Should we exclude those who have the most need of God's grace?
This is one of the cries that are most commonly heard about Holy Communion for those who are divorced and remarried. I have heard it many times myself. The idea is born of a misunderstanding regarding the way in which the Church teaches that Holy Communion is medicine for the sick. A false mercy. And a theology of the Eucharist which is relativistic and causing huge problems for the praxis and understanding of many lay people today.
As we run up to the synod, and considering many may have built up their hopes for a doctrinal change, perhaps it would be useful to reaffirm some basic points. I have heard the argument that the Eucharist is the most important thing someone's my life, the thing that keeps them a Catholic, but Christ came to the imperfect, not the perfect. One could argue that He didn't say at the last supper "do this in memory of me but only if you have been good, only if you went to confession today, only if you are perfect." He didn't put a condition on it. He just said "do it". Some are able to say that no matter how unworthy they ever feel, they will always receive Christ in the Eucharist, because they know He transforms them. He makes them a better person. Just as He did for those in scripture. (this is an actual quote by the way- I'm not making it up!).
I think the first thing to note is that we are Catholics. We are led by Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, that is, the teaching authority of the Church handed to the Apostles, of whom the bishops are the successors, by Jesus Himself (Mt 18:18). Our Tradition has spent 2,000 years following, passing on, and studying Scripture, which is a collection of ancient texts. One of the post-conciliar malaise's we have been labouring under is this idea that we need to forget the teaching of the last 2,000 years and go back to the Biblical account. Of course, everything we believe comes from the history of Revelation recounted in Scripture, but Scripture does not contain everything Jesus did and said (Jn 21:25).
The Second Vatican Council teaches that Revelation comes to us in more ways than just through Scripture:
Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, (1) and to impart to them heavenly gifts. This Gospel had been promised in former times through the prophets, and Christ Himself had fulfilled it and promulgated it with His lips. This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing. (2)The Council teaches us that we must be very careful to ascertain the correct meaning of Sacred Scripture, we cannot simply interpret it ourselves:
But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place."(3) This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2). Dei Verbum no. 7.
the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. ~Dei Verbum no. 10.And the Council states in no uncertain terms that we must refer to all three sources of Revelation in unity in order to properly understand what we must do:
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. ~ Dei Verbum, ibid.To be Catholic, is to submit freely to the obedience of faith, which is revealed by God Himself as truth (see CCC 142 ff.)
As Róisín Gallagher's recent blog so powerfully explained, to fail to uphold the Church's teaching on marriage is a false mercy. To consider that you do not need to go to Confession, or to be in a state of grace is completely contrary to Church teaching.
Clearly our understanding on this is not properly informed, so let's have a look at what the teaching actually is. Fr. James Mackay recently provided an excellent exposition of Church teaching on this which went something like this:
The Eucharist is the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’ (Lumen Gentium 11, CCC 1324). This means that the Church on earth draws its life from and finds its perfect fulfillment in the Eucharistic Lord. It is indeed medicine for sinners, grace itself, strength for the journey to heaven. However, we are sinners not firstly because of any sins we have committed, but because of our fallen state. We receive communion not so as to mend the personal sins we have committed – that is what we go to confession for - but to be healed and strengthened in our continuing quest for Christian perfection – i.e. becoming the Body of Christ that we receive. If we are in a state of grave sin, personally committed – such as adultery – and go to receive our Blessed Lord, it’s akin to saying, “yes, my objective state informed by my personal choices say that I reject you, but welcome anyway”. That, in the Church, is known as sacrilege.
This is certainly not judgmental of those men and women who find themselves in the most horrible situations – broken marriages not of their own making, abusive marriages, and so forth, who find themselves lonely and feeling abandoned and like any human being, in need of the closeness of human love, who then take up that offer from wonderful people – it is merely to establish the proper place from which pastoral care begins. We need to get away from this false idea that not being able to receive communion somehow means that God doesn’t love you and that you’re a Church reject, you’re not. In fact, for couples who choose this situation, I find it immensely moving that they don’t come up for communion. It is an acknowledgement of their situation and a real witness of reverence they have for the Eucharistic Lord. Braver still, and effective receivers of Communion, are those who embrace the Lord’s teaching on love between man and a woman, who choose to remain single after a civil divorce so as to be able to receive him. These are the people who need our pastoral care, by which I mean loving support to do the right thing, speaking the truth in love.
There is much more to Mass than communion and communion is not the only reason we go to Holy Mass. If we reduce Mass to merely a communion service with no thought behind what we are doing, we run the risk of dumbing down what is actually going on at Mass - the anamnesis of salvation history where Jesus stands before His Father and pleads for us constantly, reminding His Father of the Sacrifice He has made for us, and our shared humanity. If we fail to take this seriously, why be Catholic at all? We also put our souls in grave danger, as every child who learned their penny catechism once knew: It is a great sin to receive Holy Communion in mortal sin; 'for he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself'. 1 Cor. 11:29.
Our praxis is didactic, we must always remember. If Holy Communion is important to us, we should demonstrate that by the way we approach the sacrament.
Meanwhile, the Bishop of Lancaster says this on his blog about the prospects of the synod changing doctrine: