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Do not confuse sacramental discipline and Catholic doctrine.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 23, 2014

In the aftermath of the push for the Kasper Proposal at the 2014 Synod on the Family, some Catholics have fallen into the fairly serious error of confusing sacramental discipline with Catholic doctrine. It is Catholic doctrine, for example, that valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble, rendering subsequent attempts at marriage invalid while the abandoned spouse still lives. But it is sacramental discipline that divorced and remarried Catholics are not to receive Communion.

Sacramental discipline depends on a variety of factors and, while it is under the absolute control of the Church, it is substantially prudential and can vary over time. Consider for example how the sacrament of Penance was used in the early Church and how it is used today. Or consider the Church’s conventional practices regarding the reception of Holy Communion and the reception of first Holy Communion in, say, the 19th century, compared with the relevant conventions today. Or, finally, consider the question of whether pro-abortion politicians should be barred from Communion. Catholics who accept everything the Church teaches can disagree about this.

The questions of who can receive Communion, under what circumstances, and how frequently must be answered in light of the teaching in both Scripture and the Magisterium that no person should receive Communion in a state of mortal sin. But the pastoral discipline governing reception of the Sacrament depends on a variety of factors, including the assessment of the relative spiritual benefits of abstention vs. reception, and the prudential question of when the decision should be left up to the sinner, the minister of the Sacrament, or Church law.

Even with respect to the teaching concerning Communion and mortal sin, the practical results depend on what sins are classed as “grave matter”, whether the sinner subjectively understands the evil, and whether the sinner has engaged in the sin with full consent of the will. All three conditions must be fulfilled for a sin to be “mortal”, requiring the sinner to refrain from Communion.

It is neither inconceivable nor impossible that the Church, in one situation or another involving divorced and remarried couples, could decide that Communion could be permitted under particular circumstances or at least be left up to the couple. Without changing Catholic teaching, this would be a relaxation of the Church's sacramental discipline.

The Kasper Proposal

It was the essence of the Kasper Proposal to request a consideration of precisely this possibility. In other words, the Kasper Proposal was not intrinsically unorthodox. Proponents of that proposal are not (for that reason) heretics, and could have positive reasons for examining the issue. If Pope Francis wanted the proposal seriously considered, this does not call his personal orthodoxy into question.

But clearly other factors affect sacramental discipline as well, such as the possibility of scandal, which is closely tied to the public nature of certain sins—not least sins against marriage, which is by its very nature a public institution subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. Moreover, the Church, in her pastoral wisdom, ought to employ sacramental disciplines which tend to support rather than undermine the truths of the Faith, even though pastoral results cannot be perfectly predicted or measured. On this point, the Church’s persistent refusal in earlier periods to justify a change in this particular discipline, while it may not be conclusive in new circumstances, is immensely cautionary.

Thus, while it was not theoretically impossible for the Kasper Proposal to be implemented in some form, it was ultimately rejected at the Synod because the assembled bishops could not see how anything like it could be used without seriously undermining Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. In other words, the bishops as a body concluded that the proposed cure would worsen the disease.

Now it so happens that this was my own conclusion from the first, and I thought it extraordinarily unlikely that the Synod would, after suitable consideration, see the matter any differently. I am delighted that the Kasper Proposal has been rejected, and I could list a half-dozen excellent reasons for that rejection. My point here is that others did not have to be unorthodox to be interested in the proposal, or to wonder whether a change in sacramental discipline might in some way prove helpful.

It is important to avoid denouncing bishops, and especially the Pope, as heretics just because they were interested in exploring the pros and cons of a different form of sacramental discipline, under certain circumstances, for divorced and remarried Catholics. Such charges only reveal the ignorance of the accuser. In assessing such matters, the proper distinctions must always be made.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Oct. 26, 2014 1:23 PM ET USA

    "But it is sacramental discipline that divorced and remarried Catholics are not to receive Communion" - It's hard to believe you said this, as if the issue can go one way or the other. That's Kasper et al. talking. The Eucharist is a sign and a reality. It is not something to make you look good because no one disciplines you. As we used to say b4 the great confusion of today: It is a Sacrament of the living, not of the dead.

  • Posted by: skall391825 - Oct. 25, 2014 2:43 AM ET USA

    That is about as thin a gruel as I hope to ever read on this site!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 24, 2014 4:04 PM ET USA

    Since when is sacramental discipline involved in making sacrilegious Communions? Sacramental discipline applies to a child receiving first reconciliation before first Communion, or ordaining a married man to the priesthood, but not inviting to the Table of the Lord anyone in manifest mortal sin. The Church needs to call sinners to repentance, provide guidance already in the Catechism, and stop cutting off the process by saying it is hard. Of course it's hard, but grace makes it possible.

  • Posted by: dowd9585 - Oct. 24, 2014 11:16 AM ET USA

    I was under the impression that folks in the state of mortal sin were not to receive communion. Is this no longer true or was it never true in the first place?

  • Posted by: JosephAnthony - Oct. 23, 2014 8:05 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, I believe you have overlooked something. For, while it would be possible to admit people living in adultery to communion like how mortal sinners are admitted even if the priest knows so long as they are not manifestly public sinners, it would not be possible to deny the sin of adultery. Thus absolution could not be given without repentance. The proposal wasn't to let grave sinners receive, but to deny the grave sin by letting them confess so as to receive. This is impossible.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 23, 2014 4:44 PM ET USA

    I haven't seen the word heretic connected with the pope's name except by SSPX types. The responsible criticism directed toward him that I've seen (including my own) concerns the prudence of his allowing himself to be linked to the Kasper plan (by Kasper). Like you, I think the message sent by such a change in today's atmosphere, not its doctrinal reality, would be catastrophic. The danger many of us see in Francis' recent actions is scandal, but we aren't confusing doctrine with discipline.