Is Ross Douthat right that offering communion to divorcees will bring down the Catholic church?

Is Ross Douthat right that offering communion to divorcees will bring down the Catholic church? October 31, 2014

I had always thought of Ross Douthat as one of the “reasonable conservatives” whom I could read and often agree with. But his recent freakout in response to some of the proposals brought up by Pope Francis’s Synod of the Family has raised some questions for me. I’m particularly intrigued by his claim that offering communion to remarried divorcees would “put the church on the brink of a precipice.” Huh?

Douthat writes:

On communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.

So unless you banish divorcees from the communion table, then you’re basically giving divorce your blessing and saying there is nothing sinful about it? That’s quite a conflation! First of all, let’s be clear that Jesus never said if somebody is divorce and remarried, they are not allowed to take communion. In Matthew 19, Jesus was correcting the misogyny of Mosaic divorce law, under which a man could throw his wife into the street for any reason as long as he provided a certificate of divorce by which she could prove to her next prospective husband that she was legitimately available. Jesus was saying no, you can’t throw your wife out in the street if another younger woman catches your fancy, because that’s adultery, whether or not you first pull together the official paperwork to tell your current wife to get out.

Jesus gave his teaching on divorce in a patriarchal context in which only men could initiate divorce and it was absolutely devastating for the women who were thrown out of their homes and often into begging or prostitution as a result. This doesn’t mean that his teaching doesn’t apply today, but we shouldn’t pretend that its context is irrelevant. If you divorce your spouse in order to marry somebody else, then yes, that’s adultery even if you technically didn’t cheat before signing the official papers. What I’m not so sure about is whether Jesus would say in our post-patriarchal context today that divorcees who didn’t divorce their spouse in order to jump into bed with somebody else are committing adultery if years down the road, they find a new spouse.

Certainly there is sin involved whenever divorce happens. It’s always a tragedy. And it’s usually very complicated. The sin involved in divorce is almost always on both sides, whether it’s 50/5o or 60/40 or even 90/10. If you check out of your marriage and give yourself over to your career and your spouse is the one who actually has an affair with another person, then you are not completely innocent even if exposing that affair gives you the right to call the whole thing off.

What about cases of abuse? The Bible never says explicitly whether it’s okay to get out of a physically or emotionally abusive marriage, but any Christian who isn’t an idiot would say that a victim of abuse should have the right to leave that relationship immediately and not be considered an adulterer upon marrying somebody else.

Let’s say you do something really stupid and sinful that gives your spouse a completely legitimate reason to divorce you. Do you have to spend your life completely alone after that if you want to remain a part of the body of Christ? Or is it possible to go through a process of repentance, healing, and growth, after which you can start over with a new spouse? Yes, it’s absolutely true that you are made one flesh with another person when you first get married and when you get divorced, it’s no less spiritually traumatic than ripping one body back into two bodies. But I don’t think that somebody who’s been made one flesh and then torn apart can’t be put back together again with somebody else.

I have a particular perspective on this. I am the second husband of my wife. Given the circumstances in which her first marriage ended, she would have had no trouble getting an annulment from the church if she were Catholic. But she still carries the wounds of having been made one flesh with somebody and having that ripped away from her. And despite those wounds, we have a healthy, fruitful marriage that God has richly blessed. Even if she did carry some of the blame for her divorce, I don’t think that would make our marriage into a sacrilegious curse. So what percentage of the fault would have to be hers for our marriage to be something God refused to be a part of? It’s a ridiculous question that reveals the absurdity of interpreting Jesus’ teaching to say that remarriage is automatically adulterous.

I know a man who has a very committed marriage with the woman he stole from her first husband. He continues to carry a tremendous amount of guilt for his adultery. One of the things we lack and desperately need in the United Methodist church is some real protocol for penance so that people who are haunted by their past sins can receive healing and reconciliation with God beyond a blithe blanket absolution. But I don’t think it’s a solution even for two people whose marriage is the result of an adulterous affair to say that they must get a divorce and seek reconciliation with their original spouses or spend the rest of their lives alone. I think God can bless and use even a relationship that had its origin in pure sin.

Now the other side of this whole question is whether you can take communion when you’re in a state of sin. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” This passage is the basis for the Catholic church’s belief that only baptized Catholics who aren’t in a state of unrepentant sin can receive communion. I definitely agree that communion is only a blessing to the degree that we receive it in the right spirit, but I think it’s important to name that Paul was talking about people getting drunk and being utterly disrespectful at the communion table (1 Cor 11:21), not saying that anybody with any sin on their conscience would “eat and drink judgment against themselves” by taking communion.

In my United Methodist church, we have an open communion table, meaning that we invite everyone to receive, whether or not their souls are right with God, since we believe that communion is an expression of God’s unconditional grace towards us. I think the way to honor 1 Corinthians 11 is to avoid being flippant about communion and to give it the reverence and dignity it deserves as a sacrament. But if I waited until my conscience was clear to receive communion, I would never take it. I tend to be a very self-critical, guilt-ridden person. And God uses communion to dissolve my guilt and invite me into his grace. The more that I embrace his unconditional love, the more I’m determined to let him replace my guilt with his righteousness.

I realize I’m not a Catholic, but I feel pretty confident telling Ross Douthat that, no, the church is not going to fall apart if it offers the body and blood of Christ to wounded people who made serious mistakes whose irreversible nature should not banish them to the outer darkness forever. 


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  • Father

    I don’t want to seem like I’m trying to lecture you on things that I think you already know, so I will only say that I think that some of your wording, by its lack of nuance, misrepresents the Catholic understanding of the sacraments of matrimony and the Eucharist.

  • sweetmusic

    The issue is the Catholic Church’s attempt to have it both ways. It can’t believe that divorce and remarriage is adultery–which is established Catholic doctrine–and still believe divorced Catholics may receive communion without violating another established doctrine–that one may only receive communion if one is free of serious sin. One or the other doctrine would have to give way to avoid contradiction. But if this happens, then the Church’s authority would be compromised–its claim to teach infallibly. So this issue is fraught with danger in terms of Church identity. If a single infallible doctrine should suddenly be declared fallible, the claim to infallibility by Church authority would be destroyed and there would be no need for a magisterial hierarchy at all since its chief office has been to protect without change the original teachings of Christ. Doctrinal change involves more than the simple pastoral issue of whether or not divorced Catholics may receive communion. Douthat is right to warn of this. The pope is indeed on the edge of a precipice if he pushes for doctrinal change..

  • Audrey Hona

    When people divorce, it’s always such a tragedy. At the same time, if people stay together it can be even worse.
    http://www.savemarriagecentral.org