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Still Struggling with Accompaniment


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!

One Response

  1. Would you consider both the ‘rigorous’ as well as the ‘less rigorous’ approach to sacramental discipline in the case study at https://musingsfromaperiphery.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-sarah-case.html to be licit?


    I read what the blogger called THE SARAH CASE and its two proposals to sacramental discipline:

    (A) Rigorous Approach
    (B) Less Rigorous Approach

    1. There is a presumption that an annulment is impossible. However, the discussion about irregular unions does not assume that any effort has been made to procure either an annulment or dissolution.

    2. It should be remembered that while divorce is sometimes forced upon a person, one or the other or both of the spouses have committed a sin. Divorce is not a neutral act.

    3. The situation of Sarah getting married again, albeit civilly, in part to help support the children is precisely the situation where Jesus says that divorce can force one into adultery. Our Lord does not at that point say that it is okay, although he obviously sympathizes with the injured party in a difficult situation.

    4. Marriage is a sacrament of the Church. While a civil marriage has significance in the larger secular community, it traditionally has no weight within the Church— there is no real second marriage and no graces to live the vocation.

    5. Sarah might want to return to the sacraments and thus desire to live as brother and sister with her civil law spouse. He refuses and abuses her. This is evidence that the second bond is coercive and flawed, beyond the matter of an illicit and invalid attempted marriage.

    6. We must recognize that certain situations in this world cannot be fixed, but they can be made worse. The hypothetical Sarah cannot return to her first marriage (as he is now happily living in sin with someone else), there are additional children by her second abusive husband, and she has serious financial needs. It is a truly lamentable crisis.

    7. She might be sorry, probably more because things have not worked out than out of any contrition over the depth of sin; however, she demonstrates little in the way of Christian heroism or courage. She attempts to make amends by fasting and acts of charity; but the motivation for these acts is probably flawed. Remember, even acts which would be regarded as good or potentially as virtuous have no merit whatsoever if the person is in mortal sin. Not only is divorce a sin, even if readily absolved; the second bond traditionally constitutes the grievous sin of adultery. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot bribe God.

    8. The Church would rightly urge her to seek assistance from both the Church and the state to sever her relationship with an abusive man. While husbands and wives have a natural right to sexual intimacy; the scenario described by the blogger is one of rape and abuse within marriage. It is criminal. The Church would not condone her continued victimization, even if it were her first and sacramental marriage. The grounds for an annulment would also, in that case, be fairly evident.

    9. While everyone is required to follow his or her conscience, the Christian conscience must be informed. Further, the Church is not required to affirm what individuals believe in conscience, especially if such violates the faith and commandments. Those who desire active membership in the Church must conform their hearts and minds to that of Christ and his Church. The hypothetical Sarah might seek to justify herself or to ease her conscience; however, this would not utterly remit guilt or culpability in terms of the objective truth. Conscience is not like the comical stereotype of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, whispering opposing advice. Neither is it merely an arbitrary feeling that something is either good or bad. Conscience is an attempt of the mind to make an appropriate judgment about whether an action is either right or wrong. True judgment demands knowing the facts and deliberating (applying moral standards) over them prior to an action. We are obliged to follow our conscience even when a false judgment is made. Judgment can be flawed for all sorts of reasons. As soon as we learn about our error, that an action we thought good is actually bad, we must accordingly adjust to agree with a now properly formed conscience.

    Conscience needs to be properly informed and a judgment must be made according to the appropriate law (i.e. natural law, the Ten Commandments, and especially the law of love). In all of visible creation, only human beings are called by God to accept responsibility for their actions. We are neither pre-programed robots nor animals who live according to blind instinct. We have been given free will and an intellect capable of discerning God’s design from both the natural order and from revelation. Given the present situation, in the Scriptures and Tradition, we find guidance for ourselves as we continue upon our search to discover what is worthy of us as human beings. In the formation of conscience, the Catholic Christian needs to consider that the power to bind or to loose from sin which was given the apostles, still resides in the Church, and principally in the bishops under the direction of the successor of St. Peter. Rather than a principle of enslavement, it needs to be viewed as one of liberation. “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). There are extremes in conscience which might not be viewed as healthy. The “static” conscience would have the Church spoon-feed everything. This dismisses the power of the Spirit to enlighten us; it is a fleeing of responsibility. The “dynamic” conscience goes to the other extreme of embracing revolution or even rebellion. No one can tell them what to do, even the Church! The true path is between these two. “We can qualify this as the dynamic Christian conscience. This is the conscience which leads us to have a responsible attitude to someone, to Jesus, to the community, to the Church, etc. Every person who fits into this category feels a responsibility for a progressive search and striving to live out a life ideal according to the mind of Christ” (Formation of Conscience by the Canadian Bishops).

