The conflict over Communion is really about the cheapening of God’s grace

A Mass offered for the late Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, at a funeral home in Shanghai in 2014 (Getty)

Nearly thirty years ago, as an Evangelical Protestant attending Bible college, I read some striking passages from a book by a German theologian. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares,” the author declared. “The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost!”

This, he stated emphatically, is cheap grace. And cheap grace is “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Powerful words. Challenging words.

The writer was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the book was The Cost of Discipleship, written in 1937 and hailed by many Christians as a modern classic. I wonder: what might Bonhoeffer think of the escalating tensions in the Catholic Church over the matter of Communion for divorced-and-“remarried” Catholics? Bonhoeffer, of course, was Lutheran; he disagreed with the Catholic Church on key points. But he also died for his Christian faith, executed by the Nazis in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before American troops liberated the camp. His witness also remains powerful and challenging.

The Maltese bishops – that is, Catholic bishops – in their “Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia, released in early January, wrote of “conditioning restraints,” “attenuating circumstances,” and “complex situations” before concluding that for some couples in “irregular situations” the “choice of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ becomes humanly impossible…” Not only might it be “impossible”, it might also “give rise to greater harm” – a reference to footnote 329 of Pope Francis’s exhortation. (The footnote misuses a passage from Gaudium et Spes on sacramental marriage by misapplying it to “irregular” situations.)

Archbishop Scicluna of Malta, interviewed about the “Criteria”, said that neither Francis or the Maltese bishops were offering “discounts from the Gospel of love and marriage” or a form of cheap grace. No, he insisted, such laxity is a scandal “because you are cheapening grace and also being a stumbling-block to who is making an effort to be faithful…” Having said so, he added, “But then there is, too, the scandal of who is either black or white. The world is far more complicated than this.”

Is it? At what point, exactly, did modern life become so complicated and complex that grace – which, according to the Catechism, is “a participation in the life of God” and which “introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life” – cannot overcome particular weaknesses, passions, and sins? It is one thing to recognise the various factors – including full knowledge and deliberate consent – involved in mortal sin, but quite another to indicate that deciding to remain in an objectively adulterous relationship might be necessary, as though such an act won’t destroy the life of grace. As John Paul II noted in his 1984 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on penance and reconciliation, when “a person knowingly and willingly, for whatever reason, chooses something gravely disordered … such a choice already includes contempt for the divine law, a rejection of God’s love for humanity and the whole of creation; the person turns away from God and loses charity”.

This is, I think, exactly what Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, emphasised in a recent interview: “it cannot be said that there are circumstances in which an act of adultery does not constitute a mortal sin. For Catholic doctrine, coexistence between mortal sin and sanctifying grace is impossible.” Put another way (and using the language employed by the Maltese bishops) it is impossible to have “an informed and enlightened conscience” and continue to live in adultery, no matter how “at peace with God” one might feel, for no one, the Catechism asserts, “is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man”.

My wife and I entered the Church 20 years ago, and did so for many reasons involving history, authority, theology, and culture. The two central reasons, however, were our conviction that the Eucharist really is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ and, secondly, that the fullness of our vocation as Christians could only be found in the communion of the Catholic Church. That vocation, we recognised, consists of a transformative call to be “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and “children of God” (1 John 3:1).

We began to see that, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the Second Person of the Trinity did not become man just to remove sins, but also “so that he, made man, might make men gods” (Catechism 460). That is a startling statement, but it is an ancient and venerable part of Catholic belief, emphasising how those who are baptised become, by grace, the true children of God, called and commanded to pursue lives of holiness, sacrifice, and love.

How many Catholics really understand this call? The conflict over reception of Holy Communion, I think, is closely connected to confusion about this radical, unique belief of the Church. Unfortunately, it has become commonplace to hear it said that “we are all children of God,” as if fallen humanity does not need the Incarnation and the Resurrection in order to be cleansed, infused, and divinised by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a 2012 audience, Benedict XVI explained that, yes, “God is our Father because he is our Creator”, but added, “Nonetheless this is still not enough”. He went on:

Becoming a human being like us, with his Incarnation, death and Resurrection, Jesus in his turn accepts us in his humanity and even in his being Son, so that we too may enter into his specific belonging to God. Of course, our being children of God does not have the fullness of Jesus. We must increasingly become so throughout the journey of our Christian existence, developing in the following of Christ and in communion with him so as to enter ever more intimately into the relationship of love with God the Father which sustains our life.

We must increasingly become so. To hear some Catholics, you might think the essence of the Faith is romantic love, sexual satisfaction, and temporal happiness. For many, it seems, the horizon has been flattened, the supernatural has been euthanised, and the ultimate goal has been forgotten. In the process, grace has been cheapened. Many Catholics, I think it safe to say, believe that “love” and “commandments” are in opposition, even though the Apostle John declares otherwise: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome… All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them.” (1 John 5:3; 3:24).

The Council of Trent anathematised the view “that the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for one that is justified.” The rich young man could not let go of what he loved, and he went away sorrowful. “With men this is impossible,” Jesus told the disciples after the man departed, “but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

In other words, God mercifully and lovingly provides the necessary strength to those in a state of grace. (And if we are not in a state of grace – that is, in communion with God – then we mustn’t partake of Holy Communion, which is the definitive sign and act of such communion.) The Apostle Paul, who was no stranger to complicated pastoral and cultural situations – involving incest, fornication, idolatry, homosexuality, and much more – addressed matters with typical incisiveness in exhorting the first Christians in Rome:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? … What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
(Romans 6:1-2, 15)

Costly grace, wrote Bonhoeffer, “is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

Grace is divine life; it is supernatural love; it is heaven on earth. “Costly grace,” said the Lutheran pastor and martyr, “is the Incarnation of God.” Surely we, as Catholics, can both count the cost and embrace our supernatural calling.