Communion for the Divorced-and-Remarried? The Anchor, April 11, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
The Anchor
April 11, 2014

There’s been a great deal of confusion caused by German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to his brother cardinals on February 20 about a proposal to allow those who are divorced and civilly remarried to receive the Holy Communion without a declaration of nullity or the death of their first spouse.

The very fact that Pope Francis had asked Cardinal Kasper to address the scarlet college on the subject in anticipation of this October’s Extraordinary Synod on the family was taken by a few cardinals and many in the secular media as an indication that Pope Francis himself supported Kasper’s ideas. When Pope Francis’ told the Cardinals the following morning that he had reread Kasper’s “serene theological reflection” twice the night before and referred to it as “theology on one’s knees” it only seemed to confirm a sense of papal approbation. The subsequent release of Kasper’s text in newspaper and book form and the positive comments on it from a few Cardinals present seemed to augur an imminent change in Church discipline.

In the weeks since, however, much has been clarified. Many of the other cardinals present have spoken publicly about what happened inside the February consistory. A report in the Italian daily La Stampa gave a rundown of the various Cardinals who rose in opposition to Kasper’s proposal. Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini estimated that 85 percent of the Cardinals present strongly disapproved of their German confrère’s ideas. Cardinal Sean O’Malley is one of a long list of Cardinals who have spoken out to clarify that, contrary to media hype, the Church won’t and can’t change Jesus’ teachings about the indissolubility of marriage, which is at the root of the question about communion for those who are divorced and remarried.

Pope Francis sketched out his own ideas on the subject in the lengthy interview with journalists aboard Shepherd One returning from Brazil last July. He stressed first that we’re living in a time of mercy and the Church must seek a path of mercy for all. But he also emphasized, “About the problem of Communion to those persons in a second union, that the divorced [but not remarried] might participate in Communion, there is no problem. When they are in a second union, they can’t.” The problem is not so much the divorce, but the second marriage while the first spouse is still alive.

Why did the Pope, then, ask Cardinal Kasper to address the consistory? I think it’s because Cardinal Kasper is a very prominent theologian who has been writing for 35 years about the possibility for those who are divorced-and-remarried under certain circumstances to be able to be readmitted to the altar. More than anyone, he would be capable to present the strongest theological case for a modification in discipline, to give the cardinals a starting point for their discussions. So many Cardinals spoke out in opposition to his speech, however, that when Pope Francis gave Cardinal Kasper the chance to respond to the criticism, other Cardinals said he appeared “piqued” and “angry,” something that might partially explain Pope Francis’ encouraging words the following morning to a brother he placed in front of a theological and pastoral firing squad.

Since the publication of Cardinal Kasper’s remarks, many prominent theologians have had a chance to read them and their reviews have probably been even more severe than the critiques of the vast majority of cardinals. They have pointed out that Kasper relied on long discredited ideas about the Eucharistic practice of those in second unions in the early Church —the sources refer not to divorced-and-remarried but to remarried widowers and widows — and his total failure to tackle at all the central issue, the existence of a sacramental marriage bond formed by God that no one, not even the Pope, can rend asunder.

For me the most striking thing of all was his proposal of five conditions for one to be readmitted. The first requirement would be that the person “repent of his failure in the first marriage.” Not only does that suggest that the first marriage, rather than the second, is the morally problematic one, but it also doesn’t seem to consider that one may have been abandoned and may bear little or no fault at all for the failure of the first, and therefore little or no reason personally to repent for its demise.

The reason why the Church cannot change her discipline with regard to communion for those who are divorced-and-remarried is because it would radically damage the Church’s doctrine and practice with regard to three sacraments: Matrimony, the Eucharist and Penance.

First, with regard to marriage, the Church’s teaching is based on Jesus’ clear words that in marriage God joins a man and a woman in one flesh in a bond that no one can break and that when one divorces and marries another he or she commits adultery (Mk 10:7-12). If the Church were to seem to accept the legitimacy of the second union, it would either suggest that the first union — and therefore marriage in general — was not indissoluble, or that Christ is now okay with bigamy, or that what he calls adultery is no longer a big issue.

