In his column this week, George Weigel writes that “it cannot be the case that a grave sin in Poland is a source of grace two kilometers across the border in Germany.” The point is that the Church is universal, and ecclesial division ruptures our communion with Christ. There is only one problem with the argument: What is a grave sin in one place can, most certainly, be an occasion of grace in another.
St. Patrick’s Day, the great high feast of Irish-Catholic Americans, falls on a Lenten Friday this year. On such Fridays, Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat. Except where they aren’t. The Lenten regulations are a matter of what canon law calls “merely ecclesiastical law.” Though disobeying these kinds of laws is a grave and serious matter, dispensations from them can usually be granted by local bishops. No dispensation will be granted in the diocese where I live, but in many dioceses it will. If my family feasts on corned beef, cabbage, and Guinness this St. Patrick’s Day, I’ll commit a mortal sin: disobedience to the legitimate exercise of ecclesiastical governance. But for a family in a diocese where a dispensation has been granted, the very same feast could be a real source of grace and communion.
I’m not raising canonical nuance in order to be glib. The norms for abstention on St. Patrick’s Day provide an important insight into the ongoing divide over Amoris Laetitia.
In a new book published by the Vatican’s press, Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio says that admitting Catholics in illicit sexual relationships to Holy Communion is “a gesture of openness and profound mercy on the part of Mother Church.” Similarly, at the press conference to promote Cocccopalmerio’s book, Italian journalist Orazio La Rocca said that it is “petty to deny Communion because the law says so.”
It seems bishops and theologians in the Malta/Germany/Argentina camp view the rules regarding Holy Communion as parallel to laws about abstention from meat. They seem to hold that norms about Eucharistic reception are “merely ecclesiastical laws,” juridical obligations established by the Church, and potentially abrogated by the Church.
Some argue that the entire Church should extend God’s mercy to Catholics in difficult situations by allowing greater openness at the Eucharistic table. For others, the divergent interpretations of Amoris Laetita are a sign of appropriate episcopal leadership, of bishops discerning the needs and circumstances of their flocks and setting the right rules for them. But the premise underlying these perspectives is the same: that judgments about worthiness for Eucharistic communion are within the sphere of the Church’s authority.
Those who reject this interpretation of Amoris Laetitia take their cues from a tradition beginning with Christ’s admonition to the Samaritan woman at the well, and extending all the way to Pope St. John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. In this perspective, the Church is unable to change her teachings regarding the relationship between sin and Holy Communion. That relationship is governed not by “merely ecclesiastical law,” but by the divinely revealed law of God. It is a law enunciated by St. Paul: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”
In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II expresses the idea this way: Catholics in illicit sexual relationships “are unable to be admitted [to Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” The pope doesn’t say that they may not be admitted to Holy Communion, he says that they cannot. It is not a question of whether the Church should grant permission. The Church simply has no authority to do so.
Those who perceive that the Church’s authority is limited also understand that grace has no bounds at all. Grace can redeem all sinners. Grace can set captives free. Grace can strengthen us for the profound difficulty of living according to truth. Grace can make each one of us saints.
What Christ’s Church binds on earth is bound in heaven, what she loosens is eternally loosed. But the Church cannot act contrary to revelation. She cannot upend truth, and call it mercy. She has authority over corned beef and Guinness, but no such authority over the bread of life.
JD Flynn is a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska.