Fr. Murray answers Card. Kasper, et alii: “Why is the Church not as merciful as God?”

Over at The Catholic Thing Fr. Gerald E. Murray has a good essay about denial of Holy Communion: it isn’t “punishment”.  With a few edits…

Denial of Communion Awakens Conscience

By Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Cardinal Walter Kasper published another article in the run-up to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family advancing his proposal that the discipline of the Church forbidding the admittance of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to the reception of Holy Communion needs to be cast aside.

The theme he develops is God’s mercy. He states: “Many ask: If God is always merciful, why is the Church not the same? Or, why does the Church not seem to be as merciful as God?” [We must deny that premise.] And he continues: “The worst reproach that can be leveled against the Church – which in fact, often applies to it – is that it does not practice what it proclaims to others. Indeed, many people experience the Church as rigid and lacking in mercy.”

[..]

But Christian mercy does not consist in validating someone’s complaint of victimhood because the Church, in her discipline, is calling that person to repentance and fidelity to his word, given solemnly before God when he exchanged his marriage vows. [“But Father!  But Father!  Are you saying that people are responsible for the really big choices they make?  You must hate Vatican II!] The prohibition of the reception of Holy Communion by someone living with a person to whom he is not validly married is in fact a charitable act that upholds the Church’s doctrine concerning the reverence we owe to Christ present in the Holy Eucharist, and thus prevents the sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion and the attendant scandal that would commonly be given by such an act. [Get that?  1) It’s charity, not punishment. 2) It prevents sacrilege. 3) It prevents scandal.]

Reception of the Holy Eucharist is here wrongly conceived of as a necessary public sign of fully belonging to the Church, hence its denial is treated as akin to an act of exclusion of that person from the Church. [Good point!] But those in invalid marriages are still in the Church; their persistence in a state of sin, however, means that they are not qualified to receive the Bread of Life. [Get that?  I like the sober point about people thinking that Communion is “necessary”.  Frequent Communion didn’t come into vogue until the 20th c.  The Church’s law prescribes confession and Communion once a year.]

Their own public choice to enter into an adulterous union is the reason why they have excluded themselves from the sacrament of the Church’s unity, which they continue to wound in a serious way by their persistence in such a union. (It’s telling that in the early sessions of the synod, some are already calling for abandoning the term “adultery” as too harsh.) [HERE]The denial of Communion may awaken the conscience. The Gospel call to repent and be converted means ending adulterous behavior by separating, or where that’s not possible or very difficult, by living as brother and sister. In case of doubt about the validity of a Catholic marriage, an ecclesiastical tribunal must decide if a case can be made for nullity.

Cardinal Kasper goes on to restate his proposed solution: “If a person after divorce enters into a civil second marriage but then repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the Church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”

Yes, not only can we deny absolution, we must deny absolution until that person ceases to live in an adulterous union. Absolution cannot be given to someone who will not make a firm purpose of amendment to desist from his sins. [NB] Cardinal Kasper here characterizes the civilly remarried person as someone whose repentance is limited to ending the first marriage. That is not the only thing he needs to repent of. In fact, if he were not at fault in the break-up of his marriage, he cannot repent of what he did not cause.

What must be repented of is ongoing adulterous behavior with a person to whom he not in fact married in the eyes of the Church. [Ehem… in the eyes of Christ.] His “serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation,” requires him to turn away from all serious sin and make a good confession. Absent the integral confession of his sins and a firm purpose of amendment, he should not be given absolution.

If he nevertheless approached the altar to receive the Holy Eucharist without having been absolved, that reception would provide no true “strength in a difficult situation” (apart, perhaps, from some chimerical psychological reassurance), [including how reception might allow me to feel self-validated, especially because I am aware of determining my own status without regard for 2000 years of Christian tradition and clear law and teaching] but would rather be an offense against the holiness of the Eucharist and a true scandal, leading others to doubt the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage and the necessary dispositions for worthily receiving Holy Communion. [The concept of scandal is fading, but it is still real.  If, for example, what some Catholics read in the “Synod of the Media” (esp. liberal outlets) leads them to go to Communion even though they should not, then scandal has been committed by those writers and outlets.]

