Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Dangerous dilution of Church teachings: making the exception the rule

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2014

Ask a dozen Catholics drawn at random from a typical American parish, and all twelve will tell you that the faithful are no longer expected to abstain from meat on Fridays, except during Lent. Not so.

“Abstinence from meat, or some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays” except major feast days, says the Code of Canon Law (1251). In 1966, the US bishops ruled that mandatory abstinence from meat would no longer be mandatory, in large part because “renunciation of other things would be more penitential.” Still the American bishops said the faithful should perform some special act of charity or of self-denial on each Friday, and among the possibilities “we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat.”

So how did it become almost universally understood, by Catholics at large, that the Friday fast was simply a thing of the past? It happened, I suggest, through a process of dilution as the original message was passed down. The Vatican said that Catholics should abstain from meat or “some other food.” The US bishops opened up the possibilities much further, allowing the faithful to choose from an unlimited menu of acts of mortification or good works. Pastors, unable to give clear and simple instructions, told their congregations that they were freed from compulsory abstinence, but should do some act of penance on Fridays. And finally the people in the pews, accustomed to hearing vague suggestions that they should do penance, grasped the first part of the message but not the second. At each step, people had an opportunity to interpret a message from Rome, and—human nature being what it is—interpreted it in the way that made things easiest for themselves.

Or to put it just a bit differently, when the message is not clear and precise—or when a clear message is not conveyed with precision-- people generally hear what they want to hear.

Sometimes the process works very differently, and a message from Rome, intended to allow an option, is treated as an unbreakable command. Thus for example in 1969 the Vatican allowed for reception of Communion in the hand, providing that there was “the complete avoidance of any cause for the faithful to be shocked and any danger of irreverence toward the Eucharist.” American bishops made Communion-in-the-hand the norm. Now in many parishes the practices is treated as compulsory. Similarly, the Vatican announced in 1994 that girls could be allowed to serve at the altar, and within a matter of days, in all but a few American dioceses, pastors were required to have altar girls.

If the Church provides an opening, the faithful tend to enlarge it to suit their own wishes. During the past week we have seen a new example of this phenomenon. Pope Francis, questioned about legal recognition for same-sex unions, declined to condemn all such measures, saying instead: “You have to see the variety of cases and evaluate them in their variety.” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, speaking on a nationwide television broadcast, explained that the Pope was not endorsing civil unions but saying: “let’s just ask the questions as to why that has appealed to certain people.” Nevertheless, this week I have seen dozens of headlines claiming that the Church is ready to accept civil-union legislation, and by the end of the month—I guarantee it—some priests and many lay activists will be insisting that Catholics are obligated to support such legislation.

In light of this clear tendency to stretch the meaning of Church statements far beyond their original intent, it should be easy to understand why the Synod of Bishops must be especially careful in its approach to pastoral care for Catholics who are divorced and remarried. To date, no Vatican official has suggested that divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion except under the most extraordinary of circumstances. But if there are any circumstances under which they will be admitted to Communion, will it be only a matter of months before, in practice, they are always admitted? Can the Vatican allow any relaxation of the Church’s Eucharistic discipline, without thoroughly undermining the doctrine on which that discipline is based?

To keep this question in perspective, remember that it was Pope Benedict XVI who began pushing for stronger pastoral outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics. First in 2007, in Sacramentum Caritatis, he urged pastors to help these Catholics ““live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving Communion.” In 2011, in an address to the Roman Rota, he observed that many couples married in the Church do not have a proper understanding of the sacrament, and therefore may seek declarations of nullity (annulments)—which would allow them to return to the sacramental life. In June 2012, at the 7th World Meeting of Families, he offered special words of support to those who “have had painful experiences of breakdown and separation.”

Pope Francis has followed up strongly on this initiative, repeating the theme that the Church should show special pastoral care to Catholics who are divorced and remarried, reminding them that “they are not excluded from God’s mercy.”

The enormous challenge facing Church leaders now is to show that special pastoral care to people who are in objectively difficult situations, without creating the impression that those situations are normal. The Synod of Bishops could follow the advice of Cardinal Kasper, and design a penitential process that allows some Catholics who are divorced and remarried to be admitted to the sacraments. But if so, there will soon be expectations that all divorced and remarried Catholics should be admitted to the Eucharist immediately, with barely a nod toward the process.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 17, 2014 2:47 PM ET USA

    It is tough work having to defend and teach the entirety of Catholic faith. If you do you will surely be attacked even by fellow Catholics. So the easy road is taken. You know, the easy road that is wide and smooth and leads to Hell. Sadly, priests and bishops do not see that each detour they take from the rough and bumpy path to Heaven is leading themselves and many others to the other place. The lay person could be more proactive in learning their faith also.

  • Posted by: FredC - Mar. 15, 2014 9:06 PM ET USA

    This sounds a bit like "Although it is the law, I am not going to enforce it."

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Mar. 13, 2014 11:14 PM ET USA

    Another consequence of this dilution is that it divides the Church into those "who hold and teach the catholic faith that comes to us from the apostles." and the advocates of further dilution. "How can you be critical of legal recognition of same sex unions when your Pope is not?"

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 13, 2014 5:53 PM ET USA

    It is interesting to note as time passes by that we return to former times whether inevitably, intentionally or quite unknowingly. The Church has spoken in clear, concise language for centuries. For decades this concept has been largely abandoned in favor of a more open, more dynamic, more pastoral approach. This new approach leads quickly to problems. Pastors and laity have excoriated the outdated severity of old for a new utopia of possibilities- possibilities that now begin to frighten us.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 13, 2014 8:20 AM ET USA

    And then there is the most serious abuse of all that has crept into the Mass, the mistaken notion that EVERYONE in attendance should receive Communion. It even came to where Pope Benedict recommended that some refrain on occasion from receiving to "be in solidarity" with the divorced and remarried. What was the genesis of laughably short lines for Confession and unbearably long lines for Communion? Wasn't it the idiocy that once proclaimed mortal sin almost beyond the ken of normal human beings?

  • Posted by: matthew.buckley1558 - Mar. 13, 2014 7:38 AM ET USA

    In the 1994 document on altar girls it actually says they may only be permitted for "particular reasons" that must be explained by the bishop to the faithful. It is unfortunate a hole was opened at all but it is still more restrictive than almost anyone is aware.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Mar. 12, 2014 9:45 PM ET USA

    "this clear tendency to stretch the meaning of Church statements far beyond their original intent..." Except where Summorum Pontificum is concerned.

  • Posted by: Defender - Mar. 12, 2014 6:54 PM ET USA

    It's true in many things, including the Church: a "little" change blossoms in no time and the original intent or design is quickly left behind (but who are we to judge?). I'm waiting for 1867 to be deleted from the Catechism - I've encountered a priest responsible for ministering to other priests who said he had never heard of it (in a diocese where a priest estimates that 60% of priests are homosexual).

  • Posted by: shrink - Mar. 12, 2014 6:54 PM ET USA

    John the Baptist and Thomas Moore (to name just two) lost their heads over the issue of divorce. The Church was willing to stand up to the king in those days. Now, in the name of pastoral care Church is beginning to genuflect to the therapeutic gods. It's strange that churchman of today evidently believe that the most educated peoples to populate the earth--the 21st century western european and american--seem to know less about marriage than the medieval peasantry of England.