Hard Cases Make Bad Doctrine

Cardinal Walter Kasper’s efforts to change the Church’s discipline of refusing Holy Communion to those who have contracted an invalid second marriage has been joined by another member of the Sacred College, Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

He gave an interview after the Extraordinary Synod on the Family to Inside the Vatican magazine (November 2014) in which he argued: “Let’s take this case: A husband is abandoned by his wife. There are also three children. A woman goes to live with this man; she helps him, raises his three kids. Ten years go by, their union is solid. If this woman were to come to me for Communion, say, during her father’s funeral Mass, or the day of one of the children’s Confirmation, what should I do? Deny it to her, since she is in an illicit situation and in letting her go to Communion I would also be committing an illicit act, as I would be indirectly recognizing that that man’s marriage wasn’t indissoluble?”

This is already quite a bit, but he continued: “Or, while recognizing the non-legitimate nature of that situation, how could I ask that woman – in admitting her to Communion – to abandon the man and his three children? What would become of that man? What would become of those kids? In that case, realistically, it wouldn’t be possible to manage an (sic) non-legitimate situation without causing even more suffering and pain. So, would it really be totally impossible to admit her to Communion? In admitting her to Communion, would I be going against the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage? I really don’t think so: in fact, this has to do with a case of exception.”

The cardinal’s conclusion is particularly disturbing because his job is to issue authentic and binding interpretations of the Code of Canon Law. Here, he plainly contradicts the “Declaration Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful who are Divorced and Remarried” of June 24, 2000 by his predecessor at the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Cardinal Julian Herranz.

That Declaration says: “Naturally, pastoral prudence would strongly suggest the avoidance of instances of public denial of Holy Communion. Pastors must strive to explain to the concerned faithful the true ecclesial sense of the norm, in such a way that they would be able to understand it or at least respect it. In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy. They are to do this with extreme charity, and are to look for the opportune moment to explain the reasons that require the refusal. They must, however, do this with firmness, conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls.” The Declaration concludes: “no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it.”

Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio
Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio

Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s approach displays no “firmness” and is not a “sign of strength” but rather is refusal to call the hypothetical woman to conversion. A Catholic woman living with a Catholic man (who is in fact married to someone else) is ordinarily aware that her behavior is seriously sinful. If she is not, it is the duty of a diligent pastor of souls to inform her of why this is so.

Whatever laudable good that woman may be doing for the children of the man with whom she is cohabiting does not change the nature of her obligation to the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. A Catholic’s desire to receive Holy Communion must be guided by the doctrine of the Church. In the theoretical case posed by Cardinal Coccopalmerio, he displays a well informed knowledge of the woman’s situation, which implies that he has had and continues to have the opportunity to catechize her about the sinfulness of adultery, and about the Church’s encouragement of people in her situation of avoid sin by living as brother and sister when the good of the children is best served by not separating from each other. (Asking her to “abandon the man and his three children” is not the only alternative available).

Instead, he posits a non-existent “exception” to the moral law concerning the grave sinfulness of adultery. This amounts to an appeal to emotion, which caricatures the call to fidelity to the Sixth Commandment and the Church’s discipline regarding the reception of Holy Communion, depicting it as uncharitable rigorism. The unstated presumption in the Cardinal’s scenario is that the woman deserves to receive Holy Communion because she is a good person, and her adulterous behavior should not be taken seriously.

The stunning conceit here is that God is not offended, so why should the Church “exclude” her. This presumption is detrimental to Catholic doctrine and life. No matter what anyone claims about “exceptions,” the truth of the Faith remains: adultery is a mortal sin, and those in the state of mortal sin must refrain from receiving Holy Communion because the sacrilegious reception of Holy Communion does offend God, and may lead others into the same sin.

What does this approach reveal? That for some Churchmen, the primary mission of the Church is to provide consolation. Uncomfortable doctrines and derivative Church discipline must be cast aside. But the Gospel call to conversion often involves upsetting a sinner in the hope that he will see that it is not God’s law that wounds us, but our sins. True consolation lies in rediscovering the joy of living in God’s grace by rejecting sin. Therein lies the path to both peace of soul now, and salvation in the world to come.

