Can you receive communion if you are divorced and remarried? According to Pope Francis, Cardinal Kasper, Cardinal Cupich, the Argentinian Conference of Bishops, and many others, this question has no simple answer. We can only answer the question on a case by case basis through discernment, sensitivity to complex personal situations, and in-depth discussion with a spiritual director. Sometimes receiving communion will be okay. Sometimes it won’t. We have to discern.
Many liberal theologians take a similar approach to contraception and fornication. Is contraception okay? Well, there’s no easy answer. Each person’s situation is so different. Also, each person’s conscience is different. We all need to discern the situation, search our consciences, consult a spiritual director, and come up with the answer that best suits us and where we are in our spiritual journey.
We are told, in other words, that when it comes to sex, life is complicated. There are no clear, one-size-fits-all answers. Discern. Discern. This is a constant refrain sung by liberal Catholics. But is it genuine? Do liberal Catholics really think sex is so morally complex? Maybe not. Some would accuse liberal Catholics of using complexity and discernment as a tactic for relaxing the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. The liberal strategy is this: make moral questions about sex so complex and convoluted, and so reliant on individual discernment, that, at the end of the day, people can do whatever they want.
But is this really what liberal Catholics are up to? How can we tell? Well, let’s look at how they treat other complex moral questions that require discernment of individual situations. For example, what is the right thing to do about immigration? This is a genuinely difficult question. The answer depends on many practical factors. What is the situation of those trying to immigrate to a particular country? How will immigration affect the economic conditions of those already living in that country? How will immigration affect the culture of the country? What are the security challenges posed for the country? How many new people can the country’s welfare system support? The answers to these questions will be different in different situations. And figuring out the answers requires knowing the practical facts. Once you know the facts, furthermore, you must use discernment to figure out what the right thing for a country to do is in its particular situation. There is no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all answer to the question of immigration. If you ask Pope Francis, any progressive bishop, or any liberal Catholic theologian, however, the answer to the question of immigration seems crystal clear: Europe and the United States are morally obliged to welcome large numbers of immigrants. Governments don’t have to discern the situation. The answer is predetermined: let in large numbers of immigrants.
Also, take the example of the death penalty. Should governments execute criminals? Traditional teaching of the Catholic Church tells us that governments have the right to execute criminals (look at Ed Feser’s exhaustive book for more on this). Governments also have the responsibility of discerning when execution is the appropriate penalty, and when it’s not. Figuring out when execution is appropriate is complicated. We need to know many practical details of the situation. How serious was the crime? How much of a remaining threat to society is the criminal? Is there a practical alternative to execution? How reliable is the prison system? To what extent would execution function as a deterrent? Authorities must look at the situation, answer these practical questions, and then discern the right thing to do in that situation. There is no one-size-fits all answer to the question of whether governments should use capital punishment. It depends on circumstances and requires discernment. But, if you ask Pope Francis or almost any liberal Catholic, the question is simple and easily answered once and for all: governments should never use capital punishment. Pope Francis is unequivocal in his call for governments to end the death penalty: “I implore the States that continue applying the death penalty to adopt a moratorium with a view to the abolition of this cruel form of punishment.”
Why do liberal Catholics on one hand treat sexual morality as if it’s extremely unclear and complicated, but on the other hand treat issues such as immigration and the death penalty as if they’re clear and simple? Why do they call for discernment when it comes to sex, but give ready, clear-cut answers when it comes to other moral issues? Well, maybe because liberal Catholics don’t like Catholic sexual teaching. Maybe they want to squirm their way out of it. If this is not what they’re doing, then they owe us an explanation. Tell us, why is everything simple, except sex?