Guy Crouchback, the hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, is a Catholic aristocrat deserted by his wife while still in his thirties. He resigns himself to a solitary and childless future because remarriage is contrary to the sacramental discipline of the Church, and Guy is a devoted Catholic.
His more worldly associates cannot comprehend his willingness to sacrifice personal happiness rather than abandon church law and remarry, but for Guy it is a matter of principle: the permanence and indissolubility of Christian marriage. He accepts his consequent loneliness, and even the possible end of the Crouchback line, as part of the price of Christian virtue.
Today many Catholics do not accept the Church’s teaching about remarriage and admission to Communion with the same docility as the fictional Guy. Recent official documents (e.g. One Bread, One Body) strive to express sensitivity to the pain of those affected by marriage breakdown while reiterating the traditional norms. But observance of these norms is far from universal. Occasionally there are claims that the Church’s regulations are both outdated and heartless.
It seems that some church members regard Catholic sacramental discipline as existing on paper only, like ancient, obscure by-laws which no modern council or constabulary would ever attempt to enforce. Several divorced and remarried Catholics reject the relevant norms and receive Communion during Mass, often with the agreement - or the acquiescence at least - of the celebrating priest. Many remarried couples deliberately decide not to seek an annulment of previous marriages, believing perhaps that the process is too lengthy and too emotionally fraught.
I am sure that, subjectively, many who defy the Church’s regulations in this area are not simply acting out of vanity and self-righteousness. Nevertheless it would be comforting to think that they might eventually be persuaded to embrace the traditional discipline and, more importantly, the basic gospel principles that lie behind it.
Why, first of all, have we witnessed such a great change in attitude and practice among Catholics? The truth is, I believe, that as in so many other areas of Church life, we have been blown badly off course by the secular currents circulating in the culture at large. In general, where aspects of Christian faith have appeared difficult, harsh or unreasonable to the unbelieving mentality (as Christ warned us they always would) there has been a tendency among modernising Christians to substitute the softer, less exacting values of secular humanism.
Many contemporary churchgoers conjure an image of God as wholly caring and forgiving, a tolerant, avuncular figure who, the formula goes, loves us unconditionally and always accepts us, no matter what we do.
This projection of the modern permissive mentality overlooks the fact that God’s distinctive love was revealed above all in the passion of Christ, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sake of those who engineered his death. To enter into the mystery of God’s life we need to embrace this sacrificial love ourselves.
Believers who progress in their knowledge of God do not conclude that they can sin with impunity because God is bound to forgive them regardless. This would be a very shallow and deformed version of the Christian revelation. Rather they grow in the conviction that the way of divine love unavoidably involves picking up the cross and losing their life in order to find it (Matthew 10: 38-39). “How narrow is the gate that leads to life,” Christ said, “and how rough the road; few there are who find it” (Matthew 7:14).
Secondly, allied to the permissive image of God, I think, is a misleading concept of religious faith as a source of personal well-being and fulfilment.
It is easy to see how, from this standpoint, some people are outraged by the idea that devotion to God might entail subjecting ourselves to regulations that actually prohibit our preferred means of attaining contentment. Among men and women who have skimmed the surface of Christian spirituality there is often shocked disbelief that God or “the Church” could stand in the way of anything that adds to their happiness. It is mainly on this ground that official blessing is now often sought for second marriages as opposed to the traditional condemnation of adultery.
Here we need to ask ourselves as present-day followers of Christ: where is happiness actually to be located?
God’s ways are not men’s ways and genuine spiritual life always begins with conversion: a dawning of awareness that the meaning of human existence is not found in the apparently self-evident, reasonable propositions entertained by the majority of men and women, but in the folly, scandal, and “nonsense” of the gospel (1Corinthians 1:17ff). Jesus compared this dawning of true awareness of God to a man who finds treasure in a field and immediately surrenders all his possessions to obtain it. That is to say, when we locate happiness in “the one thing necessary” - our relationship with God - previous life goals and notions of self-fulfilment are left behind.
Also relevant here is the fact that that on many occasions the disciples were amazed by the high standard of ethical conduct Jesus seemed to demand from them: not only their outward behaviour but their inner intentions must be free from the predatory, self-seeking spirit which is entrenched in all of us. When his listeners protested at the impossibility of ever reaching such a lofty standard of holiness Jesus had to remind them that what is unattainable through purely human capacities becomes possible once we start to rely on the grace of God.
It is wholly consistent with Jesus’ notions of the self-denial involved in seeking to share God’s life to suggest that those whose marriages fail will be given the strength to carry this particular cross, in all its painful ramifications, without breaking the vows they made to their husband or wife or entering a second relationship.
“Let each man glory in his own sufferings and not in another’s,” wrote St. Francis of Assisi. We do not get to dictate the circumstances in which our particular vocation to holiness is to be worked out; nor do we usually get to choose the forms of sacrifice we believe to be manageable or best matched to our imagined strengths.
Applied to partners in a broken marriage this would imply that they try to interpret their relationship breakdown as the particular form of suffering through which they are being called to grow in holiness, and the specific circumstance of life in which they are being invited to turn to God to carry them. Partners who remain faithful to their original marriage vows, striving to react with a self-emptying and sacrificial love to their burden of hurt, anger and depression, are surely showing the willingness to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” which Christ recommended to all his followers.