Those who have made the fateful decision to enter into an invalid second marriage need our prayers, and our encouragement to reform their lives in accord with the demands Christ Himself has placed upon us. Cardinal Kasper’s proposal is a direct contradiction of the Church’s understanding of those demands.

As such, it is a true distraction from the discussion the Synod needs to have about how to help divorced and remarried Catholics to encounter Christ once again – and lovingly embrace the demands of His Gospel.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is pastor of Holy Family Church, New York, NY, and a canon lawyer.

Be sure to check the original page and comments.

Fr. K kudos to Fr. Murray.

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26 Responses to Fr. Murray answers Card. Kasper, et alii: “Why is the Church not as merciful as God?”

  1. St Donatus says:

    Father, you make me laugh (I need it with what I see going on in the Church right now) – “But Father! But Father! Are you saying that people are responsible for the really big choices they make? You must hate Vatican II!

    What ever happened to a promise is a promise.

  2. Eugene says:

    What a great column by Fr. Murray. Fully Catholic.
    He doesn’t have a future in the hierarchy, he is way too judgemental.
    JMJ have mercy on us.

  3. St Donatus says:

    I kind of understand where Cardinal Kasper is coming from BUT divorce isn’t like murder, you can’t bring someone back you have murdered, you can make a marriage work, you can reconcile. Of course there are times when a spouse will abandon their spouse. For example, what happens to a women abandoned by her husband. He goes off, remarries, has kids. What does she do? How does she care for the children financially? She has no ability to remarry, to have a loving relationship with a man. This is the only concern I have. If anyone has the answer, I am ready to accept it. In reality I was faced with a similar situation and I was able to handle it thinking that there was not going to be a reconciliation. Thankfully there were grounds for an annullment. But what about those who have been married in the Church for 20 years, had kids, both were faithful Catholic, and one leaves both the Church and wife. Theoretically no annullment is possible?

  4. Sonshine135 says:

    Fr. Murray gets it. The denial of Holy Communion to those in this situation is to allow for a period of contemplation and reflection on the committed sin (adultery in this case, but any mortal sin in reality). I liken it to being in the desert, and my desire to be in full communion with the Lord should lead me to fix my situation to be with Him.

  5. anilwang says:

    When speaking about God’s mercy, Cardinal Kasper needs to remember that the existence of Hell is a necessary part of God’s mercy.

    As a side note, relating to reception of Holy Communion being a sign of membership in the Church, I think that the Eastern Catholics/Orthodox can teach us something. After mass, bless bread ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antidoron ) is distributed to all, including non-Orthodox as an expression of friendship and love. This might be a solution for people in irregular marriages as a way of showing friendship, and also as a way to tighten up the reception of Holy Communion for only people who are not in the state of mortal sin.

    As an added benefit, in many parishes people who cannot receive communion go up to receive a blessing. Yes it’s been ruled against, but it’s an extremely common practice nonetheless that I don’t see going away since it is a way for people who cannot receive the sacraments to still feel they are part of the Church. With the distribution of Blessed Bread, there could also be a time for blessings to happen, so that it would be easier to get priests to not give blessings during the communion line.

  6. Unwilling says:

    … in the eyes of the Church. [Ehem… in the eyes of Christ.]
    Good, clear article. Excellent supplementary commentary.

    An unrepentant adulterer takes into his [hands and] mouth The Sacred Body and Blood of Christ.
    Is the not the outrageous sacrilege of this act obvious?

    Think of the unrepentant philanderer who takes into his arms his wedded wife.
    Is he not outrageously violating her? Who cannot see this?

  7. JPK says:

    What really gets under my skin is how many Catholics cry out that today is so much different than the past; the “modern problems” facing the Church today are so deep and so unprecedented that the Church needs to “grow” and evolve. Anyone who has done any reading about life in the Roman Empire circa 100BC-300AD would say differently.

