St John the Baptist gave his life in the defense of marriage. The German bishops, by coming out in favor of Cardinal Kasper’s proposals on divorced and remarried Catholics, took the side of Herod. In effect, they concluded that St. John’s position was too antagonistic and decided to issue a letter of congratulations to Herod upon marrying his brother’s wife. While some might think this comparison hyperbolic, it is nonetheless what their recent statements regarding the divorced and remarried come down to. Rather than being a witness to the indissolubility of marriage and what it means to sin against it (making it a further sin to receive Communion in that state), they have embraced a false kind of mercy, believing that one must follow current fashion.
Anyone who doubts this assessment need only consult the pastoral directives issued by the German bishops’ conference on December 22, 2014. They say that the exclusion of the divorced and remarried from the sacraments was “no longer comprehensible,” even to many priests who therefore disregard Church directives, and that it is a “test of the Church’s credibility” to many faithful (p. 47, 59; cf. German document). Re-admission to the sacraments should therefore be permitted in individual, specifically delineated cases. Most of the 66 German bishops are in agreement, though there are some exceptions like bishop Oster from Passau.
The bishops’ conference had put these directives together in June in preparation for the synod on the family, but had decided to wait until the first half was over before publishing it. It characterizes in detail and with great empathy the difficulties many divorced and remarried couples face. It also explains in large measure the doctrine of the Church with insight and clarity, especially when summarizing Familiaris Consortio. Yet when arguing for the admission of the divorced and remarried, confusion abounds in the directives (which are, by the way, quite similar to those issued by the diocese of Freiburg in October 2013 that Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, severely criticized). Since the Church’s position is perceived by many in Germany to be unmerciful (p. 47, 60), the illogical conclusion the bishops draw is that the Church needs to change its rulings—instead of explaining what real mercy means and why the Church does not fail in it by continuing to proclaim the divine life-giving laws regarding marriage, the Eucharist and confession. That this means not admitting those in a state of permanent adultery (as the bishops themselves affirm about those among the divorced and remarried whose first marriage is valid) to the sacraments is opaque to them though they should know better.
St Paul’s famous passages in 1 Corinthians that say whoever receives the Eucharist unworthily brings judgment upon himself are nowhere mentioned in the bishops’ directives (1 Cor 11:27 & 29). Real mercy would require warning people of the spiritual death they are incurring by receiving the Eucharist when in a state of grave sin. Instead, the text adds more confusion to the mix: if Christ shared meals with tax collectors and prostitutes, should we not allow the divorced and remarried to receive Communion as well (66)? That Christ was simply sharing a meal with the former, but not giving them the Eucharist, is ignored. Yes, the divorced and remarried need grace to change their ways, like everybody else. Therefore, attending mass, going to adoration, and leading a life of prayer are essential and should be encouraged. A new pastoral should look at ways to encourage this. That they feel “unreconciled” by not being allowed to receive Communion is something that the bishops bemoan (58). In reality, this should be seen as a healthy reminder to the divorced and remarried that they are, in fact, unreconciled, that they should long for reconciliation, and pray that God will give them the grace to change.
Actually, the bishops themselves are sinning against mercy, for they are encouraging the divorced and remarried to live a lie. They tell them that they may participate in the feast (i.e. Communion) just like the prodigal son did upon his return. Yet the son who participates in the celebration when he has no intention of reforming his life is basing the relationship to the Father on a falsehood. Christ severely condemned those living a lie, calling them whitewashed tombs. He was merciful with sinners who knew what their situation was and were looking for help. Instead of following Christ’s example, we are trying to turn the divorced and remarried into something akin to hypocrites, pretending they are not in a state needing redemptive transformation. Admitting them to the sacraments will be widely understood as a sanction of their lifestyle. But this implicit approval will make things ten times worse, like telling someone with an aggressive cancer that he is healthy and that his symptoms are merely psychosomatic. This false kind of mercy prevents the person from taking the actions necessary to heal.
For real mercy knows that only the truth can save, and God’s mercy is always based on the truth—the truth not just about his infinite love and forgiveness, but also about our failings, our wounds, our needs and our pain. Yes, it is hard to realize that we may need to give up things we cannot imagine living without, when our life as it is seems to collapse in shambles. God, however, is with us in this moment, and so should the pastors and the faithful, accompanying those back on their journey to the Father. He knows what it feels like to have one’s heart broken. Only he can console us in this situation. God’s mercy works like a leaven, changing our hearts and making us capable to love him enough so that we are willing to give up our idols and the kind of human happiness that contradicts his laws and therefore his love.
