The Synod of Bishops which will be meeting October 5 - 19 is causing a lot of stir in both the media and in the pews. The media, doing what they do best, is causing a raucous in an attempt to get as many clicks, views, impressions or whatever other methods they use to drive business to their sponsors and thus increase their revenue. The problem is there are actually very few in the media who actually understand what is going on. This lack of understanding is leading to mass confusion on the part of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
I would like to take a moment and explain what this Synod is. First of all, a Synod of Bishops or even an Ecumenical Council CANNOT change Church doctrine. This upcoming meeting is what is known as an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. It is, in layman’s terms, a pre-game for the Synod of Bishops on the Family which is to occur in October, 2015. This meeting is designed to build the framework for next year’s Synod of Bishops on the Family. The Document PASTORAL CHALLENGES TO THE FAMILY IN THE CONTEXT OF EVANGELIZATION¹ sets down a series of topics to be discussed. Among them are:
1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium
2. Marriage according to the Natural Law
3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization
4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations
5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex
6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages
7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life
8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person
All of these are topics which have always been taught and discussed in the Church. Unfortunately, as our society has continued to change and the moral fabric which holds our society together has loosened, many in the Church have failed to give these topics the respect they deserve. Since the Bishop is the main shepherd for each Diocese, it is his responsibility to assure that the faithful are being properly formed in the faith. Formation is not something that ends with Confirmation. We as Catholics have a duty to actively participate in our formation. Just going to Mass on Sunday is NOT enough.
The hot topic issue recently with regard to the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops has been whether or not the Synod will change the disciplinary requirements for the reception of Communion for those Catholics who have been validly married, (civilly) divorced and (civilly) remarried without an annulment. To change the discipline regarding the reception of Communion would mean a change in the understanding of the doctrines of both the Eucharist as well as (in this particular case) Marriage.
Let’s first start with Marriage. In Mark 10:2-12, Jesus is extremely explicit when it comes to divorce. He tells us, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”² He goes on to tell us, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”³ The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in great detail (65 paragraphs) what Marriage is, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”4 It should also be noted that this paragraph cites the Code of Canon Law, can. 1055 § 1.
Where am I going with this? The Church has always taught that Marriage is a sacramental bond between a man and a woman which cannot be broken by the actions of human beings. Of course, the Church also recognizes that extenuating circumstances may exist which inhibit such a bond from ever occurring. The process by which those bonds are examined is known as an annulment. If an annulment is not granted, one is not free to marry again as they are still married. Unfortunately, many people in the Church today do not understand the indissolubility of Marriage because civil divorce has become so prominent in today’s society. Many view the Church’s position on Marriage and divorce as “out of touch” or antiquated. Still, a great many more are not fully aware of the Church’s teaching with regard to Marriage and divorce because it is not spoken about enough today.
Those Catholics who are old enough will remember a similar experience in 1968 when soon to be Blessed Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae5. Catholics around the world were outraged that Pope Paul VI was condemning the use of contraception. The Anglican Communion began to allow married couples to contracept in 1930. The rest of Protestantism quickly followed suit. Why was the Catholic Church still stuck in the Dark Ages? It is not that the Church was still in the Dark Ages, the Church was still staying faithful to Scripture and its Magisterial teachings. But where does Scripture forbid contraception? (Expect this question from one of your Protestant friends)
In Genesis 38 we read about a man named Onan whose brother was wicked and had been slain by God, leaving his wife a widow with no children. In ancient Hebrew times it was customary for a man to take in his brother’s widow and give her children who would be recognized as his brother’s children. This is known as a Levirate marriage. Back to Genesis 38, “’Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife he spilled the semen on the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord, and he slew him also”6.
One who has knowledge of Scripture will know right away why God slew Onan. It was not because he refused to give his brother’s widow a child. Levirate marriage and its penalty are described in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 7, and the penalty is not death. God slew Onan because he spilled his semen. This is a direct violation of God’s design for sexual intercourse. The Catechism tells us “Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes.”8 Therefore, what Pope Paul VI proclaimed in Humanae Vitae was nothing new to the Catholic Church. It was just finally being given the respect it deserved.
Back to the Church’s teaching on Marriage and Communion…
Marriage is a bond which cannot be broken by the actions of human beings, therefore anyone who is sacramentally married and not honoring the vows of that marriage is living in a state of mortal sin and is therefore ineligible to receive Communion. St. Paul tells us quite clearly in 1 Corinthians, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” The Guidelines for the Reception of Communion¹°, which can be found printed in every missalette state, “A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession.” If adultery is a grave sin, how can one who is actively engaging in it be permitted to receive Communion?
I understand and appreciate the desire of the Church to be pastoral in these situations. However, WHAT exactly is being pastoral? Is being pastoral saying, “It’s ok that you are actively engaging in a mortal sin. Just go ahead and commit sacrilege by receiving Communion, if that makes you feel better”? People are approaching this and other moral issues from an emotional standpoint instead of from a logical one. We need to quit thinking with our hearts and think with our heads. Being pastoral means counseling the individual on what they can do to once again participate fully in the sacraments. Being pastoral means praying with and for these individuals. Being pastoral means educating the faithful on this and other topics before it gets to this point. If a priest knowingly allows someone who is actively engaging in mortal sin to receive Communion, He is, by his actions condoning the mortal sin. How is that being pastoral?
The discipline regarding reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics cannot change unless the doctrines regarding the Eucharist and Marriage change. As was mentioned previously, doctrine cannot be changed, therefore this discipline cannot be changed. Many in the media, even some so-called Catholic sources like the National Catholic Reporter, are awaiting a change that cannot happen. The only things that can change here are the methods of pastoral care that are used in these situations.
I pray that those in the Synod understand their role and do not attempt to over-step their God-given authority. I ask that you join me in praying for our Bishops during this Synod.
- Mark 10:9. Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition
- Mark 10:11-12. Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1602
- Genesis 38:8-10. Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition
- Deuteronomy 25:5-10. Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2351
- 1 Corinthians 11:27. Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition