I’m at that time of life—mid-to-late twenties—when friends and acquaintances start to make lifelong commitments. And I have seen, so often, the joy and peace that Catholic teaching on marriage can bring. Like marriage itself, that teaching liberates us by binding us. The teaching is unalterable, and so we are limited in how much we can reform the Church’s discipline. To me, as to many others who know more about it than I do, it seems impossible for the Church to change its discipline on communion for the divorced and remarried.
So I was taken aback to find an article in the Vatican newspaper, written by the politician Rocco Buttiglione, claiming that the Pope’s recent apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia espouses just such a change.
It’s painful to disagree with a fellow Catholic, especially one who has served the Church as courageously as Buttiglione has. But his argument—on such a momentous subject—should set every alarm bell ringing. It advocates a pastoral strategy that would lead, necessarily and immediately, to mistrust and despair or to pastoral breakdown. It accidentally replaces a Catholic understanding of morality with an Anglican one. And, while attempting to reconcile the words of Pope Francis with those of Pope St. John Paul II, it manages to misrepresent both.
In Amoris Laetitia, Buttiglione claims, “the Pope says that, in certain conditions and in certain circumstances, some divorced and remarried people may receive the Eucharist.” Buttiglione does not quote even a phrase of Amoris Laetitia in support of this statement—which is natural, because no such phrase exists. He later adduces “305, and the notorious note 351.” But 305 does not mention the Eucharist, and the Pope himself said he could not remember the ambiguous note 351. So Buttiglione has already gone beyond the words of the text.
The article’s failure to quote John Paul II is even more misleading. Buttiglione correctly notes that, in Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul says that the remarried cannot receive communion unless they live as brother and sister. But he argues that John Paul could have dropped this requirement if he had lived longer, because in our “changing historical circumstances,” we “need to develop a new pastoral strategy.” St. John Paul made other pastoral reforms, so he might also have been moved by today’s “attenuating circumstances.”
But this can’t be squared with St. John Paul’s actual words. In Familiaris Consortio he does not say, “To me, this seems a good pastoral practice right now.” He says instead, “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture.” In other words, it’s not up to the pope: The Church and the revealed word of God have already decided. The document’s other uses of “reaffirm” (inculcare) all refer to settled teaching—for instance, on the indissolubility of marriage and on subsidiarity.
St. John Paul does mention a separate pastoral consideration—the avoidance of scandal—but he emphasizes that the overriding reason is timeless and unchanging: The “state and condition” of adultery “objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” A person in this state is “unable”—not “unable unless Church discipline changes,” but “unable,” full stop—to receive communion.
As Cardinal Ratzinger put it in a CDF document on communion for the remarried, “The structure of the Exhortation [Familiaris Consortio] and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations.”
Buttiglione’s neglect of the Church’s tradition is bad enough in itself, but further, it has major consequences—as becomes clear when he lays out his proposed “pastoral strategy.”
Communion discipline, Buttiglione says, should be changed to incorporate the difference between objective and subjective guilt. Here’s his thinking.
You and I may both have left our marriages and begun new ones: We are both objectively guilty of adultery. But let’s say I am extremely well-catechised and refer to my sins with the chilling self-awareness of a character in a Graham Greene novel, while you are perplexed by the Church’s teaching and are currently overburdened with stress at work, which makes it hard to think straight. Maybe I am more subjectively culpable. Maybe, even, I am in mortal sin and you are not.
There’s a strong case that a Catholic can’t commit adultery and not have the full knowledge and full consent necessary for a grave sin to be mortal. But, for the sake of Buttiglione’s argument, let’s say that one can.
Now, as Buttiglione says, the distinction between objective and subjective guilt is pretty standard Catholic moral theology. But that hardly supports his argument for a change. For if Popes John Paul and Benedict, and their predecessors, and theologians down the ages, all knew about this distinction, then presumably they had some reason for not changing the discipline concerning remarriage and communion.
