Will Pope Francis now discourage “discerning away” impediments to Communion?
The latest letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the German bishops may mark an important shift in the way Pope Francis is handling impediments to the reception of Holy Communion. In broad terms, the same fundamental issue lies at the heart of both the widespread desire to admit Catholics in invalid marriages and the German bishops’ desire to admit Protestants with Catholic spouses. In both cases, however, the traditional conditions for reception of Communion are typically unfulfilled.
You will recall that Pope Francis has addressed each of these situations, though always either incompletely or informally. In the case of Protestant spouses who desire to receive Communion with their Catholic spouses, the Pope responded to a question from a Lutheran woman with considerable encouragement, indicating that he would like to resolve this problem, but dared not say more about it without serious theological investigation; therefore, she should go to God directly and decide for herself:
I would never dare give permission to do this as it is not my competence. One Baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and go ahead. I dare not say any more.
More formally, in Amoris Laetitia, Francis mandated a pastoral policy of accompaniment and discernment in dealing with invalidly married Catholics. But his comment on possible reception of Communion was confined to an unclear footnote:
351 In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
Since then, Francis has made a point of encouraging bishops who have concluded that invalidly married Catholics can receive Communion under some (unspecified) circumstances. He even wrote to the Bishops of Argentina to commend them for this interpretation.
More questions than answers
In the wake of these indicators by the Pope, many have pointed out a problem with Canon Law, which has always been understood to prohibit Communion under both of these circumstances. Pope Saint John Paul II specifically reaffirmed this law for the invalidly married, because of its strong Scriptural roots (Familiaris Consortio 84)—suggesting that it could not be changed. A large number of Catholic commentators have also asked how it could possibly be the case that different bishops and different episcopal conferences could implement different policies, even on a case-by-case basis, in a matter which so clearly touches the essence of the Catholic Faith and the very identity of the Church.
After two years of controversy and widespread unrest, then, we have our first indication that Pope Francis is aware of the problem posed by Canon Law—which simply highlights legally the fundamental obstacle implicit in the apparently unbreakable relationship among four things: Reception of the Eucharist, full communion with the Catholic Church, recognition of the Church’s sacramental authority, and freedom from grave sin. The presumption is that a Protestant spouse who desires Communion for the right reasons will take instruction, make a profession of Faith, enter the Church, and confess his or her sins. The presumption is that invalidly married Catholics who desire Communion for the right reasons will end an objectively adulterous relationship, either by separation or, for the sake of children, by living as brother and sister (a solution offered by Pope Saint John Paul II), thereby satisfying the conditions which apply to every Catholic for reception of the Sacrament.
In this light, the reasoning of the CDF letter to the President of the German Episcopal Conference is what we might call a masterpiece of both truth and diplomacy. Without accusing anyone of error, the Prefect made it clear that the German bishops should not adopt their own policy on intercommunion for two reasons:
- The matter is already covered in the Code of Canon Law for the whole Church, where intercommunion is permitted only in cases of grave and urgent necessity (usually understood as a fervent desire to receive while in danger of death).
- The matter “touches upon the faith of the Church and is relevant for the universal Church”, and so cannot be settled diocese by diocese or region by region.
Although I have discussed both Protestants and invalidly married Catholics here, I should emphasize that the CDF letter concerns only the German proposal for admitting Protestant spouses of Catholics to Communion under certain circumstances. But there is no doubt that the way Pope Francis approached the implementation of Amoris Laetitia was an important factor in persuading a majority of German bishops that the time was ripe for this questionable step. Moreover, the impediment is similar in both cases: An unwillingness to fully embrace the Divinely-instituted character of the Catholic Church, including acceptance of her Divinely-constituted sacramental authority.
No longer taking the Faith for granted?
It cannot escape our notice that since the day a few weeks ago when Pope Francis sent the German bishops home with instructions to resolve their contested policy collegially, he has made several surprising moves that until recently would have been regarded as out of character:
- Realizing (not without acute embarrassment) that he had been misled by the Chilean bishops on sex abuse, Pope Francis changed course abruptly and severely disciplined them.
- The Pope told the Italian bishops very clearly that the ban on seminarians with significant homosexual tendencies was to be obeyed.
- The Pope approved the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s reaffirmation that the ordination of women to the priesthood is impossible (that, in fact, Pope St. John Paul II’s declaration on the inability of the Church to ordain women priests is infallible).
- Francis instructed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to ensure that the proposal of the German bishops on intercommunion was not just sent back for further discussion, but taken out of their hands altogether.
Now we are told that conflicting interpretations of Canon Law are under review and that a “timely clarification” can be expected, though the word “timely” tends not to mean “quickly” in Vatican parlance as much as “at the appropriate time”. This is significant because there is every reason to assume that Pope Francis will conclude with Pope St. John Paul II that change in this matter is not possible.
What are we to think of all this? On the question of changes in Catholic Eucharistic discipline, the priority of the Pope’s critics within the Church has not been to change nothing but rather to change nothing unless and until the reasons for the change can be theologically justified, canonically codified, and precisely applied so that access to the Eucharist will be governed by the same principles everywhere and for all. No good Catholic wants the Sacraments to be governed by clerical winks and nods or by the varying personal impressions of individual bishops or clergy—and still less by pressure groups taking their cues from secular society and justifying their decisions by a pope’s personal comments and private hints.
If Francis is setting a new course that is more protective of the clear identity of the Church, he would not be the first pope to do so. Others have had to change the directions of their pontificates after learning the hard way that the seemingly positive and progressive people they tended to like proved not to be trusted in matters involving the Church and the Faith. Pope Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878) is commonly regarded as one modern example. Similarly, the soon-to-be canonized Paul VI was widely regarded as a “liberal” but, pressed into a corner by neo-Modernist theologians, he issued the landmark encyclical Humanae Vitae in order to proclaim the truth.
It is too soon to make a prediction about the current pontificate. But we have better grounds for hope than we did a month ago, and even better reasons to intensify our prayers.
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