Unfortunately, we’re likely to hear a great deal about “hard” cases between now and next October’s Synod, which is only going to confuse things further.

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Fr. Gerald E. Murray

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City.

  • ABBonnet

    There’s no need to worry! Here’s Pope Bergoglio in a big fat hurry!

    Backed by his Team Bergoglio, all doctrinal issues melt like wax before his blank stare. With Cardinals Murphy-O’Conner (Captain Emeritus), Kasper (the Mighty Bore), Daneels (Lyin’ Man), and other supernumeraries (like Cocopalmieri), there is no dogma they can’t destroy! Even the Words of Christ can be twisted, bent and tossed aside when they flex their hubris!

    Fasten your seat belts, we’re in for a bumpy ride!

    [i do hope that TCT will continue to fight the good fight on this and other issues. It seems First Things, the Register and even EWTN, are shifting towards the Team Bergoglio Agenda, part of which is the Kasper/Cocopalmieri dismissal of the Savior’s plain teaching, as Fr. Murray explains in this post.]

    • Murray

      I’ve noticed the same thing. The Synod provided all the proof anyone could require that the pope is actively in favor of the Kasperite proposals, and for a short while there were some signs that the Catholic mainstream was coming around to the same unpleasant conclusion. But as you say, they’ve opted instead to reduce their cognitive dissonance by accommodating themselves to the New Order. We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.

    • Bro_Ed

      I think a bit of this is borderline disrespectful and sheds far more heat than light. Here we have two intelligent, educated, caring, fallible, cardinals – who disagree. It’s a discussion in process. That’s encouraging. Let them toss it around and see what comes of it. It might be something both sides could live with.

      • ABBonnet

        Satire, Bro_Ed, satire. As H.W. Fowler noted in his classic “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” satire’s purpose is to encourage the amendment of morals and manners. In this case, that amendment would be arresting the march into manifest heresy promulgated by Kasper/Cocopalmieri, which has been promoted, but not yet explicitly endorsed by the Pontifex.

        Satire proceeds by accentuating known truths that reveal inner decay in the moral and spiritual landscape being satirized (in this case the heretical proposals of Kasper/Cocopalmieri supported by the Pontifex).

        So if it seems “borderline disrespectful,” that’s the nature of satire. It is an attempt to overturn the seemingly nice exterior to show the moral and spiritual rot underneath.

        Isn’t it just utterly disconsoling that I have to explain how a small satirical post works? Didn’t anyone study English Literature in high school?

    • Steve D.

      I have to agree with you about EWTN / NCRegister, they’ve been drifting neoCatholic ever since Mother Agelica became ill and lost control. And now they’re setting up operations in that scandalous Christ Cathedral in Orange County.

  • givelifeachance2

    One could also see the continued presence of the adulterous woman as a blockage to the possible reconciliation of the married couple…how is the original mother going to see herself repenting and coming back into the fold if the “other woman” is there playing housemother?

    There is nothing more important that either parent has to teach the children than the true meaning of the marriage in which they were conceived.

  • Nathan

    Very well written. Seems to me that much of this could relate to Catholics who are in same sex “marriages” as well.

    • Rob

      I agree and it’s the exact set of issues we’ve already addressed in a culture very much like ours. There’s not much happening in today’s American society that the early Church, especially the one in Ancient Rome, weren’t forced to address and respond to. Rome had more than its share of all of these issues. Why do we believe we are different or need a new answer. Even Newman in discussing the topic of doctrinal development would have started from Scripture and the foundation of the Church fathers. The bishops should first resolve the doctrinal question based on sound and faithful Church teachings and THEN determine the most Christ like way to express it which was usually a request to sin no more and follow Him. To do otherwise is putting the immediate crisis of sin above the on going pursuit of sanctity. The history of the Reformation teaches us this lesson…do we need to re-live it to learn the lesson again?

