Some years ago, I was in Africa working on a book and found myself in a car with a senior African bishop. At one point his cell phone rang, and, looking at the number, he said he needed to take the call.
The caller turned out to be a deeply faithful Catholic woman the bishop was trying to console. Her husband had walked out on her, leaving her penniless to care for four children. Out of spite, he also refused to go along with an annulment — a finding from a Church court that theirs was not a valid marriage, freeing both to remarry.
In desperation, the woman remarried outside the Church and was struggling with the fact that her situation made her, under Church law, ineligible for Communion. The bishop finished the call, and then turned to me in obvious frustration.
“You know what kills me?” he said. “I can’t give her Communion, even though it’s the rascal who left her who created this mess …. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
The episode returned to mind this week, as Pope Francis once again took up the topic of divorced and remarried Catholics.
On Wednesday, the pontiff called for greater compassion for such folks, but didn’t address whether the Communion ban should be relaxed. That issue proved intensely polarizing at a summit of bishops in Rome last year, called a “synod,” and will be on the docket when the bishops gather again this October.
Francis made a few points on Wednesday that seemed to back change and others to discourage it, including stating that remarriage after divorce “contradicts” the sacrament of marriage. Parsing him is important, because while a synod can float ideas, the pope decides.
One hopeful moment for those supporting reform came when Francis referred to a 1981 document from Pope (now saint) John Paul II that said it’s important to “discern well” among different situations, such as the difference between “suffering” a break-up and “provoking” it.
That common-sense distinction represents a powerful argument for the reform camp.
When German Cardinal Walter Kasper argued for readmitting some divorced and remarried believers to Communion in a celebrated speech before the College of Cardinals in February 2014, he cited abandoned spouses who remarry for the good of their children and who can’t walk away from their new unions without doing further harm.
Kasper and his allies insist they’re not proposing to repeal Church teaching that marriage is permanent. Instead, they say, people who remarry after divorce would be admitted to Communion only after careful discernment, presumably including how much responsibility they bear for the failure of the first relationship.
It’s worth pondering, however, how this kind of “discernment” might work in practice.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the pope authorizes bishops around the world to invite divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion on a case-by-case basis, and in turn, the bishop authorizes parish priests to make those calls.
Suppose you’ve got two people whose marriage broke up, both of whom have remarried. Also suppose Father X allows one party to come to Communion, on the basis that he or she wasn’t at fault or has done appropriate penance, but not the other.
Human nature being what it is, how do you suppose that other party would react?
In some cases, at least, the second party would doubtless cry foul.
Some would rail that the priest is biased, or that he doesn’t know the whole story. They’d want to appeal to the bishop, and if they don’t get satisfaction, they’d want to take the case to Rome.
That’s been the experience with the annulment process, and it’s hard to see how this would be much different.
Two consequences seem fairly predictable.
First, bishops would probably feel the need for an objective forum to resolve such disputes, which basically means a court. What starts out as a pastoral process could quickly turn into a legal one, with all its contentiousness, delays, and cost.
A legal process would almost certainly be needed to avoid the risk of arbitrary judgments or shopping around to get the desired answer. It’s worth remembering that marriage law in the Church arose in the first place in response to just such challenges.
Part of what drives reformers is a laudable aim to ease the pain of a broken marriage, but the practical reality is that asking clergy to make these judgments may only compound the ugliness.
Second, many pastors might not want the grief, and therefore would be tempted to say yes to almost anyone who asks. (By way of analogy, many civil judges were thrilled with the advent of no-fault divorce precisely because it took them off the hook.)
In that case, the reform motto of “not for everyone and not for no one” might turn out to be more honored in the breach than the observance.
The fact that a new approach might be complicated, of course, isn’t a conclusive argument for saying no, because it may be that solutions can be found. Advocates of change might also argue that however flawed a new system could be, it’s preferable to an unjust status quo.
At a minimum, however, reformers likely will face pressure in October not just to defend their position in theory, but also to explain how it would work in practice.
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Global Catholicism and the politics of yoga
Back in 1989, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog agency, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a document expressing caution about eastern spiritual practices such as Zen meditation and yoga. It drew howls of protest from outraged Western devotees of those pursuits, many of whom saw the warning as typically blinkered and reactionary.
