Barred from communion
Among the many topics for discussion at October’s Synod of Bishops on New Evangelisation was the difficult subject of the Church’s teachings governing the administration of the sacraments to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.
In their message to the world’s Catholics, the Synod Fathers noted “that God’s love does not abandon anyone; that the Church loves them, too; that the Church is a house that welcomes all; that they remain members of the Church even if they cannot receive sacramental absolution and the Eucharist”.
For many Catholics in that situation, these doubtless sincere words will provide little comfort, even as they communicate the Church’s acknowledgment of a pastoral quandary.
On the one hand, the Church teaches that divorced persons who have married again in a civil ceremony “cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists” (Catechism, 1650). For the Catholic Church, the bond of marriage, once entered into freely, consciously and validly, is indissoluble.
However, the Catechism also acknowledges that “the unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realise”.
This presents an enormous pastoral problem for the Church. How can it be persuasively explained that faithful Catholics—especially those who were not the guilty party in the breakdown of a marriage—should be excluded from the summit of the Church’s life when less honourable individuals, even murderers, may receive Communion?
Most marriages fail notwithstanding all good intentions and respect for the sacrament of matrimony, by one or both spouses. For Catholics especially the experience of divorce can be traumatic, precisely because they know that marriage cannot be dissolved.
There are those who argue that since Jesus fed the hungry rather than those with lots to eat, such Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion publicly. The Church evidently sees no way of endorsing this view, even as many bishops wish it could.
Canon law does make allowances for the annulment of the marriage bond, a generally complicated process in which specific criteria are employed to establish whether the marriage was canonically valid in the first place. Advanced psychological insights can serve to broaden the scope of conditions that militate against this canonical validity.
It would be wrong, however, to view canonical annulments as the Church’s version of civil divorce, never mind as an expedient option. Moreover, the process is neither easy nor always agreeable—indeed, it can be humiliating—so even separated couples with a valid claim for annulment might decline to take this option.
The Catholic Church in South Africa provides much assistance to those planning to get married, to those who are married, and to those whose marriages are troubled. The organisations involved in these fields must be commended for and supported in their caring ministry.
There is, however, little pastoral support extended to those Catholics emerging from failed marriages, some of whom may be victims of physical or emotional abandonment, or even abuse.
Especially young women with children are faced with a stark choice: to marry again with a view to financial and emotional security, but be divorced from the Body of Christ; or to remain perpetually single, but in union with the sacrament of the Eucharist and absolution.
For many, the price of either decision is too high. Many opt for the former, and, hurt by their exclusion from the sacraments, leave the Church. This cannot be desirable.
Few in the Church, it seems, are satisfied with the current painful situation where virtuous Catholics are barred from receiving the Eucharist. Even Pope Benedict has expressed his concerns, and hinted at his sense of powerlessness, on this question.
The Church’s hands are tied, and still, our faith is one of compassion.
The difficult challenge facing the Church is to reconcile the dimensions of doctrine with those of compassion—which in this case are seemingly in conflict—so that divorced and civilly remarried people may truly feel, as the Synod Fathers say, fully welcomed, loved and included in the Church.