  • RainingAgain

    Seeking the approval of those hostile to the Church seems to be priority for “cardinals” such as this. They will find when they have renounced and denied everything The Church stands for that it will still not be enough.

  • Elijah fan

    Fr. Murray,
    You are correct. There’s a bad moon on the rise when high places in the Church are filled with the mercy only crowd. But frankly that motive dominated the recent death penalty change.
    Read sect. 39-40 of Evangelium Vitae but first read the entire Gen.9:5-6 on which it is allegedly based. JPII took the front and the back of the verse couplet and deleted the mandate to execute murderers which he never shows the reader. Then he builds a case for God only deciding life and death …from the phrases of the front and back of the verse couplet. Bizarre beyond words.

  • Dennis Larkin

    The hard cases regarding divorce have been with us since the woman at the well. They are not new. If the Church can accomodate such cases today, Thomas More’s refusal to accomodate Henry was mean-spirited and judgmental.

  • ROB

    On the other hand, a wealthy powerful man takes on a series of mistresses. Eventually he puts aside a troublesome wife, showers the church with various forms of largess and receives an annulment. Is he welcome at the communion rail while the “hard case” wife is spurned? You betchum, Red Rider. The archbishop will make sure to preside at his funeral. You’ll understand why people don’t buy into this arrangement in droves.

  • E.B.B. Frago

    Jesus was right that divorce exists because of people’s hardness of hearts. Why would the “abandoned” father so easily give up on his wife and let the mistress come into his family unless he has had hardness of heart towards his wife? @givelifeachance2: you’re right. Reconciliation is more difficult when the husband is not seeking to forgive his wife and leans more towards polygamy. You’re also right that the high road in this situation is reconciliation. How is the Holy Spirit acting in this cardinal when he abandons the narrow gate to appease the adulteress’s feelings? His predecessor’s Declaration already lays out the correct way to addressing this situation. However, there is a complicating matter here. How are pastors supposed to know their parishioners’ personal lives? Pastors everyday must hand out the Holy Eucharist to people in mortal sin unknowingly. The pastors don’t know that the parishioners are in mortal sin because there’s so many Catholics in name only who don’t go to the sacrament of Reconciliation but still “feel” like they want to go up to receive the Eucharist. I know, I was one of them. I didn’t even know that missing mass was a mortal sin until my wife set me straight. That means that I could not (more like SHOULD not) receive communion until I received absolution. There isn’t much emphasis on St. Paul’s admonition that whoever takes the Eucharist unworthily eats and drinks their condemnation.

  • DJR

    What the cardinal advocates is contrary to the teaching of Christ and the Catholic Church; therefore, it is safe to assume that, if the cardinal believes what he says, he no longer possesses the Catholic Faith, if he ever did so to start with.

  • JGradGus

    First off, this is very insightful. Thank you Fr. Murray. That being said, I have to wonder if we are really talking around the problem that the concept of ‘annulment’ has created? Just for the sake of argument, did the Church create this problem a long time ago by saying, ‘hey wait a minute, not all marriages are true marriages and an invalid marriage can be annulled?’ Is this discussion really just a continuation of how, when, and under what circumstances can a marriage be declared invalid, and who should have the authority (what should the process be) to decide when a marriage was invalid?

    Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s theoretical case is one of many examples of a marriage that probably should been annulled but was not. Had the man’s marriage been annulled following the abandonment, he would have been free to marry the second woman in the Church and they would not be living in sin. So in a sense, one could possibly/probably argue that some mistakes occurred over the course of the 10 years (failure to get an annulment that would have been granted if sought and the subsequent civil / common law marriage). As such, the question may be should these mistakes prevent the woman (and even the man) from receiving Holy Communion? Is this really a case of adultery or just bad decision making? Just throwing this out for discussion . . .

    • Loved As If

      Both. Sex with someone who is validly married is adultery and a bad decision. This is true even though we usually make such decisions gradually and often have some good intentions. Such “mistakes” are mortal sins.

      • JGradGus

        And priests do have the power to forgive mortal sins. So why shouldn’t they also have the power to declare a marriage invalid?

