Cardinal Müller, head of the CDF, condemned German heterodoxy at a book signing in Regensburg recently. In what can only be described as a philippic, Müller spoke of growing ideological tensions within the ecclesiastic establishment, as members attempt to change Church teaching regarding the divorced and remarried over and against truth and ecclesiastical unity. With all available means—exegetical, historical, doctrinal, psychological and social—Christ’s teaching is deconstructed and relativized, the Cardinal stated. Müller warned of the danger of a split similar to the Reformation. While Tetzel’s formal teaching on indulgences in the early sixteenth century had been correct, as Müller pointed out, a false understanding had been spread for the sake of convenience, leading to confusion, scandal and apostasy.
Similarly, the temptation today is to cave in to people’s expectations regarding the divorced and remarried, and give them what they want, namely admission to the sacraments, thereby granting them a false sense of peace when in reality they are in conflict with God. This false revelation originates from personal experience while true revelation only comes from Christ. Yes, good pastoral outreach considers peoples’ experience in order to know where they are and how to engage them. But this does not mean accepting their confusion by altering the teachings of Christ.
In light of this, it is ironical that many German bishops agree with Cardinal Marx, head of the bishops’ conference, who said in February that the German Church should play a leadership role during the extraordinary synod of the family. It seems delusional to think that empty churches, widespread apostasy, a high rate of divorce, and empty seminaries is evidence of success in Germany. Yet, many of its representatives claim this lack of religious fervor is due the German Church being out-of-tune with the world when they have done nothing else but dance to its beat.
This didn’t appear out of the blue. As with many other countries in the West, the trend began with the refusal to accept Humanae Vitae by the bishops, priests and laypeople some 50 years ago. A consequence of the “contraceptive mentality” is the failure to recognize the indissolubility of sacramental marriage and the modern massive breakdown of the family. When children are no longer at the center of the family, when they are denied existence rather than welcomed, love crumbles and spouses drift apart. It is therefore not surprising that marriages end more easily than they had before the widespread acceptance of contraception. Nor is it astonishing that a pervasive moral blindness results. Hence, we have reached a point where divorce and remarriage are considered acceptable among the clergy and laypeople in Germany, and in many other European countries that have followed suit.
Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, another luminary of orthodoxy in Germany, responded to the issue by developing a faithful and compassionate pastoral in his recent booklet on spiritual communion (‘Geistige Kommunion’ Befreit vom Staub der Jahrhunderte). Being one of the initiators of the World Youth Day and for fifteen years head of the pontifical council “Cor Unum,” one can assume that he knows how to reach people. One way to help the divorced and remarried would be, as he proposes, to revive the practice of spiritual communion. Pope Benedict proposed this during the world meeting of families in 2012. Cordes’ booklet attempts to offer a preliminary discussion and a brief historical overview while calling for a greater development of this practice in light of the concrete situation of the divorced and remarried.
Spiritual communion can be equal to receiving the body and blood of Christ. We welcome Christ in our hearts through our loving desire—a desire that should already be there when we receive the Eucharist physically. Yet, one might ask how spiritual communion would then be different from admitting people in the state of serious sin to the Eucharist. This was the reason given by Cardinal Kasper for dismissing Cordes’ suggestion after the consistory in February 2014.
In the case of the Eucharist, Christ has no choice but to be received physically; with spiritual communion he does. When Christ instituted the Eucharist, he humbly made himself dependent on his Church, accepting the possibility of being consumed by people who, because of their acts, attitudes and choices, were not ready to welcome him; or worse, of being stolen, defiled, used for black masses, or thrown away. The Church, as best she can, does—or at least should—protect Jesus in the Eucharist. Tabernacles are kept locked so that people cannot easily commit sacrilege, for example. She therefore teaches that only those who are in a state of grace and who have gone to confession at least once a year may consume the host. This is equally the case regarding the divorced and remarried, who—according to Christ’s own words—are committing adultery, and who would endanger their souls further, as St. Paul stated, by receiving communion (1 Cor 11:27-30). Like a mother who is concerned about her children, the Church cannot therefore tell them they are free to receive the consecrated host.
