It’s rare to hear a bishop be so blunt, but Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin is that and more in his column for his diocesan newspaper:
I understand completely the arguments against taking a more “pastoral approach” to this topic, primarily that to do so would betray the sacred teaching of Christ we are obliged to uphold. I know that even within the current discipline, divorced and remarried Catholics, though barred from Holy Communion, are still valued members of the Church and that there are many ways for them to participate in ecclesial life. And I believe in the value of “spiritual communion” as a truly worthwhile devotional practice for those unable to receive the sacrament.
But at the same time, the Church has taught the pre-eminent value of receiving the Holy Eucharist, and I keep hearing the words of Jesus about the Eucharist, words that are just as valid and important as His words about marriage: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53)
I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have “dropped-out” of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion.
What’s the solution to this dilemma?Well, for starters, can we at least think about simplifying the annulment process so that it’s more akin to the current practice of receiving various dispensations for marriage, handled completely at the local level with the oversight of the Diocesan Bishop? Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?
In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion? And don’t we already offer Holy Communion to other individuals whose relationship with the Church is impaired, such as Orthodox Christians?
Whatever the outcome of the deliberations, it is important that any “pastoral approach” to divorced and remarried Catholics be adopted by the Universal Church and not attempted at the level of national, diocesan or parish churches. To impose local solutions to this widespread problem would be completely dishonest and misleading, causing only confusion and division.
I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. There are many other Church leaders, including our Pope and bishops and theologians, who are a whole lot smarter and holier than I am, wrestling with this issue. We should pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will guide their discernment.
And, while you’re at it, check out canon lawyer Ed Peter’s measured and thoughtful response.