No Communion for Outlaws. But the Pope Is Studying Two Exceptions
The ban on Eucharistic communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is increasingly contested and disobeyed. Benedict XVI is standing firm. But he is republishing an essay from 1998 that opens two loopholes, the second entrusted to conscience
by Sandro Magister
ROME, December 5, 2011 – During Benedict XVI’s recent visit to Germany, many were expecting “openness” from the pope to divorced and remarried Catholics: with the attenuation, if not the revocation, of the ban on receiving communion.
This expectation was expressed by the president of the German federal republic himself, Christian Wulff, Catholic and remarried, in the official welcome he extended to the pope at his arrival in Berlin.
Neither during the four days of his voyage to Germany, however, nor afterward, did pope Joseph Ratzinger say anything on this issue.
But it is well known that this question is very close to his heart. He has spoken of it repeatedly in the past, and has said that “the problem is very difficult and must be explored further.”
Last November 30, Benedict XVI returned to the issue in indirect form: with the republication in “L’Osservatore Romano” of a “little-known” essay of his from 1998, supplemented with a footnote presenting his remark on this issue to the clergy of the diocese of Aosta on July 25, 2005.
An important footnote, because it concerns precisely one of the points on which Benedict XVI maintains that an exception could be opened in the general ban on communion.
In the first part of his essay, the pope reiterates that this ban is not an invention of the Catholic Church. The Church has no choice but to adhere to the teaching of Christ, who expressed himself with absolute clarity on the indissolubility of marriage.
But of what kind of marriage? Saint Paul – the pope recalls – recognizes the absolute indissolubility only of sacramental marriage, between Christians. For marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian, the apostle admits the possibility of separation, if the purpose is that of safeguarding the faith of the baptized spouse. And the Church also does so today with the “privilegium paulinum,” when it permits the dissolution of a non-sacramental marriage.
In the second part of the essay, pope Ratzinger addresses the objection of those who maintain that the Catholic Church should imitate the more flexible practice of the ancient Church and of the Eastern Churches separated from Rome.
The pope recalls that in the first centuries, some Fathers “sought pastoral solutions for rare borderline cases,” and mentions the name of Saint Leo the Great. But overall, he says, “divorced and remarried members of the faithful were never officially admitted to Holy Communion,” not even after a period of penance.
In the following centuries, however, the pope says there were two opposing developments:
“In the imperial Church after Constantine, with the ever stronger interplay between Church and state, a greater flexibility and readiness for compromise in difficult marital situations was sought. Up until the Gregorian reform [of the eleventh century], a similar tendency was present in the Gallic and Germanic lands. In the Eastern churches separated from Rome, this development progressed farther in the second millennium and led to an increasingly more liberal praxis.”
In the West, however, “on account of the Gregorian reform, the original concept of the Church Fathers was recovered. This development came to its conclusion at the Council of Trent and was once again expressed as a doctrine of the Church at the Second Vatican Council.”
In the third part of his essay, Pope Benedict replies to those who demand that the Catholic Church respect the choice of the divorced and remarried when “in conscience” they believe it just to receive communion, in contrast with the juridical norm that bans it.
Benedict XVI begins with a consideration that seems to close any sort of loophole:
“If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.” A norm, the indissolubility of marriage, that is of “divine law” and “over which the Church has no discretionary authority.”
But immediately afterward, he adds:
“However, the Church has the authority to clarify those conditions which must be fulfilled for a marriage to be considered indissoluble according to the sense of Jesus’ teaching.”
And, he writes, the ecclesiastical tribunals that should ascertain whether or not a marriage is valid do not always function well. Sometimes the processes “last an excessive amount of time.” In some cases “they conclude with questionable decisions.”In still others “mistakes occur.”
In these cases, therefore – the pope recognizes –, “it seems that the application of ‘epikeia’ in the internal forum is not automatically excluded,” meaning a decision of conscience:
“Some theologians are of the opinion that the faithful ought to adhere strictly even in the internal forum to juridical decisions which they believe to be false. Others maintain that exceptions are possible here in the internal forum, because the juridical forum does not deal with norms of divine law, but rather with norms of ecclesiastical law. This question, however, demands further study and clarification. Admittedly, the conditions for asserting an exception would need to be clarified very precisely, in order to avoid arbitrariness and to safeguard the public character of marriage, removing it from subjective decisions”.
In the fourth part of the essay, Benedict XVI indicates precisely a new field to be explored, regarding the factors that render a marriage null:
The pope strictly excludes the possibility that a marriage could cease to be valid simply because “the personal bond of love between the spouses no longer exists.”
But he continues:
“Further study is required, however, concerning the question of whether non-believing Christians – baptized persons who never did or who no longer believe in God – can truly enter into a sacramental marriage. In other words, it needs to be clarified whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ‘ipso facto’ a sacramental marriage. In fact, the Code states that only a ‘valid’ marriage between baptized persons is at the same time a sacrament (cf. CIC, can. 1055, § 2). Faith belongs to the essence of the sacrament; what remains to be clarified is the juridical question of what evidence of the ‘absence of faith’ would have as a consequence that the sacrament does not come into being.”
In a footnote added to the bottom of the essay is the statement to the priests of Aosta in which the pope revisited and developed this reasoning:
“Those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not truly believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert, discover faith and feel excluded from the sacrament, are in a particularly painful situation. This really is a cause of great suffering and when I was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I invited various bishops’ conferences and experts to study this problem: a sacrament celebrated without faith. Whether, in fact, a moment of invalidity could be discovered here because the sacrament was found to be lacking a fundamental dimension, I do not dare to say. I personally thought so, but from the discussions we had I realized that it is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further. But given these people’s painful plight, it must be studied further.”
In the fifth and final part of the essay, finally, Pope Benedict again cautions against “watering down” in the name of mercy that revealed truth which is the indissolubility of marriage.
And he concludes:
“Assuredly, the word of truth can be painful and uncomfortable. But it is the way to holiness, to peace, and to inner freedom. A pastoral approach which truly wants to help the people concerned must always be grounded in the truth. In the end, only the truth can be pastoral. ‘Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (Jn. 8:32).”
Here ends the thought of Benedict XVI on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, which he wanted to reiterate with the republication of this essay from 1998.
The “openness” indicated by the pope in the essay and in the supplemental footnote has at least two parts.
The first is the possible expansion of the canonical recognition of the nullity of marriages celebrated “without faith” by at least one of the spouses, although baptized.
The second is the possible recourse to a decision “in the internal forum” to receive communion by a divorced and remarried Catholic if the lack of recognition of the nullity of his previous marriage (because of a verdict held to be erroneous or because of the impossibility of proving its nullity in procedural form) were to contrast with his firm conviction of conscience that that marriage was objectively null.
In fact, this latter is a practice that tends to be expanded far beyond its limits, on the part of divorced and remarried Catholics who have never even approached the canonical tribunals to regularize their position, nor intend to do so, but all the same receive communion at their own discretion, with or without the approval of a confessor.
On both the one and the other avenue, Benedict XVI hopes that the exploration will proceed.
And he is making it known that he hopes for a positive result in both cases, “without compromising the truth in the name of charity.”
The complete text, much more extensive than what is presented here, of the 1998 essay by Joseph Ratzinger on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics has been on the website of “L’Osservatore Romano,” in six languages, since November 30:
On “L’Osservatore Romano,” the essay by Ratzinger is accompanied by a series of citations from the magisterium on this topic:
In the illustration beneath the title: Rogier Van der Weyden, “Marriage,” 1445, Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.