An inconvenient truth?

Anthony Towey

We’ve all done it – left the phone somewhere and retrieved it belatedly. I rescued mine from the loft on Bank Holiday Monday 2021 only to find it peppered with missed calls and messages. ‘Scandal’ – ‘a right Carrie-on’ – ‘takes the biscuit’ – ‘a regime sponsorship trick’ – ‘three weddings and 150,000 funerals’. The high-octane communiques concerned Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had been married with the blessing of the Church in Westminster Cathedral. They were likewise all from utterly committed Catholics, who – for once – were united in their disbelief.

Readers of the Pastoral Review will not need me to rehearse the canonical arguments which sanctioned the ceremony. While Canon Law is sometimes cynically framed as ‘the suppression of the love of God for the good of the Church’, it can be as much a tool of permission as restriction. In canonical terms, the validity of this marriage, this bond, this sacrament is not in doubt, and pastorally, any of us would surely wish all parties well for the future, whatever about their past.

Yet the furore regarding this event surely demands a pause for reflection. In the first instance, we have to accept that for most people, the clear distinctions we maintain between the baptised and unbaptised, the Catholic and the non-Catholic, the status of previous liaisons and valid or invalid forms etc. are at best blurred or simply not on the radar. To boot, the way that canonical validity is tested, for example, when someone is seeking an annulment, involves an almost Orwellian revisiting of circumstances to prove that the marriage didn’t ‘really’ happen in the first place.

In fairness, it is as if we Catholics are caught between our core identity as a communion of saints and our being a community of sinners. Do we struggle to countenance the failure of sacramental marriage because our ambitions for it as a state of grace and place of nurture are so exalted? We can marvel at the liberating images of Jesus engaging with the Samaritan woman and the woman caught in adultery in John (4.5–42 and 8.2–11 respectively), but working out how that should play in an everyday parish context is problematic. Likewise, we can be edified by the ideals of marriage set forth in the Gospels while being genuinely daunted by them just as the disciples themselves were (Mt 19.1–10).

The ‘both and’ nature of the Christian life is both cross and consolation. Long ago, Ways of Imperfection by Simon Tugwell made a convincing case for failure as key to the spiritual path, and more recently Richard Rohr has said much the same thing in Falling Upward. Yet none of this is foreign to the New Testament, which has Peter and Paul as its twin pillars of faith and failure combined.

Love, because it exposes our vulnerability, almost uniquely opens us up to experiences of height and depth. Within this issue of the Pastoral Review, we read on the one hand an article on ministry to those suffering grievously in abusive relationships sanctioned by religious communities (Nikki Dhillon-Keane), on the other an article about how a glimpse of love proved a portal through which Dante was able to experience the very vision of God (Valentin Gerlier). Those engaged in pastoral care have to hold out for the possibility of the latter, while not tolerating cruelty in the name of a sacramental ideal.

Amare et sapere vix deo conceditur – ‘to love wisely is a gift scarcely given to a God’ – for a Church the Pope is asking to be reimagined as a ‘field hospital’, might it be timely to consider whether we need to imitate the Eastern Church and allow the divorced to remarry with God’s blessing? Every marriage, every family, every friendship, every encounter is different. It may be an inconvenient truth which demands magnanimity, but each one can be blessed by God in a unique way. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est – for where there is love, there is God.