It would also raise a slew of other practical, moral and theological issues. What about communion for those who have serially divorced and remarried? Would such second and subsequent unions — civil bonds outside the Church that have always been considered invalid and non-sacramental due to a lack of Catholic form not to mention a lack of freedom to marry — now be considered valid? If not, since such civil bonds would now be treated as intrinsically non-problematic since they wouldn’t prevent one from receiving Holy Communion, would they now be able to convalidated in the Church? Would declarations of nullity now be rendered superfluous, since at a practical level it would now seem irrelevant whether the first bond were valid? Would the Church now consider herself historically foolish to have lost much of the Church in England when it refused to capitulate to Henry VIII’s demand that he be allowed to enter into a second bond with Anne Boleyn?

There would also be the much larger subject of the Church’s fidelity to Jesus’ clear words. One of the reasons why Blessed John Paul II said that the divorced and remarried cannot receive Holy Communion is because of a “special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, 84). Jesus was clearly and wholeheartedly against divorce and remarriage — and his words about marriage “in the beginning” had no expiration date. Do we still believe in the truth about marriage that he teaches and that that truth, rather than unnecessarily burdening us, really sets us free?  Do some in the Church today think they can love those in divorced-and-remarried situations more than Jesus did, that Jesus’ teaching is contrary to compassionate pastoral care? And if we’re not faithful to Jesus in trying to help people avoid what he calls a state of adultery, wouldn’t we be taking the risk that those who are divorced-and-remarried might not make the eternal wedding banquet?

With regard to Holy Communion, allowing those who are divorced-and-remarried to receive Holy Communion would mean that those whom Jesus indicates are living in an adulterous state are worthy to receive the Eucharist. If those whom Jesus refers to objectively as adulterers are nevertheless able to receive Communion without ending the adultery, then it’s hard to imagine anyone in any situation objectively contrary to the Gospel likewise not being admitted to Communion.

This would lead to a total confusion about what Holy Communion is and the type of fidelity required in order to receive him worthily. John Paul II said that the principal reason why the divorced-and-remarried are not permitted to receive Holy Communion is not because the Church is punishing them or making a judgment on the subjective state of their soul. It’s because “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84). Receiving Holy Communion is the one-flesh consummation of the indissoluble, faithful and fruitful spousal union between Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride the Church. To receive Holy Communion worthily, one must be living in a faithful covenantal bond with Christ, just as in order for love-making to be sacred instead of sinful, one first must be united by God in a one-flesh covenantal bond with one’s spouse. Covenant comes before consummation and is a precondition for its moral goodness. Permitting those who are divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion would either mean that the Church no longer considers that there is an objective contradiction between their matrimonial state and Christ’s with the Church or that such a contradiction no longer matters.

Finally with regard to the Sacrament of Penance, nothing short of total chaos would ensue. Those who are divorced-and-remarried are not able to receive the Sacrament of Penance unless, as John Paul II wrote, “repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, [they] are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage” (FC 84). That means in practice that minimally a penitent who is divorced and remarried needs to make the public commitment to live in “complete continence, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples” (FC 84). Jesus’ mercy, as we see in his defense of the woman caught in adultery, is tied to his loving command “Go and sin no more.” If those who are divorced-and-remarried are no longer required to eliminate what Jesus himself calls adulterous conduct, then the constitutive requirement of a firm purpose of amendment for valid reception of the Sacrament would effectively no longer be part of it, something that would cease to make confession a sacrament of true conversion. And if those whom Jesus says are in a state of adultery are no longer required to repent and amend, then it’s hard to see why others engaged in other behaviors contrary to his moral teaching would need to change their ways either. Other profound questions would also arise: Would what Jesus calls adultery even be considered sinful any longer? And if breaking the sixth commandment would no longer be treated as sinful, then would any of the commandments still be considered morally binding?

It is indeed a time for mercy and Pope Francis, all the Cardinals, and so many throughout the Church are seeking avenues by which to help those in situations of divorce and remarriage not to feel alienated but accompanied, loved and supported. I anticipate that coming out of the October Synod there will be a huge pastoral push for declarations of nullity coupled to various reforms in the process, duration, and grounds used by marriage tribunals to determine whether a first marriage was actually valid. But the mercy the Church pastorally dispenses never involves seeking to change Christ’s teaching to align it to human choices but to change people to learn how to align themselves faithfully to Christ’s saving word.