The Vatican’s present position seems to want to retain the most rigid moralism in the sexual field, relaxing nothing of the rules, with the result that people with “irregular” sexual lives are (supposed to be) automatically denied the sacraments, while as-yet-unconvicted mafiosi, not to speak of unrepentant latifundistas in the third world, and Roman aristocrats with enough clout to wangle an “annulment” find no bar.
But however incomplete and hesitantly followed the turns taken at Vatican II, it has clearly relativized the old top-down, one-size-fits-all model of reform. It has opened a field in which you don’t have to be deeply read in the history of the church to see that the dominant spiritual fashion of recent centuries is not normative. Which is not to say that this whole spirituality, aspiring to a full devotion to God, and fueled by abnegation and a strong image of sexual purity, is to be in turn condemned. It is clear that there have been and are today celibate vocations that are spiritually fertile, and many of these turn centrally on aspirations to sexual abstinence and purity. It would just repeat the mistake of the Protestant reformers to turn around and depreciate these.
The fateful feature of the early-modern Catholic Counter-Reformation, which erects such a barrier between the church and contemporary society, is not its animating spirituality: our world is if anything drowned in exalted images of sexual fulfillment and needs to hear about paths of renunciation. The deviation was to make this take on sexuality mandatory for everyone, through a moralistic code that made a certain kind of purity a necessary condition for relating to God through the sacraments. There are more ways of being a Catholic Christian than either the Vatican rule-makers or the secularist ideologies have yet imagined. And yet this shouldn’t be so hard to grasp. Even during those centuries when the reform outlook dominated pastoral policy, there were always other paths present, represented sometimes by the most prominent figures, including (to remain with the French Catholic Reformation) St. Francis de Sales and FÃ©nelon, not to speak of Pascal, who, though he gave comfort to the fear-mongers, offered an incomparably deeper vision.
But as long as this monolithic image dominates the scene, the Christian message as expressed and embodied by the Catholic Church will not be easy to hear in wide zones of the contemporary world. But then, these are not very hospitable to a narrow secularism either.