|Hamlet is mad that Claudius only pretends to repent|
He seems to think that the world above operates as does the world below. Down here shuffling and equivocating pleases lawyers and other scoundrels. But up above?
The Pope could learn a thing or two from Shakespeare's Claudius, who (villain that he is) recognizes that in heaven you can't win by redefining or by playing a shell game with Canon Law.
For in heaven ...
There is no shuffling, there the action liesIn his true nature. (Hamlet III iii)
... But more on Claudius later. For he knows adultery better than most, and can teach us a thing or two about Catholic theology.
- Act as Sign
Let's begin with this.
Everything Christ did - and everything He continues to do - was both real and valid in and of itself, and was also a sign, an indication of something greater, a symbol or intimation or hint that rippled throughout history, both into the past and into the future.
This is a strange concept in some ways, but we deal with it all the time in our daily lives. For instance, let's say you have a lover who ends your relationship with a betrayal. That act is both an act in and of itself and also a sign, or a kind of mystery to be read that informs what came before it and what is to come after it. A betrayal both stings in the moment and stands for something to be read, meditated upon and understood. Everything Benedict Arnold did before he turned traitor is now read and understood in light of his singular act of treason, and our understanding of him as a person from that point forward is reworked by the sign that he gives us the moment he betrays. If you've got what you think is a good marriage and your husband up and leaves you for the burlesque dancer from the east side of town, you will be forced to deal not only with the pain of that action, but you will also be compelled to re-read or re-interpret everything that came before it, and you will have to reassess everything that comes after in a new light. "Oh, now I understand why he told me he was working late most evenings. Now I know why I wasn't sure I could trust him when he would promise to do things. Now I know how I have to deal with him differently from this point on."
Thus our actions have eternal consequences, consequences that transcend time - for our acts reverberate into the future and into the past. They stand as markers, symbols, clues, ciphers, signs of who we are, of the mystery of our begin and of our relationship with all of creation.
And if this is true for us limited and cramped human beings, it is much more true for God. Nothing God does, especially those events related to us in Scripture, are ever self-contained ends-in-themselves. Everything God does, particularly everything He does in the years He walks the earth as Jesus Christ, stand as eternal signs, fathomless symbols of ever expanding layers of reality, which we are invited to contemplate and interpret.
And this is profoundly true in the Eucharist.
- Eucharist as Sign
The intimacy involved in giving us as a sacrifice His body and blood, and of His desire for us to take and consume this body and blood for the sake of our salvation is an act and a sign that can never be fully understood.
But at the very least we know the first level of reading that sign. We know the most basic thing that communion with Christ represents.
It stands for communion with Christ. The act is the symbol; the sacrament effects what it stands for.
And so when we argue about whether married Catholics who have left their spouses and begun living and having sex with someone else (i.e., adulterers) should or should not be "barred from communion", we are not merely talking about Church Canon 915. Yes, we are indeed talking about Church discipline, but we are talking about a deeper reality that Church discipline reflects.
If you have made a vow to be true to your spouse for life, and if this vow has been validated sacramentally so that you are indeed now a different being than you were before the sacrament (a husband or a wife is ontologically different from non-married people), and then if you renounce both this vow and this new being that you are - this new being that is now "one flesh" with your spouse until one of you dies - and if you start shacking up with someone else (whether you've civilly "divorced" your spouse and civilly "married" this new partner or not), you are, by that very act, not in communion with Christ. (See John 4)
Adultery is one of the grave sins that both ends that communion and advertises to others (when that adultery is public, as it is in a "re-marriage") that the communion has ended.
When Pope Francis publicly takes the seemingly merciful position that excommunication-in-fact should not be excommunication-in-sign, he is himself suggesting a kind of divorce - the divorce of an Act from what it Signifies. If remarried Catholics whose first marriages are not "null" are allowed to present themselves as fully integrated with the Church (by taking communion, being godparents, etc.), we are simply Living a Lie. We cannot change reality by changing the signs that signify reality.
We can pretend to be fully in communion with Christ, even if we're not, but to take His body and blood without even attempting to amend our lives so as to be worthy of communion, is to "eat and drink judgment upon ourselves" (1. Cor. 11:29). If a pope promotes anything else, he is undermining a central pillar of true mercy - which is that deliverance from sin is real and not just a sign or an empty symbol. And to be delivered from sin, we must renounce sin - not cling to it.
Even Shakespeare's Claudius, who is both an adulterer and a murderer, had enough theological training and a clear enough conscience to know this.
But, O, what form of prayerCan serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?That cannot be; since I am still possess'dOf those effects for which I did the murder,My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.May one be pardon'd and retain the offence? (Hamlet, III iii)
In other words, when you kill your brother and marry his wife and dispossess your nephew, you can't say, "Gosh, I'm sorry, God. Will you forgive me?" and still hang on to your brother's wife and your nephew's crown.
And so much of what we're pressured to accept in the Catholic Church today is simply that. "Let me be forgiven without repenting! Let me say I'm sorry I stole that money, but let me keep that money I stole! Let me be gay and Catholic, remarried and Catholic, greedy and Catholic. Let me live a lie by taking communion without being in communion. Let this whole damn thing be exactly as Unreal as I want to make it. Whose Church is this, anyway? God's or mine???"