As the Synod begins

My wife and I went without the Eucharist for five years because of our irregular marriage situation. We refrained from receiving despite the objections of our pastor at the time who, knowing our situation, suggested that it might not be such a big deal for us to receive anyway, and also despite the frequent questions of our children about why we did not.

In other words, I’m one of those people that many of Cardinal Walter Kasper’s critics keep speaking up for, when they say that his proposal that the bishops of the Synod on the Family find a way to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion throws those who have respected the discipline under the bus. “There are people who have lived heroically by the teaching of the Church,” says James Hitchcock. “They have not received Communion in living in the teaching of the Church, and they cannot be brushed away.”

I’m not sure I felt “heroic” about it, but I’m one of these patient souls, and I’m telling you I’m a little offended by this line of thinking. Do Hitchcock and others really think that my attitude toward this question will be: “If I was not able to receive Communion when I was in an irregular situation, then no one else should be able to either”? Does he think me to be that childish?

If that’s the biggest thing keeping us from opening the way for divorced and remarried people to receive Communion, then we really do have a problem with mercy. My guess is that most divorced and remarried Catholics who have abstained from Communion out of their love for the sacrament and their respect for the Church’s judgment would be greatly in favor of a way that would allow others in similar situations to receive. I know I would.

But I’m not optimistic that there is such a way. I’ve read the Kasper interviews and articles and his little book, The Gospel of the Family. I greatly admire what the Cardinal is trying to do. By his willingness to acknowledge the difficult situations of many Catholics today and the efforts of many to navigate a life of faith in less than ideal circumstances, Kasper demonstrates both courage and goodness. If nothing else, perhaps his words will help us treat people in these situations less like second-class Catholics. I think the disrespectful comments made publicly about and toward the Cardinal by people who should know better are unfortunate. I sincerely hope there is a way for the truth about marriage and the truth about God’s mercy can be balanced in such a way that those who have divorced and remarried might be able to receive Communion.

But I don’t see it. Sympathetic as I am to Kasper’s efforts, I am unconvinced. And I write this almost with a cringe, because I really hate to put myself on the side of an argument whose chief proponent thinks that the existence of the Roman Curia is part of the deposit of the faith handed down by God (and who, I’d add, doesn’t mind being seen like this and this in public). I don’t see a way around the teaching that marriage is indissoluble and exclusive. If it’s there, I welcome it, but I don’t see it.

I think it comes down to this: “[The Church] cannot propose a solution apart from or contrary to Jesus’ words. The indissolubility of a sacramental marriage during the lifetime of the other partner is a binding part of the Church’s tradition, which one cannot repeal or water down by appealing to a superficially understood and cheapened sense of mercy.” You probably think that’s Burke talking, but it’s Cardinal Kasper, in his The Gospel of the Family (p. 26). And I haven’t found anything else in that book that helps us get beyond that statement.

Certainly there may be a way. I just finished writing a book about John Courtney Murray and the remarkable role he played in forming the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom. Almost everyone, including some of the most powerful people in Rome and most prominent defenders of Church teaching (that is, the Cardinal Burkes and Father Fessios of Murray’s day) insisted that to recognize the religious freedom of all people meant renouncing some unchangeable Catholic truths. But they were wrong. Murray demonstrated, in a way that almost everyone else was unable to do, why that was not the case. If there is a new John Courtney Murray out there, who will show us the way in this situation, I hope his voice is heard.

And so I really will be praying this morning at Mass for the Spirit to be heard at those Synod gatherings. I admit it freely: I don’t know what the Spirit wants here. But I hope those guys will figure it out and do it.

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