Pope Benedict, Divorced Catholics, and the Eucharist

In the course of the Christological meditations collected in Behold the Pierced One (1984), Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) made what might be called a “modest proposal” with regard to twice-married Catholics and the Eucharist.

His suggestion has rarely been mentioned during the heated debate over divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. But it may offer a bridge of sorts to those Catholics who can’t receive; it might also deepen Eucharistic devotion among all Catholics, which is not exactly robust these days.

In his inimitable and scholarly way, Benedict discusses the fathomless gift that is the Eucharist, and then asks: “If this is how things are, what are we to say of the many Christians who believe and hope in the Lord, who yearn for the gift of his body but cannot receive the sacrament?”

According to Benedict, there was a tendency in the early days of Catholicism to think of those banned from the sacrament as simply being outside the communion of the Church. But in the Middle Ages, figures like William of Auvergne, Bishop of Paris, began to pay more attention to the distinction between external and interior communion.

William affirmed that the Church never wishes to deprive anyone of interior communion. “When she wields the sword of excommunication, it is solely for the purpose of applying medicine to this spiritual communion.” William adds that it sometimes happens that an excommunicated person – who was barred from the sacrament – progresses further along the path of patience and humility than if he were able to receive communion.

Following William, Saint Bonaventure upheld the necessity of Church law in cases like excommunication, while adding, “I assert that no one can be, and no one may be, excluded from the communion of love as long as he lives on earth. Excommunication is not such an exclusion.”

Pope Benedict XVI gives the communion to a nun during a solemn mass in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

Obviously, sacramental communion with the Church is a central feature of the Catholic faith. Still, as Benedict points out, a person excluded from the Eucharist still exists within the ecclesial bond of love. Christ’s healing love works outside judicial boundaries. His action is, of course, not limited to the sacraments. And in the case of the “ex-communicate,” we can understand “how, paradoxically, the impossibility of sacramental communion, experienced in a sense of remoteness from God. . .can lead to spiritual progress.”

Benedict then mentions the surprising (to me and probably to almost all Catholics as well) case of St. Augustine: “Here I am struck by a consideration of a more general and pastoral kind. When Augustine sensed his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and undertook public penance. In his last days he manifested his solidarity with public sinners who seek for pardon and grace through the renunciation of communion.”

In citing this extraordinary episode, Benedict is not advocating a Jansenist approach to the Eucharist, whereby people in a state of grace abstain from communion simply because it is too good for them. That would be to misunderstand the sacrament.

But he does permit this line of thought to raise two questions: Do we not often take reception of the Eucharist too lightly? And further: “Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ?”

To put it more bluntly: for many Catholics today, isn’t the Holy Mass like a birthday party where everybody deserves a piece of birthday cake? How does this attitude contribute to anyone’s spiritual progress? And how does it help divorced and remarried Catholics (whose first marriages have not been declared null), who think they are being denied something which should be theirs as a matter of course?

Benedict points out that in the ancient Church there was a kind of remedy for this attitude: a universal fast from the Eucharist on Good Friday: “This renunciation of communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion. . . .Today too, I think, fasting from the Eucharist [on a day of penance like Good Friday], really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful.”

A day of Eucharistic fasting in preparation for Easter could be a pastoral opening toward those who cannot receive. The problem of divorced and remarried Catholics, Benedict argues, would be less acute against “the background of voluntary spiritual fasting, which would visibly express the fact that we all need that ‘healing of love’ which the Lord performed in the ultimate loneliness of the Cross.”

Since the Magisterium encourages frequent reception of the Eucharist, a proposal like this would have to be considered very carefully. But instead trying to help twice-married Catholics by demoting the mystery of the Eucharist, might it not be better to retrieve an old discipline that deepens it?

George Sim Johnston is the author of “Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution” (Our Sunday Visitor).