By Cardinal Angelo Scola
[…] What has just been said must be kept in mind when we address sensitive topics involving particular suffering, such as the topic of the divorced and remarried. Those who, after a failure of their marital common life, have established a new bond are denied access to the sacrament of reconciliation and to the Eucharist.
Often the Church is accused of lacking sensitivity and understanding with regard to the phenomenon of the divorced and remarried without careful reflection on the reasons for her position, which she acknowledges to be based on divine revelation.
Yet what is involved here is not an arbitrary action of the Church’s Magisterium, but rather an awareness of the inseparable bond uniting the Eucharist and marriage.
In light of this intrinsic relation, it must be said that what impedes access to sacramental reconciliation and the Eucharist is not a single sin, which can always be forgiven when the person repents and asks God for pardon. What makes access to these sacraments impossible is, rather, the state (condition of life) in which those who have established a new bond find themselves: a state which in itself contradicts what is signified by the bond between the Eucharist and marriage.
This condition is one that needs to be changed in order to be able to correspond to what is effected in these two sacraments. Non-admission to Eucharistic Communion invites these persons, without denying their pain and their wound, to set out on a path toward a full communion that will come about at the times and in the ways determined in light of God’s will.
Beyond various interpretations of the praxis in the early Church, which still do not seem to give evidence of actions substantially different from those of the present day, the fact that she increasingly developed an awareness of the fundamental bond between the Eucharist and marriage signals the outcome of a journey made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in much the same way as all the sacraments of the Church and their discipline took shape over time.
This helps us to understand why both Familiaris consortio and Sacramentum caritatis confirmed “the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2–12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist” (SC 29).
In this perspective we should mention two elements that must be studied in greater depth. Certainly the Eucharist, on certain conditions, contains an aspect of forgiveness; nevertheless it is not a sacrament of healing. The grace of the Eucharistic mystery effects the unity of the Church as the Bride and Body of Christ, and this requires in the recipient of sacramental Communion the objective possibility of allowing himself to be perfectly incorporated into Christ.
At the same time, we need to explain much more clearly why the non-admission of those who have established a new bond to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist should not be considered a “punishment” for their condition, but rather a sign pointing the way to a possible path, with the help of God’s grace and continued membership [immanenza] in the ecclesial community. For this reason and for the good of all the faithful, every ecclesial community is called to implement all the appropriate programs for the effective participation of these persons in the life of the Church, while respecting their concrete situation.
Forms of Participation in the Sacramental Economy
The life of these faithful does not cease to be a life called to holiness. Extremely valuable in this regard are several gestures that traditional spirituality has recommended as a support for those in situations that do not permit them to approach the sacraments.
I am thinking, first of all, about the value of spiritual communion, i.e., the practice of communing with the Eucharistic Christ in prayer, of offering to him one’s desire for his Body and Blood, together with one’s sorrow over the impediments to the fulfillment of that desire.
It is wrong to think that this practice is extraneous to the Church’s sacramental economy. In reality, so-called “spiritual communion” would make no sense apart from that sacramental economy. It is a form of participation in the Eucharist that is offered to all the faithful; and it is suited to the journey of someone who finds himself in a certain state or particular condition. If understood in this way, such a practice reinforces the sense of the sacramental life.
An analogous practice for the sacrament of reconciliation could be proposed more systematically. When it is not possible to receive sacramental absolution, it will be useful to promote those practices that are considered – also by Sacred Scripture – particularly suited to expressing penitence and the request for forgiveness, and to fostering the virtue of repentance (cf. 1 Pt 4:7–9). I am thinking especially of works of charity, reading the Word of God, and pilgrimages. When appropriate, this could be accompanied by regular meetings with a priest to discuss one’s faith journey. These gestures can express the desire to change and to ask God for forgiveness while waiting for one’s personal situation to develop in such a way as to allow one to approach the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.
Finally, drawing on my experience as a pastor, I would like to recall that it is not impossible to propose to these faithful, on certain conditions and with suitable follow-up, “the commitment to live in complete continence,” as St. John Paul II declared, “that is, to abstain from those acts proper to spouses.”
I can say, after many years of episcopal ministry, that this is a path – involving sacrifice together with joy – that God’s grace does in fact make feasible. I have had the opportunity to readmit to sacramental Communion divorced and remarried Catholics who had arrived at such a decision after mature reflection.
Pastoral experience also teaches us that these forms of participation in the sacramental economy are not palliative. Rather, from the perspective of conversion that is proper to Christian life, they are a constant source of peace.
Cases of Matrimonial Nullity
In conclusion, we must consider the situation of those who believe in conscience that their marriage was invalid. What we have said thus far about sexual difference and the intrinsic relation between marriage and the Eucharist calls for careful reflection on the problems connected with declarations of marital nullity. When the need presents itself and the spouses request an annulment, it becomes essential to verify rigorously whether the marriage was valid and therefore is indissoluble.
This is not the occasion to repeat the fair recommendations that emerged in the responses to the questionnaire presented in the Instrumentum laboris concerning the necessarily pastoral approach to this whole set of problems. We know very well how difficult it is for the persons involved to turn to their own past, which is marked by profound suffering. At this level too we see the importance of conceiving of doctrine and canon law as a unity.
Faith and the Sacrament of Matrimony
Among the questions requiring further examination we should mention the relation between faith and the sacrament of matrimony, which Benedict XVI addressed several times, including at the end of his pontificate.
Indeed, the relevance of faith to the validity of the sacrament is one of the topics that the current cultural situation, especially in the West, compels us to weigh very carefully. Today, at least in certain contexts, it cannot be taken for granted that spouses who celebrate a wedding intend “to do what the Church intends to do.” A lack of faith could lead nowadays to the exclusion of the very goods of marriage. Although it is impossible to pass final judgment on a person’s faith, we cannot deny the necessity of a minimum of faith, without which the sacrament of matrimony is invalid.
In the second place, as the Instrumentum laboris also makes clear, it is to be hoped that some way might be found to expedite cases of nullity – fully respecting all the necessary procedures – and to make the intimately pastoral nature of these processes more evident.
Along these lines, the upcoming extraordinary assembly could suggest that the Pope give a broader endorsement [valorizzare di più] to the ministry of the bishop. Specifically, it could suggest that he examine the feasibility of the proposal, which is no doubt complex, to create a non-judicial canonical procedure which would have as its final arbiter not a judge or a panel of judges, but rather the bishop or his delegate.
I mean a procedure regulated by the law of the Church, with formal methods of gathering and evaluating evidence. Examples of administrative procedures currently provided for by canon law are the procedures for the dissolution of a non-consummated marriage (canons 1697-1706), or for reasons of faith (canons 1143-50), or also the penal administrative procedures (canon 1720).
Hypothetically, one could explore recourse to the following options: the presence in every diocese or in a group of small dioceses of a counseling service for Catholics who have doubts about the validity of their marriage. From there one could start a canonical process for evaluating the validity of the bond, conducted by a suitable appointee (with the help of qualified personnel like notaries as required by canon law); this process would be rigorous in gathering evidence, which would be forwarded to the bishop, together with the opinion of the appointee himself, of the defender of the bond, and of a person who is assisting the petitioner.
The bishop (who may also entrust this responsibility to another person with delegated faculties) would be called on to decide whether or not the marriage is null (he may consult several experts before giving his own opinion). It would always be possible for either of the spouses to appeal that decision to the Holy See. This proposal is not meant as a gimmick to resolve the delicate situation of divorced and remarried persons, but rather intends to make clearer the connection between doctrine, pastoral care, and canon law. […]
(Translated for Communio by Michael J. Miller)