Some reasons for considering a change in the discipline of admitting Catholics in so-called irregular marriages to Holy Communion

Historical backdrop
It will be twenty years this Easter since I reported to the Bishops of England and Wales after undertaking a study for them on the Pastoral Care of Catholics suffering the sadness of separation, divorce or remarriage without the Church’s blessing. I had spent over four years interviewing hundreds of priests and people about their experiences as well as studying in depth the complicated history of marriage in the Catholic Church. This work, under the supervision of Heythrop College, was eventually accepted as a doctoral thesis by London University and subsequently published in 1997 under the title: What Binds Marriage?: Roman Catholic Theology in Practice. A second edition, including an extra chapter with some significant quotations from Cardinal Hume and Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. was published in 2002. The book is still available from Bloomsbury.

After their Low Week Meeting of 1994, the bishops made a statement in which they expressed their regret for their own failings and for those of their communities in this field and it led to a front page headline in the Catholic Herald of April 22nd 1994, which read: “Bishops’ divorce apology”. I remember this well because I received a concerned telephone call from the secretary to the conference, asking me what I had been saying to the Herald! The bishops had apparently decided not to use the word ‘apology’ and had settled for the word ‘regret’. Incidentally I had said very little to the Herald, except that there was nothing to add to the statement and that it would be impossible to summarise my 40 page document in a few sentences. The article in the Herald by Angus MacDonald spoke of “an unusually frank statement” and in fairness to him he had written that “it amounted to an unprecedented public apology.” Noting nuances of language will be significant if you are to persevere with this article.

When I had been invited to undertake the research I had willingly agreed because, of all the areas of pastoral concern that had presented themselves to me during my time as a priest – and I was ordained in 1970 – this had been the one above all that had left me feeling hopelessly inadequate. The research only confirmed my instinctive feeling that there was something amiss in our theological evaluation, which in turn limited our ability to find just and compassionate pastoral solutions. Furthermore, the research revealed that my instincts seemed to be widely shared by bishops, priests and people. I concluded that there are many difficulties, not least the fact that the theological tradition in the Western Church tends towards examining issues with a precision and accuracy that once a position is arrived at, it gives the impression of carrying absolute authority and therefore being beyond question. There is limited room in a short article like this to explore such ideas in depth. Suffice it to say that in my theological examination of the question I focused on how the Catholic Church defines the bond of marriage. This revealed a process of refining the definition in the light of pastoral problems that stretch back from those of our own day to the time of the apostles themselves. I never tire of pointing out that the first teaching on the question is to be found in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In chapter seven you see him dealing with the tricky situation of marriages breaking down, precisely because one of the partners has converted to Christianity. Paul is uncompromising in calling them to faithful adherence to what ideally the Lord would want, namely that they should strive to make a go of it. However, fascinatingly he takes responsibility for his guidance should this not be possible – stating that this teaching is from him and not from the Lord – and advising that if a non-believing partner insists on leaving, the believer is not tied. His reason: “God has called you to a life of peace.”

This pastoral solution was the foundation for many other pastoral solutions down through the centuries and formed the basis of a distinction between the natural bond of marriage and the sacramental bond. It is probably worth remembering that few of the conclusions that the teaching Church arrived at were immediately obvious. For example, it took centuries before there was universal agreement that St Paul must have intended that a Christian in these circumstances was free to marry again and the Pauline Privilege became enshrined in law. And it was only in the Middle Ages that this privilege was extended to include all difficult situations relating to marriages where one of the partners was not a Christian. This was called the Petrine Privilege, not because it had anything to do with St Peter, but because it made provision for his successors, the popes, to exercise their authority.

Pope Francis
This would seem to be a timely moment to speak of Pope Francis. However we view what is happening, I think it is fair to say he is challenging all of us to break free from the kind of rigidity in theological thought and pastoral practice, which prevents us from experiencing the joy and compassion of the Gospel. The fact that he has called a Synod on the Family for later this year and suggested a whole range of subjects on which he wants to listen to the experiences of all of us – and these include the problems surrounding marital breakdown – would seem to suggest that he too fears that the present pastoral solutions are not wholly adequate. I am utterly heartened by this development. From the very beginning I knew that the questions I had highlighted in my research were complicated and that moving the discussion forward would require patience and diplomacy. I had tried to explore the subject sympathetically, leaving the bishops as much room for manoeuvre as possible, and highlighting the fact that all the pastoral solutions open to us at present are the result of the Church responding to the differing problems that have occurred in successive generations. These would include the fact that in the wake of the Second Vatican Council annulments were being granted on psychological grounds, which had never previously been considered. But you would only need to read the extra chapter in the second edition of my book to realise my frustration that everyone’s hands remain tied when it comes to practical developments on all the major fronts.

