The Truth Is Always Pastoral

Canon lawyers are fascinated by the Samaritan woman at the well. The moment we hear about her five husbands, and her consort, we start thinking about how her case might be handled at the marriage tribunal. But the most instructive part of the story is how Jesus relates to her: he is kind to her, and respectful, but he is unabashed about telling her the truth.

Over the past few months, an ecclesial dialogue about pastoral care has been played out in the media as if it were the precursor to a monumental doctrinal split among the Church’s leadership. The question is about the reception of Holy Communion by those divorced and remarried without the benefit of a declaration of nullity, or annulment.

Of course, ecclesiastical leaders know that second, and third, and fourth marriages not preceded by annulment are presumed to be invalid; that a presumably valid first marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise. This is a basic component of Catholic sacramental theology, and hardly a matter of dispute.

What may be in dispute is how to care for the divorced and remarried: How to invite those living conjugally, but outside the bonds of marriage, to the communion of the Church. The question is a pastoral one. And it needn’t be a source of ambiguity or division.

Like all pastoral questions, the solution is found in the action of Jesus himself. As at the Samaritan well, the pastoral solution for the divorced and remarried involves something very simple: telling the truth.

Jesus Christ desires all of us to receive him at the Eucharistic table. His blood was shed, his body pierced and crucified, as a universal invitation to participate in the Eucharist, and in Christ’s divine life. What’s required is a heroic commitment to virtue and fidelity of Christian life.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria by George Richmond, 1828 [Tate, London]

May the divorced and remarried be invited to the Eucharist? Yes. But like all of us, to receive the Eucharist with integrity they must live heroically in accord with the truth.The Church has always taught that living in a sexual relationship outside of a valid marriage is an impediment to Holy Communion. She teaches that still. And when the divorced and remarried present themselves to their pastors, she must teach the truth then. But it is never an adequate pastoral solution to simply tell the divorced and remarried to refrain from Holy Communion, to remain in the pew, and to maintain the status quo.The pastoral solution is to invite men and women to a heroic kind of conversion. In 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified that the divorced and remarried may receive the Eucharist if they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”

Under ordinary circumstances, such couples should physically separate. But the Church recognizes that separation may be impossible: that couples may be raising children together, or financially dependent, or caring for one another in ill health. Separation might be ideal, but what is necessary is a commitment to living continently: to living in accord with the truth.

The issue of scandal is a serious one. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says that couples living continently must be “respect the obligation to avoid giving scandal.” The Catechism says that scandal is “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.”  To keep others from scandal, those living continently should take care not to imply that their relationship is inappropriate – if their invalid marriage is unknown, they could remain private. If their invalid marriage is well known, they could be forthcoming about their choice to live in accord with truth. A flood of candor can mitigate the trickle of scandal.

Each of us is invited to the Eucharistic table. We need only repent, and commit to greatness. Too often, the pastoral solution is perceived as the unchallenging solution, the accepting solution. Too often, pastors and tribunal ministers hesitate to call the divorced and remarried to conversion. We’re afraid that continence seems too hard, and too dispassionate. We’re afraid that truth will be inimical to a pastoral relationship.

But the truth is always pastoral. And calling Christians to discomfort, and challenge, is evangelical. Conversations about continence are uncomfortable. But as Pope Benedict XVI has said, none of us were “made for comfort. [We] were made for greatness.”

At the well in Samaria, Jesus Christ was pastoral. He invited the Samaritan woman to repent, and to live heroically. He invited her, from her sinfulness, to greatness. If the Church today will invite men and women to greatness, to virtue, and to communion with Jesus Christ, we will have found the “pastoral solution.”

J.D. Flynn, formerly a canon lawyer in Lincoln, Nebraska, is editor-in-chief of Catholic News Agency, a division of EWTN.