The Church Scandalous

March 19, 2014 | 21 comments

Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well

In recent weeks, I have been seeing alarms raised by faithful Catholics over controversy in the Church. Most recently the Catholic news outlets have been reporting that Cardinal Walter Kasper gave a speech on the family in February to the consistory called by Pope Francis. Among other things, the Cardinal speculated on the conditions under which the Church could offer the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist to those Catholics who are civilly remarried after a divorce.

This speech has aroused significant criticism, and it is not the purpose of this post to take apart Cardinal Kasper's speech. My purpose here is much narrower: I am deeply worried about how faithful Catholics are reacting to the apparent favor with which the speech was received by Pope Francis. There is great concern in some quarters about what this might portend for the Church's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Canon lawyer Edward Peters had this to say on the subject:

Now I think Church teaching against divorce and remarriage will, in the end, be squarely upheld in principle. My concern is different: What if Church teaching is duly upheld but, as happened after Humanae Vitae, that teaching is allowed to twist slowly in the wind?

Then, the other day, news surfaced that Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, Italy, joined the fray. Evidently, at least according to English-language reports, Cardinal Caffarra has taken the position that "not even a pope can change Catholic teaching or practice on marriage, including on the prohibition against reception of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics." Cardinal Caffarra's own words, in translation, were:

The popes have always taught that the power of the Pope does not come to this: over a ratified and consummated marriage, the Pope has no power.

Of course, the question is not whether the Pope can dissolve a sacramental marriage (he cannot), but whether or not the Church can admit to the sacraments those who are divorced and civilly remarried. We can only hope that Cardinal Caffarra was misunderstood and will clarify his position. But reports like this add to the confusion. What happens if a Catholic reads this account of the Cardinal's opinion and takes it to mean that not even a pope can admit civilly remarried Catholics to the sacraments—and then a pope does so? Will that Catholic think that the Church has been proven to be defectible on a matter of faith and morals, and thus proven not to be Christ's Church after all?

Taking Scandal

Last year I wrote a blog post titled The Rise and Fall of a Catholic Convert. In it I told the sad story of Magdi Allam, a Catholic convert who decided to leave the Church because he disagreed with the Church's approach to Islam. In that post, I wrote:

I firmly believe that, sooner or later, each and every convert to the Catholic faith—whether that person chose to become Catholic as an adult or was brought into the faith as a baby by his parents—is going to have to face the scandal that the Church is not what he believed it to be when he signed up. The test will be whether he will persevere because he knows it to be the Church Christ founded, or whether he will fall away because he decides it is merely a human institution that has disappointed him.

The tests against faith are many and varied. Those tests can spring from a person's psychological wounds, from his emotional temperament, even from his spiritual and liturgical tastes. That could be why, for example, some Catholics were unable to accept changes in practice in the Church after Vatican II, and why even some Catholics who never lived through Vatican II themselves grow distrustful of the Church and imagine that the time before Vatican II is an oasis that will shelter them from modern uncertainties in the Church.

With good reason did Msgr. Ronald Knox once warn that "On the barque of Peter, those with queasy stomachs should keep clear of the engine room."

Temptations against faith are not, in themselves, sinful. But when we allow our preconceived notions of how the Church can or should respond to modern pastoral dilemmas to take precedence over what the Church actually does do in response to those dilemmas, then there is danger. And it is not a new, post-Vatican II danger. 

In his autobiography, Treasure in Clay, Bishop Fulton Sheen told the story of a pastoral dilemma the Church faced when he was a child. St. Pius X decided to open Communion to children as young as seven. For Catholics in the Latin church, this was a shocking development. (The Society that takes St. Pius X as a patron no doubt would be surprised at how "liberal" their patron actually was for his time.) When Bishop Sheen recounted this scandal he stated that what stunned him was not St. Pius X's decision but the opposition to the Pope indulged in by a family member.

