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Patristic ‘life raft’ language refers to Confession, not Communion

March 1, 2014

In his recent remarks on holy Communion for divorced Catholics civilly remarried outside the Church, Cardinal Kasper made use of the Patristic locus communis of a ‘second plank after the shipwreck of sin’ as a basis for giving divorced and remarried Catholics “not a second boat, but a life raft” in the form of holy Communion.

Now, I don’t claim credentials as a Patrologist, but I will say that every time I have encountered “secunda tabula” language, it has referred to Confession being available to sinners after Baptism, not to holy Communion being available to Catholics living in, among other things, pseudo-matrimony.

Three examples (my emphasis):

Summa casuum [de poenitentia] S. Raymundi de Peniafort [c. 1244] (Avenione: Mallard, et al., 1715) at 1, wherein “Quoniam (ut ait Hieronymus) secunda post naufragium tabula est culpam simpliciter confiteri.”

Council of Trent, Decree of Justification, n. 14: As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace … through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery … which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost (quam secundam post naufragium deperditae gratiae tabulam sancti patres apte nuncuparunt).”

Benedict XIV, const. Sacramentum Poenitentiae (1 June 1741): The Sacrament of Penance has been aptly called by the holy Fathers a “second plank” after the shipwreck of squandered grace.

Plainly, all of these ancient “second plank” phrases refer to Confession, not to holy Communion.

Does anyone know a Patristic source that uses “second plank” language in any context other than that of making sure that sinners know Confession is available for any sin repented of? Does anyone know of the Fathers using “second plank” language to approve of holy Communion for those who do not cease objectively grave public sin?

If so, please let us know. If not, I suggest caution in offering such arguments in the questions facing us today.


1. A friend in Patristics suggests “second plank” imagery to have originated with Tertullian, who used it to describe Penance: “Repent thee, and I will save thee; [cf. Ez 18:30, 32] … That repentance, O sinner, like myself (nay, rather, less than myself, for pre-eminence in sins I acknowledge to be mine [cf. 1 Tim. 1:16]), do you so hasten to, so embrace, as a shipwrecked man the protection  of some plank (*ut naufragus alicuius tabulae fidem). This will draw you forth when sunk in the waves of sins, and will bear you forward into the port of the divine clemency” (De paen. 4). * The Oxford (Protestant) editor of the ANFC series notes here that ‘this expression soon passed into Theological technology, and as ‘the plank after shipwreck’ is universally known.”

2. Tornielli has a fuller narration of Kasper’s remarks in which he claims “some local Churches introduced a practice according to which, Christians who separated from their still living partner and had entered into a second union, did not after a certain period of penance get to marry a second time (in other words they didn’t get a new ship), but they were given a life raft in the form of communion. Origen, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus all spoke of this.”

So here are the questions: (1) where do Origen, Basil, and Gregory speak of this; (2) what exactly was the practice they were describing; and (3) what did they actually conclude about it?

Reminder, as noted here, there was considerable turmoil in the ancient Church over “those who had gone on to second marriages”, about whether such marriages were really marriages, and about whether those in second marriages could approach the Table of the Lord. That phrase never referred, however,  to divorced-and-remarried Catholics, but to Catholics marrying a second time after the death of a first spouse! It was eventually found that such second marriages were true marriages, sacramental for baptized parties. But such approbation was never, directly or indirectly, accorded to divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

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