  • JimL

    I thought the Catholic church had a thing called the Catechism, which after great effort on the part of the previous two Popes and drawing on the vast Tradition and Scripture handed down over the ages was a valiant attempt to teach interested souls what the Catholic Church actually taught and stood for. Why does it feel that the Catechism is up for grabs? It needs to be taught and proclaimed, not sidestepped when it is uncomfortable with feel good instincts. Jesus told the woman at the well to go and sin no more–not have a nice day!

    • 1ray1

      Amen, JimL!!!

    • JaneSeymour

      Pope Francis himself does not believe in the Catholic Catechism either. He told a woman in South America that she should demand her priest to give her communion even though she was divorced and married to another man.

  • ron a.

    It all smacks of Lambeth. Those men were naive. These are weak, weak men. (And, that’s giving them the benefit of all doubts.)

  • John00

    One wonders how it is that the first time, apparently, that the woman is coming to communion is at her father’s funeral. Did the priest give her communion on all previous Sundays, or did she not attempt to receive prior to the funeral? If he has been giving her communion prior to the funeral, he has some real problems.

  • 1ray1

    With this kind of theology being proposed, it is little wonder Cardinal Burke had to be sacked. We have been reading about numerous accounts of various Cardinals(their numbers are becoming legion) who are proponents of this new Catholic teaching on what sin is and how our Church deals with it. Pope Benedict and Bishop Sheen predicted that our true Church would become much smaller and with this kind of pablum(mushy cereal for infants) being passed on as sound doctrine it will be shrinking soon.. My faith while usually strong begins to waiver at times with these new teachings being promulgated as sound theology. I’m praying for my Church and its leaders.

  • Dena Kelley

    Interesting article. Question: since it was the man who was formerly married, why does the article act as if only the woman is committing adultery? Isn’t he also committing adultery? I do find it strange that there is no proviso for when a spouse is abandoned by their partner. Presumably the partner who left the marriage may re-marry…wouldn’t at that point there be an option for the marriage to be nullified by the Church? PS: I’m not yet Catholic, I’m in RCIA, and I’m trying to understand doctrinal issues.

    • the beginning of an answer

      Hello Dena,

      1. Yes, the man is also committing adultery; I think Fr. Murray is simply working from Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s example where it is the woman who wants to receive communion.
      2. Regarding an abandonment proviso, marriage is not nullified by the Church; the Church finds and declares that a condition of nullity existed at the time of the first marriage based on evidence later presented. And the later civil re-marriage of the first wife may have no bearing on conditions present at her first marriage.

      This is a very complex subject… worth researching more as it elucidates how the Church protects the interests of children and mothers and fathers.

    • Karl

      Adultery is not a “reason” for a marriage being null.
      Dena, be very careful to whom you listen regarding these issues. many priests, deacons…are not adequately prepared, themselves, to deal with these cases and many are like the errant Cardinal above and, to give them a HUGE benefit of the doubt, mistaken!

      I am a spouse who was abandoned by my wife, 25 years ago. My “proviso” is fidelity to our vows. I WAS THERE. I will be held to account for my behavior. As mom told me fifty plus years ago as a five year old, “two wrongs don’t make a right”!

      I asked my pastor, years ago to be able to participate in “PRE-CANA” marriage preparation. This was a few years after my unwanted divorce.
      He told me that he knew that I would speak only the truth to the couples. (He knew me and he knew our children, but not my wife, as I met him after our divorce. He and I had also spoken, in depth, about my life.) But, because he knew what I had already experienced, with my wife and with the Catholic Church(through its pastoral practices and its annulment process….been there, done that, defended our marriage) he declined to allow me to speak. He said, paraphrasing him because I cannot remember his exact words, “When you are done I do not think that many will want to go through a Church wedding knowing what they could be in for, in the future and after having children.”

      I think the choice he faced in denying my request, was a HARD CHOICE. Even now, years after, I have sympathy for his choice but I still do not agree with it. However, I respected him as a man, although I did not agree.