A century later we can see in hindsight the wisdom of St. Pius X's decision to open Communion to young children. (He also urged frequent reception of Communion to the faithful at a time when lay Catholics had to be ordered by law of the Church to receive at least once per year.) At the time though, these relaxations of the eucharistic disciplines were thought to expose the Eucharist to the danger of sacrilege because of unworthy receptions of Communion by those who might not receive Communion mindfully and in a state of grace. And while a case could be made that there was such a danger, the benefit to souls was considered to be a higher good that made that risk one that the Church was willing to take.

I do not know how the Church will resolve the issue of whether or not Catholics who are divorced and remarried civilly can be admitted to the sacraments. I can say that, during my years as an apologist, I have talked with many people in civil remarriages who realize now that they made bad decisions and committed sins. Now though they feel trapped by circumstances to stay in the civil marriage (e.g., a need to stay for the sake of children of the new marriage who would be harmed by a breakup of their family) but are now also cut off from Christ in the sacraments. There is a very real sense of despair these Catholics feel over how to regularize their marital status, especially when a former spouse or current spouse is uncooperative. For their sake, I would like to see the Church do whatever can be done from both a theological and a pastoral perspective to ease their burden (however self-imposed that burden might be).

Giving Scandal

I also hope that those Catholics taking scandal over this situation will try to remember that the Church is in the business of tending to the needs of souls. When people are hurting or estranged from the Church, the Church will do what it can to reconcile them to Christ. And sometimes that may mean taking actions that can scandalize the faithful. In doing so, the Church has Christ himself for an example.

This Sunday, the third Sunday of Lent, we will hear the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob (John 4:5–42). Jesus was resting at the well while his disciples went to buy food. When the Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus shocked her by asking her for a drink. Then he tells her of the living water that he will give. When the Samaritan woman asks him for some of this water, he says to her: "Go, call your husband, and come here" (John 4:16).

The woman says she does not have a husband, and Jesus responds, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband,' for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly" (John 4:17–18).

Note what does and does not happen here: Jesus starts off by referring to the woman's husband as her husband. Only when she admits that she does not actually have a husband does Jesus acknowledge the full situation. He is not turning a blind eye to her marital indiscretions, but he waits for her to admit her past. Then he affirms that she has spoken rightly. And when the disciples returned, they were as shocked as the woman had been that Jesus was speaking with her (John 4:27).

We cannot press too far in divining Jesus' motives in this incident, in why he chose to reveal his messianic identity to a multiply-married Samaritan woman (John 4:25–26) and offer to her the living water that he has come to give to the world. But I think we can at least say that Christ is willing to risk misunderstanding by the faithful to reach out and reveal himself to a wounded soul in need of hope. The Church can do no less.

Trusting Beyond Our Understanding

The bottom line is that we as Catholics have to be ready to accept that we are not necessarily going to fully understand (much less agree with) every action the Church takes. Like Peter responding to Jesus after many left following the promise that Christ's followers would have to eat Christ's body and drink his blood, we have to be willing to say in response to scandal in the Church, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). 

But if we do trust, even when we do not understand (or agree), sometimes we can get just enough light to continue on the journey because understanding very often follows faith:

It is intrinsic to faith that a believer desires to know better the One in whom he has put his faith, and to understand better what he has revealed; a more penetrating knowledge will in turn call forth a greater faith, increasingly set afire by love. The grace of faith opens "the eyes of your hearts" to a lively understanding of the contents of revelation: that is, of the totality of God's plan and the mysteries of faith, of their connection with each other and with Christ, the center of the revealed mystery. . . . In the words of St. Augustine, "I believe, in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe" (CCC 158).

Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers.

Comments by Members

#1  Logan Rieck - Albany, Illinois

I'm really interested in how the Holy Father will handle this as well, but I have faith that he can resolve this issue but probably not to everyone's preferences.

