Family Life Office

Archdiocese of Mobile

Civilly divorced and remarried Catholics and the Eucharist: a brief history

Civilly divorced and remarried Catholics and the Eucharist: a brief history

 Of the many issues that will be addressed at the upcoming Synod on the Family this October, one in particular is receiving heightened attention: whether the Church will change her practice of not admitting to the Eucharist civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. Such a change, it is hoped, would be in the context of mercy.

Allow me to give a brief history of this issue in light of the teaching of the Church and the upcoming Synod.

Coping with the residue of the sexual revolution, a growing number of theologians suggested a change in Church teaching that would tolerate the reception of the Eucharist among civilly divorced Catholics. Throughout the 1970’s, a veritable flood of books and articles were released worldwide advocating this change.

Among those authors was the German bishop Walter Kasper, who wrote a book on Christian Marriage in 1977. He upheld the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, but advocated a leniency on the practice of admitting civilly divorced Catholics to the Eucharist.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II called a Synod on the Family, addressing this issue. Following the Synod, the pope gave the Church the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981), in which he devoted an entire section on divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. He reaffirmed the tradition of the Church, stating: “[Civilly divorced and remarried Catholics] are unable to be admitted [to the Eucharist] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church” (84).

Yet in 1993, a group of German bishops (including Kasper) wrote a letter which called the teaching of Familiaris Consortio only a “general norm” that cannot regulate every particular case involving separated spouses. Cardinal Ratzinger responded as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith with a letter (1994) stating that both Familiaris Consortio and the recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms the Church’s doctrine and practice as binding and cannot be modified.

The issue was brought up again during the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist. Ratzinger, now as Pope Benedict XVI, reaffirmed the Church’s teaching and practice in the Apostolic Exhortation that followed, Sacramentum caritatis (2007). It is also worth noting that in this document, Benedict called for a deeper theological reflection on the mystery of the relationship between marriage and the Eucharist.

In October 2013, Pope Francis called for a Synod on the Family; in February of 2014, Cardinal Kasper gives the opening address at the Consistory, restating his arguments regarding the pastoral care of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. In the context of mercy, Kasper suggests that the Church should “open the door a crack…” on this issue.

It is important to note that Kasper is not so much reflecting more deeply on the Church’s teaching than he is advocating a departure from the Church’s teaching.

This brings us up to date, as we await the Synod on the Family this October. We ask ourselves: have we allowed ourselves to be coerced by the media into thinking the Church could change her teaching?

The crisis of marriage and the family is first and foremost a crisis of faith. The crisis is a lack of faith in Jesus Christ whose relationship with the Church is the very archetype of every marriage as such.

Finally, it is important to clarify a distinction of terms that is often confused with each other: mercy and tolerance. These are not the same thing. It is not a single sin committed by civilly divorced and remarried Catholics that impedes them from receiving the Eucharist; rather, it is their state or condition of life.

The indissolubility of marriage is a gift of mercy that protects spouses from entering into a condition of life that cannot be tolerated – precisely in the name of mercy.

Paraphrasing words spoken by Pope Benedict XVI: In the end, only the truth is pastoral.





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