A lot of what the document has to say is welcome and not very controversial. I am pleased that there is some emphasis on economic factors, which, in many countries, both rich and poor, make family life very difficult. But what most people will home in on are the three ‘controversial’ paragraphs, numbers 52, 53 and 55, which failed to get the two thirds approval. These are the paragraphs dealing with those in second unions, and persons of homosexual orientation. What will really trouble many, and it certainly troubles me, is this:
Others expressed a more individualised approach, permitting access [to Holy Communion] in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions, primarily in irreversible situations and those involving moral obligations towards children who would have to endure unjust suffering. Access to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice, determined by the diocesan bishop.
This strikes me as wrong: wrong to admit someone in an irregular union to Holy Communion in the first place, and wrong too from a practical point of view. For it speaks not of admitting all those in second unions to Holy Communion, but only some, which means that someone must decide who is to be admitted and who refused. This will mean no less than setting up a ‘process’ (as canonists call it) to determine the just outcome. That will mean another layer of administration, another layer of canonical procedure in addition to our already in place annulment processes. Such a process will have to be transparent and fair, and perceived as such, which I can foresee would be a major challenge. In short, I think this is unworkable.
The Anglicans have already gone down this route, allowing second weddings in church to some and not to all, but this has, despite safeguards and ‘well-defined conditions’, effectively led to second weddings being allowed to all, provided the local vicar is willing to officiate. Some will, some won’t. Some churches do second weddings, others will just do blessings of weddings that have been celebrated in a register office. It is a pretty confusing and incoherent situation, and it can put a great deal of pressure on individual vicars. God forbid that the Synod fathers should wish this on us.
But some of the Synod fathers, reading between the lines, seem aware of this. This short paragraph is instructive:
54. The problems relative to mixed marriages were frequently raised in the interventions of the synod fathers. The differences in the matrimonial regulations of the Orthodox Churches creates serious problems in some cases, which require due consideration in the work of ecumenism. Analogously, the contribution of the dialogue with other religions would be important for interreligious marriages.
The Orthodox Churches effectively allow divorce, and up to two remarriages in Church. Their understanding of marriage is therefore different to ours and creates problems when a Catholic marries an Orthodox. Well, we knew that, but this paragraph seems to be hinting at something further: the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have parted company in their understanding of marriage, and this introduces a difficulty in ecumenical dialogue, analogous to the difficulty that Catholics have with Anglicans in talking about ministry ever since the ordination of women.
We both speak of ‘ministry’, but we mean different things by the same word. If we were to introduce change to the Catholic Church’s discipline on marriage and the sacraments, then we risk doing the same with the word ‘marriage’. At present Catholics and Anglicans both believe in indissolubility (unlike the Orthodox, if I read their theology correctly). Despite challenges, the Anglicans have held onto indissolubility; we too need to do the same and not abandon the common hymn sheet from which we both sing.
That is a very important consideration to my mind. On a practical level, the idea of the admission of some not all to Holy Communion after a second union, and the pressure to celebrate second unions in church which would accompany it, would place an intolerable burden, both administratively and in conscience, on the clergy at parish level. At present, when people come to me, with a difficult situation, I am able to explain the Church’s teaching, and they accept it, for it is clear and authoritative.
For these two reasons, the Synod next year needs to stick to the current teaching, which is fully in continuity with Scripture and Tradition, and resist harmful innovation.
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