Remarriage, Repentance, and Reaching Young Adults

Changing the Church’s teaching about Communion and remarried Catholics would create a major obstacle to the catechesis and evangelization of young people

Having spilled some ink on the topic of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics and after closely examining the vast body of definitive Magisterial teaching on the subject, the following is clear to me: Civil remarriage is always an objective grave evil if the first marriage is valid; consequently, the reception of Eucharistic communion and the sacrament of Reconciliation is not possible unless there is repentance and a firm purpose of amendment, which means separation or in cases where this is not possible — i.e., where there are children born from the second union — the commitment to live in complete continence.

The Church’s definitive teaching is unambiguous on this point and cannot change — that is, cannot change without at the same time undermining both her competence and authority to speak about marriage and family in the first place. Thus, I would like nothing better than to move on to the real question at hand: What pastoral approaches can the Church develop as effective means to bring about the conversion and repentance of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics — i.e., separation and/or complete continence — so they are able to once again be admitted to the sacrament of Reconciliation and Eucharistic communion?

After all, the theme for last year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family was: “The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” It would seem that two constitutive components of the Church’s mission to evangelize include: (1) the effort to persuade us to accept and conform our lives to the truth and beauty of God’s will; and (2) the effort to call us to repentance, to change those areas of our lives that contradict God’s will.

As Mary said at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Or as Jesus himself said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mk 4:17).

With the publication of the Lineamenta for this year’s Ordinary Synod on the Family — which includes the rejected paragraph of the Relatio Synodi on the possibility of communion for the civilly divorced and remarried (n. 51), plus questions which call for yet further exploration of the topic — it seems, however, it is precisely these two components of evangelization (persuasion and repentance) that are off the table. At a minimum they are being put on the back burner, while efforts to find ways to change the Church’s teaching to accommodate or integrate those affected, without having to change their situation of objective grave sin, is being put on the front burner.

Like many other Catholics who believe they are called to defend the Church’s teaching on marriage, the Eucharist and Reconciliation, I feel like Al Pacino’s character in The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out . . . they pull me back in!”

My suggestion is to that we look at the issue from what is, for the most part, a largely unexplored angle: the negative affect it will have on Catholic youth and young adults. In a recent interview with Corriere della Sera (English translation at Sandro Magister’s blog), Cardinal Angelo Scola, archbishop of Milan, made the following observation on Eucharistic communion for the civilly divorced and remarried and its seemingly attendant separation between doctrine, pastoral practice and discipline:

[It] raises an educational problem: how can we tell young people who are marrying today, for whom the ‘forever’ is very difficult, that marriage is indissoluble, if they know that in any case there will always be a way out? It is a question that is hardly raised, and this astonishes me.

Having worked in youth and young adult ministry for nearly two decades, I would put the matter in more pointed terms: Our culture is already filled with enough powerful voices bent on persuading young people that it is okay — indeed sometimes even good — for them to have sex outside of marriage. The Church does not need to add her voice to the chorus.

Yet, this is precisely what some bishops would do if they had their way with changing Church teaching to allow Eucharistic communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. We should make no mistake about it. Behind all the nuance and casuistry, behind all the “penitential practices determined by the diocesan bishop,” young people would hear the Church proclaim loud and clear that it is not always an objective grave sin to have sex with someone you are not married to; in fact, in some situations it is actually permissible and good.

As night follows day, we can be sure that young people will object: If adults can have sex with people they aren’t married to, why can’t we? And how should we answer them? By saying that adults are older and more mature, and they can handle the commitment and the responsibility that extra-marital sex entails? At which point, young people would simply bargain things down: if I can have sex outside of marriage when I’m 21-years-old, why not 18-years-old; and if 18-years-old, why not 16-years-old?

Particularly bright young people would push this even farther: what does sex even have to do with marriage? If marriage doesn’t create a permanent bond — such that I can’t break it and enter into a sexual relationship with another person — why should sex create a permanent bond in the first place? And young adults will ask whether there is a significant moral difference between the situations of cohabitation and civil divorce and remarriage. After all, both situations involve extra-marital sex in the Church’s eyes. Thus, if Eucharistic communion is permitted in the latter case, why not in the former? And if cohabiting couples are permitted to receive communion, what would be the hurry to regularize their relationships through sacramental marriage?

I also think of a brother and sister in the youth group I once led, whose dad divorced their mom for a woman who was their mutual friend. Their dad subsequently entered into a civil marriage with the woman and they had a son, forming a new family that didn’t include his older children. What if he had gone through the effort of seeking a decree of nullity and the Church determined that his marriage to their mother was valid? And what if the Church changed the teaching on Eucharistic communion for civilly divorced and remarried Catholics? I can only imagine the pain this would cause for this brother and sister and other young people in similar situations, as well as the resentment they would have towards the Church for, in effect, giving the stamp of approval to the parent whose actions tore their families apart.

There are many doctrinal reasons for maintaining the Church’s definitive teaching on denying Eucharistic communion to the civilly divorced and remarried unless they bring an end to their situation of objective grave sin. This post has focused, however, on some of the serious problems that a change in this teaching would cause regarding the effective pastoral care and evangelization of youth and young adult Catholics. It is difficult for me to imagine how such a change would assist and reinforce efforts to evangelize young people on the virtue of chastity, the indissolubility of marriage, and the necessity of repentance and a firm purpose of amendment when one has sinned in a way that is objectively grave (mortal). In fact, it seems that changing this teaching will present a significant obstacle to the evangelization of young people on these matters, which is already a significant challenge to begin with.

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About Bill Maguire 20 Articles
Bill Maguire earned his Master's in Theological Studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He served for two years as the managing editor of Communio: International Catholic Review and has worked with youth and youth adults in various capacities: youth minister, campus minister, and adjunct professor of theology.