I understand these peoples' plight but I completely fear those Catholics who think it is appropriate to just allow them to receive the Eucharist because, "Who are we to judge," in complete contradiction to 1 Corinthians 11.

March 19, 2014 at 1:24 pm PST
#2  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

I often wonder if Catholic Answers would have defended Pope Liberius, excommunication of athanasius. Or Pope Honorious or any of the scandalous popes of the middle ages. I often suspect that they would. The question is.... Is this a good thing? I can understand doing your best to teach the faith and be a saint even in times of chaos... But to take the time to defend the chaos.... Seems odd....

March 19, 2014 at 6:14 pm PST
#3  Logan Rieck - Albany, Illinois

Kenneth, I don't mean to start a controversy with you but I don't believe Pope Liberius excommunicated St. Athanasius but the condemnation of this saint was against his will and beyond his power to stop.

Now, I won't defend Pope Honorious or any of the scandalous Popes that have existed unfortunately and I'd hope they wouldn't either.

I think they defend the chaos because it is inevitable and because of the brewing chaos we have hope that Pope Francis will be able to guide us through it to a newer and better understanding of the Church.

March 19, 2014 at 6:32 pm PST
#4  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas


I have read numerous works in defense of Pope Liberius and I think that it is plausible that the excommunication was "forced" out of him. Thats not the point. The point is that it seems certain Catholic Answers apologists are prepared to defend the actions of anything and everything that comes out of the vatican. This is absurd. History is FILLED with Papal abuses. To take the mental stance that we must defend everything that Pope Francis does and says (see Jimmy Akins smoking keyboard) is insane.

You will recall that the slogan USED to be that Pope Francis was a "loyal son of the Church" who is just ALWAYS misrepresented by the media. "You just watch!" the old slogan used to read "Pope Francis wont ever change any policy or dogma like the liberal media wants". Fast Forward to the present day and now all of a sudden we are preparing ourselves to joyfully accept remarried couples receiving communion. After all, Saint Pius X allowed 7 year olds to take communion so whats the big deal! The tone is VERY different these days is it not? NEWSFLASH! It is OK to offer criticism to the Bishop of Rome. If you don't believe me just ask him!

March 19, 2014 at 8:36 pm PST
#5  Dan Redle - Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

I am sorry but there is a major problem with this post, and it is the same one that Cardinal Casper expressed in his interview. On the other hand, Cardinal Caffarra is spot on. It is agreed that the Pope cannot change what is in the deposit of the faith, in this case that once a marriage is sacramentally consummated it cannot be dissolved. Lets look at this situation logically from this first principle. If I am divorced from a sacramental marriage and then remarry I am not married to my new "wife". This is a agreed upon. Because I am living with a women that I am not married to I am in sin (even if by some impossible situation I do not have sex with her because I am giving serious scandal). People in objective mortal sin cannot receive Communion. Ergo, the Church cannot allow them to receive Communion.

Read all of what Cardinal Caffara says in his interview. He is clearly stating what Church teaching has been for the last 2000 years. Look at what Cardinal Casper says, and even though he says many good things, some of his underlying points undercuts what the Church has always taught. I am not trying to be uncharitable to the Cardinal, but I must hold to what is true.

March 20, 2014 at 6:01 am PST
#6  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

This too shall pass and the Holy Spririt will seperate the wheat from the chaff. All scandals within the Church have a way of working themselves out. The beauty of our faith is that we have that promise from Christ! What ever the Church binds here on earth will be ratified in heaven. Just relax, be patient, and stay in the boat even when it seems to rock from the storms that come and go.

