Why bishops won’t approve Communion for divorced and remarried

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Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia

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Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, Australia

Heading into its second week, the Synod of Bishops on the Family looks like it will not endorse German Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to enable some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to take Communion. In an interview with the Boston Globe‘s John Allen, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge said he thought the bishops were opposed to the proposal by a 2-1 margin.

Coleridge himself is no dyed-in-the-wool conservative. He told Allen that it’s “just not in touch with reality to say there is no good” in second and same-sex marriages.

I understand that there’s no continuum between good and evil, but that’s all theory. The reality is, and any pastor knows this, that when you meet people in these relationships, it’s not black and white…There is a Catholic pathology sometimes of all or nothing. If it doesn’t conform to our ideal of what a marriage is, then somehow it’s nothing. It’s a Catholic absolutism.

Yet, he continued, “Personally, I don’t think I could find my way clear to support the Kasper proposal, even though in some ways I’m quite sympathetic to it.”

Why can’t he? Maybe he personally can’t get past the theory. Or he thinks it would tear the Church apart. Either way, his stance shows how profoundly Roman Catholicism is possessed by moral absolutism.

Eastern Orthodoxy, a no less ancient Christian tradition, is free of such “pathology.” Employing the patristic principle of economia, it acknowledges that there is a continuum between good and evil — that living in the world embroils human beings in inextricable mixtures of the two. Where Catholicism needs to divide all wars into “just” and “unjust” to the point of sanctioning some as holy, Orthodoxy sees them as sometimes necessary but always as bad things that require penance of the combatants.

Similarly, Catholicism takes the position that the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage forecloses the possibility of second marriages — and hence Communion for those that civilly remarry — unless one of the spouses has died. Orthodoxy sees indissolubility as an ideal, but is prepared not only to admit divorced and remarried persons to Communion, but also to celebrate second and even third marriages in their churches (albeit in a penitential spirit).

However, using economia to solve the problem of the divorced and remarried in the Catholic Church was a non-starter at the Second Vatican Council, and it has remained a non-starter under Pope Francis. Cardinal Kasper has taken the position that the ban on Communion should be seen as a discipline rather than a doctrine. The idea is that while doctrines (like the Trinity) are not subject to change, disciplines (like clerical celibacy) are. Conservatives have responded that to lift the ban on Communion would be to destroy the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage.

In fact, the distinction between discipline and doctrine is a theological rule of thumb that disguises a more complex picture of varying degrees of seriousness and definitiveness in Catholic teaching and practice. Disciplines can be and have periodically been changed by various competent church authorities. Doctrines can be and have been changed by church councils and popes — including the last few. (See my recent article on this subject over at Religion in the News.)

For its part, the indissolubility doctrine has itself never been solemnly defined as part of the Church’s unchangeable “deposit of faith.” Nevertheless, even Pope Francis’ public statement that the divorced and remarried are “not by any means excommunicated” does not seem to have persuaded a sufficient number of bishops to support a change in the church’s policy.

The fallback position for reformers now seems to be to allow diocesan bishops discretion to decide specific cases locally. That would be in line with Pope Francis’ recent decision to let bishops grant uncontested annulments within 45 days on their own say-so. It might not be a pretty solution, but at least it will allow some respite from the pathology.

  • Bernado

    So why should they care? Nothing more than some mythical exercise in converting bread, water and wine into flesh and blood. This 24/7 blood sacrifice called the Eucharist is mocks common sense.

    And the Last Supper? It was not an historic event. See http://wiki.faithfutures.org/index.php/016_Supper_and_Eucharist for added details.

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  • Dominic

    Obviously many care about the sacrament. Your implications that the Last Supper never occurred are simple-minded “revelations” that most conspiracy theorists revel in. It did occur, and the transubstation that takes place at every Catholic Mass is a matter of Faith, of which you have no regard for.
    Stick with the Kennedy assassination, or Watergate.

  • Betty Clermont

    1. The issue of communion for the civilly remarried is a tempest in a teapot. The people involved have already disregarded Church doctrine by remarrying so one has to wonder how much further Church restrictions matter to them. It was an big issue solely in the German Church and no where else on the planet until this pontificate.
    2. The raison d’etre of this pontificate is to change public opinion about the Church to increase its prestige and power. Therefore, certain of uncritical media coverage (e.g. Silk not stating the obvious that the civilly remarried never were “excommunicated”) at the end of this synod something nice will be said about this and “welcoming” LGBT person. The final document will refer to individual conscience and local Churches.
    3. There will, however, be no change in doctrine – meaning each bishop and pastor are still justified in imposing their own discrimination in these matters.

  • Bernardo

    Luedemann concludes that the portrayal of Jesus celebrating such a ritual on the night before his death is not historical. He is clear that there is “no generic relationship” between any actual final meal and the Lord’s Supper understood in cultic terms. He also denies the Passover character of the supper as a Markan creation. Like Meier (below), Luedemann does accept the saying (Mark 14:25) about drinking wine in the kingdom of God as authentic. He concludes: (this saying) “hardly came into being in the early community, for in it Jesus does not exercise any special function for believers at the festal meal in heaven which is imminent. Only Jesus’ expectation of a the future kingdom of God stands at the centre, not Jesus as saviour, judge or intercessor.”

    But keep in mind that as per Aquinas and supported by JPII, heaven (if it exists) is a spirit state. Spirits do not drink liquids. Next topic.

  • samuel johnston

    Dominic ,
    Faith, in this context, is mere gullibility. All this nonsense could be cleared up instantly, if your furtive god would merely put in an appearance on Sunday morning television, but no, he simply leaves you looking ridiculous, defending a magical world.

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  • Matt

    “For its part, the indissolubility doctrine has itself never been solemnly defined as part of the Church’s unchangeable “deposit of faith.””

    This is incorrect, the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage is defined in the Council of Trent’s Decree on Matrimony.

  • Wow,Bernado…I didn’t know that we’re bound to embrace or discard the Truth of Scripture depending on which dueling scholar prevailed.Sounds like a “reality”show.

  • Bernardo

    Mr. Ringo,

    You might want to peruse the studies of the contemporary scholars of the historic Jesus. To get you started, see the references noted at earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the titles of their over 100 books on the subject. Get back to us when you finish. At the moment you are relying on five non-witness accounts of the life of Jesus which therefore requires substantial verification. As per these contemporary studies, only about 20% of the NT is authentic.

  • Bret Thoman

    and Christ’s words himself in Scripture, cf. Matthew 19:1-12 “Let no man divide what God has put together”

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  • Matt,
    In 1978, the International Theological Commission issued a document (published by the Vatican at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_cti_1977_sacramento-matrimonio_en.html) entitled “Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage” that states the following:

    “The Council of Trent declared that the Church has not erred when it has taught and teaches, in accordance with the doctrine of the Gospel and the apostles, that the marriage bond cannot be broken through adultery. Nevertheless, because of historical doubts (opinions of Ambrosiaster, Catharinus, and Cajetan) and for some more-or-less ecumenical reasons, the Council limited itself to pronouncing an anathema against those who deny the Church’s authority on this issue.

    “It cannot be said, then, that the Council had the intention of solemnly defining marriage’s indissolubility as a truth of faith.”

    That was the basis of my assertion.

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