Second chances: Remarriage and the Eucharist
German-speaking Catholics are leading calls for an change to the Church’s position on Communion for remarried divorcees – a call voiced by many during the Pope’s state visit to Germany. So far, the Church is resisting these calls with sometimes unfortunate consequences, as the case studies on these pages reveal. Meanwhile can Rome’s Greek cousins light the way forward?
Faced with the thorny question of how the Church should address the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, the late Cardinal Basil Hume said simply: “… the Greeks have the answer.”
He was talking to Fr Timothy Buckley, a Redemptorist priest whom the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales had asked in the early 1990s to research the question and submit a report recommending pastoral guidelines to them.
Whether divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Communion is now firmly back in the spotlight after the 400 clerics backing the Austrian Priests’ Initiative said in their “Appeal to Disobedience” that they would not refuse Communion to remarried divorcees. And just before Pope Benedict XVI landed in Germany last week, the country’s President Christian Wulff, a divorced and remarried Catholic, said he hoped the Church would soften its position on admitting people in his position to the sacraments.
The issue has, of course, been debated and discussed for many years, with a number of bishops and theologians suggesting ways that divorced and remarried Catholics could, under certain conditions, return to Communion. But both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have consistently refused to permit this unless people in their second marriages choose to live chastely as brother and sister.
Clearly, many Catholics remain unconvinced. Some, like Cardinal Hume and one of our case studies on this page, look to the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which have developed a theology allowing for canonical divorces, thereby enabling those in new marriages to receive the sacraments. This is permitted under what is known as the oikonomia or economy of salvation: that God’s mercy and grace continue to work despite human weakness. The idea is that as marriage is a sacrament of love, if love has broken down (and certain conditions have to be met to show this) then the sacrament is no longer valid. Second or third marriages (but not a fourth!) are required to take place in a spirit of penance rather than joyful celebration.
The first proposals within the Latin Church for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion began in the 1940s with an interpretation of what is known as the “good faith” position. This meant that the Church would leave a couple who had remarried “in good faith” by not making them aware of their irregular situation, meaning that they could go on receiving Communion. Then, the Archdiocese of Chicago, keen not to dissuade remarried divorcees – particularly African Americans – from becoming Catholics, started to issue decrees of good faith, which allowed couples to be received into the Church provided there was doubt about the validity of the first marriage and their current union was stable.
During the 1960s, this was extended to marriages that involved a Catholic partner. But by the 1970s, the Church was faced with responding to an increasing number of marital breakdowns, and as a result the still hotly debated “internal forum solution” emerged.
The Church broadly distinguishes between the internal and external forums. The internal is where, for example, someone receives absolution or an individual seeks counsel from a priest. The external forum would be a marriage ceremony or church tribunal. The two are not mutually exclusive but are concerned with different areas of the life of faith: the individual and the community.
Theologians have argued that divorced and remarried Catholics could be allowed to return to the sacraments via the internal forum by seeking the advice of a priest and after examining their conscience. Certain pastoral guidelines would also have to be met.
In 1973, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) confirmed that the Church’s internal forum was a way for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, and a year later clarified two conditions that would be required. The first was that the couple in the second marriage were seeking to live according to Christian moral principles, and the second that they receive Communion where they were unknown, so as not to create scandal. For many this seemed a green light for a return to the sacraments for those in second marriages able to meet the criteria.
Meanwhile, a year earlier, the then Professor Joseph Ratzinger formulated a proposal to allow the divorced and remarried to return to Communion. This would be permitted, he argued, as long as the first marriage had broken up in an irreparable way some time ago, that the second marriage had been “filled with the spirit of faith” and that penance had been performed. Giving such couples Communion, “appears to be no less than just and to be fully in line with the Church’s tradition”.
But then things changed. In 1991, in an article for The Tablet, Fr Theodore Davey, an academic at Heythrop College, citing the CDF pronouncements, put forward the internal forum as a legitimate way to allow the divorced and remarried admission to the sacraments. He cited Professor Ratzinger – by this time prefect of the CDF – in support of his argument and even went so far as to suggest that, “in a curious reverse”, scandal arises when the remarried are barred from the Eucharist.
In an extraordinary intervention, Cardinal Ratzinger rebutted Fr Davey in the letters pages of The Tablet. He said that his 1972 article was only a suggestion made as a theologian and would have required an official promulgation from the Magisterium. Given that Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, had ruled out admitting divorced and remarried couples to Communion, Cardinal Ratzinger’s position had now changed. The cardinal went on to explain the conditions set out by the CDF in its 1974 statement on the internal forum. Quoting Pope John Paul II, he said that those in a second union were only able to return to Communion if they abstained from “acts proper to married couples” – that is, live as brother and sister.
Theologians have raised serious concerns about this idea. How is it workable? Moral theologian Fr Kevin Kelly suggested that unless a married couple put a “brother and sister” logo outside their front door, people would never know if this were the case. The notion that it simply requires sex to sustain it is also a rather narrow theological way of looking at marriage. The Church is effectively allowing a couple to act as man and wife in every area – personal, financial, emotional – but not in the act “proper to married couples”.
While Cardinal Ratzinger’s Tablet letter appeared to quash any hopes for the remarried to receive Communion, two years later a significant theological gauntlet was put down by a trio of German bishops.
In 1993 the three – Karl Lehmann, Walter Kasper and Oskar Saier – wrote a joint pastoral letter arguing that parish priests should assess each case individually when admitting remarried divorcees to Communion, and encouraged people to take a decision according to their own conscience. They drew a distinction between those who had been abandoned in their marriage and those who had destroyed the marriage (also recognised by Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio). They also said consideration should be given as to whether a second marriage now had an “ethical obligation”, and that the Church should accept a person’s decision if someone in a second marriage was personally convinced their earlier marriage was invalid. They stressed the sanctity of marriage and that remarried divorcees would not normally be admitted to the sacraments. Given the theological standing of Bishops Lehmann and Kasper (later cardinals), their intervention could not be ignored and the bishops were summoned to Rome for discussions with the CDF.
A year later, Cardinal Ratzinger issued his own letter to the world’s bishops. Reiterating traditional teaching, it stated that priests have a “serious duty to admonish” any remarried divorcee who judges it possible to receive Communion because “such a judgement of conscience openly contradicts the Church’s teaching”. As Pope, Benedict XVI has expressed pastoral concern for those who are divorced and remarried, although he has kept the door closed when it comes to Communion.
While Fr Buckley is in favour of the internal forum solution, he would like the Church to think more radically about the problem. The Orthodox position, he says, shows up the “deficiency” in Catholic theology and practice on this matter: there is a need to go back to first principles.
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