Columns Doctrine & Practice Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Francis Derangement Syndrome (FDS)

Pope Francis looks up at a statue of the Virgin Mary on the occasion of the Immaculate Conception feast in Rome, on Dec. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

(RNS) — FDS proceeds apace on the Catholic right.

It’s not easy to take issue with Pope Francis for advocating on behalf of poor folks and immigrants, for criticizing unfettered capitalism and urging protection of the planet. His predecessors have been doing those things for a while, if not always so urgently.

Hence the conservative obsession with his decision to allow divorced and remarried Catholics (under certain circumstances) to take Communion. This doctrinal shift has, for those suffering from Francis Derangement Syndrome, acquired the status of  heresy — because it effectively sanctions divorce, opposition to which they’ve now elevated into a virtual article of Catholic — no, Christian — faith.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s Richard Rex, professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge, writing in First Things:

If, however, the Catholic Church were indeed to abandon or reverse the almost total opposition to divorce that it has maintained across two millennia, then its claim to be the privileged vehicle of divine revelation on moral issues would be, quite simply, shattered. The position of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage is among the most consistent of its traditions. Its scriptural basis is, frankly, stronger than that for the doctrine of the Trinity, for the observance of Sunday as the day of rest, or for the real presence in the Eucharist. To all intents and purposes, it is a mark of the Church. Nor should this claim be theologically surprising. Marriage, as Paul taught, symbolizes the union of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:31–32). For Christians, the indissolubility of marriage is integral to its symbolic — that is, its sacramental — place in the economy of salvation. If it is terminable, then it can no longer symbolize that perfect union between the head and the body of Christ.

As Rex is doubtless aware, Eastern Orthodoxy is prepared to sanction not one but two divorces per Orthodox Christian. Under the theological principle of economia — developed, as it happens, by the same Cappadocian fathers recognized as saints by the Catholic Church — the Orthodox recognize that in this fallen world it’s sometimes necessary for people to do sinful things (like go to war).

In other words, there’s a difference of opinion between the Catholics and the Orthodox when it comes to divorce. And maybe, from the conservative Catholic point of view, the Orthodox are therefore barred from being a privileged vehicle of divine revelation on moral issues.

But if the “almost total” opposition to divorce were such a big thing, you figure that it would be a major bone of contention when it comes to mending the millennium-old schism between those two ancient branches of Christianity. And it isn’t.

The major bones are papal sovereignty over the church and that pesky creedal filioque. (Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Orthodox believe the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.) Otherwise, the differences are minor: the date of Easter, three-dimensional icons (statues), the nature of the bread used in Communion, and (yes) divorce.

Can an outsider like me be forgiven for thinking that Francis’ new rule for the divorced and remarried has become a pretext for those opposed to the rest of his agenda? I hope so.

This story is available for republication.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

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