I also can relate to this because I was one of those who was married in the Church, fell away from my faith, divorced and was remarried civilly. After my "reversion" I came to the realization of what marriage was, a covenant with God. I also came to the realization of what the Holy Eucharist was and when I read 1 Corinthians 11 I knew in my heart what I had to do. It was hard being in love with the Eucharist so much and longing for the Body and Blood of Christ and having to refrain from it, but I knew what I had to do. My patience, honor, and love for the Eucharist was a blessing. My civil wife who also was going through her conversion (long story, it happened to us on same night) went through RCIA, I was working on my annullment at this time. My annullment was granted and our marriage was convalidated. During the ceremony the skies darkened and stormed, lightning flashed and thunder boomed, it was awesome. Just as it was done the Priest went out the back door and came back in and said yall need to come see this. It was the most beautiful blue skies I've ever seen and there was a double rainbow, the sign of a new covenant!!!!! I can't write this without getting a tear in my eye! It was well worth the wait and the sacrifice I had to endure to receive the precious Body and Blood of our Lord worthily. Healing old sins and the scars from those sins takes.time, but most of all it takes FAITH!!! God bless and I love you all!

March 20, 2014 at 6:31 am PST
#7  Logan Rieck - Albany, Illinois

Kenneth, I understand your issues but I think you're mistaken. Pope Francis hasn't yet made a decision whether or not he will allow civilly remarried couples receive Communion, this is just speculation.

The reason that his Holiness is so oft protected and given and an abundance of apologetics is because of this type of uninformed attacks. Yes, we can criticize the Pope but we should do it not in ignorance but in good understanding of what we actually know and not just what we suppose he might do. We aren't entirely sure of how Pope Francis will handle this, we just understand that a talk will be had discussing it.

We have to trust the Bishop of Rome that he will guide the Church through the waters of strife and land us on sound land. But when you yell at the Pope for turning a direction when he still hasn't finished mapping the route is silly.

March 20, 2014 at 3:35 pm PST
#8  Jeff Latka - Omaha, Nebraska

Christopher, thank you for sharing your story. I am in a similar situation as you were. Married, divorced, then remarried. Since my "conversion", I've started the annulment process and my wife is in RCIA.

I've been told the annulment process will take up to 2 years. This is not for theological reasons, this is because of the backlog of cases my archdiocese is being asked to consider. It is THIS issue where we might see change. I'm not saying we need to cut corners by any means, but administratively, the process could certainly be streamlined.

Myself, and many other divorced/remarried catholics have "come home". We are willing to pay the price for our sins of the past. The only thing worse than feeling like a modern day leper, is being treated like one. 2 years is a long time to stand out in the cold. But, I will. I have nowhere else to go.

March 20, 2014 at 6:04 pm PST
#9  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Jeff, my prayers will be with you in your annulment process. It was hard on me because it was like reliving the worst moments in my life. They wanted somewhere around 12 pages, I gave them about 67 pages. I made sure I didn't leave out anything. They told me it could take two years but it only took a year. I was treated very well and never felt like an outcast, as a matter of fact it made me have real appreciation for the tribunal. They have an awesome responsibility and not an easy one. May God bless you and I am filled with joy that you found your way home!!! Maybe you will get a couple of miracles too!!

March 20, 2014 at 8:53 pm PST
#10  Kate Fredricks - Altona NY, New York

I think it is important to remember that many of the people who are divorced came to that state against their will.

Also important is the fact that not all marriages that have ended in divorce can be declared invalid. A declaration of nullity is not some sort of automatic, bureaucratic process.

I don't know what can or will be done with people who have decided at some point that they cannot handle the loneliness of being left and seek companionship that leads to civil marriage, but there is nothing weak or watered-down about the idea that we should "walk with" such people and not condemn them. We ARE all tempted to assuage our hurts in ways that are not right, and anyone who believes he or she simply never gives in is self-deceiving.

If I am not mistaken every penalty given by the Church, including excommunication, is meant to encourage the transgressor to make things right and return to the sacraments, that is, not meant as an irrevocable sentence. The question is, how do people who have remarried civilly, are not eligible for an annulment (not uncommon in many countries) and now have young children with a new partner makes things right? That seems worth studying to me.

