Paying it Forward Until. . .

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By Randall Smith, The Catholic Thing, Jan. 3, 2018

A movie some years back entitled Pay it Forward was based on the idea that those to whom good deeds had been done should “pay it forward” to others. The reality is frequently less benign. What people “pay forward” is often the result of a job poorly done or a problem unaddressed, a malfunction that gets passed along from one bureaucratic official to another until it gets dumped on someone who has neither the power nor the position to pay it forward any further.

Let’s say you are a young priest freshly graduated from a program in canon law and are assigned to a diocesan tribunal where you idealistically hope you can apply the wisdom and practices you have been taught, based on centuries of Church tradition, to the pastorally difficult challenges of annulment cases. What you find, however, is that the tribunal hasn’t been following that wisdom or those practices for years. Their attitude is “just get ‘em through,” and they reject very few annulment petitions.

These officials know from decades of experience (since most have been on the tribunal since the 1970s) that if you refuse to take an annulment case or refuse to grant it, the petitioners usually just leave the Church. So when our young priest arrives, the tribunal is regularly granting several hundred annulments per year, having rejected only eight or nine in the past decade.

Our idealistic young priest decides to “push back” against this decades-long bureaucratic laxity. But now he becomes the problem. The diocesan bureaucracy has run a certain way for years; priests who counsel those petitioning for annulments have grown accustomed to telling them there should be no problem – no problem once the papers have been filed, which is often a nightmare.

So by “pushing back,” our young priest will likely cause no small amount of grief. Angry petitioners denied their annulments will leave the Church, and the priests who advised them will be furious. If the conflict is made public, “liberal” commentators will write angry online posts decrying the new “lack of charity and pastoral sensitivity” in the tribunal, while “conservative” commentators will castigate the tribunal for being so lax, insisting the most “charitable” thing they can do is apply the Church’s law rigorously.

I honestly have no comment to make either way.

Is it indelicate to suggest, instead, that “the problem” started much further back? Each annulment case the tribunal must consider is a failure in marriage preparation. If the Church can legitimately annul so many marriages each year, then she must face the grim truth that each year thousands of Catholic couples are not being prepared to marry validly. Trying to deal with the problem at the annulment stage is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole. It merely covers over the problem rather than dealing with the deep wound, which should have been prevented. A responsible “field hospital” might ask why so many people are showing up with bullet wounds instead of merely searching for fancier Band-Aids.

The emergency room staff might understandably be annoyed if a new doctor refused to Band-Aid-over a bullet wound like everyone else. It seems cruel to leave the wound open. But should we continue to paper over the damage or deal with the real roots of the problem? The emergency room doctors who have made their peace with what they have been asked to do for years will likely say, “But we can’t control what happens before the wounded come in,” and that’s true. They didn’t create the problem; it’s just the place where the problem got dumped. Now what?

One could make a similar comment about Catholic schools. The schools aren’t usually the source of the trouble; it’s just the place where all the toxic problems rampant in the culture get dumped: problems with alcohol and drugs; pornography and hyper-sexualized adolescence; consumerism; the pressures of succeeding in a corporate, technocratic, globalized economy; and underlying all of these, the intractable difficulties of dealing with the increasingly insatiable demands of the hosts of autonomous, preference-maximizing individuals created by the ideology of the liberal state who are ingrained with the belief that they have a “right” to what they want with little or no consideration of what others want and everyone’s obligations to the community as a whole.

The result is a population of Americans, including American Catholics, who feel they have a “right” to get married and to get married in this church; a “right” to an annulment when things don’t work out; a “right” to have the Catholic school they want (whether that means classes in sex education, environmental ethics, or masses in Latin); and the “right” to choose the lives they want, whether that means the “right” to an abortion; the “right” to transgender bathrooms; or the “right” to accumulate as much wealth as they can and buy whatever expensive consumer items they want.

Thus when priests repeatedly tell their congregations that the key Christian virtue is “being nice,” those congregations have a hard time knowing why any Catholic institution would deny what they take to be legitimate desires, because denying people what they want is not “nice.” When you pander to the culture of autonomous liberalism and preach the Gospel of moralistic therapeutic deism, you’re nourishing the roots of our cultural weeds, many of which will sprout vigorously in the back yard of someone else who hasn’t sufficient resources to get rid of them.

So we could continue arguing bitterly and endlessly about the tribunals and the schools where the problems get dumped – though at that point, the difficulties are so great and the resources so minimal that you’d be lucky to get a Band-Aid. Or we could get serious about what’s happening in the culture, and not happening in the Church, and start making people elsewhere in the system, starting with ourselves, responsible for no longer just “paying it forward.”

Perhaps we could make this our New Year’s resolution.


**Image: Field hospital, Austria c. 1918 [Austrian National Library, Vienna]

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.