In a book coming out just before October’s extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, Cardinal George Pell rules out proposed changes to church practice that would allow divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
“Doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory,” writes Cardinal Pell, a former archbishop of Sydney who now serves as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy. “One cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the ‘remarried’ to receive Communion.”
The cardinal calls for a clear restatement of traditional teaching, to avoid the sort of widespread protests that greeted Pope Paul VI’s affirmation of Catholic teaching against contraception in 1968.
“The sooner the wounded, the lukewarm, and the outsiders realize that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated,” writes the cardinal, who will participate in the synod.
The eligibility of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion is bound to be a major topic of discussion, inside and outside the synod hall, during the Oct. 5-19 gathering. According to church teaching, Catholics who remarry civilly without an annulment may receive Communion only if they abstain from sexual relations, living with their new partners “as brother and sister.”
Pope Francis has said the predicament of such Catholics exemplifies a general need for mercy in the church today. In February, at the pope’s invitation, German Cardinal Walter Kasper addressed the world’s cardinals at the Vatican and argued for allowing some Catholics in that predicament to receive Communion.
Cardinal Pell’s statement appears as the foreword to “The Gospel of the Family,” a book-length response to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal that Ignatius Press will publish Oct. 1. Cardinal Kasper’s address, published by Paulist Press, has the same title.
“A courteous, informed and rigorous discussion, indeed debate, is needed, especially for the coming months to defend the Christian and Catholic tradition of monogamous, indissoluble marriage,” Cardinal Pell writes.
But focusing on the question of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried, he suggests, is a “counterproductive and futile search for short-term consolations.”
“Healthy communities do not spend most of their energies on peripheral issues and, unfortunately, the number of divorced and remarried Catholics who feel they should be allowed to receive holy Communion is very small indeed,” the cardinal writes.
“The issue is seen by both friends and foes of the Catholic tradition as a symbol — a prize in the clash between what remains of Christendom in Europe and an aggressive neo-paganism. Every opponent of Christianity wants the church to capitulate on this issue,” the cardinal writes.
Cardinal Pell acknowledges that the virtue of mercy, whose importance both Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper have underscored in this connection, “is central when we are talking about marriage and sexuality, forgiveness and holy Communion.”
But the cardinal also emphasizes the “essential links between mercy and fidelity, between truth and grace.”
“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways,” the cardinal writes. “He told her to sin no more.”