By Phil Lawler | Nov 30, 2016
How would you feel if, after struggling to make ends meet for most of your life, you learned in your old age that you were the rightful heir to an enormous fortune, but your father had never told you about that inheritance?
You would feel terribly betrayed, wouldn’t you?
In the Diocese of San Diego, young unmarried couples who are living together and older couples living in a second civil union are now being encouraged to come to the church, consider their status, and—if they find their consciences clear—receive Communion. After convening a diocesan Synod to address the questions that arise from troubles marriages, Bishop Robert McElroy is inviting couples in irregular relationships consider whether “God is calling them to return to the Eucharist .”
As many Catholic commentators have pointed out, that invitation could carry a heavy price—for those who issue it, I fear, even more than those who accept it. If Catholics receive the Blessed Sacrament while in a state of grave sin, they further endanger their own souls. And if priests, who are the guardians of the Eucharist, encourage that sort of sacrilege, they are guilty of a greater offense. But those arguments have been raised frequently, and apparently many clerics find them unpersuasive. So let me try a different approach.
Over the centuries the Catholic Church has built up a profound theology of sacramental marriage: of a union that reflects, and participates in, the life-giving love of the Trinity. This beautiful ideal of marriage sets a goal toward which a couple can aspire: a goal far removed from the debased popular understanding of marriage as a partnership formed by two individuals to advance their mutual interests. More important, the graces that flow through a sacramental marriage help couples to move toward that lofty ideal. Papal documents like Casti Connubi and Familiaris Consortio provide a treasury of inspiration and guidance for married and engaged couples, and even for couples living in troubled unions. Sadly, the faithful of San Diego are not being informed about that priceless heritage.
Instead, in Synod statements that reflect popular culture more than Catholic tradition, the faithful of the California diocese—and especially those in irregular unions—are encouraged to consult their own consciences. Bishop McElroy explains how this should take place:
In conversation with a priest, the believer with humility, discretion, and love for the Church and its teachings seeks to reflect upon their level of responsibility for the failure of the first marriage, their care and love for the children of that marriage, the moral obligations which have arisen in their new marriage, and possible harm which their returning to the sacraments might have by undermining the indissolubility of marriage. It is important to underscore that the role of the priest is one of accompaniment, meant to inform the conscience of the discerner on principles of Catholic faith. The priest is not to make decisions for the believer, for as Pope Francis emphasizes in The Joy of Love, the Church is “called to form consciences, not to replace them.”
Nowhere in that passage is there any indication that the Church has objective standards by which a conscience should be guided—much less an explanation of why those standards have been set. Nowhere is there a recognition that in offering counsel, the priest should invoke the moral principles set forth in Catholic teaching. In the end the decision is left to the individual. If he can persuade himself that his situation is justified (and haven’t we all sometimes found seemingly persuasive reasons to set aside moral laws), he is assured the Church will not second-guess his decision.
Bishop McElroy does go on to offer a few guidelines for the individuals making these judgments:
Catholics participating authentically in this discernment of conscience should keep in mind both the permanence of marriage and the teaching of the Church that “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
Yes, there is a bow to the permanence of marriage. But it is immediately followed by a reminder that sinful people may receive the Eucharist. And that latter reminder is the only teaching of the Catholic Church that the discerner is asked to bear in mind!
The statements issuing from the San Diego Synod will be welcomed by those Catholics who think of Church moral teachings as bothersome, as arbitrary standards that may be safely “got around” by those who can arrive at a better understanding of things on their own. (In another recent statement, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the prefect of the Vatican’s dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, said of troubled unions that “there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at”—as if marriage tribunals had not always done precisely that!) But that outlook is far removed from the authentic Catholic way of thinking.
The laws of God, as explained authoritatively by the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church, are not arbitrary standards. They are guidelines toward happiness: in this life as well as the next. Those who fully understand and embrace the Christian vision of sacramental marriage set higher standards for themselves, but as they approach those high standards (never reaching them, to be sure), they find their lives immeasurably enriched.
* * *