Every time someone tries to defend communion for the divorced and remarried, the reform they are proposing sounds more and more like heresy. John F. Crosby’s response to me is no exception. To the question of how the reform could possibly be compatible with Catholic teaching, Crosby replies with a story of doubtful relevance (or accuracy). As for my argument that, in practice, it would undo the Church’s sacramental discipline, his response confirms it.
Crosby claims that opening communion to some remarried Catholics would be no great disruption, because “the discipline of the Church” has already undergone a “huge change” courtesy of St. John Paul II: “In his 1983 reform of the Canon Law of the Church, he lifted the excommunication that had for centuries been automatically imposed on persons who remarry without having their first marriage annulled.” The same story has been told by Crosby’s colleague Rocco Buttiglione. It happens to be inaccurate: The Pope who lifted the excommunication was Paul VI, in November 1977. And the excommunication only dated from 1884, when it was enacted in one country, the United States—hardly a “discipline of the Church” that had existed “for centuries.”
But never mind the details—the story is irrelevant anyway. The Church’s communion discipline, unlike its laws on excommunication, has been taught as an unchangeable practice (John Paul II, 1981), as founded on Scripture (Benedict XVI, 2007), and as a “constant and universal … teaching” which “cannot be modified because of different situations” (CDF, 1994). These statements do no more than confirm a doctrine that has been consistent since the Early Church. Crosby does not once allude to this body of teaching.
Crosby’s second point, too, keeps Catholic doctrine at arm’s length. The distinction he invokes—between committing a grave sin and being in a condition of mortal sin—is familiar. (The same last-ditch defence has been suggested by Jeff Mirus and Fr Paul Keller.) But does it apply to communion for the remarried?
The answer, according to theologians who have studied the topic, is no. Josef Seifert says the claim is based on “a logical fallacy.” True, one needs to have “full knowledge” of a sin for it to be mortal. But Catholics believe that the moral law is written in everyone’s heart. “Therefore,” Seifert writes, “we cannot assume an inculpable ignorance of the evil of murder or adultery.”
Perhaps someone might still lack “full consent” (the other condition)? The theologian Brian Harrison has offered an exhaustive treatment of this question. He concludes that, according to the definitions of orthodox Catholic theologians from St. Thomas Aquinas onwards, they cannot. Adults who commit themselves to a long-term sinful situation are consenting to it—however difficult their circumstances.
Seifert and Harrison may be wrong, but their criticisms require an answer of equal theological rigor. And even if one could be provided, there would still be the question of how this reform would work in practice. I have already made this objection to Rocco Buttiglione’s scheme; Crosby’s is even more impractical.
Crosby gives two examples of people who are “in a sinful condition without being exactly … mortal sinner[s],” who could “perhaps” take communion: Dostoevsky’s Sonia, who works as a prostitute to help her impoverished family; and a Catholic divorcee who rediscovers her faith while in a new long-term relationship. The divorcee’s partner says he’ll leave, and take the kids, unless she carries on having sex with him. The next sentence deserves a paragraph of its own:
“Is she perhaps as different from a common adulteress as Sonia is from a common prostitute?”
This question isn’t just dehumanizing; it reveals why Crosby’s reform would never work. Under current practice, priests are guided by two principles. The first is that, before taking communion, one must confess grave sin with a firm purpose of amendment. The second is that everyone, whoever they are, should be offered love and mercy and friendship and solidarity. They should be offered the beautiful teaching of the Church—that, no matter how much of a mess you are in, with God’s grace you can always get out of it. But if Crosby’s reform were enacted, priests would have to judge the souls of their flock. The remarried would be divided into those whose lives have a Dostoevskian tragic resonance, and those who are merely “common adulteresses.”
Anna can receive communion, because her partner will take the kids away if she stops having sex with him. (Dostoevskian; merely sinful condition.) But Barbara can’t receive communion, because her partner would leave, but he wouldn't take the kids. (Common adulteress; mortal sinner.) Chris can receive communion, because he thinks that if he stopped having sex with his partner their relationship would go downhill. (Dostoevskian; merely sinful condition.) But David is barred from communion, because their relationship would probably be OK. (Common adulterer; mortal sinner.)
This cruel charade would collapse before it began, which in turn would lead to what is already happening in some places: the abandonment of the Church’s discipline.
If you introduce an absurdity into a train of reasoning, you will often end up with great evils. Pro-choicers say they don’t want abortions to happen; they just believe in a woman’s right to choose. Because that “right” is incoherent, pro-choicers end up justifying mass slaughter. Defenders of communion for the remarried say they don’t want an “anything goes” situation; they just don’t think everyone is a common adulteress. Because the distinction of “common” and “uncommon” is incoherent, they will end up justifying the mass desecration of the Eucharist.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of The Catholic Herald.