Describing Communion for the remarried as merely a pastoral change ignores its inevitable doctrinal implications. If people who are living as adulterers can receive Communion, if the Church can recognize their state of life as nonideal but somehow tolerable, then either the Church’s sacramental theology or its definition of sin has been effectively rewritten. And the ramifications of such a change are potentially sweeping. If ongoing adultery is forgivable, then why not other forms of loving, long-standing sexual commitment? Not only same-sex couples but cohabiting straight couples and even polygamous families (a particular concern among African cardinals) could make a plausible case that they deserve the same pastoral exception, rendering the very idea of objective sexual sin anachronistic in one swift march.
This, then, is the place where Francis’s quest for balance could, through his own initiative, ultimately fall apart, bringing the very culture war he’s downplayed back to center stage. And it’s the place where his pontificate could become genuinely revolutionary. His other moves are changing the Church, but in gradual and reversible ways, leaving lines of conflict blurry and tensions bridgeable. But altering a teaching on sex and marriage that the Church has spent centuries insisting it simply cannot alter—a teaching on a question addressed directly (as, say, homosexuality is not) by Jesus himself—is a very different thing. It would suggest to the world, and to many Catholics, that Catholicism was formally capitulating to the sexual revolution. It would grant the Church’s progressives reasonable grounds for demanding room for further experiments. And it would make it impossible for many conservatives, lay and clerical, to avoid some kind of public opposition to the pope.
Such a development probably would not produce an immediate crisis or schism. But it would put the Church on the kind of trajectory that the Anglican Communion and other Protestant denominations have traced on these issues, and would make some eventual division much more likely. As pastoral experiments proliferated, geographical and cultural differences would matter more and more, and official Catholic teaching would effectively vary from country to country, diocese to diocese, in a more explicit way than it does today. (Already, the German bishops are telegraphing their intention to move ahead with a Kasper-like approach no matter what happens in Rome.) Open clashes within the hierarchy would become commonplace. Criticisms of the pope would become normal among the self-consciously orthodox, and the stakes would get higher with every subsequent papal election and intervention.