    10. The issue is not that Sarah is branded an adulteress, but rather that she has chosen that designation. No one is throwing a stone at her. She, herself, placed herself between a rock and a hard place. Remember the story of the Scarlet Letter? The minister branded his body even though his sin was known only to his accomplice, God and himself. That like Hester, he also wears the red stigma. The Church does not lock her doors to Sarah. She can pray within the community. But when it comes to the sacraments there is a higher law that the Church is powerless to change. The Church offers efforts at counseling and annulments— all as an effort at compassion and possible healing. But the Eucharist which is spiritual food can also act as a poison. The person who receives it while in mortal sin and/or ill-disposed receives no benefit— indeed, we are taught that while one receives grace another can receive judgment. Sacrilege is no minor sin, either before the altar or in the confessional box. St. Pope John Paul II well understood that we cannot contradict the laws of God and the words of Christ. Familiaris Consortio teaches us that the divorced living in a new or civil union must resolve to live in continence or else refrain from approaching the sacraments. There is no other option that the Church can mercifully propose.

    11. It is a ludicrous answer to suppose that she might remain passive in bed and save her marriage and restore her relationship with Christ by allowing her husband to routinely rape her. How would this scenario play out if Sarah was John? Would we say that an exception is made by the architecture of genitals? No, this is no answer. Remaining in an abusive marriage is not only mentally and physically dangerous— it is sinful to allow any human person to suffer such degradation to his or her person as described in the blogger’s scenario.

    12. As the rigorous approach, the blogger suggests “accompaniment” with Sarah and her integration into parish life. However, to avoid scandal she would not hold any position in the parish or receive the sacraments. If the second bond was not abusive, then this would indeed be a valid course of action. It is not a rigorist pattern at all. The rigorist view would be to excommunicate her entirely from the faith community as was so often done in the early Church until the development of second penance. Given the abuse and rape described, the Church would urge her to stay with other family members or to take refuge in a family shelter. The Church cannot condone violence and injustice in the family— regular or irregular unions.

    13. Just as one must be properly disposed for grace from the sacraments, there is something similar in regard to blessings or prayerful requests for spiritual communion. The effects are invisible and thus cannot be quantified. We cannot know for sure if God gives or withholds a spiritual communion. The priest might invoke the Trinity and make the sign of the cross; but only God knows if that blessing settles upon this or that person. If one is in mortal sin, then like a glass turned upside down on a table, no amount of pouring water over it will ever fill the glass.

    14. As the less rigorist approach, the blogger argues that Sarah needs the sacraments so that she will not spiritually starve. But remember, as long as a person is in mortal sin, he or she is not starving— the person in mortal sin is already dead. When Jesus raised the little girl from the dead he told her parents to give her something to eat. The living eat— the dead do not. What Sarah needs is resurrection. She needs to make a journey from Calvary to the empty tomb. The papal charge about priests turning the confessional into a torture chamber was an insult to millions of good priests. He seriously misspoke. Most priests want to bring mercy and healing to others. We take no delight in hurting others. Never in the history of the world had God given such authority to men as Christ did for his priests. But that power is not absolute. The penitent must still come with a contrite heart and a firm amendment of life. The sacrament is not magic— neither penance nor the Eucharist. “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient.” This is a basic sacramental principle.

    I will finish with a brief analogy. My late mother could not swallow and had to take all her nourishment from a feeding tube in her stomach. Food by way of the mouth would make her choke and cough. The person in mortal sin needs nourishment, but taking Holy Communion will only further convict them of sin and sacrilege. They will spiritually choke and die. While subjective guilt can be remitted, so must the objective wrong. That is why the only solutions are these: (1) to acquire an annulment or declaration of nullity or dissolution of the bond and a convalidation; (2) to live as brother and sister in perfect continence; or (3) separate.

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