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Going Off The Rails
Divorced Catholics who remarry are banned from receiving communion. However, it seems The Pope has no real objection to a fling or a one-night stand
Eamonn McCann, 03 Aug 2000
A couple of issues ago we dealt with the fascinating fact that marriages between adherents of Christian denominations are more likely to end in divorce than marriages between atheists. The revelation had emerged from a nationwide survey in the US cross-referencing religious affiliation with statistics on marriage.
This has prompted me to ponder, briefly, the rules and regulations laid down by Christian leaders governing the life-style and behaviour of divorced members of their flocks.
The reason I pondered but briefly was that, right on cue as it were, the Vatican issued a statement on the status and standing of divorced members of its particular Church. The statement carried on the Home News page of the Irish Catholic, interestingly enough laid it on the line that divorced Catholics who remarry are banned from receiving communion.
We might usefully meditate for a moment on the implications of this edict. It was issued, apparently, "in response to attempts by some theologians to interpret (canon law) in such a way as to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion". In other words, there was yet another effort by the trendies under way to dilute an element of Church teaching, which the Vatican believed it had to intervene to snuff out.
Fair enough, from the viewpoint of strict doctrinal orthodoxy. But where, the statement caused me to wonder, does it say in canon law that the punishment for a Catholic remarrying after divorce should be one of the most formidable penalties in the Church's array of sanctions exclusion from the sacrament of communion?
An engrossing but, in the end, futile afternoon hithering and thithering along the bookshelves failed to yield an answer. Because, as I eventually realised, there is no answer. Canon law contains no such provision.
The Code of Canon Law on which the Vatican statement turns out to have been based makes no mention of divorce at all, or indeed of marriage. It is a broad injunction against any "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin". The canon sets it out simply that those who transgress in this obdurate way are "not to be admitted to Holy Communion".
So it isn't at all that Catholics are banned from communion for being divorced. As canon lawyer Fr. Paul Churchill explained in the Irish Catholic: "The ban does not apply to being divorced as such A person can be divorced through no fault of their own and be leading a celibate life. It really applies to anyone engaged in a sexual relationship outside of marriage."
This takes us a bit further along the road to the canonical truth. But Fr. Churchill, predictably, doesn't go all the way.
The grave sin involved in a divorced Catholic remarrying is, indeed, of course, the carrying on of a sexual relationship outside of marriage. Since a married Catholic remains married in the eyes of the Church even if the State has dissolved the civil aspect of the union, sexual intercourse with anyone other than the (ex-)husband or wife remains an act of adultery.
But, again, the adulterous nature of the act cannot of itself be grounds for exclusion from communion. If such were to be the way of it, all adulterers would be refused communion and the queues for the altar rails at Sunday mass would be even shorter and thinner than reports suggest they have recently become.
So it s not the fact of divorce nor the grave sin of adultery but the combination of the two?
Well, no, that's not it, either, although now we are getting there.
A divorced Catholic who enjoys a one-night stand or a weekend fling is, clearly, in the eyes of the Church, engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage and is thereby guilty of adultery. But this would not make him or her liable to exclusion from communion.
Nor indeed would a series of one-night stands or weekend (or weeks-on-end) flings. Whether with people of the opposite or of the same sex or with farmyard animals
It would be open to a man or woman, single, married or divorced, who had been involved in activity of that sort to return to a state of grace through a valid confession and the formation of a firm purpose of amendment. He or she might fall away again. Such is the frailty of the human condition. But as long as the intention to remain true and live right is genuine at the time of confession, he or she can be forgiven in the name of the merciful God and welcomed back into the communion of the faithful.
The problem arises when the divorced Catholic not only engages in acts of adultery but gives evidence that there is neither genuine contrition nor firm purpose of amendment.
There could be no plainer evidence of this "obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin" than a public undertaking to conduct a long-term sexual relationship with a person other than the person to whom, as far as the Church is concerned, one remains married to.
It is this which brings the remarriage of a divorced Catholic within the remit of the Code of Canon Law governing fitness to receive communion.
It should be noted, though, that remarriage is not an essential condition for making exclusion from communion the appropriate sanction. Any genuinely-meant commitment to another would be as grave an offence. It's just that in our society, and especially within the thinking of the Catholic Church, marriage is the conventional means of signalling commitment to a long-term relationship.
But be it noted that a divorced Catholic who promises a man or woman that she or her will be faithful forever solely as a ploy for getting into the other's knickers will not be refused communion. Say it and mean it, though, and you're out.
Thus Fr. Churchill's careful specification not of sexual relations but "a sexual relationship" outside of marriage.
The implication of all this is obvious, although neither the Irish Catholic nor any of the religious correspondents has chosen to spelt it out for the faithful.
To be true to the teaching of their Church, divorced Catholics should live celibate lives. But for those who cannot quite achieve this state of ease and grace, there is a choice. And the Church s view of the morality involved in this choice is clear.
Do not form a loving, committed monogamous relationship.
Love 'em and leave 'em, have a fling, screw around, play the field.
The Pope prefers it.
Could this, to bring our argument full circle, be a factor in the accelerating rush of Catholics to the divorce courts which we previously noted and which triggered this interesting line of thought?