Does Synod’s ‘Way of Accompaniment’ Put the Church at Risk of De Facto Schism?

COMMENTARY: Allowing different regional practices regarding reception of Communion will cause grave disunity and confusion among the faithful. Second of four parts.

Detail of a stained-glass window from Malaga, Spain, depicting the wedding at Cana.
Detail of a stained-glass window from Malaga, Spain, depicting the wedding at Cana. (photo: Shutterstock/Nancy Bauer)

The Catholic Church cannot adopt the synod final report’s suggested “way of accompaniment and discernment” with respect to reception of Communion by divorced-remarried Catholics, without failing in her mission to teach Jesus’ disciples to observe all that he commanded (Matthew 28:20).

By doing so, the Church will cause grave disunity and confusion among the faithful, give scandal (that is, would serve as an inducement to sin) and be unjust to the faithful spouses and innocent children of those who civilly remarry without a legitimate and certain demonstration of the nullity of the first marriage.

If the Church were authoritatively to approve the “way of accompaniment and discernment” as set forth in Paragraphs 84-86, it would strike at the heart of ecclesial unity. Some Catholics would interpret the failure to reassert the traditional exclusion from holy Communion through a “hermeneutic of continuity,” and others would interpret it through a “hermeneutic of rupture” (the two terms, as applied to this issue, were first proposed by Dominican Father Thomas Michelet in his article “What does the synod really say about the divorced and remarried?” available online here). The former would argue that, since excluding the divorced and remarried from Communion has been the firm and traditional practice of the Church, it does not need to be repeated here; in other words, “silence equals consent” — consent, that is, to that traditional practice. These Catholics would conclude that remarried divorcees could only rightly return to the Eucharist when they sincerely resolve to live in a way that’s no longer in contradiction with the indissolubility of marriage.

Others, however, would conclude that “silence means dissent.” To them, the fact that the Church does not repeat the traditional exclusion would mean that the exclusion no longer obtains; that the traditional norm is obsolete. These would conclude that the final report’s “way of accompaniment and discernment” can lead to a return to the Eucharist without requiring remarried divorcees to cease living within the sexual intimacy proper to married persons.

The fault lines of the ecclesial rift would intersect at national Church communities. The bishops’ conferences in Central Europe would publicly interpret the “way of accompaniment and discernment” in an emancipationist fashion for the divorced and remarried. The bishops’ conferences in North America, Eastern Europe and Africa would presumably interpret it consistent with the ancient practice.

The disunity would not merely pertain to optional “pastoral” practices. It would also, necessarily, be doctrinal. The Church has always held that, given the holiness of the Blessed Sacrament, to receive holy Communion in a state of mortal sin constitutes the sin of sacrilege (see 1 Corinthians 11:27, 29); it has also taught that sexual intercourse with someone other than one’s true spouse is adulterous and that adultery always constitutes grave matter. To affirm the emancipationist practice would entail a denial of either the holiness of the sacrament or the moral truths that sexual activity with someone other than one’s true spouse is always adulterous or that adultery is always wrong.

Thus on both doctrine and practice, national episcopates and the faithful in those regions would be divided; individual episcopates inevitably would be internally divided; national episcopates would be divided from the Pope; and the Pope invariably would be seen as siding with one of the positions. This would constitute a de facto schism.

(In his article, Father Michelet writes: “Ultimately, if in one territory the priests encouraged by the ‘guidelines’ of their bishop end up establishing practices that are uniform but divergent from those of other territories, this could lead to a de facto schism, legitimized for both sides by a dual possible interpretation of [the final report, Nos. 84-86].” Pope Francis suggested in his concluding address to the synod that different pastoral conclusions reached by different regional Church communities would amount to a strength and not a weakness: “We have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent is considered strange and almost scandalous … for a bishop from another; … what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are, in fact, quite diverse, and every general principle … needs to be inculturated if it is to be respected and applied.” The address is available here.)

Some compare the situation to the dissent from Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth). But the fallout from this would be much, much graver. When Humanae Vitae was finally published, all knew clearly the authoritative teaching of the Church. Many rejected it, including bishops, priests and religious. But at least there was a clear doctrinal norm in relation to which the views of defenders and dissenters were relative.

If the “way of accompaniment and discernment” is approved, both the progressive and the traditional interpretations would be officially sanctioned. But since the progressive interpretation is in clear opposition to the unambiguous teaching of the Church, repeated continually by the hierarchy in the past four decades, its authorization would badly undermine the Church’s evangelical credibility. Here are six examples of recent reassertions of the traditional judgment by the magisterium:

  • At the end of the Sixth Synod of Bishops in 1980, John Paul II declared: “[Those who are divorced and civilly remarried] are unable to be admitted [to holy Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and his Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”
  • One year later, in his landmark apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), the same pope taught: “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried” (84).
  • When Cardinal-then-bishop Walter Kasper and two fellow German bishops proposed an almost identical version of the “way of accompaniment and discernment” for the Church in Germany in the early 1990s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994 responded as follows: “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive holy Communion as long as this situation persists.”
  • Three years later, the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught (and still teaches): “[The divorced and remarried] cannot receive Eucharistic Communion as long as [they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law]” (1650).
  • And in response to objections to the 1994 CDF teaching and the 1997 teaching of the Catechism, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith again reaffirmed in 1998 what it had authoritatively taught just four years earlier: “The Church cannot sanction pastoral practices — for example, sacramental pastoral practices — which contradict the clear instruction of the Lord. In other words, if the prior marriage of two divorced-and-remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception” (emphasis added).
  • Finally, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI — who as the CDF’s prefect had been author of the 1994 and 1998 teachings and the closest collaborator to John Paul II in the preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church — reconfirmed the traditional exclusion in discussing the integral relationship between the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage, in Paragraph 20 of his apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (The Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission): “If the Eucharist expresses the irrevocable nature of God’s love in Christ for his Church, we can then understand why it implies, with regard to the sacrament of matrimony, that indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires. … The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on sacred Scripture (Mark 10:2-12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist” (emphasis added).

The judgment of the Church as expressed in these addresses and ecclesiastical documents is unambiguous, definite and authoritative: Living in a marital-type relationship with someone other than one’s true spouse objectively contradicts the meaning of the holy Eucharist. Why? Because de facto adultery contradicts what Jesus willed to symbolize and make present in the Eucharist: namely his marital-type communion with his body, the Church. Adultery is the anti-sign of the Eucharist.

If the Church were now to approve the “way of accompaniment and discernment,” it would cast doubt on her credibility as a teacher and lead to serious confusion, not only in regard to the issue of Communion for remarried divorcees, but in regard to her other teachings reaffirming the intrinsic wrongness of every form of non-marital sexual behavior.

E. Christian Brugger, the senior fellow in ethics and director of the fellows’ program

at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, holds the

Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.