Over at the CNN Belief Blog, Delia Gallagher has put together a nice summation of the debate between the promulgators of two apparently very different doctrines in the Catholic episcopate regarding the reception of Holy Communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without having the first marriage declared null by the Church.
While there are those of us firmly in the middle, for the most part the raging debate (which is rarely heated enough to be called raging or cogent enough to be called debate) she describes over the issue is between those who want to keep the canon as it currently exists and those who want to change the canons to allow at least large numbers of divorced and civilly remarried (to the Church this is adultery, a grave matter) couples to receive Holy Communion.
There are some basic realities to keep in mind when thinking through these two positions.
- It is already common for divorced and remarried couples without an annulment to receive communion at Mass, so in practice the canon isn’t even being followed. This happens either because the laypersons don’t know about the canon, the parish priest doesn’t know about their situation, or possibly because the parish priest or the layperson feels comfortable violating the canon for whatever understandable or nonsensical reason they might have.
- The people who follow the canon tend to be the people who complain the least about it, either because they agree with the canon because they understand that it flows from the express teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage or because they are people of conscience who don’t believe in breaking the canons of the Church for their own convenience.
- For those who do complain about the canon, they typically do so for one of two reasons. Either they believe that the canon is too harsh (as are so many of Jesus’ teachings) and should be overturned, or they believe that theirs is a case in which their circumstances are such that the canon should not be applied in their case and perhaps other similar cases.
The folks like Cardinal Burke are no doubt horrified about reality #1, because the Church teaches that it is a mortal sin to commit adultery and that receiving Holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin compounds the problem and can endanger their immortal souls yet again.
And because of #1 the folks like Cardinal Kasper who want to change the canon would probably gain very little by doing so. Most of the people who would be happy about the change are already violating the canon, and the remainder could be assisted under a more moderate change like what Pope Francis referred to as the Eastern Orthodox practice of oikonomia.
This practice requires a penitential character to the act of remarriage, and this would be unacceptable to most of the divorced and remarried Catholics out there because they genuinely believe that they haven’t sinned and don’t need to do penance. That’s why they are willing to violate the canon (for those who know about the canon) or are receiving communion unconcerned about the issue at all (for those who don’t know about the canon).
Because I am the product of two divorces, one of which would have very much benefited from moving to the Eastern Orthodox practice of oikonomia, I do understand that there are cases in which a change to the canons regarding marriage and/or the annulment process could help certain individuals in unusual circumstances. I also understand that not all cases are exceptional in this regard and that divorce and remarriage is frequently a source of grave harm to the life of a family. And as someone who is familiar with the annulment process because I have family and friends who have gone through it and I have studied it, I have to admit that it is generally quite thorough and effective already.
While I am happy to see a change of practice to benefit those in exceptional circumstances, I do not want to see a change of practice that will make divorce and remarriage even easier and thus more widely practiced than it already is in many areas. This would exacerbate a problem that is already seriously damaging to many children and adults in many families.
Both the doctrine held to by Cardinal Burke and the change proposed by Cardinal Kasper have their limitations and problems, which is why it is often good that Bishops and priests are able to exercise pastoral discretion in dealing with exceptional cases.
My concern with Cardinal Kasper’s proposal is that, given our culture of permissiveness in the West, it might actually engender even greater harm to the life of the family. This would be strikingly at odds with the purpose of the Synod. My concern with Cardinal Burke’s insistence that we not change the canon is that we could miss an opportunity to benefit families in unusual and difficult circumstances. This would seem to also be at odds with the purpose of the Synod.
This dispute between what has been cast by our media outlets as a debate between two doctrines is actually a debate over how to help the Church best live out the one doctrine on marriage taught by Jesus. Perhaps more important than the disagreement on the details of how we live out that doctrine is that we have an opportunity to clarify what the Church teaches about marriage, an opportunity to show that we hold fast to what Jesus commanded us regarding marriage, and an opportunity to show the world that we are truly concerned about the life of the family which impacts all of us.
Sadly, it is these opportunities which will likely be missed as we tell the sad tale of two doctrines divorced from their shared source.