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Cardinal: Divorced, remarried Catholics need support for conversion, not changes on communion

Banner the eucharist is distributed during mass with pope francis in romes campo verano cemetery for all saints day on nov 1 2013 credit lauren cater cna cna 11 1 13

The Eucharist is distributed during Mass with Pope Francis in Rome's Campo Verano cemetery for All Saints Day on Nov. 1, 2013. Credit: Lauren Cater/CNA.

Catholics who have divorced and remarried need help for the “difficult climb” of conversion and spiritual growth, not a change in Church practice on the reception of Holy Communion, a prominent cardinal said. Cardinal Ennio Antonelli summarized the advice of Pope John Paul II, who encouraged pastors “not to lower the mountain, but instead help believers to climb it by leading the way.” “For their part, the faithful should not stop trying to reach the summit; they must sincerely seek both what is good and the will of God. Only with this fundamental attitude is it possible to develop a positive path of conversion and growth, even though individual steps may be short and sometimes even deviant,” explained the cardinal, who is president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Cardinal Antonelli’s new 17-page booklet, “The Marriage Crisis and the Eucharist,” reflects on Christian marriage and critiques proposals to change Catholic practice in order to allow those who have divorced and remarried to receive Holy Communion. “A major pastoral shift is strongly advocated by the media, the public and even many Catholics, including laity and clergy, largely expect this too,” the cardinal said. The proposals, commonly associated with German Cardinal Walter Kasper, have been repeated for decades. They have again come to prominence ahead of the Synod on the Family, to be held at the Vatican this October. Cardinal Antonelli countered these proposals, saying: “In the Catholic Church, the pastoral practice must be consistent with the doctrine of the faith.” The indissolubility of Christian marriage is “a firmly established doctrine,” he stressed, and a consummated sacramental marriage is indissoluble “by virtue of Christ’s will.” Without penitence and sexual continence, he explained, the divorced and remarried “cannot be allowed to receive Holy Communion.” New unions of separated spouses are illicit and constitute “a persistent grave moral disorder.” These unions create a situation that “objectively contradicts the nuptial covenant between Christ and the Church, as signified and effected by the Eucharist.” While the cardinal reiterated Catholic teaching, he acknowledged “widespread dissatisfaction” with this position among many people. Many couples perceive it as rejection and “total exclusion from the Church.” They are “tempted to leave the Church community and to lose faith.” The cardinal stressed the need to help people in this situation through personal companionship and helping them participate in the life of the Church as much as possible. He emphasized that exclusion from Holy Communion does not mean exclusion from the Church. Rather, people in irregular unions continue to be Church members. He said “other believers and pastors must welcome them with love, respect and care.” At the same time, he stressed that Catholic practice is consistent and based in Scripture and the tradition of the Church. The indissolubility of marriage is the “cornerstone” of these pastoral questions, he said, based on teaching is rooted in the words of Jesus Christ himself. Cardinal Antonelli cited several biblical passages, including “What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9) and “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12). Jesus’ own words about adultery “must have seemed outrageous to many devout Israelites,” the cardinal said. “It is easy to understand that the teaching of the Gospel has encountered and continues to meet with considerable difficulties.” Cardinal Antonelli cited the teachings of the Popes as well as the teachings of the Church Fathers and the ecumenical councils, such as the discussion of marriage in the Second Vatican Council document “Gaudium et Spes.”   More recent Church teachings on the subject include Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” and his 1984 exhortation “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia.” In a Jan. 21, 2000 address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, John Paul II said that a “ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved even by the intervention of the Pope.” That address said Catholic teaching on marriage is confirmed by “the Church’s centuries-old practice, maintained with full fidelity and heroism, sometimes even in the face of severe pressures from the mighty of this world.” Pope Benedict XVI confirmed Familiaris Consortio in his 2007 apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis. Cardinal Antonelli said any change in Catholic practice would risk compromising the credibility of consistent papal teaching and the authority of the Catholic bishops. He warned of the risk of “trivializing the Eucharist” and reducing it to “a rite of socialization.” Proposed changes would indicate approval of sexual activity outside marriage, given that unmarried couples are “far more numerous” than the divorced and remarried. Contemporary culture “promotes self-justification, particularly in the emotional and sexual spheres,” when it is often necessary to change one’s life, the cardinal warned. He also noted theologians who advocated recognition of “authentic human values” in irregular unions, such as affection, mutual help, and a shared commitment to children. “However, one must avoid presenting such unions in themselves as imperfect values, since there are serious disorders,” Cardinal Antonelli said. He warned of the danger of presenting evil as “an imperfect good.” Proposed changes would “lead to a separation of mercy and conversion” and would be “the only case of forgiveness without conversion.” Exclusion of the divorced and remarried from Communion is comparable to “other situations of grave objective disorder and public scandal,” he added. “Whoever has a habit of swearing should make serious efforts to correct himself; whoever has committed theft must makes restitution; whoever has harmed his neighbor, whether materially or morally, needs to repair the harm. Without a real commitment towards conversion, there can be no sacramental absolution and admission to the Eucharistic Communion.” Allowing those in irregular unions to receive Holy Communion would create an inconsistency that risks reducing the permanence of marriage to “an ideal, which may be beautiful, but attainable only for a fortunate few,” the cardinal said. Such a change could become generalized to a point where “it will be meaningless to talk about the indissolubility of marriage and the celebration of the sacrament of marriage will lose its practical relevance.” Cardinal Antonelli stressed the power of Christian love, sustained by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This love can “observe the commandments and even go beyond them.” Chastity, though difficult, is possible for all, including the divorced and remarried, he said. For the cardinal, the main pastoral priority for the family and evangelization is the formation of “exemplary Christian families which are able to give concrete witness to the fact that Christian marriage is beautiful and possible to fulfil.” “In order to illuminate and produce heat, the first thing to do is light a fire.”  

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