The question I ask is one of ideology, rather than ecclesiology. The heart of the Catholic Church is Jesus Christ present to us in the Eucharist. The heart of the Catholic belief system is a way of understanding this presence. Catholicism is not just whatever the reigning pope says, or even a mere aggregate of what past popes and councils have said. If Catholic belief were just a two-millennium long pile of arbitrary bureaucratic memos, there would be no coherence to it, and orthodox Catholics would have no ground for resistance when prelates at the highest level plot to undermine the faith, as they are now doing through the coming Extraordinary Synod for the Normalization of Adultery. No, the pronouncements of the Church, especially her creeds, are a wonderful witness to the Catholic faith, but the faith they witness precedes them. It derives from the ecclesial-sacramental system instituted, as we believe, by Christ Himself and as interpreted through a distinct Catholic perspective. This perspective is unitary, internally consistent, tightly interconnected, and rationally and imaginatively compelling.
What is the essence of this Catholic perspective? What is distinctive about it? I’ve just finished an essay trying to explain it in 15 pages, already a feat of condensation if I do say so myself. Let’s see if I can give the gist of it in one.
Start with the core assumption nearly everyone makes about religion: that what is really meaningful in religion and in life itself is what is most private: my oh-so-sublime spirituality, my oh-so-pure intentions, my freely chosen and freely maintained relationships, and so forth. Now suppose that the truth is the exact opposite. Look at your soul honestly, and you’ll see it marked through and through by indeterminacy and ambiguity. Your desires are a mess of contradiction. You love God, yet you rebel against Him, and how can you know which is your more fundamental orientation? Both good and evil motives worm their way into your every act. Your very freedom seems to block you from making anything definite of your life. Any commitment you make today, you might unmake tomorrow, and why should one moment’s will have authority over another’s? To the extent that you are master of yourself at this moment, to that same extent you are master of yourself at only this moment. And yet a life whose meaning is renegotiated every day can have no overall meaning–no core narrative or definitive resolution.
The only rescue from the indeterminacy of the subjective is to appropriate meaning from the outside through the use of symbols. The meaning of a symbol is not in the minds of its participants; it is an objective fact of the public world. As intensional and yet mind-transcending realities, symbols are not limited like personal statements are to the comprehension and identity of their speaker. An entire community can perform a numerically single symbolic act whose objective meaning is not wholly grasped by any individual participant. And yet we can make the symbol’s full meaning ours by consciously affixing our assent to it. Through the natural symbols of human nature and the supernatural symbols of the Church, God has, one might say, lent us His own words for our use, allowing us to impose meaning on our lives–made definitive through His borrowed authority–and to worship Him worthily.
God’s ultimate gift to us is to make us His sons, participants in the relationship that eternally exists between God the Father and God the Son. For this to happen, it was necessary that the Son’s filial self-offering to the Father be more than Jesus’ private spiritual state. It had to be placed in the public realm as a symbol for appropriation by others. The sacrifice of Calvary was this symbol, a symbol whose depth of meaning surpasses anything merely human and encompasses the fullness of the Son’s self-defining relationship to the Father. We incorporate ourselves into this divine sacrifice through its re-presentation in the Eucharist.
This alertness to the embedded symbolism of the public world and its role as a mode of God’s presence to the soul informs all Catholic beliefs. It is the origin of everything distinctive in our moral code: our prohibition against murder (even the popular kinds like abortion and suicide) from the symbolism of the human being, our sexual morality from the holy and immutable meaning of the conjugal act, our conservatism from the awesome symbolism of political authority. One finds it very strongly in our concept of vocation. In every marriage and ordination, God empowers a person to give an overall form and project to his life. God’s borrowed authority gives the vow a definitiveness that places it above the reach of that person’s often fickle future will. God gives one the freedom to overcome freedom and to fix oneself on a central life commitment through which the soul can be challenged and grow. Lastly, the final resolution of each life and the definitive victory over sin, something we are powerless to give to ourselves with our own isolated autonomy, is provided by God’s judgement and His grace operating in the cleansing fires of Purgatory.
The Church’s absolute prohibition against divorce and remarriage is not a minor issue, not something on which any compromise is possible. Any compromise would mean setting utilitarian considerations above respect for objective sacramental meanings (in this case, the explicit promise of fidelity till death, which means what it means regardless of any private provisos in the minds of the participants) and the existential mastery of irrevocable life commitments (since if they were to be revocable, they could no longer be life-ordering). But this would be to sacrifice the essence of Catholicism and to throw us back into the prison of subjectivity.