      Young people, simply must be made aware of how easily marriages are abandoned and how little support their is for an abandoned spouse. Nor do they understand how easily it happens for a spouse to, incrementally, undermine their own marriage, ultimately convincing themselves of how “bad and abusive” their spouse is and actually setting up such a scenario, very subtly and persistently, until an unsuspecting spouse is facing divorce and looking quite guilty, when although their is some responsibility on their part, THEY HAVE BEEN SET UP. Then they find out how “sympathetic” to nullity priests, deacons, canon lawyers and bishops REALLY ARE IN MANY CASES and lose their faith defending their marriage(IF THEY EVEN ANY LONGER HAVE THE INTEGRITY TO DO SO AFTER THE HELL THEY ARE PUT THROUGH), But on top of this, often they loose their children to their “innocent abandoning spouse” and they become a “DEADBEAT” when they cannot afford their child support….it gets worse.


      In the end, our children, some of them anyway, have told me that they believe in God and are Catholic, BECAUSE OF WHAT I HAVE SUFFERED IN FRONT OF THEM, while remaining Catholic, in a Catholic Church that finds me to be a living malignancy and my wife and her adulterous partner of 25 years to be a married couple!

      No, my darling has no annulment, but, I suspect, is about to get one on her second try, BECAUSE FRANCIS HAS EMBOLDENED THE NULLITY SQUADS. My darling and I fought in the Church for 12 years over her first attempt at nullity, more than 20 years ago, before the Roman Rota upheld our valid marriage.

      DO NOT BE DETERRED through my experiences, from your pursuit of Catholicism. I do not want that on my soul. But, I am an honest man. You have heard truth from me and I have not mislead you. But you must know that salvation ONLY COMES VIA THE CROSS. If it was good enough for Jesus, it must be good enough for me and for you. I moan and groan all the time but I do not know any other way to heaven.

      God be with you, Dena…keep on, keepin’ on!

  • Tom

    These are very hard cases. I don’t want to make it sound easy for any pastor to have to deal with these on the ground. But as a practical matter here, I would like to know from the Cardinal at what point did the adultery end and the non-adulterous relationship begin? And have the woman and the man confessed the adulterous beginning to this relationship? The Cardinal doesn’t mention that this not only is an offense against the man’s first marriage but it is sinful for the woman, too, even if she is unmarried!

    What if it hasn’t been 10 years, but 10 days? The Church’s teachings don’t exist on a spectrum: i.e., it can’t be adultery (and premarital intercourse, among other things) the first couple of nights and then suddenly become a loving and holy relationship because she’s been living there a week.

    If we’re going to take this route, pastors are going to need sound guidance on how to navigate these scenarios based on more than plain emotion. The Vatican would need to release firm statements on when certain acts are sins and when they aren’t. Except … wait … we already have that. And any document released in clear and simple language (not vague aphorisms) that approved of the Cardinal’s suggestions above would have to directly contradict the Catechism of the Catholic Church (and the entire tradition).

    Confessors and the laity need firm and simple guidance so that all people can become saints, as Vatican II hoped. Easy rules aren’t “legalistic” — they’re in place such that one doesn’t need a doctorate in Moral Theology or Canon Law to understand the teaching. It doesn’t take long to explain the Church’s teaching on sex to a fourteen year old boy.

  • Tracey Kelly

    What a crock! An error in the beginning…stays an error. The woman should not have moved in..period.

  • Zenaida A

    What happened to Matthew 5:18-19?

  • senex

    Fr. Murray identifies the of the issue and problem in his penultimate paragraph where he states “some think hat the principal mission of the Church is ‘consolation'”, not the salvation of people. When doctrine gives way to feelings or consolation, we sacrifice truth for voluntarism.

  • TKJ

    It seems that these Compassionate clerics all consider the pain the person(s) May incur here and ignore the pain the person(s) Will incur after death! Also, like ABBonnet, I am very uneasy about the “be nice at all costs slide” that seems to be occurring at EWTN, etc. Political Correctness is costing us our Constitution, please don’t let it invade the Magisterium!!

