“Why doesn’t the church allow my parents to receive communion? / VOTF-Bridgeport Conference

Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation resulting from the Synod of Bishops on the Family is expected in a couple of days on April 8. In light of this, we thought the following address would be of interest. The address was given by Professor Daniel Cosacchi of Loyola University in Chicago at the 14th Annual Conference of The Voice of the Faithful in Bridgeport, Connecticut, March 12, 2016.


“But, Professor, why doesn’t the church allow my parents to receive communion?” This was the question that one of my students in my “Exploring Religion” class here at Fairfield University asked me just last semester. Just as easily, however, it could have been asked by countless other people who are truly baffled by this question that is currently receiving renewed attention in the church, in the wake of the last two sessions of the Synod of Bishops which met in Rome in the fall of 2014 and the fall of 2015. In my time, I wish to focus on the issue of Eucharist for the divorced and remarried through the lens of the mission statement of the Voice of the Faithful here in the Bridgeport Diocese.

As you all know much better than I, your robust mission statement includes three core principles, each of which are in line with the official magisterium of the Catholic church. First allow me a word about the first part of your mission statement. “Voice of the Faithful wishes to be a prayerful voice…” In affirming this much, the community joins itself to a committed relationship of the Creator of the universe, who is constantly creating us, and never ceases to show us mercy. In this year of mercy, too, being a prayerful voice means having a concrete focus. I would submit that our prayers for mercy pay special consideration to those most in need. Here, Pope Francis coins an interesting word. As many of you are aware, his episcopal motto is miserando atque eligendo. Francis himself translates the first word of that motto with a word that doesn’t actually exist: mercifying.[i] So, our prayer should be that we become people who mercify, just as God mercifies. God, of course, shows mercy in ways that are much different than how human beings are inclined to show mercy. Therefore, our prayers should be towards a conversion of our hearts, that we can live up to God’s mercy. As we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel which recounted Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Prodigal Father, God is so ready to be outrageously generous with us. Our prayer should be for openness to be formed in such a mercifying mold.

The second part of your mission statement distinguishes you from many members of the church and even a great many theologians: “Voice of the Faithful wishes to be attentive to the Holy Spirit…” To explicitly name the Holy Spirit means that we are welcoming the God who will help us become mercifying people. Or, as Elizabeth Johnson puts it, “the Spirit is the Spirit of freedom, partial to freeing captives rather than keeping them bound, biased in favor of life’s flourishing rather than its strangulation.”[ii] Here is where the two topics I wish to address today – namely, the Eucharist and divorce/civil remarriage – converge. Like many of you, I am sure, I believe that in this life, the Eucharist is the most liberating act that we can engage in as a community, and the act that leads most directly to human flourishing. Or, as the council fathers at Vatican II put it, the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.”[iii] The Holy Spirit, being a constituent part of any valid Eucharistic celebration, is also a constituent part of any sacramental marriage. Just as the Holy Spirit is invoked by the presiding priest during the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Prayer, the same Spirit is invoked during the nuptial blessing during the celebration of holy matrimony. The question this brings us to is that of Eucharist for divorced and civilly remarried persons in the church. How can we be attentive to the Holy Spirit’s movement in the lives of these, our parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, and friends?

This brings me to the third part of your mission statement, which maintains that Voice of the Faithful wish to be a medium “through which God’s Faithful People can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.” In the problem I have just described, the church is in extraordinarily great need of guidance. In asking us to consider the best ways in which we can guide, I will look forward to Pope Francis’s impending post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation by reminding us all of some of his own prior thoughts on this topic, the lecture given by Cardinal Walter Kasper at the February 2014 Consistory of Cardinals in Rome[iv], and the always-timely advice of the documents of Vatican II.