March 20, 2014 at 9:06 pm PST
#11  Bryan Metcalf - Napa, California

My biggest problem with the status quo, and what I personally feel NEEDS to be answered by the upcoming Synod, is what happens to the divorced and remarried Catholic when he/she dies?

To quote Dan, "logic." The reason remarried Catholics are barred from receiving Eucharist is because they are in a state of mortal sin.

The Church has always taught those who die in a state of mortal sin cannot enter Heaven.

Logic would lead to the conclusion that those who are validly married, divorce and then remarry cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven no matter how repentent they are.

Obviously there is the catch-all category of "by ways known only to God" that we use to say Muslims, Jews, non-Christians and anyone else who dies outside full communion MAY be admitted, but this is hardly consolation to those who are living outside full communion because the Church will not allow them in.

We owe it to the faithful who fall into this category to clarify their situation and assure them that although they may not be able to receive communion because of the grave nature of their sin, they still belong to a God who loves them and desires a relationship with them. Being out of full communion with the Church does not mean being outside the bonds of God's love.

March 21, 2014 at 12:13 am PST
#12  Mary Hawn - Marquette, Michigan

After reading some of these posts I had to stop and read the original statement made by Cardinal Kasper. Wow, guys, take a breath! Since this is a point for starting discussion within the consistory, how about we give the Holy Spirit a chance to work? Everybody has an opinion but let's see where this goes before we hang, draw and quarter anybody.

March 21, 2014 at 12:30 pm PST
#13  Dan Redle - Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

I did read the original statements from Cardinal Casper, and like I said, he had a lot of good to say. However, what he said about divorced/remarried Catholics contradicts 2000 years of Church teaching. Of course we need to be open to the Holy Spirit, but that doesn't mean that we can contradict the Truth given to us by the Spirit. Doctrine can develop, but it must never contradict what was previously taught. If someone knowing plans on persisting in their sin then they cannot receive absolution. A firm commitment of amendment is needed for a valid confession, that is Catechism 101.

I am not trying to be judgmental of anyone in this situation, I cannot imagine how hard it must. However, we can never do what is objectively morally wrong so a good may come out of it. It would be no real mercy to knowing admit people in this situation to Communion. True mercy must always be accompanied by truth, never contrary to it. Ok, I wont post anymore haha

March 21, 2014 at 1:09 pm PST
#14  Dan Redle - Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

I did read the original statements from Cardinal Casper, and like I said, he had a lot of good to say. However, what he said about divorced/remarried Catholics contradicts 2000 years of Church teaching. Of course we need to be open to the Holy Spirit, but that doesn't mean that we can contradict the Truth given to us by the Spirit. Doctrine can develop, but it must never contradict what was previously taught. If someone knowing plans on persisting in their sin then they cannot receive absolution. A firm commitment of amendment is needed for a valid confession, that is Catechism 101.

I am not trying to be judgmental of anyone in this situation, I cannot imagine how hard it must. However, we can never do what is objectively morally wrong so a good may come out of it. It would be no real mercy to knowing admit people in this situation to Communion. True mercy must always be accompanied by truth, never contrary to it. Ok, I wont post anymore haha

March 21, 2014 at 1:09 pm PST
#15  Dan Redle - Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

no idea why I posted 2x, sorry

March 21, 2014 at 1:11 pm PST
#16  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

I feel so sad that there are catholics so uneducated in their faith. So cut off from Tradition. Its a sad time to live in.

March 22, 2014 at 11:24 am PST
#17  Christopher Travis - Huntsville, Alabama

Keneth, you are very right about Catholics not being educated in their faith. I think it is because most take it for granted and the priests rarely give sermons that are fire and brimstone concerning our faith. I knew little about mine until my "reversion" and the constant attacks on my faith for the last three years. I have been doing everything I can to stregthen my Catholic friends who are what I consider CCC's ( cruise control Catholics). Too many Catholics are easing pickens for Mormons, Jehovahs, and Protestants because they don't even realize who started their Church and what the Holy Eucharist really is. We must stress evangelizing our own because the second largest religion is ex Catholics.

