Divorce, Remarriage, Communion, and the Catholic Church’s Existential Crisis

May 5, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

I have to admit, I’d be in awe if I got the phone call Jaqui Lisbona did.  On a Monday, a couple of weeks ago, Jaqui’s phone rang.  Her husband picked it up and was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Father Bergoglio.  You may know him better as Pope Francis.  He asked to speak with Jaqui.  Apparently, several months back, she had written a letter to the pontiff asking him if she could take Communion even though she was divorced.  Apparently, her priest had been refusing her Communion for some time now according to the provisions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions … The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was.  If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law.  Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as this situation persists.[1]

In contradistinction to her priest’s ban, The Washington Post reports that the Pope told Jaqui “‘there was no problem’ with her taking Communion, and that he was ‘dealing with the issue’ of remarried divorcees.”[2]  Predictably, this set off a firestorm of controversy with the Vatican ultimately having to respond:

Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis’ personal pastoral relationships. Since they do not in any way form part of the Pope’s public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office. That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion. Therefore, consequences relating to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred from these occurrences.

I like Ross Douthat’s analysis of this response:  “This formulation may be technically correct, but it’s also a little bit absurd. Even in ‘private’ conversation, the Pope is, well, the Pope.”[3]  Exactly.  You can’t claim the Pope is the vicar of Christ on the one hand while having him contradict what other vicars of Christ before him have taught on the other.

With that being said, there is something to be commended in the stance that The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and even this woman’s priest, has taken with regard to remarried divorcees and Communion.  In a world that all too readily sanctions divorce and remarriage for reasons as debase and selfish as “I’m in love with someone else and I want to marry them,” The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps to remind us of the gravity of divorce as a sin in God’s eyes.

Still, it has been interesting to watch Catholics struggle to respond to this situation.  They are struggling with how to make a proper distinction between, oddly enough, the Law and the Gospel!  Consider this by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:

The question of the divorced-remarried and the sacraments is taking up a lot of our time. How should we look at this?

One of the many confounding things about the Jesus of the Gospels is that He fulfills the law, even strengthens the law, and yet extends mercy to literally anyone who wants it, no matter how deep their transgressions, and adopts a resolutely passionate attitude with sinners. This is encapsulated by His words to the adulterous woman: “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

As with all aspects of our faith, structured with paradox as it is, the temptation is always to strengthen one side of the “equation” too much at the expense of the other … Jesus says, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” One camp will say, “He said ‘I do not condemn you’!!!!!” One camp will say, “He said ‘Go and sin no more’!!!!!” …

It seems to me that the excesses go in these ways. The progressive excess is to use mercy as a (however well-intentioned) pretext to amend the law. The conservative excess is to use the law as a (however well-intentioned pretext) to refuse mercy.

Yes, God lays down the law. But God provides infinite mercy.[4]

It sounds to me like Gobry is having the existential crisis of a Lutheran and he doesn’t even know it!  He is taking seriously the full weight of God’s law against divorce on the one hand while leaning on His sweet mercy for divorcées on the other.

Gobry even seems to suspect that the partaking of Communion to a divorcée’s blessing and benefit is not as simple as a humanly contrived promise to sin no more based squarely in a person’s will:

The juridical Gordian knot here is the necessary “firm resolve” not to commit the sin again. But it is not licentious to note that for all of us this firm resolve will be imperfect. Obviously, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But if we search our hearts, do we not find that “firm resolve” is drawn in shades of gray, rather than black or white? …

God’s law is as hard as His mercy is infinite. And none of us are righteous under the law. And none of us, if we are honest, can even be said to want to be righteous under the law, in every single dimension of our life. But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?

Gobry knows that rooting anything salvific and divinely beneficial in our actions or will is a fool’s errand.  It’s not just that we aren’t righteous, it’s that we don’t even want to be righteous.  Indeed, any righteous desire in our will is doomed to an infinite regress, rendered impotent because of sin.  We only want to want to be righteous, or even want to want to want to be righteous.  And even this is giving us too much credit.

So, what is the way out of this morass over who may worthily partake of Communion?  Martin Luther would say, “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”[5]  Our worthiness to partake of Communion is not and cannot be based in our freedom from sin, our reparations for sin, or the fullness and genuineness of a promise not to commit more sin.  With regard to the Catholic Church’s current quandary over divorce and remarriage specifically, worthiness for Communion cannot be the result of trying to fix the sin of divorce by, after remarrying, getting another divorce, for this is also a sin.  No, our worthiness to partake on Communion can only be based on faith in the One who gives us His body and blood to remedy our unworthiness.  Our worthiness must be based in Jesus because our worthiness is Jesus.

Existential crisis…remedied.

______________________________

[1] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1994), § 1650.

[2] Terrence McCoy, “Did Pope Francis just call and say divorced Catholics can take Communion?The Washington Post (4.24.2014).

[3] Ross Douthat, “The Pope’s Phone Call,” The New York Times (4.26.2014).

[4] Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “On Divine Mercy Sunday, Some Thoughts On Communion And Divorced-Remarried,” patheos.com (4.27.2014).

[5] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar,” Section 1.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. PEG (@pegobry)  |  May 6, 2014 at 5:34 am

    Hey,

    Thanks for your post.

    Since I wrote the post you cite, I’ve been more thoroughly convinced of the correctness of the Catholic position. See here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/inebriateme/2014/05/once-more-on-communion-and-divorced-remarried/

    But I must say that if I hadn’t been, this post would have convinced me. The Protestant way of describing justification by faith (and I agree that we are justified by faith) as a legal transaction is utterly inimical to the God portrayed in the Bible and through Jesus Christ, who transforms the world from within and gives birth to new life and new creation.

    Reply

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