In his interview with Commonweal editors Matthew Boudway and Grant Gallicho, Cardinal Walter Kasper speaks eloquently about mercy. He applies it to the question of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive the Eucharist, and the answer he arrives at is yes, under certain conditions. He reprises several arguments from his address to the extraordinary consistory on the family a few months ago at the Vatican. The implications that his arguments have for Catholic moral theology and for sacramental theology may be many, but one of them in particular struck me as I read the interview. It had to do with the sacrament not of matrimony but of the Eucharist.

Kasper notes that Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that divorced and remarried Catholics have recourse to spiritual communion. Following tradition and a practice recommended by saints, I can join my spirit to the body and blood of Christ by lifting up to God my desire for Holy Communion even when I don’t consume a consecrated host. Catholics were probably more inclined to make spiritual communion before the cultural shift initiated a century ago by Pius X, who encouraged a more frequent reception of the Blessed Sacrament. At the time, most of the faithful at Mass still sat out Communion, judging themselves unworthy.

In our time, Benedict XVI has suggested that the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction, where the communicant not only lets go of scruples but neglects to examine his conscience seriously enough to identify any sound reasons he might have to refrain from receiving. If he discovers that he has valid reservations, he should refrain but remember that the gift of spiritual communion is still available to him. Benedict commended it in the context of an effort to balance desire for the sacrament with respect for it.

Spiritual communion is related to sacramental Communion as desire is related to its object. The relationship is close but still a relationship, not the equivalence that Kasper implies. “Spiritual communion is to be one with Christ,” he says. “But if I am one with Christ, I cannot be in a situation of grave sin. So if they [divorced and remarried Catholics] can receive spiritual communion, why not also sacramental Communion?”

The answer is: Because to be one with Christ only in your spirit is different from being one with Christ even in your body. To eat Christ’s flesh, incorporating it into yours (or yours into his, as some see it), involves a physical intimacy through which you participate directly in the Incarnation and anticipate the promised resurrection of your body from the grave. If we’re unclean, we can talk to the risen Lord and he, being kind and merciful, will listen and answer. Being kind and merciful, he might well suffer us also to touch him, but we shouldn’t presume. It would be disrespectful.

To make sense of Kasper’s statement, we may have to assume that he used the term “spiritual communion with Christ” to mean the state of being already properly disposed to receive Christ in sacramental Communion. Matt Boudway tells me that the passage on spiritual communion is opaque perhaps in part because the cardinal spoke in English, which is not his first language. Asked if he wanted to say “communion of desire,” the sense in which Benedict clearly used the term, Kasper said no. Fair enough, except why then did he take as his point of departure Benedict’s comments about communion of desire?

However we read him, Kasper’s logic in those few condensed sentences is hard to unpack. What he says, which may be different from what he means, lends the impression that the requirements for receiving sacramental Communion should be no more demanding than the requirements for receiving spiritual communion. He might want to clarify.

St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 warns against taking the Eucharist unworthily. Kasper and his critics have an honest disagreement over what constitutes unworthiness in the case of divorced and remarried Catholics. His apparent elision of spiritual communion and sacramental Communion may be a minor distraction from his larger argument, but it may also be revealing. Whether he intends to or not, he implies that the real presence can be reduced to a purely spiritual reality and that its value is not unique.

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