When communion for the remarried was reintroduced into Catholic discussion a few years ago, we were informed that it was a “pastoral” and “merciful” initiative. Those of us who pointed out that the Church had condemned the idea were told not to worry. Doctrine would be untouched, it was said. The question was merely how to apply the unchanged teaching to a diversity of circumstances.
But as the proposal slowly spreads, and as Rome wavers, it is increasingly clear that the abandonment of traditional practice will only create more suffering and confusion. In trying to get round the Church’s teaching, bishops and theologians are inventing a new set of restrictions, whose consequences are harsher than anything that the most rigidly judgmental traditionalist could dream up.
Committing adulterous sex bars one from the sacraments: So Catholics have believed for the last two thousand years. To skirt this doctrine, it has become necessary to distinguish fit adulterers from unfit ones. The fit ones, by various forms of “discernment,” will be encouraged to take communion and also commit adultery. The unfit ones, also by a process of “discernment,” will be barred from communion.
This is the division that runs through the new guidelines from the archdiocese of Braga, Portugal, which lay out a proposed path to the sacraments for divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
The Braga document, like other examples of the genre, buries its spectacularly controversial proposal amid a long list of truisms. Like a teenager trying to slip an awkward request past his parents, it discusses every subject under the sun before saying, “By the way….” It reflects, without any great profundity, on the nature of education (“a process of empowerment”), the stresses of modernity (“family life has never been easy”), and relationships (“love cannot be reduced to mere attraction”). Reading the document, you would not know that the controversy over communion has caused so much confusion and division in the last four years.
The Braga pathway is supposed to take “a few months,” in which individuals will “discern” whether they can receive communion. There will be “regular meetings” with a priest, in order to “distinguish properly each individual case.” The discernment will take several things into account, such as the state of one’s marriage, the condition of one’s children, the impact on the community. The individual will meditate on Scripture, and on Amoris Laetitia. At the end, the discerner is advised to “make a list in two columns of the pros and cons of access to the sacraments.” (But don’t get ahead of yourself: “A pro can equate to many cons or vice versa.”) Having made a decision for or against receiving communion, one double-checks it in prayer. “If the Lord does not show signs contrary to the decision taken, then, with freedom, accept it.”
When this is imported from the land of abstractions to the real world, it becomes obvious that it is a recipe for spiritual distress and desolation. Under the Church’s perennial teaching—so deep-rooted in history, so strongly affirmed in modern times—everyone in such a relationship is treated equally: If they avoid having sex with their new partner, they can receive communion. But if they join the Braga fast-track, they can be one of two kinds of person: Fit or Unfit. After six months, Mr. Fit discerns that he can receive communion. Mr. Unfit discerns the opposite: that God wishes him to abstain.
Why does Mr. Unfit decide this? However many “pros and cons” he has discerned, none of these can quite explain the prohibition. There is no algorithm to show that being 65 percent on friendly terms with one’s estranged spouse, one’s children being 43 percent OK, and the community being 37 percent scandalized, means that one cannot receive communion. There must be some mysterious, decisive factor which means Mr. Unfit is cut off from God. Like an eighteenth-century Evangelical convinced that he is predestined to damnation, Mr. Unfit is trapped in the darkness.
If this is cruel to Mr. Unfit, it is scarcely kind to Mr. Fit. Can he be sure that he is so much closer to God than Mr. Unfit? And what if, after Mr. Fit has been taking communion for a couple of months, he “discerns” that he is unfit? He must wonder whether he is deceived now about the will of God, or whether he was deceived before.
Discernment is common in Catholic life: People discern whether to enter religious life, to accept a new job, to make a New Year’s resolution. But the Braga guidelines apply discernment to something completely novel: whether one is shut out from the relationship with Jesus of which the Eucharist is the source and summit. In a diocese that follows the Church’s perennial teaching, you can confess your sins, resolve to avoid them in future, and get on with your life. In Braga, you are asked to spend months brooding on your own worthiness.
Moreover—and this is hardly an incidental point—the deeper the discernment goes, the more certain it is that adultery will achieve that “full knowledge” and “full consent” which are necessary for a mortal sin that kills the life of grace in the soul.
Throughout the Braga guidelines there is an intellectual vagueness, which gives rise to one absurdity after another. For instance, the document mentions confession, but does not explain how Mr. Fit will act in that sacrament. Since he is not asked to renounce adultery, what is he meant to say when he kneels in the confessional? Should he not mention adultery? Should he conclude his act of contrition with: “by the help of Your grace, I will try not to sin again—with the exception of adultery”? The Braga guidelines point to such bizarre consequences, but cannot be bothered to address them.
This remains one of the great ironies of the present doctrinal crisis: Those who talk most about “pastoral realities” and “people in concrete circumstances” (they have been known to say “concrete people”) are also willing to champion the most unworkable ideas.
How refreshing it is to turn from this spectacle to the teaching that St. John Paul II described as “by virtue of the very authority of the Lord, Shepherd of Shepherds”: that anyone who has strayed from their wedding vows is called to return to chastity, and that a generous God will pour out abundant graces to help them do it.
This God is not mentioned in the Braga guidelines. He might get in the way of all that mercy.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.