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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Still Struggling with Accompaniment

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Catholics in irregular unions have been encouraged to receive spiritual communion at Mass despite their marital status. How is this even possible should they be absolutely ill-disposed to grace?  Cardinal Kasper argues if they should be urged to receive the one then why not the other— the actual reception of Holy Communion. Should they be excluded from the Eucharist? He acknowledges that the reception of the Eucharist does not mean that they can contract a new “sacramental” marriage while the prior spouse is alive.  This has not changed.

Regarding charges of a doctrinal shift, Cardinal Donald Wuerl stated in a letter, “No, the Church’s teaching has not changed; objective truth remains unaffected.” Similarly, Cardinal Müller has said in regard to the permanency of marriage that “This is a matter of a consolidated magisterial teaching, supported by scripture and founded on a doctrinal reason.” This embattled issue is the praxis by which we might seek to assist couples in irregular unions at moving toward a “new integration” into the Church that would respect both the dignity of marriage and make possible a restoration to the sacramental life. I would concur with Cardinal Gerhard Müller that efforts by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and Cardinal Walter Kasper to reconcile a changed pastoral practice with traditional dogma in Amoris Laetitia (chapter 8) are not convincing.  Cardinal Müller states, “Thus, a paradigm shift, by which the Church takes on the criteria of modern society to be assimilated by it, constitutes not a development, but a corruption.”

Cardinal Kasper cites five criteria for the proper disposition to receive Holy Communion:

  • Genuine sorrow or contrition over the failed bond;
  • Views the restoration of the prior bond as utterly impossible;
  • Appreciates that abandoning the second bond would incur new guilt;
  • Attempts to live the second marriage in the “context of faith”; and
  • Yearns for the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist.

These are not wholly the traditional requirements, which are:  (1) being in the state of grace, 2) having fasted for one hour, and 3) appropriate devotion and/or attention.  Pastorally I can sympathize with what he is trying to do; however, I cannot give my support to what must still be regarded as an adulterous union.  Indeed, while there is tremendous sympathy for those who have entered into an irregular union, nothing is said about the abandoned and proper spouse.  Where is the concern that the spousal support and affection that should come to him or her is instead given to an another, an interloper?  Despite the context of feelings or emotions, there is an objective order that is not changed by sentiment or even by expressed sorrow.  True contrition should lead to an amendment of life.  It seems to me that this revisionist stance is a denial of personal heroism and a betrayal of the Church’s support, either for the abandoned spouse or should they both be culpable, for the valid marital union that is wounded.

Certain proponents contend that secular divorce should be weighed in the equation, a determination that is often required before annulment proceedings.  The Church seems to give certain deference to secular authority over marriage and divorce even though that same authority does not acknowledge the Church’s jurisdiction.  For instance, the courts have no reservation at rendering divorces, not merely for those married before civil magistrates, but for those whose marriages were witnessed before priests and deacons, as well.  If there were mutual respect, then the state would abide by the Church’s rules and withhold divorces to Catholic couples until or if annulments were granted by ecclesial authority.  But it is not going to happen.  Indeed, the secular and religious definition of marriage daily becomes more divergent; we see this most clearly in the emergence of same-sex unions given the same legal gravity as bonds between men and women.  Cardinal Kasper wants to give something of the importance rendered to valid unions to feigned marriages.  His criteria are sufficiently vague; so much so that unqualified they would equally attempt to justify homosexual as well as heerosexual bonds.  Applying the Cardinal’s categories: the gay person might be sorry about prior failed attempts at heterosexual union; view as impossible either celibacy or “living the lie” of a conventional bond; understand that abandoning the same-sex union would be painful and usher forth unbearable guilt and betrayal; seek to live the new bond with fidelity as they worship regularly as Catholics; and long to receive the sacraments and find acceptance.  Would the Cardinal want his arguments stretched this far? The orthodox believer would argue that sex outside of a valid marriage is a sin.  Further, our Lord tells us that marriage lasts until the death of a spouse.  The Church defines marriage as an exclusive bond of unity and fidelity between a man and woman that is open to the generation of new human life.

Apologists for a change in discipline insist that we should redefine what is meant by adultery.  I am doubtful that this is possible.  The fact that those in irregular unions share tenderness for each other and display responsibility for children is indeed often quite true.  But sin does not have to be utterly malicious.  It can be subtle or even gentle.  No one questions their capacity for love and compassion.  However, does the good that one does for one eradicate the bad or the damage done to another?

