In the early 2000s The West Wing was one of the most popular shows on television and there was some popular clamor about electing actor Martin Sheen into a real-life version of his fictional presidency. But the actor wasn’t interested. “There’s no way I could be the president,” he said. “You can’t have a pacifist in the White House.” It has always struck me as a simple but profound insight.
As a liberal pro-life Catholic Democratic actor playing a liberal pro-life Catholic Democratic President, Sheen clearly had a strong sense of the differences between himself and his character. President Bartlett, it seems, is not a pacifist like Sheen. Or if he is, he at least allows for some wiggle-room. But it raises an interesting question in my mind — how exactly do we balance Christian ideals with real-world ethical dilemmas?
Saint Pope John Paul II once said, in a similarly simple and profound statement, that war “is always a defeat for humanity.” At best, the deliberate taking of human life might be regarded as a necessary evil; it can never be objectively good. If we allow that the reality of evil in our fallen world might sometimes make lethal force necessary, we compromise the perfection we are called to in favor of the sin of the world we live in.
Pope Francis has recently raised some eyebrows (not to mention a few hackles) by suggesting that maybe the Church should find a way to bring divorced and remarried Catholics back to the sacraments. The problem, of course, has always been that the Church does not recognize the validity of divorce. Jesus Himself said that any man who divorces his wife commits adultery, and the Church holds that as the final authoritative statement on the matter. A Catholic who has divorced and remarried, therefore, is living in a constant state of adultery and may not receive the sacraments.
The thing is, Christianity is all about redemption. “All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God,” Saint Paul tells us (Romans 3: 23). “They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus.” Sometimes, even despite the best of intentions, marriages fail. Putting failures behind us and starting fresh is at the heart of our faith.
In last Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls out the religious leaders of his day. “They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” I think this is what the Pope is going for — he is recognizing a difficult burden the Church has put on many of its people, and he wants to see what can be done to ease it.
After all, if we can make allowances for the killing of other human beings, why not for this?
As it stands now, a Catholic who murders their spouse and then remarries can go to confession, be absolved of the sin of murder, and live happily ever after in full communion with the Church. If that same Catholic were to merely divorce their spouse and then remarry, there’s no means of absolution, no reconciliation, no way back into full communion. Do we really want to be saying that murder is preferable to divorce?
That may sound glib but it isn’t meant to be. As it stands now, remarriage after a divorce stands as the Church’s only de facto unforgivable sin. As far as I can tell there is no way, short of rending yet another family, for a remarried Catholic to return fully into union with the Church. When the Pope suggests there ought to be a better way, I for one am inclined to agree with him.
In Matthew 9:13 Jesus entreats the Pharisees, “Go and learn the meaning of the words ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” God delights in the lost sheep who is found; the lost coin recovered; the Prodigal Son who comes home. While it is undeniably true that we are all called to strive for perfect holiness, it is also true that God forgives our failings and lets us try again. And again, and again — seventy times seven times, if that’s what it takes.