Bad Parenting: Why The Ban Against Communion for Divorced and Remarried Catholics Is Unjust and 3 Ways to Fix It.



In all the debate about what should be done to help those Catholics who have divorced and remarried without the benefit of an annulment, there is one solution I have not heard debated.

Let’s Be Honest… 

I agree that it is seriously problematic to allow those who have remarried without the benefit of an annulment to receive communion for the reasons I have mentioned elsewhere.   But let’s face it, Did the vast majority of people who are on this path choose it knowingly and consciously?  Did the vast majority of people who were struggling with the pain of divorce really one day say, “Screw it.  I am going to choose to live an adulterous life in an invalid second marriage.  I don’t care if it means that I can’t take communion again!  BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Of course not.

Bad Parenting

Most people who find themselves on this path got there because of poor formation, terrible catechesis, and simple ignorance about how the Church really thinks about marriage, why it thinks that way, and the practical significance of all this high-level thinking to their actual daily lives as Christians.  Is it really just to hold them accountable for failing to live out principles that were never communicated to them–or at least were never communicated adequately to them–in the first place?  To bar these couples from communion is a bit like a neglectful parent refusing to communicate the house rules to her children only to impose a consequences after the fact.  “You shouldn’t have been playing ball in the house.  You’re grounded for two weeks and you lose your ball!”  “But mom! You never told me I couldn’t play in the house!”  “Tough.  You should have known better.”

Such lousy parenting is unbecoming of any parent, including our Spiritual Mother, the Church.  I think many of the Synod Fathers intuit this, and their sense of guilt around the poor catechesis and formation they have given the faithful drives a desire to be lenient on the back end of the process to make up for the Church’s failures to communicate on the front end of the process.  But this too is terrible parenting.  It’s the equivalent of telling a child, “Well, you shouldn’t have been playing in the house but I never told you that so I can’t give you a consequence for it.  For that matter, I can never  ask you to refrain from playing in the house in the future.”

So what can be done?

(Spiritual) Parent Effectiveness Training

To return to our parenting analogy, in the above example, the only just solution is for the parent to go to the misbehaving child and say, “Listen, I am truly sorry for not having told you what my expectations are.  Because of that, I can’t punish you for breaking the window by playing ball in the house.  In fact, I am going to clean up this mess with you.  But moving forward, I promise to do a much better job telling you what my expectations are and why.  In return,  you will need to do a really good job of listening so that if you mess up again, you’ll understand what the consequences are all about.”

In this scenario, 95% of the responsibility falls to the parent to apologize for his or her neglect, map out a plan for the future and communicate that plan along with any future consequences that might need to be imposed to maintain a peaceful and orderly home.

What does this mean to the Church’s approach to divorced and remarried persons.  I would suggest the following.

3 Steps to Bringing Our Children Home.

1.  Share Responsibility for Cleaning Up the Mess.  Allow fast-track annulments on the (newly developed) grounds of poor catechesis/inadequate formation. A valid marriage requires consent but you can’t give full consent if you don’t know what you’re consenting to.  If a couple could demonstrate that they really were not taught by their pastors, catechists, or parents how to practically understand and live the Catholic vision of love, sex and marriage and/or they had no intention of living this Catholic difference in their own marriage then they should be granted a speedy annulment of their first marriage.   Pope Benedict XVI recommended something similar to this.  Frankly, while I am not a canonist (and at the risk of irritating those who are) I imagine that this could potentially be handled similarly to “lack of form” annulments (e.g., when a Catholic gets married in a non-Catholic church without permission f the bishop) which are typically the easiest and fastest annulments to grant. All the couple would have to do is fill out a form that describes their understanding of marriage at the time of their first wedding.  It would be pretty easy to assess their capacity to live what the Church means by marriage.  Validity wouldn’t necessarily require some theologically developed answer on the part of couples.   Something along the lines of “I understood that God chose this person for me so that we could help each other be better Christians and help each other get to heaven.”  would be sufficient to establish an ability to consent to the Church’s vision of marriage.

Following this, they would need to go through a marriage catechumenate (see #3 below) in order to have their second marriage convalidated.

As far as communion goes, to maintain both the integrity of the sacrament and to be as generous as possible to couples who were in this process, bishops could grant permission to couples to be admitted to communion even before the annulment process was complete based upon their own assessment and/or the pastor’s recommendation of the sincerity of the couple and the veracity  and validity of their response to the initial assessment.  The determination by a bishop or designated pastor of a “founded hope” that the annulment would be granted  would be sufficient grounds for readmission to communion.    This places the responsibility on the Church to move the process along instead of making the faithful responsible for delays in the juridical process.

2.  Formators Called to Penance.  The fact that so many couples are completely ignorant of the Catholic vision of marriage and would not be able to articulate the basic statement I wrote above is–quite simply–the fault of our spiritual “parents”: our bishops, pastors, catechists, and family life ministers.  The church should ask all people who are responsible for marriage preparation to do  penance for failing the faithful.  They should be asked to fast and engage in other mortifications in order to make reparations for their dereliction of duty and to remind themselves that they must do better in the future.  Their penance would be an act of generosity to married couples, a display of authentic mercy, and it would communicate a commitment to do a better job forming the next generation of Catholic families.  Most importantly, it would place the responsibility for the current mess squarely where it belongs.  Not on the poorly formed faithful, but the failed formators.

3.  Initiate Marriage Catechumenate.  Marriage prep as we know it should be scrapped and replaced with a marriage catechumenate.  This is one of the best ideas I have heard coming out of the synod. NCRegister explains this idea here but the short version is that a marriage catechumenate is a longer period of preparation that emphasizes the role of marriage in living a Christian life.  This would be a HUGE gift to couples and would contribute mightily to challenging the divorce culture in and outside of the Church. It would also go a long way to helping to form “intentional disciples” that is, adults who understood how to bring their faith into their homes and out into the world so that God could both open their hearts to his grace and enable Catholic couples to be an effective witness in the world.

