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Parish Life blog: Communion for the divorced and remarried

Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ |  15 February 2017

Less than a year ago, on 19 March 2016, Pope Francis published The Joy of Love, an exhortation on married life and family life.

It is easily the longest exhortation that a pope has ever published. It is also a very realistic document. It reflects, for instance, on the situation of innumerable families who are forced to leave their homes and endure even years in refugee camps. It reflects as well as on the experience of families who suffer from unemployment, drug abuse, and domestic violence.

I want to explore only one theme from The Joy of Love—what it has to say about the possibility of Holy Communion for Catholics who are divorced and remarried.

Pope Francis takes up this question in three steps.

First, he pictures those whose second union has been consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, and generous, self-giving love.

Second, the pope leaves behind a traditional solution to such a situation, which prescribed living together as brother and sister. Like the Second Vatican Council, he observes that if married intimacy is lacking, it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.

Third, he thinks of what Holy Communion causes as, I quote, ‘a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’. Here the Pope cites what St Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century and St Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth century wrote about receiving the Eucharist for the forgiveness of sins.

Pope Francis might also have quoted what St Ignatius of Antioch said in the second century about the Eucharist as medicine. He could also have cited from the Mass some ancient prayers which speak of the cleansing and purifying power of the Eucharist. St Ambrose and St Cyril were not alone in recognising the Eucharist as a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.

Those then are the three steps in the Pope’s argument about divorced and remarried persons, after prayer and proper reflection on their situation, receiving Holy Communion.

Inevitably this is the section of the exhortation that has sparked not only great interest but also created uproar. Some critics, including a handful of cardinals, have suggested that, by dropping the total ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion, Pope Francis has departed from Catholic teaching. For these critics, the Pope has not only created confusion but also broken with Catholic doctrine and practice.

We might answer that, in any case, very many human lives are confused and messy. Pope Francis has not created that confusion. He is trying to deal with it in a loving, merciful way. He wants to bring the presence of Jesus right into what he calls ‘the irregular situations’ of innumerable couples.

On the one hand, Francis makes it quite clear that the church must continue to propose the full ideals of marriage as a permanent and exclusive union. The integrity of the church’s teaching demands nothing less than that. But, on the other hand, insisting on detailed rules that ignore the specific and often every different situations of people may end up denying the mercy of God for those who most need it.

Yes, Pope Francis has changed teaching and practice about those whose who can and should be admitted to Holy Communion. But that kind of change can be compared with what has happened earlier in the history of the church: for instance, over the question of those who can receive the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.

Two general councils of the Church, the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century and the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, explicitly taught that only the dying should receive what used to be called ‘extreme unction.’ The Second Vatican Council dropped that name  for the sacrament, removed its being limited to the dying, and opened up the anointing of the sick to those who are seriously ill or advanced in years. Francis has done something similar, by opening the door for the divorced and civilly remarried, after due reflection and in appropriate circumstances, to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.

In his classic work on the development of Christian teaching, Blessed John Henry Newman proposed seven tests towards distinguishing changes that are proper, life-giving developments from changes that are nothing less than corruption. I am not going to take up all seven of Newman’s tests. Let me limit myself to two of his tests: first, what Newman called ‘early anticipations’ or ‘early intimations’; second, what Newman called ‘continuity of principle’.

First, even though he does not use this language, Pope Francis has pointed to early anticipations or early intimations of what he teaches. He calls the Eucharist ‘not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’ He quotes teaching from such big-hitters in the early church as Ambrose of Milan and Cyril of Alexandria  As we saw, the Pope might also have quoted Ignatius of Antioch and ancient prayers of the church which speak of the cleansing, purifying power of the Eucharist. 

Second, Pope Francis clearly endorses another test coming from Newman: continuity of principle. Francis is not taking away the full ideals and principles on which Christian marriage has always been based. Yes, he is deeply concerned to provide very many people with help in the confused situations of their lives. But that does not mean breaking with the principles that shape the Christian ideals for marriage. 

Cardinal Newman provided a finely tuned set of seven tests for distinguishing changes that are life-giving developments from changes that are deplorable corruptions. Unfortunately, it has been extremely rare to find any Catholic thinkers applying those tests to contemporary debates and discussions. Catholics and other Christians almost always content themselves with discussing Newman’s seven tests historically and in the context of the past. But that is to neglect a rich resource for sorting out present controversies.  

In particular, Newman’s seven tests can guide us happily through contemporary debates that have been stirred up by the wonderful exhortation from Pope Francis.

Adapted from Fr Gerald O'Collins SJ's Cardinal Newman Lecture, Newman College, February 2017. 


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