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Bp. Tobin’s thoughtful column deserves some thoughtful replies

September 17, 2014

Bp. Thomas Tobin (Providence RI) has written a thoughtful column on the debate surrounding the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to holy Communion. The column deserves a careful reading and, too, I think, some careful responses. In the interest of space, I will not comment on the many passages I agree with, nor on all of those I disagree with. The bishop’s words are in italics, my responses in plain font.

The challenge for the Church, of course, is how to maintain and proclaim the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus that marriage entails a sacred and permanent bond between husband and wife, while also providing spiritual care for those Catholics who have fallen short of the ideal.

Imprecision in speech always hampers discussion, but all the more so in controversial and technical matters. In this context we are not talking about Catholics who have “fallen short of the ideal”—such a phrase describes every Catholic on earth!—but rather about Catholics who, in choosing to civilly remarry after divorce, have acted directly contrarily to “the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus” and against the discipline of his holy Church. This language is not to judge persons but to describe their actions accurately.

I turn to the incident in the Gospels in which Jesus and His followers were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath and because they were hungry, began to pick and eat the grain, a clear violation of an important Mosaic Law. … But in response, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:23-28). In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a “pastoral context,” exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment.

I am uncomfortable when proponents of controversial positions take a Scripture passage and invoke it talismanically. I always wonder, why were not other equally relevant passages noted, say, verses about not one jot or tittle of the law being abolished or about the need for disciples to be faithful in all things great or small, not to mention passages describing spouses who divorce and marry others as adulterers? At the same time, one wonders if this verse or that supports disregard of a given law, might it also support disregard of other laws? Does Mark II let us disregard, say, the Fourth Commandment or the Eighth? If not, why not?

I understand completely the arguments against taking a more “pastoral approach” to this topic, primarily that to do so would betray the sacred teaching of Christ we are obliged to uphold.

Several parts of his column leave me unconvinced of the bishop’s “complete” understanding of this matter, if only because there is scarcely any allusion to the fact that this issue turns not simply on the laws of marriage (which no one with a straight face disputes) but also on various sacramental laws surrounding the Eucharist, which laws many are, whether they know it or not, directly challenging.

But at the same time, the Church has taught the pre-eminent value of receiving the Holy Eucharist, and I keep hearing the words of Jesus about the Eucharist, words that are just as valid and important as His words about marriage: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53).

Agreed. See also I Corinthians XI: 27-30.

I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have “dropped-out” of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist.

See what I mean about imprecision in speech hampering discussion? Divorced Catholics are not prohibited the Eucharist. Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are prohibited the Eucharist. Time and again, defenders of traditional discipline in this matter are wrongly portrayed as wanting to see holy Communion withheld from divorced Catholics.

And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion.

Bp. Tobin speaks with real credibility here, being a bishop who takes a dim view of reception of holy Communion by Catholics “who persist in manifest grave sin” (Canon 915), having in mind pro-abortion legislators, etc. What he misses, though, is that divorced and remarried Catholics are prohibited holy Communion under exactly the same law as are pro-abortion legislators! Exactly the same. See what I mean about wider questions of Eucharistic law being inescapably involved in this marriage and divorce debate?

Can we at least think about simplifying the annulment process … Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?

Sure. A few thoughts toward thinking those things through: (1) personal interviews are not required under canon law, but they are offered as a help to advance petitions that would otherwise surely fail for lack of clarity in written answers; (2) “hefty fees” are not charged, not even in Providence, which makes annulment fees optional and, even if collected, cover only one-sixth* of that tribunal’s expenses; (3) testimony from witnesses is not required, but most petitions will fail for lack of evidence without them; (4) psychological exams are not required by canon law; and (5) automatic appeals are required by Rome, and I for one would welcome Tobin’s weighing in against them, as have many canon lawyers over the decades.

In lieu of this formal court-like process … can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion?

Several issues are confused in this passage, but to take only one, let’s agree that when men may be trusted to be knowledgeable and unbiased judges of their own cases, we may trust them to make judgments about the binding character of their wedding ceremonies. Till then …

And don’t we already offer Holy Communion to other individuals whose relationship with the Church is impaired, such as Orthodox Christians?

Everyone’s relationship with the Church is “impaired”, so ‘impaired relationship’ is not, standing alone, a bar to holy Communion. The Orthodox can be admitted to holy Communion under Canon 844 § 3, a norm wholly irrelevant to the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics; if, however, a Catholic minister knew an Orthodox Christian to be ineligible for Communion under Canon 915 (say, because he or she was a notorious pro-abortion legislator or were divorced and civilly remarried), it would be wrong to administer holy Communion.

It is important that any “pastoral approach” to divorced and remarried Catholics be adopted by the Universal Church and not attempted at the level of national, diocesan or parish churches. To impose local solutions to this widespread problem would be completely dishonest and misleading, causing only confusion and division.

Amen to that.

There are many other Church leaders, including our Pope and bishops and theologians, who are a whole lot smarter and holier than I am, wrestling with this issue. We should pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will guide their discernment.

Amen to that too. + + +

* The 2012 CLSA Proceedings reports, at p. 414, that Providence collected $ 58,000 in tribunal fees against incurring $ 307,000 in expenses. So, I guess that’s more like one-fifth, eh?

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