I’ve been taking some time with Sister Meg Funk’s 1998 book Thoughts Matter. In it she channels the great desert monk John Cassian and applies his fourth century principles for stabilizing the thoughts of the believer. I’m barely one-third of the way into the book, and I’m taking it very, very slowly. This is very, very good material. In Chapter Three, “About Sex” I found a few items of interest. More on that in a bit.
In researching my monthly liturgy column for a print publication, I was tuning into stories from German-speaking Europe on welcoming (or not) the divorced and remarried Catholic to Communion. When chided that the divorced-and-remarried and intermittent churchgoers should not receive Communion, the adults remained sitting at this First Communion Mass in Austria. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Is Father Z happy because all those sinners stayed put? Is NCR happy because this was some kind of a sullen solidarity with the forty percent (of German Catholics who are divorced)? Are we lurching toward a Council of Trent proposition that Catholics don’t (and maybe shouldn’t) have to show up for Sunday Mass?
Archbishop Zollitsch and Cardinal Meisner have their dust-up about sacraments for the divorced-and-remarried. The German Bishops’ Conference Prez isn’t backing down, saying it is a “question of mercy.” I think it’s good this issue stays in the discussion basket. Maybe the saints of history can assist us. Sister Meg isn’t connecting these dots explicitly, but she does mention when John Cassian believed it was important for a monk to take a spiritual “time out,” as it were:
(He) wrote a section suggesting that it would be beneficial sometimes to require a monk to take a day’s journey from the monastery in order to reduce stress and allow him to return after such a journey to better relationships within the community. Cassian states that this is a permission to be absent—not an expelling, a punishment, or an isolation technique. This monk is not to be denied the Eucharist, or coming to the table. This leaving is for the sake of returning. It provides time for the monk to work the passions down to a less compulsory intensity. Evagrius, the teacher of Cassian, gives the following advice: Withdrawal in love purifies the heart. Withdrawal with hate agitates it. (Thoughts, p. 42)
The first thing I thought of when I read this was the non-violent method of child behavior modification, the time out. My wife and I used it very effectively when the young miss was young. There were times she was upset. And at times, the time out was as much for me or my wife to get our own upset managed. There was always a hug upon the return from the corner, even if grudgingly given. And a point was made about returning to normal as soon as time out was done.
The situation with a divorced-and-remarried person is more grave than scrawling “The Chamber of Secrets has been opened” on the bedroom wall. But I think that Cardinal Meisner, and others concerned about scandal and the sacramental life must realize that the Orthodox, whom Catholics recognize as having entirely valid sacraments, will permit a divorced person to return to Communion.
Any serious Catholic, including zealous cardinals, must concede that the matter of receiving Communion is not one of scandal, but of discipline. Where it is a matter of sinfulness, that is worked out between the believer and her or his confessor. It is not dictated from higher levels. Where there are legal marital irregularities, that is worked out by secular agencies. Once those matters are satisfied, a second marriage may be blessed, and the estranged believers returned to a full sacramental life.
Later in this chapter on thoughts “About Sex,” Sister Meg reports that in the desert tradition, the sacraments were seen also as part of the remedy needed for the believer beset by troubles, sins, and such, even “when undergoing the fires of sexual passions.” (Thoughts, p. 43, citing John Cassian Institute VI.3)
To be sure, I’m not advocating any sort of blanket amnesty for all Catholics married “irregularly.” What I do suggest is that the situation for serious believers would optimally be resolved by a pastor and/or spiritual director. I suggest that the exploration of reconciliation focus not only on the “sin” of divorce and a broken relationship, but also on a reception of love (not hate) and the exploration of the role of the sacraments in lay life. What I hope would result from this is a renewed appreciation for the Eucharist, not a free pass to do as one wishes. I think this is where we Roman Catholics can rid ourselves of this whiff of pelagianism in the suggestion that good conduct will reward a believer with sacramental participation. And I think we do need to maintain a seriousness about the matter of broken marriages. We always attempt reconciliation whenever possible. We prepare couples before they enter into marriage. Hopefully we do that in exceptional ways, probably with greater care than we do even for the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance, and Confirmation.
Let me offer a few possibilities for Roman Catholic pastoral ministry in an era that has moved beyond marriage tribunals.
A “casual” Catholic was sacramentally married for a brief time, just a few years, experiences a divorce, and then remarried several years ago. The second marriage is “irregular” but has demonstrated clear stability, children, and a reasonably evident witness of respect, love, and commitment. Said Catholic approaches the Church to return to a more active faith life. More active, say, than sending kids to Catholic school. An exploration of reconciliation, or marital commitment, of inviting Christ into the marriage, and a non-sacramental blessing of the second union: what more would be needed? And how long? Several weeks, possibly a few months, and possibly joined with guidance from an experienced married couple and a spiritual director.
A “committed” Catholic was sacramentally married for several years, active in the Church, parish-involved, parented children, but was largely at fault in a marital break-up, perhaps because of grave sin. The person has remarried recently and wishes to return to a life like it used to be. I think this situation should be viewed with more circumspection. Hopefully not from a sense of “hate,” but with the awareness that such a person is very likely aware of Church teaching on marriage, and perhaps has allowed her or his passions to disrupt the lives of many loved ones and friends. I’d hesitate about saying “never” to a return to the Eucharist. But I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that a full reconciliation in the Church be handled much more carefully.
Obviously, most situations fall in between these extremes. It is here that a sound local judgment will usually be better than institutional policy. Even in the situation of an unrepentant sinner, we should hold out hope that a baptized believer may yet be welcomed by the Lord. More joy in heaven, right? And who are we to circumvent joy among the Communion of Saints?
I suspect God gives situations in which the sacraments are an occasion of the grace needed to tip a believer back from exile. That’s a discussion that’s needed today.