The Synod, the Faith and the ‘Reluctantly Divorced’

In times of persecution, Catholics have been willing to endure mockery, loss of public status, every conceivable form of torture and even grotesque forms of martyrdom — all simply to attend Mass, receive Communion and defend the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Countless saints come to mind. Here are two particularly inspiring examples:

St. Nicholas Piek of Gorkum endured repeated hanging and asphyxiation, was burned with a torch on his face, ears and inside his mouth. He was offered freedom if he would simply deny his belief in the Real Presence. St. Nicholas refused and subsequently endured a two hour hanging that eventually brought about his painful death.

St. Maximillian Kolbe placed himself at grave risk in the Auschwitz death camp to secretly celebrate Mass, using smuggled bread and wine. Ordinary prisoners risked their lives to attend these clandestine Masses, simply to have the chance to receive Communion.

It is precisely the witness of these saints — and countless other ordinary, nameless Catholics — that should be the starting point for any discussion at the Synod on the Family regarding the reception of Communion for divorced and civilly re-married Catholics.

I have sincere empathy for and deep awareness of the suffering endured by divorced Catholics. In fact, I belong to the group Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse has aptly termed the “reluctantly divorced.” The reluctantly divorced are those who neither sought nor wanted divorce and worked strenuously to save their marriage.

While I am certainly no saint, and dealt with my divorce in many unhealthy ways, I cared enough about my faith to know dating was not an option for me unless my marriage was annulled.

I knew my marriage was presumed valid unless proven otherwise through the annulment process. Thus, I was called to remain faithful to my wedding vow — the vow I made before God and my family. Moreover, I had to take seriously the real possibility that I would not receive a declaration of nullity. And if I had entered into a romantic relationship with another woman, where would that have left us? It would have only caused further pain and heartbreak.

Be that as it may, having endured the desolation and loneliness of divorce, I understand the temptation and desire to enter a romantic relationship without having first received an annulment.

What I cannot understand, however, are the priests and prelates who are suggesting the Church is somehow going to change her doctrine concerning the reception of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. Their public speculations and hand wringing — no doubt motivated by a sincere (but nonetheless false) sense of compassion — does nothing to actually assist those truly affected by the issue.

Indeed, they only undermine the efforts of divorced Catholics struggling to remain faithful to their wedding vows while waiting to receive a decision on the validity of their marriage. Furthermore, they will certainly be the cause of additional suffering for the divorced and remarried when the false hope they’ve created is inevitably dashed, because the Church will not — because she cannot — change her teaching on the reception of Communion. Finally, they may actually weaken the resolve of those who are thinking about beginning the annulment process.

Another troubling aspect of this affair is that we are being treated like children, who somehow cannot control our impulses or carry our particular cross. Moreover, this attitude calls into question the power of the Cross, the effectiveness of grace and the value of redemptive suffering.

All this ignores that the Church already has a compassionate solution for those who are divorced, civilly re-married and unable to separate: celibacy. To be sure, “this saying is hard” (John 6:60); and no one is ignorant to the power of sexual temptation and sin. Yet, the Church offers a further remedy for couples in this situation: if they fall, they can renew their purpose of amendment, go to Confession and with God’s grace try harder.

There are, however, two common obstacles to accepting the Church’s solution with docility. First, many Catholics — including couples, priests and prelates — simply don’t want to acknowledge that sexual activity in such irregular unions is objectively grave sin. Second, many have lost the appropriate respect and awe necessary for the worthy reception of Communion.

While abstaining from sex is certainly a sacrifice, it pales in comparison to the sacrifices many Catholics have endured for their love of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In this light, is it unreasonable to ask couples to stop engaging in sinful sex as a pre-condition for receiving Communion? Moreover, if a couple is unwilling to acknowledge the sinfulness of their sexual union and unwilling to make a sincere effort to choose celibacy, do they have the requisite devotion and love for the Blessed Sacrament in the first place?

Perhaps the most effective pastoral approach to those in such irregular unions is to exhort them with the witness of Eucharistic martyrs; introduce them to the writings of saints animated by their great love for the Blessed Sacrament; and teach them how to spend time in Eucharistic adoration.

St. Augustine is a good model for creating effective pastoral approaches to assist those who struggle with habitual sin. He teaches us not so much to repress desire but to pray for the conversion and healing of our desires. Sinful desires are not overcome by less desire but by the desire for something greater — union with God. As Augustine famously wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”