Joshua McElwee has another good interview at National Catholic Reporter, this time with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops new doctrinal head, Jesuit Fr. Peter Ryan. The interview is introductory, and Fr. Ryan offers little besides lockstep adherence to the bishops. He’s an expert in bioethics, which is a growing field of moral quandary with medical advancements on the daily – and in this capacity maybe he will advance theology.
However, one response from the priest about divorce struck me as particularly misguided. I quote it here in full, with my comments afterwards:
“[Joshua McElwee] Since you specified the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, I wonder how you would say this on a pastoral level in talking to someone who has been divorced who was obviously in an unhealthy relationship and wants to continue with their life. How do you consider that?
“[Fr. Peter Ryan] Well, there certainly does need to be a lot of pastoral outreach in that area and many other areas where people have real-life problems. I think the first thing to do is to be genuinely compassionate and understanding and to reach out to them with genuine pastoral care.
“At the same time, the teaching about marriage is right there in the Gospel. It’s pretty clearly not something the church happened to come up with years later. … And so I don’t think that somehow it makes sense to think that being pastorally sensitive could somehow mean compromising that teaching,
“… Sometimes people have to accept a really difficult reality that in fact they are married, and then we just have to support them as well as we can. And if they’re not willing to live by the church’s teaching, then we still love them and welcome them to church.
“That doesn’t mean that we violate what the church says about holy Communion, but it does mean we try and reach out to them and help and support them as much as we can.”
The Catholic hierarchy’s failure to adequately understand and address marriage is not newsworthy, and the continued attacks on the divorced, remarried, same-gender couples, etc. are to be expected. Except, McElwee does not ask about any old divorce and receive the party line. He asks about a woman who is separated from an unhealthy (and we can fairly read abusive) relationship and receives a poor response.
It seems, amid all the talk of pastoral concern and compassion, Fr. Ryan expects the victim of an unhealthy marriage to remain in that marriage. In order to not “compromise that teaching” that marriage is indissoluble, those in ministry should counsel the abused spouse to stay married even if it is a “difficult reality.”
It’s a few paragraphs in an initial interview, and perhaps I could accept it as such and wait to see how this new doctrinal czar acts. The problem is Fr. Ryan is speaking about a larger trend in the Church, and living among the anti-woman and anti-pastoral culture of the bishops he may only get worse. Catholics should be scandalized by this problem: we do not take issues of intimate partner violence and sexual violence seriously in our theology nor in our pastoral practice.
John Garvey of my alma mater, The Catholic University of America, recently wrote in a San Francisco Catholic publication. His words, like Fr. Ryan’s reveal the scandal, in regards to student life on Catholic campuses where “two different messages about sex…can at times clash awkwardly.” Garvey explains that the two messages in conflict are consent and chastity – I will write more tomorrow about this troublesome piece.
I’m obviously not the first Catholic who reads remarks like Fr. Ryan’s or President Garvey’s and feels pained by the bishops’ backwardness, and Meghan Clarke of Millennial writes a piece well-worth everyone’s time. Writing about rape culture and the high rates of violence against women worldwide, she concludes by criticizing the Church’s complicity:
“As a Catholic feminist ethicist, I am currently struggling with the silence of my own community on the structural sin here. There are a handful of theologians writing on the hookup culture, domestic violence, and sexual violence in war, but these conversations are small and largely relegated to the edges of our moral theology conversations. Catholic public debate on violence against women is virtually nonexistent, even as we are about to launch a second fortnight for freedom – this time on same-sex marriage and the Supreme Court. Why isn’t rape culture and violence against women a priority within Catholic moral theology?”
Let us pray that as Fr. Ryan takes over at the USCCB’s head position for moral theology, a growing awareness of women’s issues and the impact gender and sexual violence will help the scales to fall away from his eyes. His response to the divorce question is inadequate in our day, and everyone who is affected by marriage (so everyone…) deserves more Christ-like, loving guidance from our clergy.