As soon as you start to think about how Buttiglione’s proposal would work, you realize that—even were it not for the authoritative teaching summed up by St. John Paul—they had a very good reason indeed. Buttiglione suggests that whether someone is in mortal sin or not should be decided in the confessional: “Whether he or she is carrying the full subjective responsibility and is at fault remains to be seen. For this reason, he or she should go to confession.” So in confession, a priest should analyse a penitent’s soul to discover whether he or she is in a state of mortal sin or not. Pause over this.
Under current practice, a priest can say to someone in a marriage the Church doesn’t recognize: “I will be your friend, I will accompany you, I will lay down my life for you, to help you in this situation. You can always come to me.” And both know that grave sin has to be confessed with a firm purpose of amendment, or communion is impossible.
On Buttiglione’s scheme, the priest has to judge the state of the penitent’s soul—to decide whether to say, “You’re in a state of mortal sin, you’re deprived of sanctifying grace, if you died at this instant you would be damned, and you can’t take communion”; or “You are committing grave sin, but as you’re a bit all over the place right now, you’re not in a state of mortal sin, nor will you be after your next grave sin. So you can take communion.”
The priest’s judgment would also have to be constantly revised. If a penitent had a particularly successful course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, he might acquire a new inner strength, which would mean that sleeping with his partner became a mortal sin; but the following week, he might be plunged into confusion by reading a liberal theologian, and perhaps after that the sin would become non-mortal again. So he would have to return for regular check-ups.
The priest is elevated into the chair of judgment. And since the ability to read souls has only been granted by God to a small number of canonized saints on specific occasions, the priest faces an impossible task.
Even the attempt would cause mistrust between priest and penitent, resentment between those judged guilty and those judged not-guilty, and despair in the priest. More likely, of course, is that no priest would want to try and judge which of his parishioners’ souls are in mortal sin. The actual result would be what has in fact recently happened in parishes in Milan and Missouri—namely, an abandonment of any version of Church discipline.
The Buttiglionean scheme, then, would be a failure even on its own terms. But there is a more fundamental problem, a crack running through the whole structure. Buttiglione argues that because “the variety of situations and human circumstances is too vast,” you just can’t generalize about communion for the remarried. It is a very reasonable point—quite as reasonable as the Anglican Church’s surrender to contraception in 1930.
The parallels are striking. The Anglican leaders, like Buttiglione, claimed to be keeping their moral standards in place: They issued a “strong condemnation of the use of any methods of conception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience,” and said “complete abstinence” should be the first option.
But like Buttiglione, the Anglican bishops felt that a general rule couldn’t cover the vast variety of human circumstances: There are “occasions when a rigid insistence on the principle is impossible,” the bishops wrote. One had to take account of special cases. And like Buttiglione, they argued that the Catholic tradition could come round to such a view: The Catholic Church, they said, “in practice recognizes this.”
They were disabused of this later that year, when Pius XI issued his beautiful encyclical Casti Connubii. “Every use whatsoever” of contraception, said Pius, is intrinsically wrong.
A few years later, G. K. Chesterton suggested that the dispute summed up a key difference between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. The Catholics recognized that, in matters of sexual morality, to make exceptions, even for “very extreme and extraordinary cases,” would lead to anarchy. With contraception, Chesterton predicted, a “way out” had been proposed “in the hope that some people will only use it to a moderate extent; whereas it is much more probable that an indefinite number will use it to an indefinite extent.”
He was right. The Church of England went from a stern position on contraception, to a stern position that refused to generalise about the vast variety of situations, to having nothing to say about the morality of contraception. In the same way, Buttiglione's scheme, which already contradicts Church teaching, would wreck communion discipline into the bargain.
Admittedly, the parallel is limited. Our Lord promised to preserve the Church from error. But it’s still possible for Catholic practice to collapse, for many individual Catholics to be led astray.
I discovered confession and the Eucharist at the same time, a few years ago. Before then, I had only ever known the expression “tears of joy” as a turn of phrase. The sacraments are a gift beyond value. They do not require us to tinker with them, removing a screw here and adding an extension there. We’re the ones who need fixing.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.