Self-clarification on pastoral problems

A: …The whole thing is a hot mess that makes me despair for the possibility of rational dialogue.

B: It’s not that bad, is it? It’s the usual slogan-swapping that we get with everything.

A: No, in this case there seems like a pathological inability to mention what we’re actually fighting over.

B: Seems pretty obvious to me: admit them or don’t.

A: No, That’s where the problem starts. All this talk about “admitting them to communion” makes it seem like we issue tickets and have turnstiles. It conjures up the image of everyone having to apply for a communion license, and the only question the clerk asks is “so, are you divorced and remarried”?

B: You’re looking for too much logic in what is a pastoral problem.

A: Okay, so what’s that problem? I suppose there’s some canon that specifically singles out the divorced and remarried in a special way, and we want to get rid of it?

B: I don’t know. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

A: If some canon singles out the divorced and remarried, and this canon makes all the divorced and remarried “feel singled out”, then I suppose we could just “stop singling them out”. Maybe we could write more canons about who was “not admitted” to communion so the divorced and remarried wouldn’t feel so isolated. Or maybe we could stop referring to the divorced and remarried under that description and just refer to “those who are not ‘admitted’ to communion”. If all one means by a “pastoral” response is the use of more sensitive language with no change in the facts of who is “admitted” to communion, then a pastoral response is something so hollow that it’s hard to see why anyone would bother to make it.

B: You’re belittling pastoral care. The whole point of Vatican II was to stop the language of condemnation and exclusion and promote a religion of spiritual power and beauty. “Sensitive language” has to be a part of that, even under your tendentious description.

A: So we change descriptions of things without changing the facts described? Do we try to re-frame the issue so that the facts, while not changing, are described in a different way?

B: The issue is over framing and presentation, yes. There does seem to be a smaller group that says that, if divorce and remarriage is a sin, it’s only a single sin of getting remarried. Future acts of intercourse are not sins. Hence Thomas Reese SJ:

The problem is that conservatives do not see divorce and remarriage as simply one sin, which can be confessed and forgiven. They see it as a continuing sin each time the couple has sex.

A: Well, that’s at least a proposition that can be debated, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the “con” side. Has it really come to this, that while conceding that it’s a sin to consummate a marriage, the future sex acts fall under a completely different moral description?

B: You cut off what he says later, though: “Some have portrayed this as a conflict between truth and mercy. Should the church emphasize the teaching or the mercy of Jesus?”

A: No doubt the passive voice protects those too embarrassed to admit what they just said. The account of “truth” in the first sentence is Nietzschean – as though truth were just the ugliness of raw power and exploitation, and was opposed to the sort of “mercy from the bowels” that strikes the good Samaritan. The “mercy” is just as Nietzschean – an absence of truth, a failure to face up to reality.

B: But who’s in conflict with himself now? I know for a fact how much you value Nietzsche, but here you are trying to portray his thought as embarrassing. And isn’t your example at odds with itself? The whole point of the good Samaritan is that out attempts to rationally divide our neighbors from the outsiders is exactly what needs to be overcome by Christ. We need to move past an idea of charity as “he is my neighbor” (in a “state of grace”) and “he is an outsider” (not in “a state of grace”) and get to an account of charity as one who breaks open in mercy for another, and so makes that other a neighbor. 

A: So that is our Catholic Nietzscheanism, eh? Given we have to choose between a “charity of rules” and a “charity of the bowels”, we need to choose the latter?

B: Right. You can see why those who want the latter are at a dialectical disadvantage, since they refuse to give rational criteria the decisive role. You started off in despair of rational argument. You probably should. That’s exactly what can’t be the rule any more. That’s the charity of the Levite and the Priest. How much real charity has come out of centuries of Scholastic wrangling about “mortal sin” and “the state of grace”?

A: That’s a lot of different claims. It’s bizzare that you’re trying to convince me of them.

B: But that’s the usual demonic voice of reason: “How can you live without me? You try to talk yourself out of me, but you’re only using me to do so!” Reason simply works out the inspirations of the bowels.

A: At the end of the day, both of us probably find the voice of the other Satanic.


  1. phamilton said,

    October 31, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    What a great piece of dialogue. I think it captures simultaneously how both sides view themselves, and how both sides view each other. If I wrote this article, I would have spent more time on the disputed teachings in question, mainly Jesus’ words on marriage and St. Paul’s words on Communion. Your choice of the good Samaritan seems to demarcate more precisely the disputed territory.