    The entire Roman Empire was a case of “irregular” marriages” (as compared to what the Apostles and Church Fathers preached). Polygamy, incest, orgies,homosexuality, bisexuality, temple prostitutes, sexual slaves, as well as matricide, infanticide, etc… were the norm except in a duty forgettable province known as Judea. Yes, there were marriages in Rome that were heterosexual. But, culturally they were not binding, and for many were nothing more than a way to pass on one’s property after death. In many circles of the Roman Empire homosexuality was considered superior to heterosexuality.

    Now try to put yourself in Saint Paul’s or Saint Peter’s shoes (or sandals). Try converting a man with 4 wives. Try evangelizing inside a city where hedonism was not only a way of life, but was considered one’s birth rite? What the early Church preached was subversive in that it undermined a completely debauched way of life. If we think there are unique problems in today’s Church, just go back 1900 years.

  8. Dave N. says:

    As a whole, Americans decided a long time to change their definition of what constitutes adultery, even though Scripture could not possibly be more crystal clear on the subject. Adultery is now restricted to “cheating” on one’s spouse (if that) but divorce and remarriage has been judged OK by civil society and long as you follow proper civil procedures.

    Although it’s been a long time since those elections, I don’t recall a single soul objecting to the fact that Ronald Reagan was, at the time of his election(s), living in an adulterous relationship, but when Bill Clinton committed episodic adultery—granted there seem to have been a lot of episodes—righteous indignation ensued, at least on the part of some.

    The bottom line is that this is all part of a much larger struggle. Who gets to define marriage? The church or the culture? Those who argue for a change in church teaching (and make no mistake, that’s what this is) say that the culture should hold sway. Adulterous divorce and remarriage is a particularly open, public, in-your-face flaunting of the teaching of the church. It’s sad to see bishops backing down on this, but on the other hand they’ve never had much of anything to say about the issue.

  9. iamlucky13 says:

    St. Donatus raises a good point above. What a wasted opportunity.

    In my opinion, THIS should have been one of the big focuses of this synod. Not wasting time debating something unambiguously stated by Our Lord Himself. Sure, there’s also lots to discuss about possible ways to ensure null marriages are recognized, but what about those that are not found null?

    Looking past the sad but willful instances of mutual separation to those downright tragic cases of abandonment or abuse, is there anything more the church can do to minister to these families, including addressing the call to charity to ensure they have the resources they need?

    If people like Cardinal Casper want to call for more mercy, how about merciful support for those who intended to courageously continue living the vow of fidelity they made even though it will not be reciprocated, much less rewarded with the companionship and intimacy they were promised. What good was achieved by making the suggestion that the vow “for better or worse” was an exaggeration.

    Instead of looking for ways to make it easier for a faithful spouse to live his or her life apart from an unfaithful one, too much effort was spent trying to cast the blame that belongs to the unfaithful spouse on the Church instead.

    This debate has made me consider something I’d never given careful thought to and realize just how awesome those people who do resolve to continue living out their vows after divorce or separation really are. Whether out of true love for their spouse or simply to avoid sin, it is highly commendable, especially when combined with the duties of raising children.

  10. THREEHEARTS says:

    It has always been taught in the Church but long since forgotten, there are 3 essential sacraments….
    Baptism, Penance and Matrimony. As Sister Joseph taught me that we can receive the Eucharist everyday but that is no guarantee of Heaven, But be baptized and use the Sacrament of penance and we stand a very good chance . I will be very surprised if any of you accept this statement, it is just not acceptable to contemporary minds

  11. James Joseph says:

    Wow! That was impressive. Does this mean Fr. Murray is going to be transferred to South Africa, too?

    [It was impressive and… you know, it just might get Fr. Murray transferred! Especially if people leave comments like this which contribute nothing to the conversion other than to stir up controversy and reopen wounds. Sure, it might mean just that. It could mean that liberals can again point to Fr. Z’s blog and say “See? Look how they hate Card. Dolan over there in Fr. Z’s combox. That’s what he’s all about. Those trads are all the same.” That’s oughta endear both Fr. Murray and me to the powers that be so… thanks a million for your contribution.]

  12. jacobi says:

    God is merciful in that He sent His only Son to die a cruel death on the Cross to make Salvation available to Mankind.

