Pope Francis seems to be using the telephone to do theology quite a bit. It’s become a public extension of what Catholics call the “internal forum”: we’ve got rules and we’ve got doctrine, but when you get in the confessional with a real person, exceptions can be made based on circumstances. Now the pope is making some of those exceptions public. Recently we learned of a phone chat the pope had with an Argentinian divorced and remarried woman. It’s reported that he gave her permission to go to communion. It reminded me of the priest who in 1955 offered my divorced and remarried mother a private solution that would allow her to receive communion — and how that offer changed my life.
I was about ten years old, a fifth grader at Holy Family Elementary School, a young girl who took religion seriously and had a “spiritual advisor,” the priest I saw for confession and guidance. My mother was divorced and had remarried a Protestant. Because of that, she was going to hell, and this disturbed me. I certainly did not see her as an adulteress, a bad person. In discussing this with my priest, he suggested I tell my mother to come and see him; maybe he could “do something.”
I begged mom to go; she wasn’t much interested, but she went. She was probably curious. When she returned, I eagerly asked what happened. Would she now be able to go to communion? Yes, she could, under the following circumstances. Normally, she would need to leave my stepfather, but since we were a working class family, barely getting by on my stepfather’s wages, she could stay with him — but they needed to agree never to have sex again.
Frankly, the enormity and stupidity of this solution was lost on me, even though my mother’s voice was dripping with sarcasm.
What was not lost on me was the hypocrisy of part two of the solution. We were told that since everyone in the parish knew that my mother was remarried, it would cause “scandal” if she were allowed to come to the altar like everyone else. People would either think it was now OK to be divorced and remarried or that the parish priest was breaking the rules. After all, they would not know my parents were living as “brother and sister.” So, she would need to go privately to the priest’s residence, where he would give her communion. Or, she could go to parishes where she was not known and receive communion. My mother said Thank you, but no thanks.
I was furious. I felt betrayed by the priest. That experience was what made me a Catholic feminist. It eroded all respect I might have had for all the convoluted explanations that would follow about the beauty of the prohibition on contraception. (For example, not having sex for part of the month would bring couples closer together.) It came to mind when I heard bishops claim that they denied that priests sexually abused children and hid them from authorities in order to avoid scandalizing people.
In my years as a public Catholic dissident, I was frequently approached by Catholics whose anger with the church was focused on their own or their parents’ divorce and remarriage. Adults wept or were furious as they described what it felt like to receive their first communion and be the only child whose parents could not receive communion with them. Couples, especially women who knew they were formally considered “adulteresses” within the parish, also felt excluded from important moments in their children’s lives and were too embarrassed to even go to church.
In some parishes, things have changed in practice, while the rules remain the same. All sorts of people approach the altar — cohabiting couples, GLBT couples, contraceptors, and infertile couples alongside their test tube children. As long as one does not demand formal recognition, much is tolerated.
It seems that Pope Francis is inclined to that solution. On birth control, he has said that we need not change Humanae Vitae, which unequivocally prohibits it. We may be able to interpret it differently, but for many Catholics this is not enough. Our dignity requires respect for the decisions we make in good conscience.
It is time to admit that even good marriages fail and people are right to seek a second opportunity at love and family through a second (and even a third) marriage. It is time to accept that using contraception is not sinful. It is in fact what responsible people do when they want to express love for each other when having children would be irresponsible.
It is telling the truth that will save the church from scandal.
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