I don’t pretend to have the final and/or best answer to the serious challenges the Synod Fathers are facing.  But I believe that the above represents a more authentic approach to merciful pastoral care than is being presented by some of the more progressive elements in the Synod.

In the meantime, if you would like to undergo your own marriage catechumenate and learn what it takes to fully and joyfully live the Catholic difference in your marriage, check out the all new, revised and expanded edition of For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage, Just Married: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage, and Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.


Cardinal Kasper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea (and A Better Solution–If I Do Say So Myself)

In preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, many people of good will are floating a lot of different ideas about how the Church should approach various challenges like annulments. (To alexander-300x300read my own previous writings on the annulment issue, including my recommendations for improving the annulment process, go here, here, and here.)

Cardinal Kasper, former President for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, recently waded into the debate with his own suggestion about how to handle the annulment issue.

Before I share his proposal and offer a critique of what I understand the Cardinal to be suggesting, let me say that my post, despite my cheeky headline (with apologies to Judith Viorst), is, in no way, meant to suggest that the Cardinal or anyone else who supports his idea is anything less than a truly faithful son of the Church.  I believe he, and America magazine–which recently endorsed his proposal–truly do have the best interest of couples in mind. I also think that we all agree that the annulment process, as it is currently explained and practiced, is an unmitigated disaster and is in desperate need of significant reform.   Nevertheless, their good intentions don’t mean that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal isn’t a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, idea.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea

Here is the Cardinal’s proposal, as described by America.

 If a Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, without a decree of nullity, “repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”

The Problem

First, the question of forgiveness is misleading.  OF COURSE we should never deny a person forgiveness.  Mercy absolutely needs to be generously extended in every way we can.  But mercy can’t be properly administered if we aren’t clear about the problem we’re being merciful about.  Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion errs because it considers the challenge of normalizing the second marriage as the primary problem but it ignores the real problem, which is that the first marriage is still valid and any attempt at a subsequent marriage is adultery.  Jesus himself says so (Matt 19:9).  No matter how sorry I am, I can’t repent of adultery by going home and committing more adultery–even if my adultery is “orientated and stabilized.”

Cheap Grace

America makes the point of saying that Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion does not challenge the indissolubility of marriage, but that’s exactly what it does!  How can you affirm the indissolubility of marriage by using confession to sweep the first marriage under the rug just to make nice about the second marriage?  That’s not mercy.  That’s cheap grace and it’s offensive on too many levels to count.   Cardinal Kasper’s idea–well-intentioned as it may be–does little but pay lip service to the indissolubility of marriage.

Pastoral Malpractice

Further, I would respectfully suggest that Cardinal Kasper makes the common and tragic error  of divorcing pastoral theology from soteriology.  As pastoral theologian, Andrew Purves argues, you simply can’t have an authentic pastoral theology without a healthy soteriological sensibility.   In other words, in the rush to be merciful, it is too easy to throw the call to transformation, to metanoia, under the bus.  In doing so, you do exactly what Pope Benedict counseled against in Caritas et Veritate, reducing love and mercy to mere sentimentality by fudging essential truths.

A Counter-Proposal

Nevertheless, the current situation is a real problem that needs to be solved.  Here is my counter-proposal (which I explain in somewhat more depth in the links I posted above).

1.  Stop requiring civil divorce before hearing an annulment case.  This is an administrative policy, not a requirement of canon law and frankly,  it imposes an undue burden on couples out of a   bureaucratically chickensh*t desire to kowtow to lawyers who worry–absurdly, I might add–about exposing the Church to alienation of affection lawsuits.  All this practice does is put couples in a bind and  make the Church look petty, redundant, and mean by forcing the couple to drag things up that should have been dealt with on the front end of the process.  Require couples to seek annulments first –before divorce–except in cases of documented domestic violence.  This will enable couples to get the Church’s help and counsel early on instead of forcing couples to handle things for themselves and then asking the Church to function like some kind of ex post facto spiritual “fixer.”

2.  Insist, no, require, that all couples who get civilly divorced without the benefit of #1 above to submit to the annulment process as soon as possible to remain in good standing with the Church.  Don’t say, “It’s up to you if you want to.”  Require it and explain the requirement as an attempt on the part of the Church to provide pastoral support to those who are struggling with the aftermath of divorce.    Again, failing to do so forces people to handle the worst aspects of divorce without any formal support or counsel from the Church. Requiring people to go through annulment asap after a civil divorce gives the Church every chance to find ways to support the faithful who are struggling through this painful time.  Plus, doing this prevents people from waiting until they start to date to begin looking into the process ex post facto  and ending up with the problem I described in the last sentence of point #1 above.

3.  Allow annulments for those who were demonstrably poorly formed in the faith or the Catholic understanding of marriage.  It is unjust to hold people accountable for promises they made in ignorance.  The Church requires consent for a sacrament, but you can’t consent to something you are ignorant of.  Instead we should be putting the responsibility where it belongs–on the Church and its ministers–not the poor couples who have no idea what they’re agreeing to because no one told them in the first place.  If the Church fails to properly form couples, let the failure of those marriages be on the Church not the couple.

I genuinely believe these solutions would be a vast improvement over the current process.  I thing that they would address Cardinal Kasper’s concerns about placing mercy at the center of the process while simultaneously respecting–in an authentic way–the indissolubility of marriage.

Of course, this is just my modest counter-proposal.  What do you think?  Post your thoughts in the comments below!