Benedict XVI once spoke about the two versions of the Second Vatican Council. There was the “Council of the Fathers” – what Vatican II’s documents taught; but there was also the “Council of the media”, Vatican II as distorted by us journalists.
The events of the last week call for an update of Benedict’s distinction. In the teaching of the Church, the remarried cannot take communion without a firm resolve to live “as brother and sister”. But in the teaching of the media – parts of it, anyway – this doctrine can be switched on and off.
Last week, Catholic news was dominated by some guidelines authored by the Buenos Aires bishops. These guidelines said that the remarried could receive communion, as long as “in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability”. (Whether there are any remarried people who do not face such “limitations”, the document did not discuss.)
What made it newsworthy was that the Pope wrote them a short letter saying that he admired the guidelines. Robert Royal and Ross Douthat have interesting things to say about the strangeness of the Pope’s letter; also strange was the way in which it was reported.
The Church has consistently taught since its first centuries that a remarried person can’t receive Communion if they’re still having sex with their new partner. John Paul II restated this doctrine in Familiaris Consortio, describing it as a teaching, not of his own, but of God’s Church and God’s Bible. In Reconciliatio et paenitentia, he said the Church “can only” follow this practice.
In the CDF’s 1994 Letter to Bishops, publicly approved by John Paul and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, the practice is referred to as “doctrine” three times; it adds that a change in discipline would be “impossible”, that this is a “constant and universal practice”, which is “binding” and “cannot be modified because of different situations”. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI affirmed this practice as “based on Sacred Scripture” – that is, God gave it to us.
This is a teaching of formidable authority. The idea that a Pope could snap his fingers and overturn it – in a private letter which does not even mention the words “communion” or “remarried” – is a fantasy.
But the fantasy has been solemnly reported as fact. The Irish Catholic leads its latest issue with a story headlined: “Divorced/remarried Catholics can now receive Communion.”
That headline has already earned a deserved backlash on social media. Less alarming, but not by much, are a number of news sources, including Catholic ones, which report the Buenos Aires guidelines without even mentioning what the Church actually teaches.
It makes me uncomfortable to bash fellow-journalists. But there are momentous questions involved here: whether confession of grave sin is necessary, or optional; whether we should fear the desecration of the Eucharist; whether the Church’s universal practice matters; whether the breaking of a sacramental marriage is a tragedy or a hiccup.
The Church cannot change its teaching on communion for the remarried, not only because of the authority of popes and councils, but because nobody has made a decent case against it. If someone gets sacramentally married, and then has sex with someone other than their spouse, they are breaking a covenant with God which can only be healed by a resolution to amend their life.
Some have tried to find a last-ditch justification, by suggesting that the Catholic teaching and practice of the last two millennia has overlooked a theological nuance. A gravely sinful act, they point out, is only a mortal sin if accompanied by full knowledge and full consent. Well, if you live by theological nuance you die by theological nuance, and experts such as Dr Josef Seifert and Fr Brian Harrison have given powerful reasons to think this point is irrelevant. The Catholic tradition, says Seifert, has never attributed “a lack of knowledge” to people breaking fundamental precepts of the moral law; nor, says Fr Harrison, has it attributed “a lack of consent” to adults who consciously choose a sinful course of action over a period of time.
Even if these distinguished theologians are mistaken, the last-ditch justification still fails. As I have outlined elsewhere, if actually applied, it would lead to a ludicrous situation in which priests were required to judge if their parishioners’ souls were spiritually dead before each Holy Communion. In other words – since no priest would want to apply such an examination – it would lead to the abandonment of Church discipline.
So this can hardly be seen as an outdated doctrine which nobody bothers with any more. Bishops are happy to put it into practice; the laity have raised their voices to defend it. It shouldn’t be too much for the media, now and again, to mention it.