Especially in the case of yoga, most Americans and Europeans don’t attach any real spiritual significance to it – many would be hard pressed to explain what role it plays in Hindu devotion, and some might not even realize it has a link to Hinduism. As a result, the idea of the Vatican being threatened struck them as saying more about the defensiveness of Rome than about the dangers of yoga.
Today, however, that document is enjoying a new vogue in what many Westerners might consider an unlikely setting: India, where yoga was born.
If nothing else, the ferment in Indian Catholic circles offers a lesson in one of the core truths about Catholicism in the early 21st century. It’s a global faith, and trying to see issues in the Church exclusively through Western eyes just won’t cut it.
By way of background, India elected a new government last year under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that’s closely allied with the country’s burgeoning Hindu nationalist movements, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. Since taking power, Modi has moved aggressively to promote India’s Hindu identity, a trend that critics refer to derisively as the “saffronization” of the country.
(Saffron is the golden yellow color of the robes worn by Hindu sages, and also the color of banners carried by Hindu nationalists.)
One priority in this campaign has been the promotion of yoga. On June 21, the government sponsored a first-ever “International Yoga Day” featuring a mass yoga demonstration in one city and a large international conference in another extolling the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of yoga. All in, Modi’s team spent more than $5 million US on the event.
That pro-yoga drive is of a piece with a number of other recent initiatives, including beef bans and anti-conversion laws in several Indian states, and even a new national science project intended to demonstrate the health benefits of cow urine. (Given the cow’s status as a sacred animal, Hindu devotees will sometimes drink cow urine or rub it on their heads and bodies.)
Religious minorities generally view the saffronization campaign as indirectly aimed at them. Christians in particular were irked that the government set “International Yoga Day” for a Sunday, seeing it as a deliberate poke in the eye.
These trends help explain the row that’s broken out among Indian Catholics over what the Church ought to be saying about yoga.
Earlier this summer, the official newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay published a series of articles that struck most readers as yoga-friendly. One such piece, by Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune, suggested that yoga can have positive therapeutic effects on both mind and body.
It was especially striking since Dabre is a respected intellectual and a former head of the Indian bishops’ doctrinal commission. Ferocious backlash ensued on-line, with various Catholic pundits, bloggers, and activists tossing around terms such as “heresy,” “apostasy,” and “schism.”
Those critics prominently cited the 1989 Vatican document.
Many Indian Catholics applauded the reaction, not necessarily because they shared the doctrinal assessment, but because they felt Dabre and other Catholic leaders were being feckless in failing to stand up to the government’s pro-Hindu agenda.
It’s an understandable sentiment in a country where mobs of Hindu radicals sometimes descend upon unarmed Christians, burning their churches and homes, raping their women (occasionally including Catholic nuns), forcing people to endure “reconversion” ceremonies to Hinduism, and killing those who refuse in gruesome fashion.
Compounding the outrage is the fact that there’s a widespread culture of impunity for such behavior. It’s been seven years since an anti-Christian pogrom in Kandhamal in eastern India that left 100 people dead, for instance, but only two perpetrators were ever charged with murder, and only one is actually in jail.
In that context, some Christians can’t help but see going along with the yoga drive as sending a message that the Church lacks the will to resist, potentially emboldening radicals to engage even more forceful forms of coercion and intimidation.
Of course, none of this settles the theological question of whether yoga passes Catholic muster. Officially speaking, the Church neither condemns nor endorses the practice, and most bishops around the world seem content to leave it at that.
What we can draw from the debate, however, is perspective.
For most Americans, yoga is something slotted in between spinning class and the treadmill. From that vantage point, it can be almost incomprehensible why anyone, let alone the Vatican or some other serious Catholic authority, would feel the need to issue cautions.
Yet in a Catholic Church in which two-thirds of its 1.2 billion members now live outside the West, American Catholics have to accept that it’s not all about us.
Although Indian Catholics are only about 1.6 percent of the national population, the place is so big that works out to almost 20 million people – larger than the Catholic populations of Canada and Great Britain combined, and with much higher rates of Mass attendance and greater numbers of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Given those realities, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that India is moving rapidly up the charts of Catholic cultures the Vatican feels obliged to take seriously.
For Americans in particular, life in a global Church means realizing that just because something seems a no-brainer here doesn’t mean it plays out that way everywhere. Grasping why some Indian Catholics take a hard line on yoga – sometimes on theological grounds, but more and more for reasons of self-defense – is probably as good a place to start as any.