Missing the real point: the debate on Communion for remarried divorcees

Most Catholics will be aware of the recent, vigorous debate that has emerged the last few months on the subject of whether remarried divorcees should be admitted to Holy Communion. The debate was given impetus by the desire of German bishops to change the immemorial teaching of the Church. Following the explicit and unequivocal teaching of Christ, the Church does not recognize the possibility of divorce. Spouses can separate without any canonical consequence. Any civil divorce has only civil effect, and does not affect the sacramental bond which endures. The problem comes if a civilly-divorced spouse re-marries. It would have to be a civil wedding, naturally. In the eyes of the Church, with the original marriage bond intact, that spouse is now officially and publicly committing adultery. Adultery is a grave sin that precludes one from receiving Holy Communion.

As any sensible pastor, like our own Bishop Philip Egan, will tell you, this canonical consequence is not an act of retribution but is, in fact, medicinal. On the one hand, it reminds the erring spouse that Eucharist is the highest of gifts, and that it is a gift that can be lost by our own actions. On the other hand, scripture and Church teaching are consistent in holding that receiving the Eucharist when in a state of grave sin will have no good effect on the soul of the grave and un-absolved sinner, but in fact will only harm the sinner, as s/he will be bringing judgment down upon them. Eucharist received by grave sinners who remain un-absolved is poison to their souls, not balm. So to deny them Communion is an act of charity.

The counter argument usually rests on the purpose of the Eucharist in the lives of Christians. As medicine, it is precisely the grave sinner who needs it, the argument maintains. What is more, some divorces come about due to situations of irreconcilable difference, or even abuse. The Church already allows separation on these grounds, but cannot permit divorce because she has no power to grant a divorce. She may determine that the marriage itself was not validly contracted, and so annul what had been thought a marriage. But a valid marriage endures till death.

However, there is an underlying point in this debate that is, by and large, not being addressed, and if it were it might take the sting out of the question. The point is this: that for the vast majority of Catholics (and even non-Catholics, God help us) the reception of Communion is just another part of the ritual, an instance of their “active participation”, and indeed, a habit. St Pius X may have been right to remind the Church that receiving Holy Communion is saving food to our souls, and so we should receive it more than once a year. But frequent Communion has, in the modern Church, become regular Communion, habitual Communion, and for many, unthinking Communion. Which raises the question: how many Catholics receiving Communion every Sunday are actually free from grave sin? This question is all the more moot given the decline in recourse to the sacrament of Confession. Have Catholics really become so holy on such a widespread scale? Or are many regularly receiving the Eucharist unworthily, and not just profaning the Sacrament but poisoning their souls? Are our parishes in fact largely administering poison to a disturbing number of those who present themselves for Communion?

Those in grave sin have no right to receive Communion at all. None. At. All. Thus, remarried divorcees have no right to receive Communion, and in fact have the right to be denied Communion for their own spiritual well-being. Reception of Holy Communion must not be reduced to a mere act of belonging the local group, of exterior participation and inclusion stripped of its supernatural reality and purpose. It is primarily a spiritual event, with spiritual consequences, and eternal ones at that. It is not a sacrament of social inclusion.

Our Sunday obligation is not to receive Holy Communion. Our obligation is to attend Mass every Sunday. Have many Catholics lost sight of this fact?

Or perhaps individuals judge for themselves and decide that they can receive despite Church teaching? Perhaps they would call this an act of conscience. While we cannot read people’s consciences, we can safely say that anyone who makes a judgment against Church teaching does so without any objective authority. It is the same for priests who unilaterally decide to offer Communion to those who are impeded by means of publicly-known grave sin or who are non-Catholics. In this case, those priests are exercising an authority they do not have. This makes them dangerous men indeed from a spiritual point of view.

So the question of Communion for remarried divorcees needs to be re-focused. The burning question really is: how many who present themselves for Communion are actually in communion with Christ and His Church and not impeded by grave sin? Another question presents itself in consequence: how many see Communion merely as an act of exterior participation rather than an essentially spiritual act with effects not only for now but for eternity?