    But Salvation is not imposed upon us. We are offered it. We can accept it, the straight and the narrow road, or we can reject it, and opt for the broad and the easy way with lots of ways out.

    That is our choice. It is not easy. Yes, everyone thinks their particular problem (they are divorced and remarried) is much worse than their neighbours (who are only homosexuals shacking up together) or that awful man down the road (who thinks he knows it all), but I suspect of the individual cross we all have to bear, one is as heavy as the next.

    But be clear. God’s mercy lies in offering us the choice. We must choose. The time will come when Christ will say to those on his right hand “come ye blessed of my Father” and to those on his left hand “ depart from me ye cursed”.

    Tough. But there it is!

  13. iamlucky13 says:

    “But Salvation is not imposed upon us. We are offered it. We can accept it, the straight and the narrow road, or we can reject it, and opt for the broad and the easy way with lots of ways out.”

    Part of the challenge, especially in our age, is that people do not understand on their own why salvation might include painful sacrifices like living alone after a spouse runs away with another person.

    Surely God doesn’t demand we be miserable in order to be saved, right? Especially not when there is a wide and easy road (paved quite smoothly by our modern legal system, and with cheerful billboards promising happiness ahead, placed by our culture) to follow to temporally soothe the pains.

    But once you reject or seriously minimize the notion of sin and its many bad consequences, then sin seems incapable of being the source of such misery, and instead there seems to be a tendency to believe that if such misery seems at odds with a merciful God, then it must come from humans, so the humans who relay the message must have made it up. Thus, it becomes possible to excuse abandoning a vow, or giving up hope of it being reciprocated.

    Having done that, for the Church to remind us that we gravely harmed our relationship with God and can not honestly accept Him body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist without repentance becomes offensive.

    At least, that’s how I see it.

  14. Rich says:

    What could be more damaging to the family than giving spouses the idea that if they divorce their spouse and get married again that everything is just fine? Creating that mindset among Catholic, married couples opens a big door with the potential of diminishing commitment to their spouses and their marriages. When things get rough, the temptation will always linger just to put the responsibility of making any effort toward reconciliation on the other, and when neither spouse makes any effort to reconcile in difficult situations, the marriages only get worse. I can’t think of a worse idea for the synod to make things better for families than to condone giving Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. Even if there are true victims out there of abusive marriages, which victims ended up marrying later on, they should think about the good being done for the vast majority of marriages in more regular situations, and what good their sacrifice of not receiving Communion could do for others. Would you want to endanger other marriages and families because you think that the Church should grant your “right” to Holy Communion? Have mercy on the families!

  15. Gemma says:

    Thank you Father for posting this. So clear. Someone who is very close to me is living in this state. They know the Catholic Church is the one and only religion because of this condition they have put themselves in. They learned this only after plodding from church to church looking for acceptance of of their living situation. Only by this searching did they come to the true of what the Catholic Church teaches. They have shared this with me. This article reaffirms the true.

  16. kpoterack says:

    Good for Fr. Murray! And seemingly good news from the Synod this morning.

    I saw this tweet from Catholic News Service:

    “#Synod14 strongly reaffirms that those who remarry without annulment cannot receive Communion; strongly sees need to assist those people.”

    An excerpt:

    “Firstly, it re-emphasised the indissoluble nature of marriage, without compromise, based on the fact that the sacramental bond is an objective reality, the work of Christ in the Church. Such a value must be defended and cared for through adequate pre-matrimonial catechesis . . . It was in any case recalled that for divorced and remarried persons, the fact of not having access to the Eucharist does not mean that they are not members of the ecclesial community”

    (Perhaps the “five cardinals” and their allies were out in force this morning?)

    Also, there was a good presentation by the Zamberlines, a Brazilian married couple, encouraging the magisterium to “help people adopt and observe the principles laid out in Humanae Vitae.” Plus there was a nice introduction along the same lines by Cardinal 23 of Paris!

    http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1404180.htm

  17. kpoterack says:

    I have to tell a story which I heard a few days ago.

