In the contemporary Catholic church, debates about sexual ethics often underlie debates about the Eucharist and vice versa. No wonder then that the pope’s recent pastoral letter, Amoris Laetitia–a document that focuses explicitly on whether certain sexual sinners should be allowed to receive the Eucharist–has elicited such strong emotions from Catholics of all political persuasions and walks of life.
Consider the following tweet in response to the pope’s recently released pastoral letter by the prominent Catholic intellectual Ross Douthat:“perhaps a useful exercise: Read Chapter 8 [the portion of the letter that some interpret as providing a way for certain re-married Catholics to receive the Eucharist] of #AmorisLaetitia while imagining yourself a Catholic struggling to save a marriage on the rocks.”
More than simply insisting on the inseparability of heterosexual spouses, this tweet pits the re-married against the still-married. What one gains, the other loses. According to this reading, in showing mercy to certain re-married Catholics, Francis betrays those “struggling to save a marriage on the rocks.” When Francis encourages the re-married to return to the Eucharist, he discourages the still-married from remaining as such. In this view, the Eucharist accords marriage a momentum it would otherwise lack, but only if those who purportedly desecrate the Eucharist are excluded from it.
Another Catholic intellectual, Michael Brendan Dougherty, expresses a similar sacramental theology when he critiques Frances for reducing the Eucharist to a “participation trophy.” Although Dougherty adds the caveat that, “the Eucharist is not a prize,” he selects a metaphor that nonetheless treats it like one. Accusing someone of handing out participation trophies works as a critique only when one believes that trophies should be for winners only. Faulting Francis for describing the Eucharist as a prize that anyone can win, Dougherty in fact intensifies the argument for treating the Eucharist like a trophy. Like trophies themselves, when the Eucharist it too easy to win, it loses its meaning. Frances errs precisely by failing to treat the Eucharist like a trophy.
But perhaps some Catholics perceive the Eucharist as a type of reward because they perceive heterosexual marriage, at least the inseparable and monogamous kind, as a type of trial. In this way, for example, Douthat’s tweeted thought experiment paints a picture of a weary woman or man, who, upon reading Francis’ fateful chapter eight, sighs, “what was it all for? What reason do I have to continue on in this marriage?” Here, marriage appears as a type of brutal boot camp, which one dutifully endures and struggles through, only to find out near the end that even those who drop out or forego boot camp entirely can still join the army. Why would anyone continue the course?
Let me more illustrate my point more clearly by playing a game of ad-libs. Douthat’s tweet makes sense only if one understands the Eucharist as a reward for the trial of marriage. The tweet makes no sense otherwise. For example, if the Eucharist operates as a form of medicine, like Pope Francis and other Catholics contend, then his tweet appears absurd, if not mean spirited. For example, we would not expect a recovering alcoholic to respond to news that certain unrecovered alcoholics are now allowed to attend AA meetings by tweeting: “think about this decision by imagining yourself an alcoholic who is struggling to stay sober.” Such a reaction would be quite strange. No one would think their own recovery jeopardized or made by pointless because their same AA meeting welcomes those less successful at abstaining than they.
Catholics, like everyone else on earth, know that marriage can be difficult. But we are not quite sure why we ought to believe it good. We feel a similar ambiguity about why we ought to deem certain types of sexual sin evil. In particular, I argue, the Catholic church cannot decide if civilly re-married Catholics as well as those in same sex partnerships are afflicted or if they are getting away with something.
This ambiguity has deep roots. Aquinas, for example, considered what he called the “unnatural vice” as a species of the vice of lust, that is, the product of an excessive desire for bodily pleasure. But more than simply engaging in “gay” sex in order to avoid procreation, Aquinas seems to believe that one engages in “gay” sex because it is unusually pleasurable. Because Aquinas lacked any notion of sexual orientation in general or homosexuality in particular, he does not believe that only “gay” men would experience “gay” sex as exceptionally pleasurable. Seemingly any man would find sex with a man more pleasurable than sex with a woman. Sex between men, then, qualified as particularly pleasurable in Aquinas’ mind due not to the sexual orientation of the men who engaged in it, but due to the nature of the act itself. While sex with men provided too much pleasure, sex with women provided the right amount.