On the other hand, those in a state of grave sin should not wait to turn to God until they have found the willpower to change their situation. If they do, they may well wait in vain, for they need grace to do so, which comes from God alone and should be sought incessantly. They should be encouraged to turn to God who wants nothing more than to help. When in such a situation, we may not find it in us (yet) to give up whatever is holding us back. But by turning to God we are making the first step in the right direction. Only God can give us the grace to face the pain in our lives, to acknowledge humbly our weakness, our wounds and our desires. When doing so, we are already on the path to conversion. In this case, God discerns to what extent and, if at all, we are capable of receiving him. He gives himself as much as our state allows, and he can work through our wounded and hardened hearts when we seek him. Therefore, no sacrilege can happen when attempting spiritual communion in contrast to the very real risk when receiving the Eucharist physically.
While Cordes prefers others to develop this theology in greater detail, he does emphasize that the Church does not claim to know the state of an individual’s heart. Only God does (this was articulated by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative texts in its declaration from June 24, 2000, and is based on an old principle of cannon law: De internis non iudicat Ecclesia). All the Church can do is set the rules in such a way that they conform to Christ’s teaching in view of people’s salvation. Perhaps, as Cordes states, some couples who are divorced and remarried are not in a state of grave sin because of their ignorance and confusion. Or, their first marriage is sacramentally invalid, even if they have not obtained an annulment. Or, they know themselves to be guilty, yet desire God all the more. In these cases, they can turn to God through spiritual communion.
Spiritual communion is nothing else but the desire for union with God. It is the kindling of this desire that will give the divorced and remarried (as well as all of us sinners) the strength to extract themselves from anything that separates them from God. It is key to the spiritual life. This cry of desire is expressed, for example, in Psalm 42 where, “as a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God.” It can be experienced by the most abject criminal like the thief on the cross, as well as by the saints who long for God with all their heart. It is what keeps the servant watching through the night for the Lord and is central to our salvation.
Cordes mentions that adoration was not common during his youth, while nowadays it has become an important means of evangelization. He believes that spiritual communion might see a revival as well, as he delineates historically its importance. I would add that the two should be combined, and the divorced and remarried encouraged to spend time adoring the Lord in the Eucharist, asking him to come into their hearts, purify them and kindle their desire to the point of giving up all that is holding them back from the pearl of great price—God himself. Parishes could offer Eucharistic adoration, and make a point to invite all those who have distanced themselves from the Church. Those in a state of grave sin can be shown that they can speak to God very simply, that they need not articulate anything, but that their whole being can simply become one great cry for help and of desire. God will not disregard such loving trust.
What needs to happen is a real change of heart in all of us, for we are all sinners, but particularly those in a state of grave sin. Simply allowing the divorced and remarried to receive communion will not bring this about. On the contrary! The danger is great that they will believe their situation to be fine as it stands. Of course, Kasper and others claim they only wish to admit certain couples to the table of the Lord, who have talked to their pastor about their situation and have proven themselves to be sincere. But as we know from experience regarding contraception, this will be seen as a wholesale acceptance of their lifestyle. Indeed, in Germany where I have frequently seen divorced and remarried people receiving communion and heard about priests encouraging them to do so, it would be surprising if Kasper’s proposal were to lead to new restrictions regarding an already established custom. It would rather confirm a malpractice by giving it the stamp of legitimacy. Given the Pope’s recent motu proprio simplifying the annulment process, it is to be feared that a fair number of German bishops will abuse their power to declare sacramentally valid marriages nil—with disastrous consequences.
The closure of the synod will be followed by a year of mercy, which constitutes another strong call of Christ to draw all human beings to him. While his mercy is infinite, it is also sharp like a sword, cutting through our wrong attachments, revealing our compromises and searing our hearts to make them capable of receiving him. Let us pray with St. Faustina the powerful chaplet of mercy so that Christ may soften our hardened hearts: “By your sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes.