Aaron Taylor over at First Things laments about moral relativism as he writes about giving communion to the divorced and remarried, but does so for a reason I find deeply refreshing:
The attitude of these priests reflects, for the most part, the historic Catholic modus operandi: on the one hand, clear and demanding moral standards, known to all (or easily discoverable by all who care to know); on the other hand, a lackadaisical approach to enforcing those standards. In other words, a preference for the Southern European approach to rules over the Anglo-Saxon model that demands law be rigorously enforced or else scrapped.
This modus operandi is delicately balanced, however. When moral standards themselves are relativized, what emerges is not a Church in which everyone simply moves on from the idea of mortal sin. It’s a Church in which remaining moral standards are increasingly contradictory. When one group is excused from obedience to law, more exacting standards are required elsewhere, in an attempt to re-balance the mystic scales of justice—deflecting attention to the sins of group B to excuse the sins of group A.
Consequently, the current direction in the Church is not (as conservatives fear) toward adopting progressive sexual mores, but more in the direction of conservative Protestantism—which, for the most part, has jettisoned or twisted biblical teaching that conflicts with those aspects of the sexual revolution that appeal to heterosexual males, while ramping up the opprobrium against everyone else. While gay evangelical teens kill themselves in despair, heterosexual adults who shame them live indistinguishably from non-Christians.
The same approach is gaining a foothold in the Catholic Church. Want heterosexual sex without its natural consequences? No need to breed like rabbits. Having an affair? We’ll accompany you while you discern how your new sex life accords with God’s will. Want to cohabitate? Your relationship might have the grace of a marriage anyway. But a Google news search for “gay teacher fired by Catholic school” returns over 13,000 results.
In effect, everything is slouching toward a dull, Protestant piety in which some sinners are condemned in such ways that their repentance and inclusion in the community of the faithful becomes impossible, while other sinners are given a pass because their sins are so … ordinary.
Hardly sins to begin with.
Rather than arguing for more well-adjusted, well-ordered moral rectitude, Taylor examines the life of 19th French poet Paul Verlaine (and, obliquely, Oscar Wilde), whose relationship with the church was tumultuous, and “he spent the rest of his life [after his imprisonment for sodomy] oscillating between periods of fervent devotion and drunken escapades with prostitutes.”
Imagine, however, that Verlaine had lived not in the 1870s but in the 2070s, that he had converted into a Church stripped of black-and-white thinking about sin and grace, in which priests are schooled in the arts of “discernment” and “accompaniment.” Verlaine could then have been assisted to appreciate the positive dimensions of his relationship with Rimbaud (or of his encounters with prostitutes), relax, and let go of the rigid moral thinking that left him racked with guilt.
Some souls need the emotional intensity that faith and redemption brings, because some people lead dissolute or disreputable lives and still find redeeming faith, even an emotional and spiritual intensity in the encounter with God. Taylor writes that Verlaine clearly did. But we cannot have such people in the church today. Our piety won’t allow it, our bourgeois sensibilities won’t allow it (because such lives represent a threat to an increasingly tenuous bourgeois order), and frankly, our lawyers won’t allow it either.
And so … the church becomes a dull collection of calm, bourgeois at prayer whose only acceptable enthusiasm is political activism. As Taylor writes:
The disappearance of the Verlaine-style “bad Catholic” from the contemporary Catholic landscape is not a sign that everyone became holy in the 1970s. It is a serious impoverishment. Those who are forgiven little, love little. Sin is ugly, but it is part of the moral economy that makes grace intelligible. Without it, the narrative of salvation history looks somewhat ridiculous, for what do we need saving from? There can be something beautiful about the life of someone who genuinely struggles with sin instead of making excuses, and beauty is indicative of truth.
And Taylor then quotes Oscar Wilde, a man with his own troubled relationship with the Church: “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”
The church in America, progressive and conservative, seeks to be nothing but a community of the respectable, a community of the well-adjusted and well-ordered, a community of those forgiven but who really haven’t done anything so wrong that they need forgiveness. (Remember the lived creed of most of the church: “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly don’t deserve it.”) I suspect most American Christians, while confessing an anodyne sin-nature, would likely echo Donald Trump’s sentiments that they haven’t really done anything wrong enough to need God’s forgiveness. (Though many would also be overcome with liberal guilt about the state of the world as well.)
Into this community, no one else is allowed. Not really.
I do think Southern Baptists understand what Taylor misses, at least on the edges, with the notion that “one must sin in order to be saved.” But it would be nice, somewhere, to find a church community that gets, truly gets, you can sin, and still be saved.