Should we be able to readmit people to Holy Communion?
I was asked to offer in this article some reasons which could be advanced for re-admitting people in so-called irregular marriages to Holy Communion. I did not feel able to address this question without inviting you to consider the broader picture of how we are dealing with marriage breakdown in general. Of course the Church wants to support marriage as a life-long union, a reflection of the covenant between Christ and the Church. I am certain none of us would want to diminish or undermine this fundamental belief. At the same time the unfolding story of failed marriages in the Church provides us with ample evidence that the Church instinctively seeks ways of reaching out to support and help when things go wrong. We are able to offer practical solutions if the marriage wasn’t between two baptised people and therefore wasn’t regarded as a sacrament, by using the Pauline or Petrine Privileges and accepting the dissolution of the bond, that is, a divorce. However, in spite of the enormous increase in annulments in recent decades, for the majority of Catholics whose marriages fail, there is limited room for manoeuvre because of the teaching that the sacramental bond is wholly indissoluble. Therefore, should they seek the comfort and support of a new relationship, they are regarded as putting themselves outside the ordinary means of spiritual and sacramental support. Traditionally we would say they have chosen to “live in sin”. But do we really believe this to be so? I would suggest that the teaching Church, at the highest level, has been ambivalent about this in recent times. The last definitive teaching on the subject from a pope was the Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, by John Paul II. In article 84 he advised pastors to be careful to make distinctions between those who had sincerely tried to save their first marriage but had been unjustly abandoned and those who through their own fault had destroyed a canonically valid marriage. He also acknowledged that some may have entered a second marriage for the sake of the upbringing of the children. He goes on to urge pastors and all of us to help divorced people and make sure that they do not feel separated from the Church, reminding us that as baptised people they can and “indeed must” share in her life. However, the crunch comes when he spells out to what extent they may share in her life. He concludes that this cannot extend to the reception of Holy Communion and offers two reasons. The first is that “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified by the Eucharist.” The second is that “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching.” However, he goes on to consider the possibility of people in these situations receiving absolution if they are willing “to live in complete continence”, in other words live without having a full sexual life.

It is difficult to explore all these matters in detail in a short article, but I invite the reader to consider a couple of the inherent contradictions in the position outlined above. Firstly, when it comes to giving scandal to others, how are we to know whether a couple has decided to follow the directive to live abstaining from sexual relations? Secondly, how can our renewed theology of the Eucharist, which stresses the fact that it is not a reward for being good, but a means of strengthening us to live close to the Lord in the midst of all our struggles, be explained to those who are being invited to join the assembly but forbidden to participate. It was this anomaly which troubled Cardinal Basil Hume when he went to Rome with the Bishops of England and Wales for the last time in 1997. As part of his address to Pope John Paul II he had this passage in his section on reconciliation:
In this work of reconciliation we are continually confronted, as pastors, with the situation of those in an ‘irregular union’ for whom there is no perceived possibility of canonical regularisation. We must maintain the clear and consistent teaching of the church concerning marriage. We must also act pastorally toward those in this situation whether Catholics already or seeking full communion in the Church. In this century especially, the relationship between membership of the Church and reception of Holy Communion has been affirmed and appreciated. It is not surprising that, despite reassurances, those who are not permitted to receive Holy Communion find themselves estranged from the family of the Church gathered for Mass. We are conscious of your deep concern for these couples and their families and your invitation to ‘help them experience the charity of Christ… to trust in God’s mercy…and to find concrete ways of conversion and participation in the life of the community of the Church’ (24 January 1997). We are anxious to receive encouragement from you to explore every possible avenue by which we may address this important and sensitive aspect of our pastoral ministry. (Briefing 27/11 (20 November 1997): 8)

There is a logic to the position which maintains that if you are in an irregular marriage you are ‘living in sin’ and are not welcome at the Eucharist. But for a very long time now the Church has studiously avoided using that kind of language. My own perception is that this is because there is a widespread recognition that our pastoral policy in this field has evolved into a complex web of rules and regulations, which can lead not just to inconsistencies and anomalies, but also to injustice. The challenge has always been to balance the need to uphold a clear ideal regarding the sanctity and permanence of marriage while at the same time bringing the compassion of the Gospel to every broken person and situation.

The fact is that it is difficult for the ordinary Catholic, let alone citizen, to appreciate the niceties of Catholic jurisprudence when it comes to the difference between natural and sacramental bonds and the application of what we call ‘canonical form’, namely when a marriage must take place in a Catholic Church for it to be valid. As a result, far from giving the clear witness to the sanctity of marriage called for by the Church authorities, I fear that too often we have left people bewildered as to why one person’s situation can be so easily resolved while another’s remains intractable. I judge that the upshot of all this is that the real scandal for many is that so many people are left seemingly abandoned by the Church, hurt and disheartened. I wrote about this in the research and twenty years later nothing has led me to change my mind. It remains an urgent pastoral problem which I believe can be solved, if we are willing to look again at our theological tradition and ask the simple question: “Can we be so certain that our present pastoral position is what the Lord really requires?” I think we need the humility to accept that some of our absolute positions may not be as certain as we have tried to maintain and to learn from other Christian traditions, whose theological vision has left them more room for manoeuvre.

For example, it is too easy to dismiss the Eastern Orthodox Churches as having been too liberal in interpreting the exception clause in Matthew or whatever. The reason the Orthodox are able to move forward in a way that we are not is that they employ the theology of oikonomia, which recognises the authority of the bishop to bring such problems before the Lord and find a way forward. The ‘bishop’ is the oikonomos (the head of the household) – the one responsible for keeping good order in the community. Is this the direction in which the Bishop of Rome is pointing us and the context in which he sees his role and that of his fellow bishops? I sincerely hope it is. In such a climate we may be able to hear in a new light our Lord’s teaching – “Whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven” – and begin to do a bit more loosing and welcoming.
Timothy J. Buckley, CSsR (Parish Priest of Bishop Eton and St Mary’s, Woolton, Liverpool)

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