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.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.