June 2014

Where angels fear to tread

One of the significant and pressing pastoral theological issues currently dividing opinion among the hierarchy and among the laity of the Church, is the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, and their access to eucharist, writes Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

Pastoral theology is a tricky undertaking. It is easier, and certainly safer, to discuss theological matters in abstract or academic terms, or as principles to guide action. However, once theology is applied to people, their lives and actions, the task becomes infinitely more difficult.

One of the significant and pressing pastoral theological issues currently dividing opinion among the hierarchy and among the laity of the Church, is the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, and their access to eucharist.

At the heart of this debate are our understandings (theologies) of marriage and eucharist. Pope Francis has called for serious discussion of the matter and it will be an item on the agenda of the Synod on the Family later this year.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has called for pastoral solutions to be developed for the issue, while Cardinal Gerhard Muller, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has indicated that the rules can’t be changed. There may be other starting points as well, with perhaps the laity offering different perspectives, depending on their life circumstances. Let me share a story to illustrate.

A few years ago while studying in London, I noticed that the neighbouring parish was offering a two-day course the following weekend on “Contemporary Issues in the Church”. I enrolled and met the other 18 participants early on the Saturday morning. These 18 people shared something in common: they were all Catholic; all were women; and all had been divorced and remarried.

The course was delivered by Father Graham, recently retired provincial of a major religious order of priests. When Graham asked participants what issues they would like to explore, he was mightily surprised. There was only one issue: divorce, remarriage and access to eucharist.

Graham tried hard for two days to explain material from the Catechesim, the Code of Canon Law and some Vatican documents. But the women were not buying his arguments. Graham’s emphasis was on the “contract” and its legally-binding force; the women only talked about their experience of love – its presence, its absence, its new discovery, and their sense of alienation from the “sacrament of love” (eucharist). We departed on Sunday still divided from Graham.

This story, I hope, illustrates the difficulty of applying theology to people’s lives and actions. It also illustrates an emphasis that is shared by contemporary sociology and the approach to marriage developed by Vatican II. In his book, Catholicism, US theologian, Father Richard McBrien, describes it in this way: “…this is the first age in which people marry and remain in marriage because they love each other. There is a stress on the mutual exchange of love as constituting the sacrament of marriage”.

Perhaps the Synod on the Family will have more to say about marriage. Hopefully it will do this in the context of love. It is worth noting in the above extract from Catholicism, that the sacrament of marriage is embedded in the mystery of love: human and divine. Applying theologies in definitive ways, to any mystery, is fraught with great difficulty. When one confronts the universal mystery of love, then one is cautioned to proceed with great sensitivity and a little less dogmatism.

The other half of the debate centres on the fact that divorced and remarried Catholics are not permitted to receive eucharist. This prohibition is based on the Church’s judgement that the couple (or at least the Catholic partner) is in a state of sin, and/or is a source of scandal to others. Such disciplinary action stems from a particular Eucharistic theology developed in the Western Church.

An exploration of this matter of denying access to eucharist to some people, is provided in a scholarly and nuanced way by Father Frank Moloney in his small book, A Body Broken for a Broken People. On the final page of his book, Moloney answers a question raised in an earlier section. The question was: “Does our present practice of Eucharist indicate a Church ‘clasping sinners to her bosom’?” (Lumen Gentium, 8). His answer reads: “We are touching here an injustice of which we are all guilty. We have a tendency to preach one message and to live another. To frequent the Eucharist full of my own self-righteousness and worthiness, is to leave no space for the presence of a eucharistic Lord who seeks me out in my broken-ness”. A more condensed version of this answer is the title of Moloney’s book.

The pastoral problem that is dividing the Church cannot be solved by any form of popular vote, nor appeal to common experiences. Pastoral theology in this context requires that we re-visit our fundamental understandings of love, marriage and eucharist.

Along with these mysteries, we will also need to re-examine notions of Church and community; of being the People of God; of being, as Pope Francis expressed it, “a poor Church for the poor”. The poor have much to teach us about the experience and value of being broken; of the God who gives solace to the broken; of the Church whose broken-ness needs redemption.

As the Synod on the Family begins its preparations to answer the difficult questions it must, let us recall the words of Pope Francis as he expressed them with all the hope in his heart: “In order to dialogue, it is necessary to know how to lower your defences, open the doors of the house, and offer human warmth”.

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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