In my imagination I was sitting on the steps of St. Peters reflecting on the Extraordinary Synod of the Family and its final report. Into my musings walked a charming young lady, thoroughly modern Catholic Millie, who stopped to chat and express how thrilled she was with the outcome of the Synod. She is looking forward to the Church changing its teachings and entering the modern world. We sat on the steps of St. Peters sharing the following exchange.
Millie: (Bubbling over with joy and enthusiasm) Oh, aren't you delighted about the Extraordinary Synod on the Family? It gives me such hope that I'll finally be able to go back to Communion. My first husband and I were so young when we got married. We had no idea of the seriousness of what we were doing. And I just hate not being able to go up to Communion with my children.
Me: Have you considered filing for an annulment? Perhaps you have grounds. Have you ever talked to a priest about it? Maybe there was an impediment to you and your first husband contracting a sacramental marriage. In that case, you would receive a declaration of nullity and be able have your second marriage validated in the Church. Then you and your husband, presuming he's a Catholic, could return to Communion. (I hand her a pamphlet on annulment.)
Millie: (frowning) I don't like the idea of denying the validity of the relationship with my first husband. We were young and, maybe silly, but our love was real and we had two children together. It hurts me and I think it will hurt the children to say that our marriage wasn't real.
Me: An annulment doesn't say your marriage wasn't real; it says it wasn't a sacrament. Your marriage was definitely real from a secular point of view, but, it may not have been sacramental. Wouldn't you be happy to have things resolved?
Millie: It's too complicated. My present husband is a Catholic and he was married before too in a big church wedding. Besides, I don't think any couple should have to jump through the annulment hoop to go to Communion. And it seems the pope and the Synod cardinals agree. I believe God wants us to be happy. He's forgiving and full of mercy and compassion. Did you see the final vote tally on the "controversial" paragraphs? The majority of the cardinals think things need to change. And I believe next year when the Ordinary Synod meets, things will change. I've read plenty of articles describing how the pope and cardinals recognize the gifts of couples like my husband and myself and those who are living together and same-sex couples. We have a lot to offer the Church if we aren't discriminated against.
Me: Yes I did see the vote tally and I noticed that pope called for the paragraphs that were voted down by the bishops to be included in the final document. I couldn't help wondering why since they did not get the required 2/3 majority vote to be included. It seems to me to create more confusion. And, in fact, you seem to be confused and unreasonably optimistic that the Church will change its teaching on marriage. That's impossible. Jesus taught that marriage is indissoluble, so if you and your first husband contracted a valid marriage, no one, not even a Church tribunal, can "put it asunder." That's in the Bible. If your first marriage was valid, you and your current husband are living in adultery..
Millie: (angry) That is really insensitive to say! Cardinal Kasper said using that kind of language is offensive and insulting and that's exactly how I find it. You should be more understanding and compassionate. If you haven't walked in my shoes how dare you judge me!
Me: (in a mollifying tone) I can see you're angry and making you upset is certainly not my intent. I'm not judging the state of your soul. That's between you and God. But your actions are objectively wrong. And that's why you can't go to Communion. Perhaps you should consider filing for an annulment. Maybe your first marriage wasn't valid. And your husband could file as well.
Millie: What if my husband and I apply and the Church says his or my first marriage was valid? Then what?
Me: Well, then, like every Catholic is called to do, you need to pick up your cross and follow the Lord. Either you and your husband can live as brother and sister so you can return to Communion or....
Millie: (interrupting) That's ridiculous!
Me: Let me finish. Or you can do the best you can, keep going to Mass and keeping the faith but refrain from Communion and offer up your suffering. I think Our Lady, Untier of Knots, is a good intercessor for these very difficult situations.
Millie: But I know my first marriage wasn't right and my husband's wasn't either and I think God wants us to be happy!
Me: Well, we all want to be happy, but we call this life a "vale of tears." None of us is guaranteed happiness in this life. We are only guaranteed happiness in the next life if we answer the call to "know, love, and serve God" here on earth. And that means keeping His commandments including the sixth and ninth that call for chastity and fidelity.
