The battle over admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion flourishes in part because each side focuses on something that the other does not so much deny as consider secondary or irrelevant. For those in Cardinal Kasper’s camp, for example, the key is compassion for people caught up in a culture of cohabitation, blended families, and people much married and remarried.
Those in the opposing camp focus on the need to proclaim and hand down the truth of the Gospel in its full, unwatered-down state, since truth telling is the true expression of charity and compassion. In addition, however, we may note among Kasperites, a reduced appreciation of the kind of awe and fear of the Lord that should naturally accompany the belief that, at the Eucharist, we are in touch with the physical presence of our God and Savior, consuming his Body and Blood.
One useful measure of how firmly we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is horror at sacrilege. St. Paul, scolding the Corinthians for approaching the Eucharist in an uncharitable or irreverent spirit, warned, “he is eating and drinking damnation to himself it he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord’s body for what it is. That is why many of your number want strength and health and not a few have died” (1 Cor 11: 29-30).
If we could currently count on that association between misuse and disease/death, today’s Communion issue would likely be dead as a doornail.
Twentieth-century Catholic literature brims over with presentations of the sacred counterpointed with sin and sacrilege. For instance, in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, Scobie, the protagonist, receives Holy Communion to conceal his adultery. The scene in which he receives Communion in a state of mortal sin is an immensely powerful portrait of self-damnation.
Then there is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which approaches our topic not in the context of Holy Communion but through portraying the conflicted conscience of a divorced, remarrying Catholic. Narrator Charles Ryder has left his wife for Julia, a fallen-away Catholic who has herself broken up with the man she married outside the Church. Charles and Julia are planning to marry when Julia’s brother matter-of-factly mentions that, of course, he cannot bring his Catholic betrothed to stay with them because they are living in sin.
Stunning her agnostic fiancé, Julia breaks into a passionate outpouring of grief that includes the following: “‘Living in sin’; not just doing wrong, as I did when I went to America; doing wrong, knowing it is wrong, stopping doing it, forgetting. That’s not what they mean. . . . Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, year in, year out.”
All the wrong lessons are drawn if you read this as a denunciation of “bad people” by “good people,” the elder brothers of the Prodigal. It is the prodigal herself who sees her situation this way; at the end of the novel, following a further moment of clarity, she breaks with Charles, explaining:
I’ve always been bad. Probably I will be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without Him. . . .I saw today there was only one thing unforgivable. . .the bad thing I was on the point of doing that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s. . . .it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won’t despair of me in the end.
It may help the modern, non-judgmental part of us that flinches from thwarted love to know that Waugh, divorced about a year before his conversion, entered the Church believing that he likely would never be able to remarry. As it happened, some years later his first marriage was annulled – but those years taught him the emotions evoked by the moral universe his Brideshead characters inhabit.
Few of our contemporaries now react with the kind of horror at sacrilege and serious sin once commonplace even among serious sinners; however, this dwindling of the sense of the sacred does not by itself prove one side of the Synod on the Family right and the other wrong about opening Communion to divorced and remarried Catholics. Those further steps in the argument – steps parsing relevant biblical passages and explicating Church history, casuistry, and theology – have been and are being made by many competent people.
On top of or beside such arguments, however, the Communion controversy marks how far we have traveled from a true understanding of God’s relationship with his creatures. It is true that he loves us even to the seeming madness of the Cross. He pursues us like Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” he gives up on no one, he appears to St. Faustina in the shadow of World War II to explicate the extent of his Mercy.
That mercy is accessed through conversion, however. Entry after entry in St. Faustina’s Diary presents the staggering distance between sinner and Savior, which the Savior traverses to seek us out. It is a distance not merely of power and wisdom but of holiness and goodness. If we do not understand that, we are not equipped to surrender to his salvation.
We only understand what we need to repent of and relinquish if we are half-terrified, half-mesmerized by the wholly awesome goodness and purity of God.