Theological Dissent and the Final Synod Report

One of the most controversial proposals contained in the final report (Relatio Synodi) of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family is found in paragraph 52—which deals with the possibility of Eucharistic communion for divorced and remarried Catholics:

The synod father[s] also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist…. [Some] expressed … [a]ccess to the sacraments might take place if preceded by a penitential practice, determined by the diocesan bishop. The subject needs to be thoroughly examined, bearing in mind the distinction between an objective sinful situation and extenuating circumstances.

The neuralgic question is whether this proposal represents an authentic development of Church teaching to be embraced or a corruption to be rejected. There have been, of course, any number of articles showing the latter is the case. However, I would like to suggest the following route as particularly helpful:

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The Relatio should be subjected to the same test the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has used to assess the orthodoxy of other theological works which touch on the subject of divorce and remarriage.

The CDF’s primary task is, “to spread sound doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines.” As such, the CDF is sometimes called upon to examine theological works that may contradict Catholic teaching and therefore “risks grave harm to the faithful.”

In fact, only two years ago (2012), the CDF examined just such a theological work: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, by Sr. Margaret Farley, R.S.M.

A concern was raised that Sr. Farley’s book contained positions that directly contradicted Church teachings on a whole range of issues pertaining to sexual morality, including the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage.

Sr. Farley acknowledges that a sacramental marriage creates a bond that is never completely erased. Nevertheless, she advocates the following position: “The depth of what remains admits of degrees, but something remains. But does what remains disallow a second marriage? My own view is that it does not. Whatever ongoing obligation a residual bond entails, it need not include a prohibition of remarriage….”

After following its normal procedure—which includes open back and forth exchanges between the CDF and the author—Sr. Farley’s responses were ultimately determined to fail to adequately clarify the grave problems contained in her book. The CDF concluded that Just Love, “affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality.” And, therefore, “it cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching, either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”

While she did not deal directly with the issue of Eucharistic communion for the divorced and remarried—but rather only with the permissibility of remarriage for Catholics in valid sacramental marriages—what should interest us most is the explanation the CDF gives as its raison d’être for condemning Sr. Farley’s work.

The CDF uses the relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)—precisely as it relates to the impossibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Eucharistic communion or the sacrament of Penance; unless they first repent and commit to live in complete continence.

Quoting the CCC at length, the CDF states:

“[Sr. Farley’s] view contradicts Catholic teaching that excludes the possibility of remarriage after divorce: ‘Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ … the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence’” (CDF, citing CCC, n. 1650).

What is perhaps most striking here is that in quoting the relevant section of the CCC as the justification for condemning Sr. Farley’s work, the CDF also refers to the relevant section of Familiaris Consortio (n. 84) and its own “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful.”

The problem, then, for those bishops proposing Eucharistic communion for the divorced and remarried isn’t that there hasn’t been a development of Church teaching or that the subject hasn’t already been “thoroughly examined.” The vast body of Magisterial teachings—we could also cite John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (n.34) and Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (n. 29)—evidence 35 years of thorough examination and signal a significant development and deepening of the Church’s teaching regarding marriage.

On the contrary, then, the conundrum for the bishops is that the definitive examination of the subject and the development of the Church’s teaching on marriage have gone precisely the opposite direction they want it to go. Namely, it has led to an even stronger affirmation of the Church’s definitive teaching:

1) Civil remarriage is always an objectively grave sin if the first marriage is valid; and 2) reception of Eucharistic communion and the sacrament of Penance is not possible unless there is repentance and a firm purpose of amendment—which means separation, or in cases where this is not possible (i.e., where there are children born from the second union) the commitment to live in complete continence.

Perhaps the most significant problem the bishops face, however, is that if their proposal regarding Eucharistic communion for the divorced and remarried proves “successful,” it will prove too much. By reversing this teaching, they would not only undermine the authority of previous synods and the constant and definitive teaching of the Magisterium. Rather, by the same token, they would necessarily undermine their own authority to change the teaching as well.

This would cause serious scandal for the faithful. In the words of Cardinal Burke, the Church would truly become “like a ship without a rudder.”


  • Bill Maguire

    Bill Maguire earned his masters in theological studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C. With nearly two decades of experience in youth and young adult ministry, he currently writes from Naples, FL.

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