In all the debate about the Church’s teaching and practice with regard to communion and the divorced and remarried Catholic, I think we have lost sight of a basic question, and a very important question: why does the Church exclude the divorced and remarried Catholic from communion in the first place?
To hear the those outside the Church, you would think that the purpose of the practice is punitive: it is a moralistic attempt to humiliate the divorced and remarried Catholic. And I think this interpretation gets some assistance from the liberal Catholics within the Church who are often the biggest enablers of the Church’s worldly critics.
I don’t think this is the reason for this practice, however. At least, there is an alternative explanation that has much more obvious roots in the Church’s teaching. The Church believes that it can actually harmful for the wrong people to receive holy communion–that is, receiving holy communion in the wrong state can be bad for the person who wants to receive communion and does receive it.
The traditional view is that you should not receive holy communion if you are conscious of having committed a grave sin and have not confessed it. This view has pretty clear roots in the words of Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 11:27): “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” On the traditional view, rooted in scripture, the person who receives holy communion while conscious of an unconfessed grave sin is not helping but hurting himself. He is piling grave sin on top of grave sin, in a way that, I suppose, would create a serious danger for his soul–a danger of ongoing and increasing alienation from God.
This view makes sense, by the way, on a natural analogy: food that is good for the healthy may be very dangerous for the sick.
Those who want the Church to change its ways in this matter think it is necessary for the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried. They are losing sight of the fact that from the standpoint of the tradition exclusion from communion is part of the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried Catholic.
This discussion, moreover, helps us to see what is at stake in these changes for which some people are calling. What would the Church be saying by admitting the divorced and remarried Catholic to holy communion? I can think of the following possible answers:
It might be saying: “Go ahead and eat and drink judgment upon yourself, compounding your grave sins. We don’t care so long as the world won’t be able to call us mean for excluding you from communion.” I suppose this is not what anybody would intend.
It might be saying: “The divorced and remarried Catholic may receive holy communion, because he is not really in a state of adultery.” The obvious problem with this is that it would contradict the plain words of Jesus and the Church’s traditional interpretation of them, reaffirmed in the most recent Catechism.
Or it might be saying: “The divorced and remarried Catholic may receive holy communion, because, while Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage is true, we don’t need to understand adultery as a grave sin.” This option is only slightly less ridiculous than the previous one.