At his National Catholic Reporter blog Michael Sean Winters takes New York Times columnist (and convert to Catholicism) Ross Douthat to task for worrying about the pastoral implications of a change in the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce, or a change in practice that implies a change in the teaching. Douthat points out that such a change would be damaging to the faith of many Catholics who over the years, in the face of much derision and a hostile culture, have defended the traditional teaching and tried to live by it. Winters compares Douthat to the older brother of the prodigal son, who complained that the wayward youth had been welcomed back into the father’s house.
I think Winters misuses the prodigal son story in a couple of ways.
First, since he wants to appeal to that story as a standard of Christian behavior, he ought to consult it again and observe that when the father corrects the old brother, he does so patiently and gently, in a spirit of charity. In contrast, Winters heaps denunciation on Douthat.
Second, and more important, he fails to see that the story of the prodigal son does not correspond to the case of the divorced and remarried Catholic. The prodigal son is welcomed back into the father’s house because he has left behind his sinful ways and returned repentant. According to the traditional Catholic teaching, reaffirmed in the latest Catechism (which is only a couple of decades old), this is not the position of the divorced and remarried Catholic who is persisting in living out a second union as if he were married to the new partner. That person is not leaving behind the wrong turn that alienated him from the Church in the first place.
It is also worth noting that in an important sense the Church already does welcome even the divorced and remarried Catholic. It encourages him to attend mass and to make a spiritual communion. The people who want to maintain the status quo in the Church are therefore not exactly in the position of the older brother in the story of the prodigal son. And it is worth remembering that the people defending the status quo are defending what the Church has believed to be the correct approach for a long time. If they are in the position of the older brother of the prodigal son, then presumably the Church itself has been in the position of the older son, or has failed to imitate the good father of that parable. Is that what Winters wants to say?
The prodigal son left behind his sinful ways and was welcomed back into the father’s house. The divorced and remarried Catholic has not left behind the sin in question, but is still admitted into the Church–just not admitted to communion. To this extent, the Church is already dealing more gently with the divorced and remarried than the father dealt with the prodigal son.