What is at stake at the Synod? Communion for the divorced and remarried

The Pope gives Communion to a child. But what about the divorced? (CNS)

As everyone now knows, the Pope is going to preside over a Synod in Rome this autumn, which will deal with the topic of family life. The survey that we were all sent was part of the preparation for this Synod. The Church has regular Synods, but they rarely attract much attention. This one is different in that the level of interest is rising fast, and may reach dangerous levels by the time the Synod comes to meet.

What is at stake here?

It is pretty clear already that the Synod will have to confront one question under discussion more or less everywhere, but particularly in Germany: should the Church allow those who have divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion? In fairness, this question has been around for a long time, but now it seems to be top of the menu. Moreover, the pre-Synod “chatter”, insofar as it seems to focus exclusively on this topic, may well create an expectation of change. This expectation may become overwhelming, which may make any attempt to discern the will of God in this matter (that is after all what Synods are meant to do) very difficult, given that discernment requires peace and quiet.

We have of course been here before. The Second Vatican Council’s discussions were often overshadowed by the discussion of those outside the Council, as Sandro Magister remarks. Moreover, it was the expectation of change connected with the Commission on Birth Control which contributed to the sensation created by the publication of Humanae Vitae. If you are going to defend doctrine, then a universal assumption that it is about to change makes the task harder. Put even more simply: Synods discern, in the light of faith, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; extra-Synodal political campaigning detracts from, even destroys, this process.

We need to remember too that the question of the readmission of the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion is not as simple as it looks. The question has moved on a great deal since the 1960’s, when it first became acute. Once the typical case was of a Catholic who married in Church, then got divorced, then entered a second irregular union, that is, got married in a registry office. Nowadays, at least in England, any form of generalisation is difficult. Many baptised Catholics have never been canonically married, though they may have entered into several de facto unions. In other words, they may have been married in a registry office, or on a beach in the Caribbean, or in some non-Catholic Church, or they may have lived together, but they have never been canonically married. Thus, when they split up from their partners, they are not bound by this first union, and are free to marry in a Catholic Church.

Everyone can check my assertion by a simple recourse to the book of baptisms kept in their parish church. Page after page, you will see blank spaces for where the marriage entry should go; yet these are people who by and large have married – only not canonically. Many such couples do go to Church and may be faithful Mass-goers; they present a dilemma for their pastors. Should he persuade them to get married canonically? If they seem happily joined, why not? But what about those couples who are on the point of splitting up? To join them together canonically in an indissoluble union would be ill-advised.

The Church has always been opposed to the idea of two-tier marriage, but that is effectively what we have ended up with. So the question of the admission of the canonically married, civilly divorced and civilly remarried couples has to be considered alongside those who are only civilly married (for whatever reason) and those who have no formal marriage at all.

My position as a moral theologian has always been that this is something for canon lawyers to work out; but I strongly favour the retention of our present position: that only the canonically married be admitted to Holy Communion, and the only way to set aside a canonical marriage is via annulment. And this creates another challenge, namely that the annulment procedure must be made more efficient, and above all quicker and more transparent, and that dioceses that do not have tribunals should set them up at once. Amazingly, if you live in some parts of the world, you cannot get an annulment simply because your local diocese has no marriage tribunal.

Finally, the question of the admission of the non-canonically married to Holy Communion has to take into account countries where polygamy is widespread. It would be a shame if, after so many years of campaigning against polygamy, we were seen to be giving polygamists a pass. That would be the wrong message. And in our own country too, where marriage has almost ceased to exist, now is not the time to abandon defending it.