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It’s the Adultery, Stupid

As the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family opens today in Rome, with bishops from around the world gathering for the next two weeks to complete the discussions begun last October, the Church is abuzz with speculation: about possible changes to Catholic teaching, about who was chosen to participate and who was left home, about leaks, conspiracies, and other intrigues within the Vatican’s walls.

On no subject is the buzz greater than on the question of Communion for the divorced and remarried. A contingent of churchmen, spearheaded by the German cardinal Walter Kasper, has made no secret over the last year of favoring a change in pastoral practice that would permit Catholics in invalid second (or third, etc.) unions to receive the Eucharist. Many synod watchers expect the bishops to give the “Kasper proposal” a full airing over the next three weeks.

The “proposal” isn’t quite that, since it lacks specifics. Perhaps by design, it’s not easy to pin down. But, broadly speaking, it looks to involve an act of penance and a period of spiritual counseling, followed by re-admittance to Communion.

What is the penance for? In a 2014 Commonweal interview, Card. Kasper explained:

The failure of a first marriage . . . can come from a failure to realize what was promised before God and before the other partner and the church. Therefore, it failed; there were shortcomings. This has to be confessed. . . .

In the Creed we say we believe in the forgiveness of sin. If there was this shortcoming, and it has been repented for—is absolution not possible? My question goes through the sacrament of penance, through which we have access to Holy Communion. But penance is the most important thing—repentance of what went wrong, and a new orientation. 

This language of “failure,” the notion that divorce is itself a sin that requires repentance, appears frequently in the remarks of those sympathetic to Cardinal Kasper’s ideas. It’s not hard to see why. If the “failure of their first marriage” is the sin that makes the divorced and remarried unfit for the Eucharist, then why shouldn’t repentance for that sin make them fit once more? Creating a formal pastoral pathway to that repentance, in the name of mercy, is at the heart of the Kasper proposal.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, then-governor Bill Clinton’s team came up with the memorable slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.” This was not directed to the electorate but to the campaign staff: a continual reminder to keep a laser-like focus on economic issues. They were the “stupid” ones if they ever forgot that people vote their wallets.

When it comes to the Church’s prohibition of Communion for the divorced and remarried, we would do well to adopt a similar focus: not on the economy but on the adultery.

The language of marriage-failure is undeniably attractive. It has a poetic, affective quality. It also rings true with our experience—in any broken relationship there are contributing vices, betrayals, unkindnesses, and other failings that led to it, and feelings of guilt.

But the “sin of a failed marriage” is not what bars the divorced and remarried from approaching the altar for Communion. What does bar them (apart from any other mortal sin they may have committed, of course) is this: the ongoing state of adultery that is created when someone who is divorced marries another and the two enter into what is presumed to be a normal sexual relationship. Despite this attempted new union, the previously divorced spouse is still married to someone else; sex with anyone but that person is adultery by definition (CCC 2380).

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

This is why the Church doesn’t teach that merely getting a civil divorce is a sin, much less grounds for a kind of excommunication. In fact, even though there should always be a preference for reconciliation between spouses and the preservation of common life, there are circumstances—such as when a spouse or child is at risk of serious harm—where separation or civil divorce may be a prudent, even morally advisable choice.

That’s also why the pastoral prescription for persons in invalid marriages who wish to receive the Eucharist, but for practical reasons (such as care of children) can’t separate from one another, has been for them to “live as brother and sister”—sharing a common life but not a common bed. By committing to chastity and receiving sacramental absolution, they remove that insuperable barrier to full communion with Christ and the Church that ongoing, unrepentant adultery poses.

The Kasper proposal does not include such a requirement. In his interview with Commonweal, Cardinal Kasper suggested that living as brother and sister would be “heroic” and thus not required for all Christians. But avoiding serious sin, however difficult it may be, is not strictly heroic—meaning something above and beyond what all Christians are called to do. (For example, deliberately submitting to martyrdom.) To do good and avoid evil is the fundamental moral commandment, and it applies to everyone.

Indeed, I think it’s a great gesture of mercy on the part of the Church that, when circumstances require it and there is no chance of scandal, couples in invalid unions may continue to live together, raise children, keep a checkbook, carry on as spouses in every other way, and still be fully participant Catholics, so long as they promise to live chastely (which every Catholic must do, anyway). This solution does justice to the ties they have built with each other and to the outstanding reality that one or both of them nonetheless remain bound in marriage to another person.

There is much more that could be said here, and no doubt much more to be heard in the weeks and months to come, as the synod unfolds and its fruits become known. Meanwhile, let us stay laser-focused on the true reasons for the Church’s teaching when it comes to divorce and remarriage, and be prepared to identify and charitably rebut counterfeit ones.

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