    I’m not sure the dialogue would have made much sense to me prior to being ordained and hearing a lot of confessions, either. There are a lot of moral quandaries out there, beyond the quandary of the divorced and remarried. In so many cases, the choice upholding the traditional moral teachings of the Church is such a heavy burden, that it is sometimes very, very hard to tell anyone to carry it. I oftentimes wonder if I would be capable of making the choice that I was counseling. And then I send them on their way, promising prayers and being unable to follow up with them in support, given difficulties with the seal of the confessional and anonymity with many of these confessions.

    And yet, I am also amazed at how frequently these same people come back into the confessional, and have made tough decisions, and born the consequences with the patience of saints. I remember one particular instance where I felt awful, awful having to inform a man of the burden he was going to have to carry. I walked back to the rectory and simply sat with my head in my hands, trying to imagine if I would be able to follow my own counsel if I were in his shoes. I sat like that for an hour, and then I heard a ring at the doorbell. This man was back, and he had just finished taking my counsel to the point of no return. He was beaten down, hurt, broken, and yet in some sense also relieved, because he could go on with his life with a clean conscience. I hope that consolation is enough to get him through the rest of desolation.

    Perhaps the reason I recount that story is because it is situations like this one that make me able to understand where both sides of this debate are coming from. And yet, at the end of the day, I myself can’t find it in me to counsel the easier path if it contradicts the teachings of Christ and His Church, no matter how hard it is to do. For me, B’s position is so novel to the Church’s history that if, at the end of the day, it ends up conforming better to Christ’s charity than A’s position, then the Church, in her centuries of law and self-understanding, is wrong. In that case, we should be having this discussion within the bounds of another institution that has a better claim to Christ’s authority.

    I understand B’s instincts; but I could never follow him.

    • thenyssan said,

      October 31, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      Awesome testimony. Saying it twice so it doesn’t get lost in my rambling mess below. Thank you, Father.

    • October 31, 2015 at 5:13 pm

      Towards the end, speaking for B felt like speaking for Satan. Satan can prophesy too (you shall be as gods) but still…

    • thenyssan said,

      October 31, 2015 at 6:14 pm

      Fr., if you are still around:

      Do you think B (and the voices of reform) are priests who are just beaten down, drowned, by years of having to counsel people in these difficult situations?

      • phamilton said,

        October 31, 2015 at 8:13 pm

        Great question. Honestly, I don’t know. I think the movement against the rational element in theology and law has existed long before the issues with the divorced and remarried became society-wide. I think our current dispute is a “logical conclusion” of that line of thinking, pitted against what they rejected.

        And yet, I know one brother priest who, on another moral issue, was so moved with pity for the plight of one of his confessees that he began advocating for some things that I don’t think the Church can ever accept. So I have seen anecdotal evidence to support the idea. And one time, I gave some bad advice to a woman whose situation was so sad that I, in a moment of insanity, instructed her to take the easy way out. (Pray for your priests, please!) Lesson learned. My conscience is too heavy over it to do it again.

        But for me, that was a moment of temporary insanity. In those difficult situations where I see a person’s difficult plight, I usually remind myself of what I know: Christ could have come and made our lives easy. It was fully within His power to do so. And yet, He came to forgive our sins. So Christ must really, really hate sin. More than poverty, hunger and physical/ moral suffering. To be a disciple of Christ, then, is to love what He loves, and hate what He hates.

        He gave us the Church to safeguard for us the knowledge of what is sin and what is virtue. And my job as a priest, to help people get to heaven, is a greater mercy than letting them off easy in a state of sin. So this isn’t a matter of favoring law over mercy. It’s a matter of showing them mercy by helping them to follow the sure path Christ gave us to get to heaven. Remember, it was the Pharisees who separated the law from mercy. Today, we are simply seeing the opposite error, where people separate mercy from the law.

        So that’s along the lines of what I usually tell myself. Sometimes, though, it’s definitely one of those moments where you know something to be true, but the rest of your body probably doesn’t feel it. But welcome to the spiritual life.

      • thenyssan said,

        October 31, 2015 at 8:25 pm

        I will pray for you, Father. Thank you for all you do. I would not want a glimpse into the abyss of sin that Christ saw and entered into; thank you for doing it.

  2. thenyssan said,

    October 31, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    Warning: long and possibly ill-considered.

