The idea that Communion for the remarried is a burning issue for the Pope is basic political spin

Priest walk to distribute Communion during Easter Mass in St Peter's Square (Photo: CNS)

The expected post-synodal apostolic exhortation from the Pope is being keenly anticipated in a way no other has ever been. Speculation about the likely contents of this document centre around the premise that the final report at the Synod on the Family left the possibility of the divorced and remarried receiving Communion somehow unresolved, and that, therefore, the Pope must and will resolve it, one way or the other.

This, in turn, has led to widespread anxiety about what is going to happen next, with some hoping the Church is going to finally get the social revolution Humanae Vitae prevented, while others question if the whole Magisterium is about to come apart at the seams. It is a great shame that such uproar has been occasioned by what boils down to a false premise and a basic political trick.

I call it a false premise because it is. The final relatio of the Synod did not leave the issue of Communion for the civilly remarried “unresolved”; it left it unchallenged and undiscussed. While some bishops and commentators have insisted, from the moment of its publication, that the document said or did something meaningful about who can receive Communion, they have not been able to alter the text itself, which simply did not address the issue.

Those who insist that some kind of opening has been forced, like Cardinal Marx, do so to the confusion, rather than contradiction, of the rest, like Cardinal Pell, who simply refer back to the text itself. The idea that confusion can be inferred or the potential for change created, in either doctrine or practice, from silence is manifestly ridiculous. The relatio did not mention the possibility of distributing Communion by drone. Is this also up for discussion?

Similarly, current perception is that this is a burningly urgent question about which Francis must do something. A narrative has already been successfully framed, most articulately by John Allen of the Boston Globe, in which anything the Pope does is a deliberate reaction to this inescapable problem; even doing nothing and ignoring the whole thing would be a calculated response. The whole issue has acquired its own sense of urgency even though, on cool reflection, there is not a lot to base this on.

This has arisen through a consistency of presentation in the media, mainstream and Catholic, which deploys some basic tools of political spin to create a new, in this case false, impression of a situation. For example, when discussing the concept of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, it is usual for this to be abbreviated to just “the divorced”, who as a group are able receive Communion – it is only those in a second civil marriage who cannot. This widens the supposed group of people affected by the issue so that it now wrongly includes, in the mind’s eye of the reader, instinctively sympathetic examples, like hard-working single mums who have been abandoned by their husbands.

This kind of subtle distortion of terms is deeply unpleasant; not only does it sow confusion among those trying to understand the issue, but it can and has led, for example, to a hard-working single mum abandoned by her husband coming to think that she is somehow unworthy to receive Communion.

The supposed inability of this artificially inflated group of people to receive Communion is then described exclusively with oppressing passive verbs: they are “banned”, “excluded”, “prohibited”, “forbidden”. This authoritarian imposition is always framed as “currently” or “up till now”, giving the impression that it could, with enlightened leadership, change at any moment.

This is a shallow but effective way of inverting the situation so that what is at issue is a negative and arbitrary imposition on a marginalised group of people, rather than a simple matter of actions by Catholics having self-effecting consequences in the light of central teachings of the Church.

Another sleight of hand at work is the suggestion that the inability of those effectively living in an adulterous union to receive Communion is a punishment meted out by the Church. It is not. It is a simple observation of fact, made in the light of the teaching that you have to be in a state of grace to receive the Eucharist. They are free to ignore this reality if they wish, and the truth is that if someone living in a second marriage wishes to take Communion, they can. In my practice as a canon lawyer, I have never heard of a case where a priest publicly denied Communion to a remarried divorcee who presented themselves, as many do.

This cuts to the core of what is really at issue. There is no real desire to do away with the teaching of suitability to receive Communion. Rather, what is being subtly championed is a tacit legitimisation of divorce and remarriage. If a remarried person wants to receive Communion, the reality is they can; what is being proposed is that the Church tell them it is OK when they do. Once we understand this, we see the true speciousness of the argument that this can be part of some “pastoral accompaniment”, accompanying someone implies that there is a direction of travel and the intention to change; there is no impetus for either once you legitimise the point of departure.

The idea that the Pope must and will address a radical proposition, made by a small minority of people, from a part of the world that he is famously unsympathetic to, seems, when you remove the volume of commentary from the equation, unlikely. Indeed, it is only the pressure of the commentary and speculation which seems to lend the idea credibility.

Last year I wrote that, it seemed to me, the most simple explanation for the Pope’s seemingly confusing responses to pressing issues was that he did not engage with wider media discussion and debate, consequently the body of media opinion was not addressed in his treatment of different subjects – much to their confusion. I still think this is the case, and it leads me to believe that when the apostolic exhortation does materialise, it will, like the Synod’s relatio, simply not address the subject of Communion for the remarried, or, if it does, it will do so only in passing to confirm the teaching of the Church. Others may try and spin from this silence, as they have been doing, but it will not change the reality of the Church’s teaching.