Millie: Well, I think the pope and the cardinals are more compassionate than you are and I am really praying for a change. After all, if the Church doesn't change, pretty soon there won't be anyone left in the pews. Cardinal Kasper talked about a law of gradualism. We are all trying to do our best and God certainly will respect that and gradually lead us all to heaven.
Me: At the risk of making you upset, I have to say that it sounds to me like you want to conform God to your will instead of conforming your will to His. Some things cannot change! The indissolubility of marriage was declared by God. If a man and a woman, both baptized Christians without an impediment, stand before a priest who takes the place of Christ and pledge their lives to each other their union is indissoluble. No tribunal on earth can dissolve it. As for change, back in the 60's the Birth Control Commission recommended the Church change its teaching on contraception. Many Catholics believed change was coming. It didn't; it couldn't! Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae declaring the unchangeable teaching of the Church that the marital act must be open to life.
Millie: (shrugs) And how many Catholics pay attention to that?
Me: Does it matter how many people pay attention. Is truth determined by a vote of the majority? But, let's say for the sake of argument you're right and the Church is going to change its teaching and allow the divorced and remarried to return to Communion. I have a few questions. You talk about compassion, but where is your compassion for the deserted spouse? It sounds like you and your husband agreed to divorce, but I know men and women (mostly women) abandoned by their spouses who believe their marriages are valid. They continue to keep their vows and some, the women married a long time especially, are left in abject poverty. Where is the justice and compassion in that? In some cases, their children have been taken from them. I was reading the other day about a wife whose husband left her for his same-sex partner. He even got custody. Do you have any compassion for that mother or her children?
Millie: Well, that isn't right, but how does forbidding me Communion change her situation one way or the other?
Me: It doesn't, but should a husband who abandons his wife and attempts to contract another marriage without an annulment be able to receive Communion? Especially when the Church teaches he is committing adultery? I know you don't like the word, but it's the sixth commandment -- "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
Millie: Look, I don't want to hurt anybody. I just want to be able to go to Communion. And I'm optimistic that I'll be allowed when the final synod report comes out. After all, the pope and most of the cardinals support it. There was a time when Catholics couldn't eat meat on Friday, when Communion in the hand and altar girls weren't allowed. Things change. I believe this will too.
Me: (resignedly) You have a false expectation, Millie. Those were not fundamental doctrines. They were Church disciplines. Unfortunately, Communion in the hand and altar girls came about through bishops encouraging disobedience and rebellion among their flocks and then telling the Vatican that the disciplines had to be changed because their people were used to it. That kind of clerical deceit taught people to disobey and rebel and carry on until they got what they wanted. I fear we're seeing that same strategy again. Do you really think that's from the Holy Spirit? Nevertheless, fundamental doctrines cannot change no matter how many cardinals, bishops, priests, or laity vote to change them.
Millie: That's just your opinion.
Me: No, Millie, it's a fact. A valid marriage is indissoluble. Contraception is always immoral when used to prevent pregnancy. (There are some legitimate medical uses for the pill, for example, to treat endometriosis.) There is no such thing as same-sex marriage. Cohabitation is sinful. I don't know whether your marriage was valid or not, Millie, but unless you receive an annulment, you may not go to Holy Communion. And neither can people in those other irregular situations.
Millie: That's not fair!
Me: How so? If I'm in mortal sin, I can't go to Communion either until I go to Confession!
Millie: (distraught) But I can't go to Confession.
Me: You can go, but you can't receive absolution as long as you continue in your sinful circumstances. The reality is that life is filled with suffering. And we choose how to react to it. We can whine about it like children or we can do what Jesus said. "Pick up your cross and follow me." You and your husband can grow closer to God through your faithful suffering. I hope you both will pray for the courage to do that. And I'll be praying for you as well. Would you like to get together for coffee? I'd like to hear about your children. (We agree and hug good-bye.)
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