If the last two years of Synods and the resulting Apostolic Exhortation have taught us anything, it is that the question of allowing civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion is not one which is going to leave us any time soon. It seems that despite the clear teaching of previous papacies, there are many within the Church who feel ill-at-ease with the status quo. Indeed, while Pope Francis’ call for the Church to be a place of mercy is not at all a novelty (which a simple reading of both Popes john Paul II and Benedict XVI will show), his mission to those on the margins and willingness to discuss what many might already consider to be a closed book is a common feature of his hands-on approach.
Framed within the context of mercy, discussions around the nature of the sacrament of Holy Communion and the mode of its reception have become commonplace in Catholic parochial houses, parish halls and online on blogs and in comment boxes. The myriad of commentaries that surrounded the release of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia focussed primarily on a footnote which was either a source of sorrow, fear, or mystification on one hand, or a source of jubilant rejoicing at the notion of ‘change’ or ‘progress’ on the other. These competing responses seem to represent a kind of dualism which has arisen in the Catholic mind between doctrine on the one hand, and mercy on the other.
But does this dualism actually exist? Is it possible to be at once merciful and to adhere to doctrine?
It is here that we must consider the nature of mercy, beyond popular notions of rule-bending or breaking, or any kind of notion of what Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’, and, in a very real sense, the merciful person must consider what is actually good for people in certain situations in light of every person’s eternal destiny.
Here the now familiar image of the Church as field hospital used by Pope Francis might be of use:
I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.
This imagery is as startling as it is profound – and it goes without saying that even the most obtuse amongst us will realise that we are living in a time of tremendous spiritual suffering. The plague of pornography, of widespread acceptance of contraception, divorce, unnatural unions, euthanasia and the like has taken its toll on ourselves and our loved ones, be they friends, neighbours, or those in our own families.
In such a situation of severe suffering, those providing ‘first aid’ on a battle front need to take swift and decisive action – but it should be carefully administered.
Perhaps it betrays my own lack of experience, but the imagery of the field hospital reminds me of a particular episode of the television series M*A*S*H*. In a particular episode (specifically, Season 6 – Episode Y114 – Patient 4077) the doctors of the battlefront hospital have occasion to treat wounded British soldiers. These wounded men are evacuated to the hospital with severe belly wounds, and on the way their comrades, in order to provide them some semblance of comfort, give them tea to drink, a primitive kind of ‘first aid’ of a distinctly English nature for their wounded.
What is most unfortunate in this instance is that, while the tea was given as a sign of care and compassion for the wounded, it in fact does more harm than good. The doctors in the show are left befuddled at the English insistence that their provision of tea to those suffering significant belly wounds was a good thing, and the doctors are left dealing with more severe threats through infection and the like.
There is basic biblical principle here too. Paul gave ‘milk’ over solid food to those in his care in the Church in Corinth as they were not yet ready for solid food (cf. 1 Cor3:2). Quite simply, eating food if we are not properly disposed can do us more harm than good, and we can see that the same could be said of the Eucharist.
If someone who is starving asks or even begs for food, and it is known that because of their physical condition that to do so would be harmful, or worse still fatal for them, there must be a firm resolve not to give in to their request – no matter how much they might plead. It is a mark of true mercy – of true love – to patiently absorb their protests, and only offer that which is safe for them in their state, even though that sustenance may at the time seem very meagre, bitter, and uninviting.
There are many amongst us who are, for whatever reason, unable to receive the Holy Eucharist and in this one must trust that Holy Mother Church, which exists for the salvation of souls, takes this vocation seriously. This particular teaching of the Church concerning those Catholics who are civilly divorced and remarried is not cold and unmerciful, nor does it leave these people to ‘starve sacramentally’. A truly pastoral approach is personalised and administered in the light of eternity. The Church, in her wisdom invites and encourages all to avail themselves of sacramental nourishment available through the practice of spiritual communion and Eucharistic Adoration, and she walks alongside those suffering outside full communion.