If you are in a state of grave sin, Holy Communion is not your remedy. Confession and penance: that is your remedy. Only then will Holy Communion do you any good. Only then will Holy Communion not bring you spiritual woe. What we need now is not a campaign for frequent Communion, but one for frequent Confession. Dare we say it: Holy Communion can be dangerous – it is not for the unready.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

(1 Corinthians 11:23-30 ESV)



A Warning about Christ’s Body

The Triduum is upon us and it behoves us to turn our minds from our own petty, and not so petty, worries, concerns and plans and focus our attention as much as we can on the drama of the Lord’s Passion, Death and ultimate Triumph. It is something far greater than all of us considered together, and it changed human history, and the human condition, more profoundly than any other event, or person, has ever done.

Though we will not hear it in tonight’s gospel, it is at the Last Supper that our Lord declared, “Now is the Son of Man glorified”. How well do you remember your scripture? Is it by the Supper that Christ is glorified in this passage from St John’s gospel?

Jesus shares the morsel with JudasOur Lord makes this declaration immediately after Judas leaves on his mission to betray him into the hands of his enemies (John 13:31). He had just identified Judas as the betrayer: “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel after I have dipped it” (v.26). Now strictly speaking in St John’s narrative this is not said during the Eucharistic core of the Passover meal our Lord was celebrating with his disciples: indeed, St John omits that core altogether. By St John’s time of writing the narrative of the Last Supper and the First Mass would have been all too well known. St John includes, unlike the other evangelists, the washing of the feet. In showing the Master serving the servants St John highlights for his readers what effect the Eucharist should have on us, what it is to have a Eucharistic heart.

Nevertheless, St John is too sophisticated a writer not to have intended the resonance of the Last Supper to be heard in this identification of Judas as the betrayer by our Lord, by means of taking the morsel our Lord offered him. Judas was part of the Supper, no less than the other apostles. Christ shared his Passover, and himself, with Judas as well as the others. It is no accident that St John shows our Lord identifying his betrayer within the context of sharing at the Table of the Supper. Immediately there come unbidden to mind the words of St Paul to the Church at Corinth regarding the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:29):

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

As I went about the solitary task this afternoon of setting up for our Maundy Thursday Mass, that scene from St John and those words of St Paul grew in their force on the mind. Normally we automatically identify ourselves with those apostles other than Judas: we notice St Peter when he speaks; perhaps we envy St John the Beloved his closeness to our Lord; or maybe we are happy to be one of the other apostles not singled out by name in the narrative.

Jesus washes the disciples feetBut Judas shared the Supper, and the Lord’s body, too. Sometimes might we not be better identified with Judas the Betrayer? How often do we betray the Lord by our sins? Even more, do we hammer in the nails ourselves, as it were, by deliberate, frequent even, acts of malice and selfishness? How often do we totally ignore the Lord’s servile washing of his disciples’ feet in our lives, other than to see in it a touching insight into our Lord’s personality and teaching? These too, alas, are acts of betrayal, for when we do so to the least of his brethren, we do so to Christ himself (cf Matt 25).

So as we approach the altar this Triduum and share a morsel of the Lord’s body, let us take time to discern truly the Lord’s Body and Blood, as something before which we should in awe, and in shame. For how can we share rightly in the Lord’s Eucharistic Body if we fail to discern him in his ecclesial Body, the Church? Can our reverence of the Lord’s Body and Blood be sincere if at the same time we revile him in our brothers and sisters in Christ’s Body, the Church? Perhaps we ‘only’ revile one person. But this does not let us off the hook, or mitigate our malice, for “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).

Our worship of the Lord in his Body and Blood is not some standalone ritual that merely adds colour to the life of Christians. Our worship of the Lord’s Body must also bring us to discern his Body not just in the Eucharist but in the Church, our brothers and sisters whomever they might be. We worship not to change God, but to change ourselves. It is a real fear that unless we truly discern our Lord’s Body at the altar and in our lives we will never change where it counts. The heart that hates can have no place in the Kingdom.

May we walk with our Lord on the Way of his Cross to his glory in the Liturgy these next few days with hearts and minds attuned to discern his Body and hear his voice, so that we might also be able to walk with him the way of the Cross to glory in our own lives.