Of course there are always going to be times when an experience of adversity finds us unready to respond with perfect, Christ-like love. But as a general principle of the spiritual life we cannot deny that the most profound disasters and failures in our life are often, in the long run, the means by which we are drawn more closely towards God.
Often we only recognise this truth in retrospect; during the time of pain our vision is too clouded and confused. But many believers testify that an experience of enormous and seemingly irrecoverable loss turned out to be the catalyst that helped them discover the “treasure in the field”. For Christian men and women the collapse of a marriage may well act as such a catalyst if they are prepared to view their experience through the eyes of faith.
Another dimension of the issue is that some Catholics who re-marry feel entitled to continue taking Communion during Sunday Mass. They are not satisfied with the Church’s official stance that they must refrain from receiving Communion while making efforts to “deepen their understanding of the value of sharing in the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, of spiritual communion, of prayer, of meditation on the Word of God, and of works of charity and justice”.
One thing we might bear in mind here is that while the Eucharist is certainly central to Catholic spiritual life there is more to following Christ than receiving Communion.
The early desert fathers, for example, certainly recognised the value of participation in the Eucharist, but their withdrawal to remote areas in order to pursue God through solitary prayer and contemplation meant that they had to leave regular sacramental practice behind.
Far from being fixated, as many modern Catholics are, on the reception of Communion, they were all too aware that the sacraments, however valuable, were not the only source of God’s grace. Deprived of Communion for months or even years on end, they drew closer to God by every other means: prayer, reflection, spiritual reading, radical simplicity of lifestyle, cultivation of the Christian virtues. These are also the means of contact and communion with God open to those excluded from Communion for other reasons.
Another consideration is that until recently most Catholics who faithfully attended Mass every week actually received Communion very rarely – perhaps only twice or three times a year. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the subsequent liturgical changes that most Catholics assumed the now common practice of taking Communion virtually every time they come to Mass.
Previously Catholics often abstained from Communion because a sense of their own sinfulness and unworthiness prevented them from approaching God too casually.
More recently the appreciation of the Mass as something sacred, which should elicit a humble, reverential attitude on our part, has been eroded. The notion of communal gathering has been emphasised instead and at least implicitly the Mass has been re-construed as a prayer meeting fostering a general sense of inclusion among those present. One suspects that for many Catholics the act of receiving Communion is now little more than a sign of fraternity and group-belonging, while non-reception of Communion symbolises exclusion in a way that simply wasn’t possible when the majority of Massgoers abstained.
There is an irony in the fact that for centuries Catholics considered themselves full members of the Church in spite of frequent voluntary abstention from the Eucharist, while today, with far higher rates of marriage breakdown and second marriages, many Catholics now take the view that “if you can’t go to Communion there’s no point going to Mass at all”.
This is a faulty understanding, rooted in a sort of Eucharistic consumerism. By rediscovering the other important aspects of the Mass, and the wider demands of Christian discipleship, those in second marriages should be able to comply with the Church’s sacramental norms without feeling somehow “barred” from the community. Indeed we all might retrieve that older sense of the value of abstaining occasionally from Communion in admission of our unworthiness to unite ourselves with the divine sovereign.
In an ideal world remarried Catholics would resolve their predicament in a spirit of humility, accepting that exclusion from the Eucharist, like any loss or deprivation, may actually prove to be an opportunity for spiritual growth. It is certainly sad to see the state of division that exists in many parishes today, with some men and women content to obey the Church’s norms in a self-effacing spirit, while others exalt their own opinions above the authoritative norms and continue to present themselves for Communion.
When the Eucharist, which is intended to both symbolise and strengthen the Church’s unity of faith, is transformed into a gesture of individualistic defiance, it is difficult to see what grace or spiritual benefit the protestors receive by their actions. Fr. William Saunders is surely correct when he states that “if a person loves our Lord so much and has such devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, that person ought to want to obey Church law, not thwart the law, if not out of agreement then out of humility.”
Again, it is matter of acknowledging that if we find ourselves excluded from the Eucharist for any reason we are more likely to grow in holiness by accepting the sacrifice involved than we are by asserting ourselves in breaches of church discipline that often end in deeper bitterness and alienation. If we are genuinely seeking God’s will in every aspect of our lives then the decision to abstain from Communion will arise voluntarily from our own conscience.
In conclusion, then, I would argue that it is a great mistake to cast the whole issue of divorce, remarriage and admission to the Eucharist in legalistic terms. No Church “rules” exist purely to enhance the authority of the ecclesiastical teaching office and even less to block people’s access to God.
As I have tried to suggest, the solutions in this difficult area, as in many others where Catholicism has collided with secular notions of morality, lie in a deeper understanding of the perspectives of classical Christian spirituality: a humble acknowledgement that we are all “unprofitable servants”, redeemed by God’s pity and mercy, and called in turn to manifest his divine love during our earthly voyage. Married or alone, we cannot go far wrong if we set our course by these bearings.
Notes and References
St. Francis of Assisi on suffering quoted in Salvation, Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, by Valerie Martin, Abacus, 2001; quotation about Church’s stance regarding remarried Catholics and non-admission to Communion in article 6 of The Reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and re-married, by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1994; Fr. William Saunders’ comment in “Limits to Receiving the Eucharist” at http://www.catholicherald.com/saunders/98ws/ws981119.htm.