I am a divorced and remarried Catholic. I attend Mass every week. When my children want me to take them up to Holy Communion, I walk along behind them and cross my arms over my breast. My youngest is particularly keen on going up for a blessing, although he wants to know when he can get ‘the bread’. I say, ‘When you understand why it isn’t “the bread”.’
It has never occurred to me to present myself for Communion when I have not sought — for various reasons that I won’t discuss here — to have my first marriage annulled. I know I am not a good Catholic, and I am living a life that the Church considers to be adulterous. Yet I am in good spirits, as I hope in God’s mercy. But I do not presume upon it. My Catechism says that is a further mortal sin, as would be the unworthy reception of Holy Communion.
People in my state are explicitly encouraged, in the Catechism, to attend church, and to make a spiritual communion, as I do each week. I have the hope that one day I will be in a state of grace and able to receive Holy Communion again. I hope that, despite my ongoing sin, God nonetheless hides me in the shadow of his wings; that Mary, hope of sinners, has her cloak of mercy cast about me. I am a poor Catholic but I am also a believing Catholic. Yet there is a faction within the Church that evidently considers ‘believing Catholic’ to be a hopelessly old-fashioned clique that they must get shot of, alongside lace mantillas and kneeling at theCommunion rail.
Holy Communion, for most of the bishops of England and Wales, appears to have become Protestant by default. Instead of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist — a presence we should tremble to receive at the best of times — Communion is now a sign, a symbol, a mere shared meal, an ‘expression of community’.
Next week an Extraordinary Synod of Catholic bishops, summoned by Pope Francis, will meet to discuss the family. Catholic reformers are full of hope that, under his guidance, the bishops will liberalise the Church’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics. The liberal Tablet magazine devoted a cover story to the subject. It filled me with dismay. The article began by quoting Cardinal Walter Kasper, the leading liberal cardinal: ‘The church’s blanket ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion…’.
Where to start? The Church does not ban anybody from receiving Communion other than non-Catholics (and there may be exceptions) and those too young to understand what they are receiving. Rather, nobody may receive God in the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. Even before I remarried, and I use the term in a legal sense, since I cannot sacramentally remarry, I did not always present myself for Communion. Often I would be in a state of serious sin and had not found the time or organised myself enough to go to confession. The fact is that nobody in a state of serious sin — whatever that sin may be, in this case, adultery — is able to receive Christ worthily. To receive him unworthily is to commit a further mortal sin.
The Tablet article was called ‘The Case for Mercy’ and, reading it, I felt like pleading for us suckers who actually believe the basics: sin, confession, absolution, the Real Presence and the like. What Cardinal Kasper appears to want to do is to tempt a generation of people into weekly mortal sin. How is that merciful? How is that helping? Is it impossible for liberal theologians to combine their reforming fervour with actual logic? Allow a divorced and remarried person to receive Holy Communion and you are saying one of two things: either that it is not adulterous to have sex outside the marital bond, or that one may harmlessly receive the Most Holy Eucharist while in an ongoing state of mortal sin — a sin one firmly intends to commit again as soon as convenient.
There is no way that either of those things can be true, and the Church’s teaching be true. If sin doesn’t matter, what was the point of the Crucifixion? Why did Christ not stop with a ‘community meal’ on Maundy Thursday and skip that whole bothersome deal the next morning?
There are ways that those civilly divorced and remarried can be admitted to Holy Communion. Make it easier for them to obtain a declaration of nullity. Here is an area where the Church could be more sympathetic, could grant dispensations and exemptions in matters of process. The power of ‘radical sanation’ — granted for various reasons — to make a marriage whole could also be administered more often. That power does actually exist. Where the Church can legitimately change is in matters of tradition and practice — but not doctrine or dogma. Here, we sinners are protected from the human failings of individual priests and bishops by the infallibility of the Church. Some traditionalists protested when altar girls were permitted; I remember asking in one forum if the Bishop had the right to do this (yes), then if it had been done to say it was wrong was — equally as much as in the other direction — to say the Church was wrong.
Theologically, the Church is like a giant tower in Jenga; pull out one brick and you topple all the others. We cannot admit that sex outside marriage isn’t adulterous, nor can we say that mortally sinful people can receive Holy Communion. But we can look harder at the powers given to the Church to declare and discern when somebody is in a state of sin or where, for genuinely merciful reasons, a union can be made whole, by powers already granted to our bishops by the Holy Spirit.
Nothing will ever persuade me to receive Holy Communion in a state of grievous sin, unless for a serious reason. I once did so, when I discovered that a Protestant at my sister’s wedding had approached the priest, taken the Host and put it into his pocket. The poor priest hesitated but the man had walked away. He was foreign and hadn’t understood. I went to find him at the reception and he said ‘I didn’t want to interrupt the line’. I asked if I could have the Host from his pocket, I made a quick act of adoration and contrition and I ate it, despite being at that time not fit to receive. It seemed the lesser of two evils, and certainly that was my intent. I believe that under the circumstances, it was valid to consume the Host (although I am not sure). One day I hope to do so again. But I understand that the Church, while it strives to emphasise mercy, cannot do so by encouraging sin. Communion is not, as the Tablet journalist I Twitter-debated this with said, just ‘for the saints’, that is true. But nor is it, as he put it, ‘a help for the journey.’ It is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. However unfashionable that may be, it remains true.