Last Friday, I was asked by BBC Radio Oxford to appear at 7.20am on Sunday to be interviewed about why the Catholic Church doesn’t allow remarried divorcees, or those married to a divorcee, to receive Holy Communion. This was part of a series about the Catholic Church in preparation for the Pope’s visit. What that meant, of course, was a series of programmes on why the Catholic Church is so reactionary. Next week: homosexuality.
My response to this request was, would you phone me back in 10 minutes. I always say this now, because I had caught myself on a previous occasion replying sorry, I was going to be busy, or abroad, or some other excuse, when it was my clear duty to accept: I hate these interviews so much that I now give myself 10 minutes to reconcile myself to saying “yes”. Later in the day I had the same request from Radio Coventry: an interview on the same subject, at 9.20am, also on Sunday.
The Radio Oxford interview began with a recorded interview of Bishop Kieran Conry by an ex-nun who had married a divorcee. After a few cursory defensive remarks, Bishop Conry said that the bishops had asked Rome to reconsider its policy (I can’t remember if that’s the word he used, but it’s what was meant: a policy that could be changed at any time if only Rome was as sensitive to pastoral need as Bishop Conry). I was then asked to respond.
When the Radio Coventry interview took place, lo and behold, there was the same interviewer and the same ex-nun, this time appearing in person. I made it clear that I had considerable sympathy with those in her situation (though my sympathy rapidly ebbed in her case when she made it clear that she received Holy Communion anyway, and that she had travelled throughout the country talking to Catholics, all of whom agreed with her – in other words, I thought – possibly unjustly – stirring it up. She had even, she said brightly, been allowed to play her guitar at Mass).
My sympathy with Catholic remarried divorcees and Catholics who marry divorcees is absolutely genuine; I have good friends in this situation. But the Church’s reasons are simple. This isn’t a matter of “policy”, which might be negotiated away. This is a dominical command.
The relevant Gospel passage is Mt 19:3ff., cf. also Mk 10:2ff. (For Pope John Paul on this passage, go here): “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking: ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered: ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.'” Jesus then makes it plain that divorce is not a permissible option, whatever Jewish tradition may allow.
So it’s a matter of obedience. There is also the question of what would happen if we opened the floodgates. Every stage towards the liberalisation of divorce in civil society has led firstly to the further destabilisation of marriage and then to the consequent destabilisation of society. If that were to be reproduced within the Church, it would be a catastrophe.
The Church is between a rock and a hard place on this, as on many other issues. Its pastoral instincts are with its people. But it cannot be pastoral to be disobedient: we need to be in the habit, far more than we are, of regarding these difficult questions sub specie aeternitatis, in the context of eternity.
The Church rightly encourages divorcees to be part of the life of the Church: our duty, after all, is to be present at the Eucharistic assembly on days of obligation, not necessarily to receive Holy Communion (which we arguably do too often these days, anyway: but that’s another subject). Their situation is a difficult one. But we all have problems of one kind or another. Whoever said that being a Catholic is easy?