Does God Command the Impossible?

Question: What do the push to admit those with irregular marriages to communion, the effort by Fr. James Martin to bless same-sex relationships, and the movie Silence have in common?

Answer: They all assume that the demands of Christianity are too hard for ordinary people to live out.

In the movie Silence, which is based on actual events, several Jesuits are coerced into apostasizing from the Catholic Faith under the threat that Japanese Catholics will suffer much from their refusal. It’s not an idle threat. The Japanese rulers are quite willing to visit pain, suffering, and death on as many as it takes to extract the required actions. And the Jesuits will know that they could have prevented the pain by apostasizing.

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It’s a difficult problem, to be sure. No feeling person wants to allow the suffering of others when that suffering is preventable. And, in a way, apostasy is easy enough. Just a word here, or trampling on the cross there. It’s not as if you can only save one fellow by personally murdering another, or performing some other similarly horrible act.

And yet, God has given us the command to acknowledge him before men. Scripture tells us, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).

The Bible further tells us, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants” (Deut. 30:19).

God tells us that each has a choice: we can follow him and live or reject him and die. To be a true choice, either path must be possible. If God gives us a command that cannot actually be followed, then it must be that: 1) the one commanding is not really God; 2) the proposed command is not a real command; or 3) God is a monster who orders impossible things.

In the case of the Jesuits, if we say that it was a right choice for them to apostasize, then we have to pick one of the three alternatives listed above. So, the Jesuits proclaimed a God who is not real, or God did not really command them to acknowledge him before men, or God is patently unfair. Which one is it?

In regard to irregular marriages, there are many defensible reasons one might put forward that divorce and remarriage should be allowed. Especially in a case in which one original spouse has abandoned the other, with the remaining spouse marrying again and having children, it’s hard to see how that particular case is made better by enforcing any religious prescription against divorce. To be sure, there is a very good argument that the ready availability of divorce could have contributed to the first marriage breaking up, and that divorce in general is terribly harmful to children, but by the time the new marriage has been created and children have been born, the prior arguments are not particularly relevant.

In such a case, it’s very easy to say, “Let’s not worry about technicalities. Let’s find a way that this couple can continue doing what they’ve been doing. It’s not charitable to say that they are living in sin, and we can’t expect them to live chastely. So let’s find a way to tell them that everything is okay, and that there’s no reason to abstain from receiving communion.”

But again we have to say that if God exists, and if God has truly commanded people to avoid adultery, and if the constant teaching of the Church on what constitutes adultery is true, then people finding themselves in such a situation must be able to live chastely. On the other hand, if they are committing adultery but do not have the capacity to stop, and if God has condemned adultery, then God is commanding what cannot be followed. To condemn people for failure to uphold an impossible standard would mean that God is fundamentally unjust.

The same goes for same-sex relationships. I have no doubt that many same-sex couples have a deep love for each other. I don’t doubt that they derive benefits from their relationship.

But in the context of the Church blessing those relationships, the question is not whether the parties are happy, but whether the relationships fit within the purposes of marriage and sexuality as enunciated by the Catholic Church for many centuries. If homosexual relationships are not permitted under Catholic teaching, and if those sexual acts are mortal sins, then the parties performing those acts cannot receive communion without first receiving absolution from a priest.

The Church cannot say that it’s impossible for homosexual persons to live chastely, because if the Church says that, it means either that Church teaching is false or that God’s grace is insufficient.

There seems to be an idea floating around these days that some acts previously taught to be wrong can now be thought right as long as people go through a process of discernment. But it’s hard to see how thorough deliberation about a wrong act can make the act right. In fact, one would normally think that the more premeditation that goes into a wrong act, the more wrong the act is. If one truly discerns the teaching of the Church, and one really believes that God makes moral demands, and that grace makes it possible to follow those demands, then true discernment should end in withdrawing from any sinful situation.

It’s really a binary proposition. If the constant teaching of the Church is right and committing sin means that a person could be damned, but that it is possible to live a moral life, then the only charitable thing is to tell people the truth and try to save them. The right thing is to tell them that no matter how difficult things are in this life, their continued faithfulness will mean more than compensatory joy in the next.

If a moral life isn’t possible, then everything—apostasy, adultery, whatever—is permitted. But in that case one has to wonder: what is the point of the Church at all?

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene depicting apostasy from the 1971 film Chinmoku (Silence) directed by Masahiro Shinoda and based on the novel of the same name by Shusako Endo.


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