    • Patti Day

      While I find EWTN news programming to be too soft on many issues, Individual EWTN contributor Raymond Arroyo has had some great interviews with Cardinal Burke, Fr. Jerry Murray, and others, and in particular, Colin Donovan, VP of Theology, and members of the EWTN theology staff have not shied away from addressing communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, homosexual unions, and other issues with complete fidelity to Catholic doctrine.

  • sympathetic blogger

    I wanted to print this. Is it intentional that your site doesn’t allow printing of a commentary?

    • Brad Miner

      You can print. Go to the orange Share button, click, and you’ll se a print option. However, it need to be improved on our end to the pages rendered for printing are better formatted, Bear with us.

  • monica

    I don’t know what I would do without The Catholic Thing Daily. Thank you for your wonderful articles.

  • Karl

    I did not read this carefully because I am nauseous over “difficult” cases that ARE NOT DIFFICULT!

    What I want to know is WAS THE MAN RECEIVING COMMUNION? Was this done with the knowledge of the priest and bishop, since the ONLY RATIONAL PRESUMPTION in this case, as it was presented, is that the man and the woman were “dancing the bedroom boogie” and, since there was no mention of additional progeny, ALMOST CERTAINLY, practicing contraception, EVIDENTLY TO ENHANCE THEIR ‘BEDROOM BOOGIE”!


    I find it, especially “fishy” since the woman, not being custodial, would be subject to some “whopping” child support and could be jailed if she did not assiduously address her arrears!

    How many women leave their children with a man “worth abandoning”?

    Come on, give us some HARD CASES?

  • LAM

    It is very difficult to understand why the Holy Father has given support to Archbishop Forte’s section of the interim report of the Synod in favor of individuals living in mortal sin in same sex and cohabiting unions and to Cardinal Kasper’s and now Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s support of individuals living in mortal sin in adulterous relationships. What of the doctrine of the Church that Christ come into the world to save His people from their sins, as Gabriel related to St. Joseph?

  • FreemenRtrue

    Christ gave communion to Judas. The Church must teach the Word. What did Jesus mean when He told the woman at the well to sin no more? Was she to return to husband number one? Number five? Remain chaste thereafter? It seems her exchange with Him involved a confession of sorts. Was she absolved? Christ said whatever the apostles loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven. If an unjustly abandoned spouse murders the other and repents of it in confession, then he/she can remarry. It is all far to difficult to resolve. Annulments are a means of begging the question by pretending the marriage never existed. All the Church can do is teach the words of Christ. The Synod is intended to endorse divorce and homosexual marriage. There is no other reason for it. The explosion of divorce rates has followed the atheistic materialism of modern society to the diminution of the Church. For the Church to follow the inclinations of the synod is simply to conform to Modernism. Would Christ forgive someone who broke a marriage but later lived a faithful and good married life with another spouse? Could such a person not sincerely repent of murdering or breaking their first marriage and be forgiven? If they were sincere and regretted that early debacle in their life and then form a better relationship, will Christ give them forgiveness? ….Let no man put asunder……what you loose on earth…. All the Church can do is teach what Christ said.

  • Mary Cay

    God Bless Fr Murray—the Voice of Sanity in confusing times.

  • Elijah fan

    He’s in hell if you read Christ’s words about him:
    ” but woe to him through whom the Son of man is betrayed, it were better for that man had he never been born.”
    ” those whom thou gavest me I guarded and not one of them perished except the son of perdition”.
    The second phrase above was said prior to Judas sinning and is past tense prophetic which according to an early Father, Justin Martyr, means certainty….cf Isaiah 53:2 ” there was no beauty in him nor comliness and we have seen him and there was no sigjtliness that we might desire him ( for worldly standards of charism). Hence Judas is certainly in hell as Augustine and Chrysostom stated but JPII and Benedict hesitated.

  • cestusdei

    Hard cases do make bad law. We saw that in Roe v. Wade, about 50 million dead children ago.