As a bit of an aside, the movie and book SILENCE has a priest betray his faith so that the children and parishioners he loves might be spared torture and death.  We understand as weak human beings what he does.  However, we are also called to be saints.  While we try to make a positive difference in this world, we set our sights on the coming kingdom.  We are not promised perfect happiness in this world.  There is no road to holiness that sidesteps the Cross.  The priest in the story saved a few lives and his own, but did he cost them the faith and himself, his immortal soul?  The Church would tell us that God sets the terms for salvation.  Might the Church be on the precipice of betraying marriage just as a reputed change in Vatican policy to the Communists in China might betray the underground church?  Do we really want this pontificate and time in the Church’s history to go down as the age when we surrendered to secular modernity?  Returning to the subject of marriage and broken vows, are we not proposing that weakness and cowardice should be rewarded where we should be supporting courage and even martyrdom?  I cannot mentally escape the story of Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher.  We allowed an entire empire and earthly kingdom to separate from the Church over the matter of a divorce.  As one Anglican critic recently said, if this discipline should change, then the Church of England finally wins.

Seeking to be a good priest, I would never do anything to deliberately hurt parishioners or to precipitate scandal.  Pastors of souls must keep professional secrecy and the seal of confession.  We might urge people in private to refrain from Holy Communion because of unresolved sins, but we would not seek to publicly embarrass and/or to berate them should they reject our guidance.  Behind the scenes, many priests quietly work with couples in irregular unions so that they might apply for annulments and hopefully have their unions con-validated by the Church.  There are also couples, often older, who live as brother and sister.  They need to be together but they also respect the teaching of Christ and the demands of the Church.  All this is wholly different from the attitude that couples in irregular unions might be publicly invited by their pastors to full participation in the sacramental life while remaining in a second or third civil marriage.  Does the need for penance and the Eucharist trump the sacrament of matrimony?  How can this be when the sacrament of marriage is intimately associated with the covenant of Christ and his relationship with the Church, his bride?

I have struggled to appreciate Cardinal Kasper’s reasoning.  Nevertheless, it still befuddles me.  He asserts that nothing has changed because even if we allow those in irregular unions to receive absolution in confession and to take Holy Communion, they still cannot contract a new “sacramental” marriage while the prior spouse is alive.  It perplexes me to no end as to why he does not see the inner contradiction.  The logic he employs utterly escapes me.  He seems to be making a distinction between a one-time sacrament and those sacraments which are regularly received again and again. But marriage is a sacred covenant with one’s spouse in Christ that is renewed regularly with the marital act whereby the two become one flesh.  Sexual intercourse with anyone other than the spouse signifies not the renewal or consummation of the covenant bond, but rather, its betrayal.  How can one betray the covenant of Christ in bed and then receive the Eucharist which is the new covenant in Christ’s flesh and blood?  How can one be absolved from sins when the mortal sin of adultery remains undisturbed at the very center of life?

It should also be added that while the focus is often necessarily upon the sexual dynamic of marriage and fidelity; sexual or genital expression does not exhaust all the intimacies and duties that come along with marriage.  Divorce and remarriage (or cohabitation) signifies a violation of the whole package of the bond.  They are called to share a common life, to give daily comfort and companionship, and to be helpmates in finding their salvation in the Lord.  Married couples are called to be best friends.  No matter what comes, they are supposed to stand together.  All these elements are violated with infidelity and divorce.  As the Church struggles to delineate the boundaries of accompaniment; I plead that we do not forget the true spouse.  In many cases, he or she might have been innocent and desiring to fight to make the marriage work.  But it takes two and what is one to do when the other walks away.  Often they suffer alone in silence, praying and loving a spouse that seems to have forgotten them— who now takes comfort and pleasure in another’s arms.  As a priest I have counseled many such people.  Faithful to the Church and to their conscience that the bond was true (meaning forever) they one-sidedly keep their shredded promises and do not date.  Offspring are also part of the larger picture.  Children from an abandoned family are made aware that their father has started a new family.  They wonder within their sorrow and tears, why does he love them more than us?

My pressing personal concern is beyond the temporal or pastoral and admittedly, is somewhat selfish.  If I should invite those in irregular unions to take the Eucharist and/or to be absolved in the confessional; would I be compromising my own soul by enabling or condoning mortal sin?  I can appreciate “accompaniment” but like the men on the road to Emmaus, I would like to see them turn around.  I do not want to walk unashamedly with adulterers, even very cordial and pious ones, into the flames of perdition.  Of course, it is possible that they might be saved by their ignorance of the truth; just as I might be condemned for my certainty about it.  Wouldn’t that take the cake!

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