    A former student of mine discerned a call to the priesthood and was later ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Louis (about 2 years ago.)

    That’s all I knew, until a close friend told me the rest a few days ago:

    His parents were not the best Catholics, practiced contraception, etc. However, when in Rome on vacation, the father was moved to go to confession in St. Peter’s Basilica. He saw an empty confessional and went in. The priest proceeded to give him a 45 minute catechesis on the Church’s teaching on openness to life. Nine months later this future priest-to-be was born. Want to know who the priest-confessor, responsible for his existence, was?

    Pope St. John Paul II

  18. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    anilwang in his comment thoughtfully links the Wikipedia article, which itself links Andrew Shipman’s 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia “Antidoron” article: at New Advent can be found his article on “Artoklasia”, as well – about the blessing of bread in “the concluding part of Vespers.” There, too, can be found Arthur Barnes’s 1909 article on “Eulogia”, which includes a link to John Goggin’s 1907 article, “Liturgical Use of Bread”. In the latter, we read of “a custom arose of bringing bread to the church for the special purpose of having it blessed and distributed among those present as token of mutual love and union, and this custom still exists in the Western Church, especially in France. This blessed bread was called panis benedictus, panis lustratus, panis lustralis, and is now known in France as pain bénit.” It is noted, “This blessed bread is a sacramental, which should excite Christians to practice especially the virtues of charity, and unity of spirit, and which brings blessings to those who partake of it with due devotion.” There is also attention to three blessings of bread in the then “present Roman ritual” which are “approved for particular localities, and are special blessings given under the invocation of certain saints, usually on their feast days, in order to gain special favours through their intercession.”

    What the situation now (a century later) is with respect to any of these last-mentioned two – the “panis benedictus, panis lustratus, panis lustralis,” and the blessings of bread “given under the invocation of certain saints, usually on their feast days” – I do not know.

    But there would seem scope for the revival, extension, or new specification of such traditional Western, Latin blessings as part of “the discussion the Synod needs to have about how to help divorced and remarried Catholics to encounter Christ once again – and lovingly embrace the demands of His Gospel.”

  19. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Dave N writes, “I don’t recall a single soul objecting to the fact that Ronald Reagan was, at the time of his election(s), living in an adulterous relationship”. I certainly remember both people who seemed sincerely disquieted about the fact that he was divorcrd and remarried while Jane Wyman was still alive, and others who seemed interested in using it to attempt to depict him as a hypocrite and discredit him in his concern for morality, such as his outspoken criticism of the immorality of procuring abortions.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    On this day as well as at this juncture, some people might be particularly interested in following up JPK’s comment by reading a certain novel of the time of St. Cyprian, Callista, available online at http://www.newmanreader.org

  21. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Dave N. says:
    9 October 2014 at 1:12 pm
    As a whole, Americans decided a long time to change their definition of what constitutes adultery, even though Scripture could not possibly be more crystal clear on the subject. Adultery is now restricted to “cheating” on one’s spouse (if that) but divorce and remarriage has been judged OK by civil society and long as you follow proper civil procedures.

    Although it’s been a long time since those elections, I don’t recall a single soul objecting to the fact that Ronald Reagan was, at the time of his election(s), living in an adulterous relationship, but when Bill Clinton committed episodic adultery—granted there seem to have been a lot of episodes—righteous indignation ensued, at least on the part of some.Few people seem to realize that, according to the criteria of Catholic marriage law, Ronald Reagan was never validly married to Jane Wyman. In (IIRC) 1954, Jane Wyman entered the Catholic Church. Around that time, she obtained a declaration of nullity regarding her 1940 marriage to Ronald Reagan, on the grounds that, in 1937, she was married to someone else. That marriage, of course, ended in divorce before her marriage to Ronald Reagan.

  22. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Dave N. says:
    9 October 2014 at 1:12 pm

    Although it’s been a long time since those elections, I don’t recall a single soul objecting to the fact that Ronald Reagan was, at the time of his election(s), living in an adulterous relationship, but when Bill Clinton committed episodic adultery—granted there seem to have been a lot of episodes—righteous indignation ensued, at least on the part of some.