In the case of Pope Francis tipping his hat in one direction or another, I am not convinced which direction he will lean. But, we may focus on what we know about his thoughts on the matter. The most obvious entry into his mind on the matter came in his programmatic Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii gaudium: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.[51] These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”[v] Just how imperfect may one be and approach the altar? Of course, some who still wish to be the toll-collectors would argue that civil remarriage crosses the line precisely because the sin of non-sacramental union is a type of permanent behavior.[vi] Perhaps Pope Francis anticipated such a critique, because in the above quote, he himself cites no less than Saint Ambrose on the necessity of frequent reception of the Eucharist: “I must receive it always, so that it may always forgive my sins. If I sin continually, I must always have a remedy.” Or, again, in the same footnote, Saint Cyril of Alexandria: “I examined myself and I found myself unworthy. To those who speak thus I say: when will you be worthy?”[vii] In other words, we are never truly worthy to receive Christ anyway, but by frequently receiving Him, we will be prepared for eternal life.

Next, I turn to the address that Walter Kasper delivered to Pope Francis and his fellow members of the College of Cardinals in February 2014. In that address, Kasper explained, in the first place, “there cannot be a general solution for all cases.”[viii] He concluded his address by asking this question of the cardinals, “But if a divorced and remarried person is truly sorry that he or she failed in the first marriage, if the commitments from the first marriage are clarified and a return is definitively out of the question, is he or she cannot undo the commitments that were assumed in the second civil marriage without new guilt, if he or she strives to the best of his or her abilities to live out the second civil marriage on the basis of faith and to raise their children in the faith, if he or she longs for the sacraments as a source of strength in his or her situation, do we then have to refuse or can we refuse him or her the sacrament of penance and communion, after a period of reorientation?”[ix] In other words, may we refuse the Holy Spirit? What is amazing is that in other instances, the church is rather liberal on when the Holy Spirit may be present. This concrete example has worked in piquing the interest of my students: Imagine for a moment that a person is married and falls in love with another woman. The man decides that he very much wants to enjoy a sacramental union with the new woman, but knows church teaching very well on the matter. Therefore, he decides to kill his wife. Afterwards, he goes to confession, is absolved of his grave sin (because it is not a continuous sin!) and then can go onto marry his second wife, because the death of his spouse has released him from the marital bond. Had he simply divorced her, he would have had no such recourse. In a much less drastic way, and a way that is much more narrow than simply falling in love with another person, Cardinal Kasper is saying, stop limiting the Holy Spirit, who only wants us to flourish!

Finally, as I am sure you are all aware, Vatican II proclaimed a great many things that help human beings on our pilgrimage to the Lord. One of those doctrines is the primacy of conscience. As the Fathers proclaim in the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, we human beings are bound to follow our consciences in order that we can come to know God, and may never be restrained from acting in accord with our conscience.[x] Because we have been baptized into Christ – priest, prophet, and king – we have the right and responsibility to guide the church by reminding all people that the reception of the Eucharist is a matter of conscience. I can foresee certain circumstances under which it may be legitimately withheld, but those are very rare. Each person sitting in this room has received a vocation directly from God to be in a particular state of life or hold a particular ministry. I am sure most of you are familiar with Saint Augustine’s dictum on God as mystery: “If you have understood it, what you have understood is not God.” It is the same with vocation, which is also mystery. Too often, we are all tempted – including members of the hierarchy – to believe we have understood the vocation of another person. The best guidance we can give, in prayerful attentiveness to the Holy Spirit in our world, is through the ministry of listening to others and their vocational stories. Perhaps this gesture will also help us become a mercifying people.

[i] See Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy: A Conversation with Andrea Tornielli. Trans. Oonagh Stransky (New York: Random House, 2016), 12.
[ii] Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 147.
[iii] Lumen gentium (21 November 1964), no. 11.
[iv] Published in English as The Gospel of the Family. Trans. William Madges (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2014).
[v] Pope Francis, Evangelii gaudium (24 November 2013), no. 47.
[vi] See, for example, Cardinal Raymond Burke, in an interview with Jeanne Smits (24 March 2015), accessed online at: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/exclusive-interview-cardinal-burke-says-confusion-spreading-among-catholics.
[vii] Both citations found in Evangelii gaudium, no. 47, n. 51.
[viii] Kasper, The Gospel of the Family, 27.
[ix] Ibid., 32.
[x] Dignitatis humanae, no. 3.

 

 

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