    I find that I can’t really comprehend the pastoral problem because I only know one marriage well enough–my own. I think I get, in a rational sense, what all those pastoral problems are but I am certain I am falling far short of the reality in my imagination. If I left my wife now, God forbid, and took up with a beautiful secretary, then I can’t imagine still wanting to go to Mass and receive communion. And if I ever changed my mind about that, I would tell my future self to do whatever it takes, no matter what it takes, to rectify the situation so I can receive communion. I recognize that this sounds, and probably is, heartless. And so back to the beginning–I think I don’t really comprehend the scope of the pastoral problem.

    What I find interesting is that only priests possibly can. No married man or woman could appreciate the problem from inside their marriage or irregular situation. If that’s all it is–individuals in a difficult state wanting communion and to remain in their sin–then it’s not really a problem. It’s just the same as any other rebellious will, St. Augustine-style. But assume it’s a real problem, so that it can’t be waved off like that.

    If so, it’s a problem uniquely felt by confessors, and again I can’t even imagine what that must be like (thank you, Father, for that excellent testimonial). For the first time ever, “we” recognize that we are at the mercy of the priests. How many times have “we” bridled at the notion that priests could understand marriage and sexuality better than we can? How many times have “we” snorted at people arguing that priest-confessors, who counsel hundreds of marriages, have a unique kind of expertise in the matter akin to teachers raising children? And yet the usual suspects who deride the competency of priests in marriage now fly to them for refuge and acclaim that very competency. I don’t necessarily mean that cynically, although I suppose I could. If it is genuine, then it is a kind of conversion, or a revelation of what has always been so.

    There are a hundred ways to talk about this hot mess (I’d start with law and who/what it is for, personally), but I find this conversion with respect to priests and marriage to be, as I said before, fascinating.

  3. October 31, 2015 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks for telling me about the absence of a specific rule about the D+R. That said, now I really don’t know what the debate is about. Do we want D+R persons to be special exceptions to the way of dealing with the publicly sinful? Do we want to make it the norm to assume that D+R persons presenting themselves for communion are living as brother and sister? Do we want to drop any rule about withholding communion? Are people actually defending Reese’s idea that consummating acts of intercourse are morally distinct from later acts of intercourse? What exactly is the policy change under consideration?

    Anyone know?

    • thenyssan said,

      October 31, 2015 at 5:44 pm

      What are we talking about? A question I wish the many commentators would be clearer about!

      For the text of the final relatio from the synod, I would just say that it is uselessly vague and almost certainly intentionally so.

      In the comment-sphere, as you say above, matters are being conflated (i.e., hot mess). In a general sense it’s an issue of Canons 915 (pertaining to ministers of holy communion) and 916 (pertaining to recipients) and people not being clear on whether we are talking about the responsibility of the pastor or the responsibility of the faithful. It’s also: What do confessors do with penitents? What do pastors teach in word and writing?

      For matters canonical I follow Ed Peters. He is the paradigm case of clear explication of the law. Can’t miss.

      • October 31, 2015 at 5:54 pm

        Okay, so we’re looking to reform

        Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

        Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.

        What does the reform of that look like, if targeted to the D+R? Is there a proposal somewhere?

    • thenyssan said,

      October 31, 2015 at 6:11 pm

      Without intending to sound belligerent, I would say “No.” There is no proposal. Just a lot of sound and fury. But let me not be so crotchety.

      The so-called Kasper Solution is to move, in some cases, the D+R problem to the internal forum–make it an issue of canon 916, not 915. People convinced that their first marriage is null but who have not received a declaration of nullity could, after a period of penance and proper spiritual direction, receive the Eucharist again without ending their conjugal relations with the second spouse.

  4. November 1, 2015 at 12:28 am

    Pinning down what the policy change is gets even more puzzling when one considers that establishing obstinacy (for the “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin”) is not trivial — in ecclesial law nobody counts as obstinately doing anything unless they have had prior warning about it directed at them, and usually two or three prior warnings, in order to rule out the possibility that they are simply confused or misinformed. The number of cases in which a pastor is actually in a legal position to refuse anyone communion in the first place is necessarily very small. It happens on occasion, but it is a rare event by its very nature; and a priest (rightly) can get into a lot of trouble if he refuses someone sacraments and can’t make the case that he was in a position to know that they met the legal conditions for refusal.

