13 apr 17
The instructions laid out two months ago by the general of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, on “what Jesus really said” regarding marriage and divorce have not fallen on deaf ears.
On the contrary, some among the Jesuits have been the first to apply them in full. To conclude that “once a marriage is dead” Jesus too would allow divorce today.
The Jesuit who has drawn this conclusion from the premises set up by his superior general is not a nobody. He is Fr. Thomas Reese, former editor of the magazine of the New York Jesuits, “America,” and a prominent writer for the “National Catholic Reporter.”
He has done so in this commentary published April 6 on National un-Catholic Reporter:
But before presenting his argumentation, it is helpful to reread what Fr. Sosa said in the interview with the blog Rossoporpora last February 18, as well pondered as it was explosive, published only after he had reviewed it word by word.
In order to know “what Jesus really said,” the general of the Jesuits stated in that interview, it has to be kept in mind that “at that time, no one had a recorder to take down his words. What is known is that the words of Jesus must be contextualized, they are expressed in a language, in a specific setting, they are addressed to someone in particular.”
Therefore – he continued – in order to understand what Jesus meant by his saying: “no human being must separate what God has joined together,” it is not enough to stop at the letter, but one needs to “bring [it] into discernment,” as Pope Francis does, without becoming rigid over what in the Church has become doctrine, “because doctrine does not replace discernment.”
So then, Fr. Reese begins by citing the words of Jesus on marriage and divorce:
“Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. Whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (Mt 19:6,9).
“In the minds of the critics of Pope Francis” – he says – these words “are clear and definitive and end the discussion.”
Immediately afterward he writes that, however, “there are at least three reasons that these words from Jesus do not prove that Pope Francis is wrong in opening up the possibility of some divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion.”
– The first reason is that “Jesus said a lot of things that we do not observe literally without exception.”
And he gives numerous examples, such as never to swear by anything in heaven or on earth. And then he wonders:
“Why do we insist on enforcing the words of Jesus on divorce literally without any exception, when we find all sorts of wiggle room in many of his other sayings?”
The second reason is that “Jesus does not list any punishment for divorce and remarriage. He does not say such persons will be consigned to hellfire. He does not say they should be excluded from the Christian community. He does not even say they cannot go to Communion. He does not say they cannot be forgiven.”
While instead “he does list punishment for other sins,” in particular for those who do not give food to the hungry, do not give drink to the thirsty, etcetera. A sign that for him these sins are much worse than divorce, in spite of the fact that the Church sees it the other way around. And in any case, it is not a given that even the threat of hell should be taken “literally.”
– The third reason is “the historical context” of the words of Jesus. “Where Jesus lived and taught, divorce was only available to men,” so much so that in the Gospel of Matthew he speaks only of repudiation of the wife by the husband. And if he prohibits this, it is in order to no longer expose women to the ostracism that punished all the repudiated.
“It was not until the 19th Century,” Fr. Reese continues, “that divorced women began to get some protection from the civil law. As a result, divorce was clearly a devastating injustice to women for most of human history. Jesus quite rightly condemned it since practically all divorces were done by powerful men to powerless women.”
In parentheses, Fr. Reese points out that “Mark, whose gospel was used in Rome made the teaching of Jesus gender neutral,” having him pronounce also a condemnation of repudiation of the husband by the wife, and of her remarriage. And the evangelist did this “because in Rome upper-class wives could divorce their husbands.”
This observation should be enough to demolish his entire argument. But Fr. Reese drops it and arrives at this peremptory conclusion:
“Today we live in a different world. How can we be so certain that Jesus would respond in the same way to divorce today? True, most divorces involve sin, moral failure and great pain. True, in most divorces women get the short end of the stick. Divorce is not something to be shrugged off, but once it has happened and a marriage is dead, can there be a possibility for healing and life in the future? Francis thinks so. So do I.”
Not just communion for the divorced and remarried. Fr. Reese goes much further. In the name of Jesus, he liberalizes divorce and also has it liberalized by the pope.
Who, in effect, the only time he has commented on Jesus’ words on marriage and divorce in a homily of his, at Santa Marta last February 24, did not take them literally at all, but even went so far as to say that “Jesus does not respond whether [repudiation] is licit or not licit.”
If this is the “discernment” that the superior general of the Jesuits has said must be exercised over the words attributed to Jesus by the Gospels, it must be noted that not only Fr. Reese but also the Jesuit who has risen to the see of Peter have abided by it. With the conclusions that are plain to see.
To no use, evidently, have been the numerous criticisms (most recently by Cardinal Raymond L. Burke) of Fr. Sosa’s interview, including the in-depth “Memorandum” sent to the pope and to the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, which Settimo Cielo covered at the end of March.
Fr. Sosa replied to these criticisms on April 9, in an appearance on TgCom24, reiterating “in toto” all of his ideas:
“No one has a written or recorded register of the words that Jesus said. The Christian communities wrote the Gospels to hand down his words, but a long time afterward and through different communities of reference. Moreover, the words of Jesus must be understood in their context, and the Church, understood in the broad sense, interprets. Doctrine emerges somewhat from this interpretation that the Church makes. When one interprets, it is in order to understand better what Jesus said directly. If we understand better what Jesus said, then we understand better how we should behave in order to be like him.”
But if, as Fr. Sosa says, it is the Church “understood in the broad sense” that “interprets” the words of Jesus, are a couple of Jesuits really enough – together with a confrere pope – to overturn what has been said for two millennia by the Fathers of the Church, the popes, the councils, and, before them, by the Gospels on the indissolubility of marriage?