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Does the pope really favor admitting divorced-and-remarried Catholics to holy Communion?

February 27, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI’s Aristotelian ability to entertain a thought without accepting it occasions more than a few observers to leap to their own conclusions about what the pope holds, but then, when it is pointed out that the pope has not committed himself to a view which he might have articulated here or there, to sputter about with “But, but, but, the pope said it!”, as if a quondam university professor could express no viewpoints besides those he believes.

The latest in a long line of calls for divorced and remarried (outside the Church) Catholics to be formally readmitted to holy Communion, this one from Austria, is an example of the proclivity of some to take the pope’s thinking-out-loud about a topic as some sort of papal ipse dixit on that topic. Here, the pope is portrayed as having opened the door (twice in fact) to Catholics in irregular marriages being formally admitted to holy Communion—first in his remarks to the priests of the diocese of Aosta (2005) and again in one of his annual addresses to the Roman Rota (2006).

We may dispatch with the Rota claim forthwith: It’s not there. At all. The pope’s comments to priests in Aosta are more complex, I grant, but they do not, I think, signal a papal rethinking of Eucharistic discipline; rather, they show his interesting openness to rethinking an aspect of matrimonial law.

In his Aosta comments the pope recognized the pain of Catholics disallowed reception of holy Communion based on their irregular marriage situation, but his ideas toward alleviating that pain did not run toward changing the rules on admission to holy Communion. When he was Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope “wrote the book” (actually, it was a letter) on the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to holy Communion. His letter was a beautiful tapestry of pastoral solicitude, fidelity to Church teaching on marriage and the Eucharist, and appreciation for how canon law serves the Church and her members. Nothing in it suggests that any good comes from winking at the truth for, as everyone knows, the truth cannot set us free if it is not the truth. Parlaying papal remarks to diocesan priests into an abrogation of that dicasterial latter would be, to put it mildly, a stretch.

Rather the pope’s remarks in Aosta turned, I think, toward rethinking canonical jurisprudence (itself based on matrimonial theology, of course) that all marriages between baptized parties, even those demonstrably bereft of living faith, are, notwithstanding that grave defect, presumptively valid. The pope’s question is entirely distinct from whether divorced and remarried Catholics may go to Communion, though eventually his question about marriage law could impact the issue of Communion reception, as follows: If certain marriages now presumed valid and sacramental (cit. omm.) turn out not to deserve that presumption, then their canonical nullity might be more easily proven, meaning that the convalidation of certain marriages outside the Church might be more easily accomplished, meaning that couples in such unions could return to Communion. There are, obviously, several steps in that sequence, and the pope is just suggesting that the first one be given a look, but who could disagree with his suggestion to study the matter? Marriage law is in need of reform in several respects, and for one I say, have at it. Prudently, to be sure.

But in the meantime, those who claim Benedict XVI as a proponent of formally admitting Catholics in irregular marriages to holy Communion need, I suggest, to parse more carefully what the pope actually said about this matter on various occasions, and to identify more carefully what he actually holds regarding this important question. + + +

See also Cdl. Ratzinger’s remarks from 1998, here.

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