  5. Zippy said,

    November 1, 2015 at 9:51 am

    My guess is that they are looking for a ‘pastoral’ ruling like this one:

  6. Zippy said,

    November 1, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Of course it is arguable that there has already been such a ruling, and they either are not aware of it or just want it repeated loudly:

    • November 1, 2015 at 11:17 am

      It’s hard to see how, simultaneously:

      5. The confessor is bound to admonish penitents regarding objectively grave transgressions of God’s law and to ensure that they truly desire absolution and God’s pardon with the resolution to re-examine and correct their behaviour.


      8. The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin. Nonetheless, in these cases, the confessor must try to bring such penitents ever closer to accepting God’s plan in their own lives, even in these demands, by means of prayer, admonition and exhorting them to form their consciences, and by the teaching of the Church.

      • Zippy said,

        November 1, 2015 at 11:19 am

        Yes it is hard to see how. But the beauty of self contradiction is that, by the principle of explosion, it implies everything and it’s opposite all at once. So starting from contradictory principles lets us do whatever we want.

  7. November 1, 2015 at 10:22 am


    Your interpretation of the law is mistaken. The Pontifical Council for Legislative texts clarified this specifically (

    “1. The prohibition found in the cited canon, by its nature, is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church. The scriptural text on which the ecclesial tradition has always relied is that of St. Paul: “This means that whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord. A man should examine himself first only then should he eat of the bread and drink of the cup. He who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks a judgment on himself.””

    “b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.”

    “3. Naturally, pastoral prudence would strongly suggest the avoidance of instances of public denial of Holy Communion. Pastors must strive to explain to the concerned faithful the true ecclesial sense of the norm, in such a way that they would be able to understand it or at least respect it. In those situations, however, in which these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible, the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy. They are to do this with extreme charity, and are to look for the opportune moment to explain the reasons that required the refusal. They must, however, do this with firmness, conscious of the value that such signs of strength have for the good of the Church and of souls.”

    “4. Bearing in mind the nature of the above-cited norm (cfr. n. 1), no ecclesiastical authority may dispense the minister of Holy Communion from this obligation in any case, nor may he emanate directives that contradict it.”

    Basically, this says that a minister must deny communion to divorced and remarried people who come up for it in public, regardless of whether there was any warning etc. And he must do this even if he has been instructed by ecclesiastical superiors (bishops etc) to do otherwise. The implication of the reference in number 4 to number 1, in fact, is that the Church does not have the authority to change this norm, although that may not actually be the case. But the current norm surely does require such a denial in this situation.

    • November 1, 2015 at 11:39 am

      You seem to be confusing objective status with what is required for taking objective status into account without violating the law (which seems a very common confusion in discussing these proposals); the latter is what I was talking about. The PCLT assumes a case in which the pastor already actually knows the objective situation in question for the purpose of being able to make the relevant decision. What the PCLT explicitly denies is that obstinate persistence itself depends on prior warning or any such precautionary measures in order to be a grave situation, which is not very surprising at all. This is a distinct question from that of discernment, when the pastor is actually in a position to know that he can apply the canons in question without violating other norms, which the PCLT Declaration does not address at all. Denying sacraments on mere suspicion, for instance, is itself a violation of the rights of the faithful as laid out in canon law.

      But you are right that I missed an important qualification: the PCLT does allow for a case in which prior warning is not required for the latter, and that is when the pastor for some reason already has definite knowledge of the state of affairs, and thus already knows that the person in question meets the conditions without requiring further inquiry.

      (4) is irrelevant to the point I was making, since I was speaking of trouble the priest could get into under the law. (Although you are right as to the import of (4) with respect to (1), because canons 915 and 916 have historically been interpreted as being based on divine law — the PCLT explicitly notes this, in fact — those who partake unworthily are endangering their souls, as Paul tells us, and a priest who is deliberately complicit with this has done a very grave wrong. To allow priests to give communion to people they know are unworthy to receive it and thus do so to their damnation is a horrible abomination.)

      • November 2, 2015 at 7:20 am

        If you are supposing that this will allow for cases of distributing communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, again, you are misinterpreting the text. Number 3 says that the obligation to refuse communion remains even when there was no chance to take any precautionary measures or to ensure that the concerned faithful understood the norm, which means it is to be enforced even when they do not understand.

        Including more of the text I did not quote above:

        “2. Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

        The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

        a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

        b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

        c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.”

