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Synod on the Family: Two Questions to Ask

The Sacrament Sign of Marriage has Theological, Anthropological and Educational Meanings

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The following is an excerpt of a lecture given by Jesuit Father Dariusz Kowalczyk, dean of the faculty of theology of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The lecture was delivered at the Assembly of the Polish Bishop’s Conference in Warsaw.

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The words with which John XXIII inaugurated the Council—pointing out that, while there is something unchanging in the essence of the Christian faith, there are different ways of expressing it—are often quoted. Indeed, we can see how, in two millenniums, the expression and the practical experience of different aspects of the faith have evolved. One of the clearest examples is the Church’s unchanging belief that She has received from Christ the power to forgive sins, along with very different ways to exercise that power. In fact, what seems obvious today—i.e., the incentive to go to confession frequently—, would be completely incomprehensible, if not simply scandalous, for St. Augustine. The conception of the relationship between invisible grace and the sacramental sign has evolved significantly in the course of time, but the essence has remained the same.

This tension between unchanging truths and different ways of expressing and living them can be deduced from Jesus’ words: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:12–13). So, the Spirit guides Christ’s Church through the centuries, allowing adaptation to new situations and leading to a deeper understanding of what was given to the Her in the words and the person of Jesus.

In the Conciliar Decree on Ecumenism (UR, 6), we read this: “Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth.” Ecclesia semper reformanda—the Church is always reforming Herself. She changes, as She can—under the influence of the Holy Spirit—for the better; however, She can also be influenced by a completely different spirit and make erroneous reforms. Joseph Ratzinger said that “already during its sessions and then increasingly in the subsequent period, [the authentic teaching of the Council, expressed in the documents of Vatican II] was opposed by a self-styled ‘spirit of the Council,’ which in reality is a true ‘anti-spirit.’ According to this pernicious anti-spirit, everything that is ‘new’ (or presumed such) is always and in every case better than what has been or what is.”

1. Asking Questions

The discussion about the possibility of admitting people living in non-sacramental unions to Holy Communion belongs to the context described above. The first question we should ask ourselves is this: Does the Church have the authority to give sacramental absolution and Holy Communion to divorced persons cohabiting in non-sacramental unions? This question of Communion for those people is comparable to the issue of the mandatory celibacy of priests, or on another the level, to that of ordaining women. John Paul II stated, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (n. 4). One of the arguments in favor of this position refers to the expression of the sign. The male priest is the sign of the unique Priest, Christ the Spouse, who takes his Bride. Gender as a sign of the economy of salvation is not insignificant, especially today, in the context of gender ideology.

If we answer the question of Communion for the remarried divorcees by saying that a change in the Church’s current doctrine and practice is possible, then a second question can be asked: From the pastoral viewpoint, would the new, proposed sacramental practice be useful, would it edify the Church or not? After all, the fact that something could be possible from the doctrinal point of view, does not necessarily imply that it would be good for the Church from a pastoral point of view.

One might have the impression that the discussions sometimes about Communion for remarried divorcees starts immediately with the second question, as if the first one simply did not exist. The Relatio Synodi says: “[A] synod father also considered the possibility of giving the divorced and remarried access to the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Various synod fathers insisted on maintaining the present discipline, because of the constitutive relationship between participation in the Eucharist and communion with the Church as well as her teaching on the indissoluble character of marriage. Others proposed a more individualized approach, permitting access in certain situations and with certain well-defined conditions […]” (n. 52). This text was supported by 104 fathers, and 74 were against it. Please note that we are talking about maintaining, or not, the current discipline. However, does this only concern the discipline?

2. The Doctrinal and Pastoral arguments

In the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, we read: “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church, which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this there is another special pastoral reason: If these people were admitted to the Eucharist the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage” (FC, 84).

There is reference to “reaffirming the practice,” but this not only concerns the practice in the sense of a variable discipline, for as we read in the same paragraph, “by acting in this way the Church professes Her own fidelity to Christ and to His truth.” Therefore, this is a matter of fidelity to Christ, not only of ecclesiastical discipline.

We have two arguments here: one is doctrinal and the other pastoral (risk of confusion on the indissolubility of marriage). Both concern the sacramental sign, which has theological, anthropological and educational meanings.

The doctrinal argument can be considered from two perspectives: that of sin, which contradicts the sacramental Communion (understood both as a sacramental sign and as grace), and that of the relation between the meanings of each of the sacraments.

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