On Tuesday, a Vatican press conference revealed a new book by Italian cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, claiming that the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (AL) endorses reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried. Given his high placement in the Roman curia, some are hailing it as a near-official interpretation.
Just weeks ago, meanwhile, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith re-affirmed the Church’s teaching, that the only way for such persons to return to Communion is for them to live “as brother and sister"; that is, practice sexual continence.
In my observation, proponents of the new view—which some call the Kasper Solution (KS) after its early champion Cardinal Walter Kasper—tend not to offer just one decisive argument for their position. Rather, they offer different points at different times, perhaps hoping that taken together their weight will be convincing. Yet each argument goes only as far as its own evidence and logic will take it. Let’s look at seven of these arguments.
1. Couples will “repent of the failure of their first marriage"
When couples discern their part in the sins and faults that caused their first marriage to fail, they can repent of those things and thus prepare themselves to return to the Sacrament.
Divorced persons probably did commit sins that contributed to the souring of their marriage, and they need to be healed spiritually and emotionally. Nonetheless, past sins and marriage-killing vices are not what ordinarily keep the divorced and remarried from worthily receiving Communion: rather it’s the chronic commission of adultery by having sexual relations with someone other than your spouse.
This focus on the “sin" of divorce rather than on adultery is a red herring.
2. A priest will help couples decide whether they can return to Communion
Before deciding whether to receive Communion, divorced and remarried persons will be “accompanied" by a pastor in a process of discernment. This ensures that they remain objective, and also ensures that Church teaching is presented to them in a human way that recognizes the gray between black and white.
First, although pastoral guidance may be intended to provide objectivity, it really just replaces the couple’s subjective judgment with the priest’s (or combines them). Couples in identical circumstances will be led to differing conclusions—all depending on who the priest is and where he’s coming from.
Second, this approach puts an impossible burden on priests, who are scarcer and more overworked every year. Apart from the extra effort, could you imagine the fallout on the poor pastor who says “yes" to one couple but “no" to another? He won’t have one clear directive from the Church to refer to, and must instead ultimately make a personal judgment of the couple’s spiritual fitness.
3. It’s for the good of the children
Couples in irregular situations often have children to care for, and separation would hurt them. Furthermore, Amoris Laetitia reminds us that “the good of the children suffers" when parents are not intimate with each other.
I (and others) have written about AL’s footnote 329 before, how it performs a verbal sleight-of-hand with a bad translation from Gaudium et Spes. In fact, nowhere does the Church teach that children suffer when their parents are chaste. It’s disappointing that some KS proponents, like the Maltese bishops, continue to propagate this argument.
As for children, nothing in Catholic teaching compels divorced and remarried couples to abandon their obligations to love, educate, and provide for them. They may continue care for their kids without continuing to engage in adulterous intercourse with one another. Unless…
4. Abstinence is just too hard
Living continently is an “ideal," but one that may be practically impossible for couples. Worse, it might lead to worse sins like infidelity or abandonment.
It takes some mental gymnastics to say that chastity may be so hard or damaging for couples in irregular marriages that it can be dispensed as a matter of pastoral prudence, but not say the same to single people, engaged couples, the widowed, avowed celibates, and so on. Isn’t continence hard for them, too? The argument is incoherent.
This notion that we could permit one kind of infidelity in order to prevent another is consequentialism. Catholic morality doesn’t allow consequentialism in other scenarios, so why here? We may never intentionally do evil, even so that good may come of it.
Worst of all, this argument limits the power of grace to work within our nature and dispose us to the good. With God’s help no commandment is too burdensome.
5. Most marriages are invalid anyway
Because there’s so much mental and emotional immaturity out there, and because so few people truly understand what Christian marriage is all about, invalid unions abound. So, chances are that people in irregular unions aren’t even committing adultery anyway.
Surely it’s not true that most marriages are invalid. Man has an innate capacity to marry. We don’t require a mystical understanding of every nuance of the theology of matrimony in order to form a valid union; we just need to be free to marry and able to give consent, and have an accurate sense of what we’re consenting to.
But even if it were true at most unions were actually invalid, it wouldn’t help us make a judgment in any given case. Fortunately, though, Church tribunals have a thorough and professional process for judging the validity of marriages. If a tribunal rules in favor of validity, that decision is enough to bind the conscience, regardless of whether other Catholic marriages in the world are valid or not.
6. There are hard cases
Some couples are so interdependent that separation or even chastity would harm their mental health. Then there are some women whose husbands pressure or force them into sex. How can you refuse them the Eucharist?
There’s a reason why they say “hard cases make bad law." Those in hard situations deserve our sympathy and the fullest-permissible extent of our help, but their cases should not be used to form principles, especially when they appeal to the emotions at the expense of reason. And of course, there’s no reason why continence should prevent people from giving each other mental and emotional support.
As we’ve seen, there is no reason why couples in irregular unions can’t continue to love and support one another and their children, in all the ways necessary to serve the emotional and material needs arising from their difficult circumstances, just because they cease having intercourse with one another.
As for women pressured or forced into sex against their will, let me suggest that this is the greater pastoral problem! The Church should help women out of such abusive situations, or help couples remedy them, rather than making those situations normative.
7. Ignorance means they’re not guilty
In order to be guilty of a mortal sin, one must perform a gravely immoral act with sufficient knowledge and consent of the will. Many who are divorced and remarried lack sufficient knowledge about the “inherent values" (AL 301) of their actions. Therefore, even though adultery is grave matter, people in this circumstance are not culpable for the act and thus it doesn’t bar them from receiving Communion.
This argument sets the bar too high for “knowledge." It’s not necessary to have a saint’s understanding of why something is sinful in order to be culpable for doing it. “Do not commit adultery" is not a tricky teaching: it’s both the sixth commandment and a natural moral precept written on our hearts. Even godless people usually expect fidelity from their spouse or partner.
Before their wedding, most Catholic couples are taught the basic goods of marriage: unity, indissolubility, fidelity, and procreation. Then they assent to those goods when they make their vows. If they grasped the concepts sufficiently to give consent at the wedding, they know that sexual relations with someone who isn’t their spouse is a grave sin. (If they didn’t grasp them, then they’re likely candidates for an annulment and we’re not having this conversation.)
For there to be no culpability, Catholic moral tradition requires invincible ignorance of the moral object. This is ignorance that the person could not have reasonably overcome, either through seeking knowledge or by opening his mind and heart to what the lawgiver (Christ through his Church) is trying to say to him. We can’t simply plug our ears and then do whatever we like. Similarly, the willful refusal to accept Catholic teaching is not the same as ignorance of it.
Even in a hypothetical case of true invincible ignorance, the Church would be called to perform the first spiritual work of mercy: “instruct the ignorant." Some versions of the KS suggest that couples may preserve their inculpability-through-ignorance for an indefinite time.* There is no further call for them to strive to reconcile their lives with the fullness of Catholic teaching (by separating, living in continence, or regularizing their union) or directive for pastors to help them see, even gradually, that their consciences are deficient. This contradicts the very heart of the gospel.
*Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s version insists on the couple having the “desire to change" but allows them to judge that they are simply incapable of change. This seems to deny human moral freedom as well as human psychology.