Not being Catholic, there’s a limit to how much interest I can muster in doctrinal disputes within the Church. Sometimes it feels somewhat like watching pro wrestling, which is another spectacle where my lack of faith in the actors leads me to be suspicious of and ultimately ambivalent about the outcome. But, okay, I might have been raised Catholic if a priest in Kansas hadn’t told my maternal grandfather that he needed to get remarried to my grandmother because their non-Catholic marriage was illegitimate and their children were bastards. My grandfather was stationed at Fort Leavenworth during World War Two, and he wanted to join the Catholic Church. Instead, he was left with a lifelong antipathy.

So, when it comes to the issue of the Church recognizing marriages (whether they be non-Catholic or second or third marriages), it is at least of some relevance to my family history and my life.

So, when a synod on the family spoke of admitting the divorced and remarried to communion, it was something that made my ears perk up.

Yet, for some folks, this was a step too far. Listen to New York Times columnist Ross Douthat:

Over all, that conservative reply has the better of the argument. Not necessarily on every issue: The church’s attitude toward gay Catholics, for instance, has often been far more punitive and hostile than the pastoral approach to heterosexuals living in what the church considers sinful situations, and there are clearly ways that the church can be more understanding of the cross carried by gay Christians.

But going beyond such a welcome to a kind of celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally, as the synod document seemed to do, might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained. And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

SUCH a reversal would put the church on the brink of a precipice. Of course it would be welcomed by some progressive Catholics and hailed by the secular press. But it would leave many of the church’s bishops and theologians in an untenable position, and it would sow confusion among the church’s orthodox adherents — encouraging doubt and defections, apocalypticism and paranoia (remember there is another pope still living!) and eventually even a real schism.

This is presented as dispassionate analysis, meaning that Mr. Douthat could be merely making statements of what he believes to be fact without endorsing such reactions himself. But he goes on to all but endorse a kind of insurgency against Pope Francis and his heretical ways.

Francis is charismatic, popular, widely beloved. He has, until this point, faced strong criticism only from the church’s traditionalist fringe, and managed to unite most Catholics in admiration for his ministry. There are ways that he can shape the church without calling doctrine into question, and avenues he can explore (annulment reform, in particular) that would bring more people back to the sacraments without a crisis. He can be, as he clearly wishes to be, a progressive pope, a pope of social justice — and he does not have to break the church to do it.

But if he seems to be choosing the more dangerous path — if he moves to reassign potential critics in the hierarchy, if he seems to be stacking the next synod’s ranks with supporters of a sweeping change — then conservative Catholics will need a cleareyed understanding of the situation.

They can certainly persist in the belief that God protects the church from self-contradiction. But they might want to consider the possibility that they have a role to play, and that this pope may be preserved from error only if the church itself resists him.

Of course, I am aware that this dispute rests on very unambiguous language in the New Testament. The following is from Chapter 10 of the Gospel According to Mark:

2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

The pope would seem to be precluded from facilitating a divorce or of recognizing one as “lawful.” And that’s been the Vatican’s take on matters, with certain exceptions carved out for annulments. Is this pope ready to relax that harsh standard? Would it actually invite a schism within the Church if he did?

I can’t really relate to the sacramental aspects of Catholicism, but I do recognize that marriage is a sacrament, and this puts it in a different category from how, say, the Church handles birth control. And, in any case, this isn’t my fight. But I do think it would be a shame if a modern “hardness of heart” led a faction dedicated to the inerrancy of the Church’s teachings on marriage to create a new schism within Catholicism.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at