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Admitting Divorced and Remarried Catholics to Holy Communion: Doctrine or Discipline?

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Cardinal George Pell and others weigh in

VATICAN CITY — Only three days into the Synod and, contrary to the wishes of Pope Francis, the question of admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Holy Communion continues to take center stage.

Some observers are already expecting the German bishops, the majority of whom strongly favor a change in the Church’s practice, to push for relegating the matter to the local level.

At Tuesday’s press briefing, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, the English language attaché for the Synod, offered an overview of the issues discussed in the 72 inventions presented by the Synod Fathers at the morning session.

Regarding divorced and remarried Catholics, he said in summary of a synod father’s intervention: “What is needed is not necessarily a universal solution to complex problems, but discussions in small groups and discussions on regional, national and continental groupings to talk about the solutions to the different areas, the different problems, that are not necessarily the same across the world.”

Yet according to Cardinal George Pell of Australia, the matter of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion is not one that can be decided at the level of a bishops’ conference or diocese.

“There are fundamental doctrinal issues at the heart of this which are not negotiable,” he told Aleteia. “The New Testament is not negotiable. The teaching of Christ on adultery and remarriage; the teachings of Paul about the essential prerequisites of Communion are not negotiable.”

Cardinal Pell continued: “There might be different pastoral ways of helping people, because marriage is lived in an enormous variety of ways. In our group, we have a bishop from Vietnam, bishops from India. We have a lady from Dubai, where they’ve got 100,000 people who worship every week, 200 couples in their pre-marriage course. So certainly these pastoral supports will be and are different in different parts of the world, but the moral teachings and the essential defenses of disciplines, of the Sacrament, are the same everywhere.”

During Tuesday’s press briefing a journalist asked the panel if they would confirm whether the question of communion is one of discipline and not doctrine, and can it therefore be explored and developed during this Synod?

On Wednesday, asked by Aleteia the same question, Cardinal Pell replied by saying the doctrine “is spelled out in the criteria for the reception of Communion. The doctrine spells out what is practice. So if you change the practice you change the doctrine.”

In 1981, Pope St. John Paul II addressed the matter in his well known exhortation on the the Christian Family in the Modern World, Familiaris Consortio. The papal text was also written to the 1980 Synod on the Family held in Rome from September 26 – October 25. In paragraph 84 of the document, Pope St. John Paul II cites both doctrinal and pastoral reasons that necessitate upholding the Church’s practice of not admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholic access to Holy Communion. He states:

The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage (n. 84).

How can the question of admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be relegated to the local level given Pope St. John Paul II’s clear statement? Aleteia asked Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia this question following Wednesday’s press briefing.

“I personally don’t think it should be,” he replied. “If people think that can be done in a way that protects the unity of the Church, I’d like to hear an explanation of that. I haven’t heard one that I find satisfying.”

Chaput added: “I think that would lead to a great amount of division in the Church, not only in terms of one country different from another but one diocese different from another, or one bishop in an episcopal conference different from another bishop. I think it’s important for us on these issues to have a common position.”

Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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