Holy Communion for divorcees is again on the agenda: as the Synod approaches, the Pope Emeritus has quietly spoken again

Pope Benedict has quietly spoken (PA)

I begin with the “working instrument” (which in Vaticanese means “preparatory document”) for the October session of the synod of bishops on the family. This, says Sandro Magister, “is showing itself to be ever more disappointing for the champions of change”.

The document reproduces in its entirety the final report of the synod of October 2014, which itself marked a clear retreat from the pretentiously entitled “Relatio post disceptationem” which was, you will remember, published halfway through the synod, and which as Magister says was “the result of a sneak attack by the innovators immediately repudiated by most of the synod fathers”.

It’s clear that no repetition of the sneak attack is going to be allowed, and that Cardinal Kasper (widely supposed at the time to be a ‘mentor’ to Pope Francis) is not going to be allowed once more to call the shots on this. Perhaps Cardinal Kasper’s most insolent stroke had been to quote the words of one Joseph Ratzinger (implying that he had Pope Benedict’s support) in support of his arguments in favour of giving Holy communion to the civilly divorced and remarried.

What happened was this. Long ago, in 1972, writing as a priest of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, Joseph Ratzinger published an essay which argued for access, under certain limited conditions, to Communion for the divorced and remarried. While affirming the indissolubility of marriage, Ratzinger and other authors appealed to certain passages in the Church Fathers that seem to allow leniency “IN EMERGENCY SITUATIONS”.

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising; in that capacity he participated in the 1980 Synod on the Family, where he stated that “it will be up to the synod to show the correct approach to pastors” in the matter of Communion for the divorced and remarried.

The concluding document of that synod, Familiaris consortio (1981), found that “reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’”

Days after that document was issued, Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

Then, in 1991, a canon lawyer, Fr Theodore Davey, suggested that Confession and spiritual direction could open up the way for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, and cited Ratzinger’s 1972 essay in support of his position. Cardinal Ratzinger quickly retracted the “suggestions” of his 1972 essay as no longer tenable, because he made them “as a theologian in 1972”.

Finally, Pope Benedict amended the text of his 1972 essay; The new version excluded the crucial final paragraphs quoted by Cardinal Kasper. This was seen as a repudiation by Benedict of Kasper, who had been liberally quoting the essay to justify his calls for a more liberal church teaching on remarriage.”

Now, Archbishop Georg Gänswein has given an interview,in which he gives “his views” on the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. They are of course, identical with those of Pope Benedict, for whom he has been working since 1996. In 2012, he was appointed Prefect of the Papal Household and, with the new Pontificate, Pope Francis confirmed him in that post. Hence, Archbishop Gänswein is the only person in the history of the Church who has served two Popes contemporaneously. He lives with Pope Benedict: he concelebrates with him in the morning, they pray the rosary together, and walk together for about a half hour in the Vatican Gardens. Thus, when he speaks, he is universally understood to be reflecting the views of Benedict XVI.

This is part of what he said in his interview, about the “challenge” of “Christians who are in a marital situation theologically called ‘irregular’… persons who have divorced and remarried civilly”:

“We must help them, certainly, but not in a reductive way. It’s important to get close to them, to create contact and maintain it because they are members of the Church as everyone else, they are not expelled and even less so excommunicated. They are supported, but there are problems in regard to the sacramental life…. The question of access to the sacramental life must be addressed sincerely on the basis of Catholic teaching …. twenty years ago, after a long and laborious negotiation, John Paul II didn’t accept that remarried Christians could accede to the Eucharist. Now, we can’t ignore his teaching and change things.”

Pope Benedict’s teachings, underlining those of Pope John Paul, were summed up by him in Sacramentum caritatis, the concluding document of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, in which he stressed the Church’s continuing pastoral role towards the civilly divorced and remarried “where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church’s established and approved practice in this regard.”

Now, says Archbishop Gänswein, “Clearly the Church doesn’t close her eyes in face of the difficulties of [the] faithful living in difficult situations. However, the Church must give sincere answers that are oriented, not to the spirit of the times, but to the Gospel, to the Word of Jesus Christ and to the Catholic Tradition.”

Pope Benedict, I think we can assume, has quietly spoken once more; and his influence continues. Cardinal Kasper, I predict, will not speak on this subject again: if he does, he will be generally repudiated. Except, perhaps, in Germany; but that is another problem.