    Reagan’s marriage to Nancy Davis was “adulterous”?

    Few people seem to realize that, according to the criteria of Catholic marriage law, Ronald Reagan was never validly married to Jane Wyman. In (IIRC) 1954, Jane Wyman entered the Catholic Church. Around that time, she obtained a declaration of nullity regarding her 1940 marriage to Ronald Reagan, on the grounds that, in 1937, she was married to someone else. That marriage, of course, ended in divorce before her marriage to Ronald Reagan.

  23. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Because my head has been hurting, I decided to write down these propositions culled from, or implied by, the actions and statements of Cardinals Wuerl, Dolan, and O’Malley, and by the USCCB.

    1) Denial of Communion is a “penalty.” [If this falsehood were true, then a bishop would have the authority to choose whether or not to “apply” the “penalty.” But Denial of Communion is not a penalty, and the moral law and divine law absolutely demand that it be done in those situations delineated in Canon 915.]

    2) Canon 915 does not exist. Only Canon 916 exists. A Communicant should not approach for Communion if he is conscious of mortal sin, but if he decides to do so, even if his grave sin is notorious, the minister of Communion is entirely free of any obligation. Any other approach would have to involve “mind-reading.” (Wuerl)

    3) Only a person who has been formally excommunicated can, or should, be denied Communion. “I will never deny Communion to anyone who has not been formally excommunicated.” (Wuerl)

    4) Only those whose public sins against the Sixth Commandment involve violations of the Church’s marriage law can, or should, be denied Communion. Masses may be advertised in such a way, and celebrated in places decorated with such banners and in such a manner, that a clear “welcome” to Communion is extended to those who publicly profess a right to commit non-marital sins against the Sixth Commandment. I.e., “Gay Masses” and “Gay Pride Masses” are to be permitted. A priest who denies Communion to a person who publicly professes that he or she practices such sins is to be punished.

    5) If a Communicant is involved in political life, or occupies a public office, the norm expressed in Canon 915 may be disregarded. “The bishops must not appear to be singling out one political party.” (O’Malley) Communion must not be “used as a political weapon.” (Wuerl) “We need to find out whether [Canon 915] was intended to bring politicians to heel.” (Wuerl)
    “The question has been raised as to whether the denial of Holy Communion to some Catholics in political life is necessary because of their public support for abortion on demand. Given the wide range of circumstances involved in arriving at a prudential judgment on a matter of this seriousness, we recognize that such decisions rest with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles. Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”–USCCB, Catholics in Political Life, 2004. [Italics added.]
    The promotion of abortion and other abominable crimes through political speech and political actions may be ignored. Bishops have the power to grant themselves the right to disregard grave obligations, and to commit mortal sin.

    6) Disregarding the norm expressed in Canon 915 has no bearing on the Church’s “doctrine” regarding marriage and the Eucharist. The “doctrine” should be verbally affirmed, but the doctrine has no logical, “practical,” or “pastoral” consequences. (Wuerl)

    7) Obeying Canon 915 is “the canonical approach.” Disobeying Canon 915 is “a pastoral approach.” (Wuerl)

    [I removed some italics tags. EVERYONE, please be careful with them. If tags aren’t closed properly they can carry over into other comments.]

  24. LarryW2LJ says:

    Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the education that I received from the good Bernardine Sisters, but I always thought that the concept of “relying on God’s mercy” meant living the best life you possibly could by trusting and obeying. When the time to go “home” came, you would rely on God’s mercy to clean up the ragged edges. Relying on God’s mercy (and the Church’s mercy) was not to live any old way you felt like, do everything you wanted to your entire life as you saw fit and then hope for some kind of Divine “Get Out Of Jail” card.

    The problem today, it seems to me, is that the word “obey” has taken on a very ugly connotation. Actually, I think it’s a beautiful word – surrendering to and obeying God does not diminish one, it allows one to live more freely and without burden.

  25. James Joseph says:

    This is has been killing me all night and all day; still eating me up. I was out-of-line.

    Thank you for the on the spot correction, Father. Time for Confession.