The Germans have for a while now been moving against the Church's practice of denying communion to the divorced and remarried. Archbishop Gerhard Müller, also German, in his article for L'Osservatore Romano, "The Power of Grace," defended the Church's practice in light of the integrity of the Gospel and the sacramental economy. The latest challenge from over the Alps comes as "noted German theologians" have submitted a proposal for a "fundamental, new evaluation" of the question, and of Christian sexual ethics, in general. The document, signed by 17 moral and pastoral theologians, suggests a "caring," "emancipatory," and "reflexive" re-envisioning of such ethics—and one that "cannot look closely enough at the many forms of sexuality outside of marriage."
It's worth mentioning that from among the highly secularized German Catholic intelligentsia, only 17 members could be found to endorse this statement—a testament to the power of the Catholic faith even in such circumstances.
Although this document is hardly "big," it is news. And since the press will seize on it, a response is worthwhile.
In fact, a response has already been offered, in some ways, vis-à-vis Grant Kaplan's excellent article in the most recent First Things, "Celibacy as Political Resistance." In it, Kaplan argues that celibacy, along with papal primacy,
Both function as spiritual declarations of independence for the modern Christian citizen. Both preserve Catholic identity, not by petitioning the state for rights but by mounting a theological counteroffensive against the pretensions of the modern nation-state.
An explicit similarity with the question of communion for the divorced and remarried emerges with respect to a "dispute over how to modernize German Catholicism" in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when critics "suggested that mandatory celibacy was a needless, unnatural alternative to conjugal life, which should be regarded as normative for human flourishing." The impetus for this view, says Kaplan, was rooted in a concern that celibacy "had a political meaning at odds with the German state’s desire for docile citizens administered by expanding bureaucracies."
A married priesthood would have the positive effect of aligning priests with the ethos of the nation-state, allowing the Church to join with other important institutions—the universities, military, and Protestant ministry (especially in Prussia)—that were at that time increasingly conscious of their responsibility to contribute to a common German identity.
Much like our present case, in 1828 a contingent of 23 "mostly lay professors at the university [of Freiburg]" signed letters challenging the Church's practice of celibacy, intending them to be read by ecclesial authorities.
Kaplan traces a response to this position by Johann Adam Möhler, an early face of the Tübingen School of Catholic theology. According to Möhler,
Celibacy focuses on the heavenly city, and the practice of celibacy indicates an eschatological hope for life in the next world. It is “a living testimony of faith in a constant outpouring of higher powers in this world and of the omnipotent rule of truly infinite forces in the finite.” This focus and hope doesn’t just differ from the concerns of the earthly city, it challenges their claims to be ultimate. “An institution like [celibacy] can never grow on the soil of earthly states and for that reason, as long as it flourishes in the Church, it will form a living protest against all attempts to make the Church lose herself in the state.”
It is a massive mistake, therefore, to view celibacy as an ecclesial practice borne of particular contingencies, like feudal laws of primogeniture. Clerical celibacy is an essential dimension of the Church’s existence as a spiritual institution ordered toward ends beyond the competence and authority of temporal rulers. Celibacy does not automatically function this way, of course, just as the married life does not guarantee obeisance to the state. But when it is one expression of a larger vision of the Church as a foretaste of the kingdom of God, it can serve as a sign of contradiction in an age too focused on the present.
The similarities between the German celibacy controversy of the nineteenth century and the communion controversy of the twenty-first, I think, cannot be overlooked. It's perhaps too much to imply that we're facing another Kulturkampft (mostly because real culture is in short supply, and it's hardly the sort of thing most people want to fight over). But the conclusions made available through Möhler's efforts are indeed timely, namely learning "to think about the freedom of the Church in a theological way and to find in her life means of resistance to the overreach of government."
The prevalence of divorce is a product of the state, not of the Church—even if the Church in her own practice has often failed to remind us of this. And the inclination to impose upon the Church moral requirements deemed expedient because of this prevalence is rooted not in concern for the immortal soul, but in an effort to secure "docile citizens administered by expanding bureaucracies." This time around, however, these bureaucracies aren't situated in the Reichstag, but rather, it appears, more often in diocesan chanceries.
None of this is to say that mercy should be withheld from the divorced and remarried—or from any other group of Catholics separated from communion through obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin. And it's an excellent point that this particular demographic has been unhelpfully singled out while others in the same conditions have been swept under the canonical rug. But the prevalence of remarried Christians and the nature of this particular sacrament—one facing a singularly vicious attack in our society—make the fruits of a "theological" approach, as opposed to a merely practical one, even more nutritious. Moreover, such an approach—one that calls on truth and charity, and for each to be understood and pursued more perfectly—provides the only real hope for resolving in an authentically Christian way the overtly diabolical threat to communion posed by an ideology of self-reliance and absolute freedom.
The slippery slope from here, just like the first time the Germans challenged papal authority and Catholic sexual practice, is quick and unforgiving.