to parenthood and who know they are not. And this is true irrespective of the gender of the parties involved. But because -- so the teaching goes -- the purpose of sexuality has been defined by irreformable Divine fiat, built into the Universe like the value of pi, obedience to monotheism usually trumps the grubby realities of the actual human condition. It also trumps mundane questions like "God's wishes and decrees aside, what practice promotes the welfare and flourishing of actual, living human beings?" In respect of that question -- the only question that deserves to be asked -- the marriage-and-children question and the divorce-and-Communion question are exactly, precisely analogous, in that the answer to both should be determined by the good of actual, living, particular, individual people, who, as we all do, flounder and grapple with the ambiguities of the human condition, theological considerations notwithstanding.
Sometimes God shouldn't have a vote.
James R. Cowles
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