Catholic women deserve a more pastoral response than 'sorry, but you’d better give him what he wants'

There are some things which are impossible to avoid: death, taxation, PPI phone calls, and – according to Malta’s bishops – sex.

Yes, that’s right: senior representatives of an institution which for 2000 years has taught that celibacy is beautiful, possible and necessary for its unmarried laity and later its clergy, is now suggesting that God’s grace simply isn’t enough in certain areas of sexual temptation. It’s almost as if sex is something that just happens to us, like cancer: unfortunate but sometimes unavoidable.

But sex doesn’t just happen. It occurs between two consenting individuals with full knowledge about what they are embarking upon.

So what do the Maltese bishops’ guidelines on Amoris Laetitia mean when they suggest that there are some circumstances in which divorced and remarried individuals, while sexually active, should not be prohibited from receiving Communion?

Supporters of Communion for the remarried often envisage a situation along the following lines: a woman discerns that to withdraw sex would severely damage her relationship, due to the great unhappiness her husband would endure.

For example, Fr Paul Keller hypothesises about “Irma”, who is divorced and remarried but who has been “awakened to her Catholicism” since remarrying. She wants to go to Communion. Fr Keller writes: “I had explained to her that if she and Tony lived as ‘brother and sister’ then she could go to communion.

“She told me that Tony thought that idea was crazy. As they were only 26 years old, Irma was afraid of what might happen to their relationship if they were no longer able to grow in their love through physical intimacy.”

Similarly, John F Crosby imagines a remarried Catholic woman: “Something stirs in her and she undergoes a religious awakening. She wants to raise her children in the Catholic faith. She tries to persuade her husband to live with her in abstinence, but with no success. If she leaves him, she will lose her children.”

When prelates such as the Maltese bishops speculate about when “living ‘as brothers and sisters’ becomes humanly impossible”, we can infer that they are referring to the same sort of scenarios as Crosby and Fr Keller. But whom should the Church side with in these situations? The Catholic woman who wants to remain abstinent, or the husband who puts his sexual frustration above his wife’s principles?

Theological problems aside, surely Catholic women deserve a more pastoral response than “Sorry, but you’d better give him what he wants.” If the Church were to adopt these guidelines across the world, it is women who would suffer most, with the Church cravenly looking the other way.

How did we get to this point, with bishops prepared to sacrifice Church teaching for a “pastoral response” which actually benefits nobody? For decades now, too many bishops have failed to listen to the experiences of those Catholics who earnestly desire to follow the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage.

In their desperate efforts to placate estranged Catholics, they have ignored the witness of those who love Church teaching, who really believe it and would welcome some encouragement, especially in areas concerning marriage and family life.

Before the last Synod, for example, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales published a document sharing the idea that engaged couples should cohabit and “explore” the marriage vocation before they exchanged vows.

While great pains have been taken to embrace those who feel disillusioned with the Church, senior churchmen have become deaf to a vast group of practising Catholics. But these Catholics often know an awful lot about the gritty realities of Church teaching.

Has anyone considered, for example, that for married couples who are permitted to receive Communion, abstinence is also a routine Cross? What about those couples who are practising natural fertility awareness? What about the mother who has had three C-Sections and can’t risk another pregnancy until she has fully recovered, so that she and her husband must also abstain from sex indefinitely? What about the woman who is seriously ill? As many people know, through personal experience or friendships, abstinence is possible in all these situations and can often be a source of marital strength and growth, through the self-sacrifice it demands of husband and wife.

Clerics must appreciate that chastity and abstinence are part of Catholic life, whether you’re married once, twice or not at all. When the Church neglected to mention this fact decades ago in its classrooms, marriage courses and churches, it laid the groundwork for a lot of confusion and heartache in the years that followed.