What about today? On the one hand, during his time as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Josef Ratzinger insisted that “the conformity of the self-denial of homosexual men and women [through celibacy] with the sacrifice of the Lord [on the Cross] will constitute for them a source of self-giving which will save them from a way of life which constantly threatens to destroy them.” Here, Benedict condemns so-called “homosexual acts” because they inflict grave harm on the person who performs them. But, on another occasion, Benedict described “homosexual persons’…inclination” towards “homosexual activity…[as] essentially self-indulgent” (par. 7). Unlike a heterosexual, who loves selflessly and sacrificially by getting married, a homosexual loves selflessly precisely by avoiding sexual relationships.
The church feels uncertain about homosexuality because it feels this way about heterosexuality too. In this way, Benedict imagines heterosexual marriage as simultaneously heroic and the only means by which the human person can “become complete” (par. 11). Just as Catholics cannot decide whether “homosexuals” are afflicted or if they are getting away with something, so are they unsure whether heterosexual marriage serves as a bridle for violent passions, or if it is more like sunshine and good soil. Does it keep evil in check, or does it help goodness to grow?
We cannot decide these questions because we are not sure whether God gives us rules because God wants us to flourish, or if God wants us to flourish only if we follow God’s rules.
This proves particularly true in the case of debates about sexual ethics. For example, did God create human beings in the shape of heterosexual marriage, or did God create heterosexual marriages for the sake of them? If the former, then we should try to make ourselves fit inside of heterosexual marriage, no matter the difficulty, pain, and damage to our limbs and ligaments. If the latter, then we ought to assess the morality of all relationships according to the way that they promote the twin ends of human flourishing and the common good. If the former, then God gives rewards for good sexual behavior; if the latter, then God does not need to.
Ordinarily, of course, self-indulgence does lead to self-destruction. One who eats too much junk food will harm her health. But this seems less and less true in the case of certain acts the magisterium considers sinful. For example, lesbians and gays, like some re-married people, increasingly resemble someone who eats too much junk food but only grows more healthy, not less. In turn, some heterosexually married couples appear as one who follows a healthful diet but still grows frail.
How can the church account for this widening gap between what it perceives to be good for the human person, at least in the case of marriage, and what appears to be good for the human person? When moral laws fail to promote the human flourishing of all those who follow them, we can offer one of the following explanations. One, either structural injustice or interpersonal domination has made virtue artificially disadvantageous and even dangerous. Two, we have misunderstood human nature and what it needs to bloom. Three, God does not want us to flourish, at least not in this life. Four, original sin has so distorted the natural order that connection between flourishing and virtue has been severed; the best we can do this side of the eschaton is keep evil-doers at bay. Five, the relation between flourishing and virtue remains intact, but we lack the capacity to perceive it.
If the church wishes to rejects answers three, four, and five in order to uphold the moral law as both accessible to reason and for the sake of human flourishing as I believe it does, then it must amend the way it pursues sexual truth. More than simply asking what is good for marriage, Catholics must ask when is marriage good for human beings.
Divorce, re-marriage, and gay marriage all ask the Catholic church the following questions: why does marriage apparently possess the capacity to help same-sex couples flourish, while simultaneously impeding the flourishing of some opposite-sex ones? If lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual marriage provides the only route to flourishing, as the magisterium says it does, then shouldn’t it be its own reward? Conversely, wouldn’t same sex relationships, like divorce and re-marriage, be their own punishment?
These questions about sex echo our questions about the Eucharist: does the Eucharist serve as a reward for good behavior, or is it its own reward? Do we let the sinners in so that they can be healed, or do we keep them out until they decide to heal themselves? Indeed, if we believe the Eucharist a privileged form of encounter with God’s grace, why do we not trust its capacity to heal even the worst of us?
Maybe those who consider the Eucharist a type of trophy and those who perceive it more like medicine are both missing something important. What if, like Benedict argues, the Eucharist ultimately marries us to God by bringing us into “union with God through sharing in Jesus’ self-gift,” that is, “his body and blood?” (par. 13). Benedict, perhaps implicitly, suggests that marriage and the Eucharist shed the following light on each other: when you fall in love with someone, you crave their physical presence more than anything else. And you do so even if nothing else comes of it. This kind of love is its own reward.