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The Church Scandalous

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).


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