Furthermore, the directives claim that doctrine puts people at a dead end, when all they want is to make a new beginning with their new family, go to mass and participate in parish life. It seems cruel not to allow them to get out of this blind alley (66). What the bishops fail to admit is that it is not doctrine that has put the divorced and remarried there, but a combination of their own and other people’s choices. They may have incurred no guilt in the breakdown of their marriage, but their decision to remarry civilly is their choice. They did not choose the celibate life, and they may well feel overtaxed by it, but this still does not justify sinning against the laws of God. He instituted them not to make life difficult for us, but to give us abundant life. Many single people wish to get married, but can’t find the right spouse; they too have to live a celibate life they have not chosen.
Life throws challenges and difficulties our way. It is up to us to deal with them correctly, and not blame everything on circumstances when we fail. When we feel incapable of obeying God’s commands and fall down on our knees acknowledging our weakness, we finally allow God to act. Nothing moves God more, nothing is as essential to the spiritual life, as when we humbly recognize our brokenness. But through their approach, the German bishops are postponing this moment of grace ad infinitum. Hearts not allowed to be broken for fear of the pain remain unfulfilled, while the divine doctor knows that some suffering is unavoidable.
Another sign of the bishops’ confusion is the way they speak about the moral impasse faced by the divorced and remarried. That the situation of the latter is very difficult, that it is hard to find a way to do justice to one’s children from a second union (if the other does not want to live celibately) is clear. Some may feel they are letting their second civilly married spouse down by starting anew to obey God’s law. But the bishops seem to say that leaving that second spouse is just as bad, if not worse, as staying with him or her (58). They fail to distinguish between sin and suffering, guilt and tragedy. We may have to do things that cause pain. Entering religious life can break the hearts of one’s parents, for example, yet that should not derail a vocation.
The fact that the exclusion of the divorced and remarried from Communion is “no longer comprehensible” to many priests who simply disregard the ruling, as the text says, tells us much about the ecclesial situation in this country. Having spent much of my life in Germany, I can attest that priests have disregarded the Church’s doctrine for decades. Instead of seeing the necessity of properly catechizing the priests and through them the faithful anew, the directives confirm them in their ignorance and sanction their acts. The result of disobeying Rome for decades is that the faithful are utterly confused, and have been made to believe that the Church’s positions have changed, or if not, will inevitably do so. The bishops have come to believe their own lies. They carry less responsibility than those a couple generations ago who spoke out against Humanae Vitae in the Königssteiner Erklärung in 1968. For the latter became priests when the teachings were clear, while the current bishops have heard these lies repeated over and over for most of their clerical lives.
The German bishops want to have it both ways. They claim to uphold Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage while at the same time allowing Communion in some exceptional cases. They repeatedly say that they do not want to dim Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (47, 53, 56), yet don’t realize that they are doing just that. They have not learned from experience that this will be interpreted as a blank check for all. The bishops did not intend the widespread use of contraception when they told Catholics they could decide what to do “in conscience.” Yet most contemporary Catholics in the West use contraceptives. Without (perhaps) realizing it, the bishops are ushering in a revolution that will bring about the demise of the Church in Germany. Christ promised that the Church would not be destroyed. But this does not mean it cannot be led into crisis, confusion and widespread apostasy.
Worldly thinking has seduced them, false compassion has led them astray and fear of being ostracized has turned them into cowards. Their victims are not just the faithful who are deceived, but also the orthodox priests who wish to remain true to Christ’s and the Church’s teaching. They are under tremendous pressure to accept the demands of lay people. Parish councils, pastoral assistants, fellow-priests, theologians and the bishops all pull in the same direction. My German priest-friends tell me about these difficulties. The bishops rightly point out in the directives that there are tensions within the Church because of the dichotomy between doctrine and practice; yet they appear to sympathize more with the priests who are disobedient rather than with those who are faithful and who suffer tremendously (59).
The Church’s doctrine on marriage is often under attack. It puts such great demands on people that even the apostles were shocked when Christ explained it to them. But God calls us to more than a self-made happiness in this life. He calls us to holiness, and this always involves heroic sacrifices. At some point in our life, we all have to say “no” to something that violates God’s loving commands even though it breaks our heart. We don’t always realize that keeping God’s commands makes us all the more capable of loving him and our neighbor, and that this will make us grow more than anything else.
Thomas More could have taken the easy route and followed the example of most of the politicians and bishops of England who sanctioned Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, taking the oath of allegiance to the king as new head of the church. He along with Cardinal John Fisher stood firm as witnesses for the truth and paid with their lives. He should be the guiding light for all those called to defend the family in these difficult times. St. Thomas More, pray for us!
(Photo credit: Image of Cardinal Reinhard Marx. CNS photo.)