January 25, 2014

“There’s Only Truth and Falsehood”

– by Alexander Podkul 

Earlier this week the head of Pope Francis’ “kitchen cabinet” offered advice to a Vatican colleague; while the cardinal’s conclusions are short of novel, his rationale and added commentary prove perilous to doctrinal discussions.

In an interview with the German newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger released Monday, Oscar Rodriguez Cardinal Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras (the head of the pope’s Council of Cardinals) provided remarks suggesting his persuasion to reform the Church’s teachings on divorce and remarriage.  The comments were directed towards Benedict-appointee Gerhard Cardinal-designate Müller from Germany, the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  In an article in the Vatican daily from last October, Müller voiced resistance to reform and “firmly rejected growing demands for divorced and remarried Catholics to be reinstated as full members of the Church.”

In this week’s interview, Maradiaga stated: “He’s a German, one has to say, and above all he’s a German theology professor, so in his mentality there’s only truth and falsehood. But I say, my brother, the world isn’t like this, and you should be a little flexible when you hear other voices. That means not just listening and then saying no.”

Apart from the relativist charge of “in his mentality” and the argument’s largely ad hominem premise, Maradiaga’s comments have pinpointed the pulse of recent Catholic doctrinal discussions, viz. the dividing concerns between the doctrinal ideal and the practical reality.  However, it is not the difference, but instead the distance between these opinions that renders this debate precarious.  Instead, Catholic Christians need to recognize that the doctrinal ideal and practical reality are not separated by a chasm of contrast but are necessarily accorded with one another.

To argue that the Catholic Church must reform its doctrine solely from the premise that the Church “should be a little flexible,” in this case, relegates the holy sacrament of matrimony to the dustbin of what Pope Francis has labeled our “throwaway culture.”  Because a doctrine is inconvenient, cumbersome, and consistently challenged is not a defense in and of itself to (borrowing language from Blessed Pope John XXIII) “throw open the windows of the Church.”  In other words, failing to meet an ideal is not a strong defense for altering (or “updating”) that ideal.

In fact, failing to meet the ideal is fundamental to viewing the portrait of a Christian; though called to live in love, mercy, and justice, our sins do not rid us of our aspiration to live as Christ taught us.  Just imagine the absurdity of abandoning our Mosaic axiom that “thou shalt not steal” because, well, people steal.  Clearly, the syllogism does not freely flow toward such a conclusion.  Doctrine, of course, can develop, but only with solid doctrinal and theological justification.

According to the Catholic Herald, Cardinal Maradiaga went on: “Asked about calls for the Church to change its attitude to divorced and remarried Catholics, Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga said the church was ‘bound by God’s commandment’ that ‘what God has joined together, man must not divide.’  However, he explained that there were ‘many ways to interpret’ the commandment, and ‘still much room for a deeper interpretation’ without reversing the teaching.”

Turning the issue on divorce and remarried Catholics into a Scriptural interpretation debate, Maradiaga puts forth a better argument, but one that still falls short.  While God’s commandment from the Gospel of Mark as quoted above is foundational to understanding the Catholic tradition on this matter, it is not alone.  Complemented with the Old Testament’s Sixth Commandment (i.e. as interpreted by the Catholic Catechism) and Canon Law, the doctrinal issue is deeper than adjusting the traditional Scriptural interpretation; it includes reconciling the Tradition itself, along with her sacramental laws, with this newfound interpretation as well.  The Catholic Church, honoring the apostolic Tradition, as part of its ‘rule of faith’ (Dei Verbum 21), is therefore resistant to much reordering.  Though Maradiaga’s idea of Scriptural reinterpretation is a fair start, he must also find an argument to amend Tradition.

While Pope Francis has “signaled openness” to some changes, he has yet to indicate any unilateral changes, moving this conversation to the agenda for the Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2014.

Though tacitly endorsing the status quo position of the Church (albeit, he has suggested the possibility of a ‘solution’), Pope Francis has importantly reinvigorated the debate to focus on the divorced and remarried persons with a spirit of love.  By marrying the doctrinal concerns with pastoral, practical interests, Francis has found himself the mediator of the two poles of the debate.  While Maradiaga and Müller may have their disagreements, Francis has so far evidenced his ability to moderate and bridge the gulf between varying Catholic views.

However, as it stands now, after speaking with Pope Francis, Cardinal Meisner stated, “[The Holy Father] emphasized that when theological questions remain, then there is the important Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to formulate and explain the details.”

For now, Maradiaga will just have to wait until October.

Post scriptum, not all German theology professors are that bad.

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