March 22, 2014 at 7:49 pm PST
#18  Brendan O'Brien - Bendigo Delivery Centre, Victoria

I'm inspired by the stories and faith here, and many of you seem to be not only wonderful users of the gift of intelligence that you have had bestowed from God, but also great passages for the influence of the Holy Spirit. Such a complex situation, and rules are rules. God's ways are not our ways, and he seemed to choose grossly and greatly imperfect human beings to facilitate his will, so there is hope for us all. Especially because we are all sinners. And before anyone jumps up and down getting upset because I seem to be excusing this intelligent discussion, I am not. Today's scripture readings emphasised God's need for love, not sacrifice, and I'm sure that no matter how sinful we are, and God knows we are absolutely capable of tremendous sin, He desires a personal relationship of love with each and every one of us.
God bless you all.

March 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm PST
#19  Jeff Latka - Omaha, Nebraska

Brendan, that was beautiful, thank you for your contribution. You have lifted my spirit on a gloomy day. May the grace of Our Lord and peace be with you.

March 29, 2014 at 2:58 am PST
#20  Brendan O'Brien - Bendigo Delivery Centre, Victoria

Jeff Latka, it's only been in recent times I have regained my value of my Catholic faith, and I too am going through annulment process at the moment, though I've not re-married.
It's hard. Any organisation needs its rules, and especially one as big as the Catholic church, and on such significant matters as faith and salvation. And still day after day we are reminded that Jesus had his eyes on the gentiles and sinners, and God in the OT called on the highly imperfect. Even today we listened to David's anointing as King, as a young boy, who would become an adulterer and a murderer. And it would be directly in David's line that God himself would come to earth.
I battle and struggle with my imperfection every day of my life, and I keep praying that God's mercy is as great as I believe it to be...

March 29, 2014 at 7:05 pm PST
#21  justin reany - Phoenix, Arizona

It never surprises me what Cardinal Walter Casper says. His whole career in the Vatican has been a series of jaw-dropping statements regarding the Deposit of Faith or how other religions are fine and we should not seek to converts them (i.e. - the Jews). I work with two very fervent traditionalists that claim the Church since Vatican II has been corrupted and adopted modernist practices, liturgical rites, and theological novelties. In many instances, I cannot disagree with them. I truly have no adequate refutation for many of their charges. Mind you I have been doing apologetics for a good 15 years now. Why do we now accept female altar servers in light of the 2000 year liturgical tradition of the Church? I cannot answer that. This issue of admitting divorced and remarried persons to the sacraments is a delicate one and should be dealt with great sensitivity and care. With that said, the Church (Her hierarchy and faithful) need to wake up from the ambivalent fog we have been in the past 50 years are be honest with our selves. Have such innovations born the fruit we were promised? In some cases yes. In many cases no. We must always temper the jump to innovation and change with the consistent and unwavering example of tradition. Tradition, in the organic history of the Church is the great litmus test for novel "b.s." Sorry for the language, but let's be frank here. The Church is not going to move to change anything regarding the issue of admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments. It cannot! She (the Church) and the pope would then be permitting something contrary to God's Law and the universal tradition of the Church. The issue certainly can be raised in such a synod and a pastoral solution should be made - short of actually allowing the divorced and remarried to the sacraments without the proper canonical provisions. A valid marriage can never be dissolved. That is from the Lord's mouth Himself. St. Paul too. Cannot get around that. I know that the issue is only being discussed but it is a shame that liberals such as Cardinal Casper are still around to chime in on such matters. I applaud the Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna for his reminding people of the limits of papal and ecclesial power in these matters. the Church is the servant of tradition, not the editor of it!

April 29, 2014 at 11:30 pm PST

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