        Grave sin is present objectively in the case under consideration. Obstinate persistence as defined is present in the case under consideration, as long as they have been living together for sometime. And the manifest character is present if it is public knowledge that the persons are remarried.

        Unless you are not saying what you seem to be saying, your interpretation is one of those which is an “improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.”

      • November 2, 2015 at 2:46 pm

        (1) The Declaration itself explicitly notes one of the cases in which it is legitimate to distribute communion to those who are divorced and remarried, namely, when they are living chastely and it can be done remoto scandalo — i.e., it can be done in a way that will not cause moral confusion to others. This is, and has always been, entirely legitimate.

        (2) As I already explicitly noted, there is a distinction between objective status and what is required for recognizing objective status and applying the canon. The Declaration is clearly about when the former is known: it is arguing against those who want to say that those known to be divorced-and-remarried wouldn’t fall under the canon. It says nothing at all about the latter, taking cases where the status is known to the priests in question.

        But priests have to know the status if they are to apply the law. The obvious case is that the priest might not know at all. The situation would virtually never come up in my parish at all, no matter how many divorced-and-remarried there are, because my parish is a very large parish with an extremely mobile population (the average length of residence is less than two years) with two priests, neither of whom are ever here for more than a few years themselves, with the result that the priests only ever get to know a very tiny portion of the people who tend Mass. They would never know if any divorced and remarried came up for communion, and there’s no way for them to check. It’s simply an error to think that priests everywhere are in a position to know these things.

        Beyond this there are people of whom the priest might have heard things that might lead him to wonder. But rumor is not a foundation for denying people sacraments (imagine a world in which your enemies can deny you the sacraments themselves just by spreading lies about you). And there are increasing cases from there in which the priest knows a little more, up to cases in which he knows the case fully. The Declaration only considers the last of these.

  8. phamilton said,

    November 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Entirely Useless, Brandon is correct. Even the strictest interpretations of these canons (e.g., Cardinal Burke’s) acknowledges that it typically requires a lot of work to meet the requirements to deny a person Communion. And I say “typically” not as a weasel word, but because there are obvious situations where the typical series of warnings can be circumvented, such as when two men wrapped in a rainbow flag and dressed in drag present themselves for Communion. The objective nature of the situation actually requires the priest to deny Communion in those circumstances.

    But the typical situation isn’t so manifestly clear. And so there are many times when the priest, even while having a reasonable certainty that the person is objectively in a state of sin, is required to give the person Communion if they present themselves. People are entitled to their reputation, and the constant pastoral practice of the Church is to give Communion to sinners whose sins are not of a public nature, in order to protect their reputation.

    But even then, some sort of admonition is necessary even before denying a public sinner Communion. This is because a priest needs to be sure that they are publicly sinning, and not merely giving the appearances of doing so.

    Brandon is making all of the correct distinctions. Because yes, it IS possible for SOME people who are divorced and “remarried” to receive Communion. Many who are divorced and “remarried” who, after realizing their sin, choose to live as brother and sister, but stay together due to their responsibilities to their children. To the naked eye, they appear to be public sinners. But they might in fact be living completely honorably. Whether they are sinning cannot be determined until the priest has talked to them. And after he does talk to them, he needs to give them some time to do the right thing before he publicly denies them Communion.

    Furthermore, if he determines that they are living in sin, he is to advise them to do the right thing, appropriate to their circumstances, and not to receive Communion in a state of sin. But even then, if they present themselves for Communion, the priest isn’t to deny it to them. Who knows? They might have gone to confession to another priest. The priest is still required to give them the benefit of the doubt. He then needs to follow up with them. And if, after a prudent number of follow ups, he realizes that the couple simply refuses to repent, then and only then should he refuse them Communion.

    It’s a long process, and Brandon is right: it takes quite a bit of work to show that someone is sinning obstinately.

  9. November 3, 2015 at 11:45 am

    I agree; the Declaration explicitly addresses one specific question, about whether the law extends to the divorced-and-remarried, and this question is logically quite different from the question of the conditions that have to be met in order for particular priests to know when the law is to be applied, which the Declaration at no point addresses. Therefore the Declaration’s ‘yes’ answer to the former does not tell us anything about what conditions have to be met for actual priests in actual priests to know that he is within the law — not just these canons but the entire law governing reception of the sacraments and establishing the rights of the faithful with respect to them — in refusing communion. Relevance to the one simply does not imply relevance to the other.

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