A central leitmotif of the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family, following the presentation by Cardinal Kasper in the Consistory of February 2014, almost narrowed down to the question of the reception of Holy Communion by the divorce and civilly remarried. Kasper had advocated, based on a reading of Basil and the Fathers; the exceptive clause of Mathew’s gospel; and the economy practice of Eastern orthodoxy, that under certain particular cases, Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried should be allowed access to Holy Communion. Kasper and his allies saw this as a reconciliation of law and mercy, as a new interpretation of worthiness.
The question of the state of worthiness for the reception of Holy Communion dates back to the apostolic times, as evident in the St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Corinth: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examined himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:27-30). Evidently, the early Christians realized that a higher standard was called for on the part of the one who goes forth to receive the Eucharist. One could not be receiving the Eucharist and then living a life that was contrary to the new life in Christ Jesus.
In the Church Fathers, we find recurrent, the teaching of the reception of the Eucharist as conterminous with a particular style of life. We read in Justin the Martyr: “We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined” (Apology, 128). In Irenaeus, the reception of Communion is linked to eschatology, to the definitive new life in the new heavens and the new earth: “For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, consisting of two elements, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible but have the hope of resurrection into eternity” (Adversus Haereses, 234). Clearly, the settled conviction in the Fathers is that the Eucharist calls for a new kind of life, a new way of living that prepares the Christian to live with God forever in heaven, in the presence of God. It takes a certain mode of living here on earth to be able to live with God forever in heaven, and the reception of the Eucharist is an essential experience of the beginning of that new, definitive, eschatological life of bliss and joy.
Does this imply that the Fathers understood the Eucharist as a prize for the perfect? Certainly not! The very invitation to a self-examination before reception, and the ongoing practice of sacramental confession points to the realization by the early Church of the possibility of missing the mark, which is what sin is. The early Christians knew, that being humans, the possibility of turning away from the Creator to serving the creature was a realistic temptation, as Thomas Aquinas would later on define sin. Thus, in the experience of the Church, the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance developed a bond that was realistic and life giving. In order to approach the All-Holy Son of God, the Christian realizes in the timeless words of the Centurion, Lord, I am not worthy – Domine, Non Sum Dignus.
The challenge today is: how do we understand this unworthiness that humanity finds itself before Christ, and how should that be acted out in the reception of the Eucharist? To say that because all are unworthy, therefore all should present themselves indiscriminately for the Eucharist, could only amount to the cheap grace that theologians like Karl Barth and the Lutheran Dietrich Bonheoffer decried in Protestantism. To say that I am not worthy means that at some point, I should be able to recognize that I have gone too far afield, and need to return home in sacramental penance, before receiving the body and blood, otherwise, the risk of drinking judgment and condemnation unto myself, pointed out by Paul to the Church at Corinth, presents a real dangerous possibility.
Consequently, for someone who is cohabiting with a man or woman who is not his or her legal spouse in the Lord, (1 Cor. 7:39), this spiritual experience of Domine, Non Sum Dignus, will be an invitation to live in a hopeful penitential spirit, offered up for the spiritual good of the Church and the world. It will not be merciful for the Church to change her long-standing tradition, based on the explicit prohibition of divorce by Our Lord, in the name of mercy, to allow one living in active adultery (which is what a second marriage without an annulment is), access to the Eucharist.
On the part of the Church, this will imply two things: either adultery is no longer a mortal sin, which, in the Church’s tradition, should exclude one, prior to sacramental confession, from the Eucharistic table; or, the Church, in this new Kasperite mercy, sanctions and approves sexual activity outside the marriage covenant. Either way, it is not possible to change church practice without a change in Church teaching. The wedge between doctrine and practice, now advocated, is at best a Christological heresy, as Cardinal Muller rightly pointed out to the members of the International Theological Commission. It is the same Jesus who says I am the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6).
It is important to quickly point out that no one has a human right to the reception of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a gift. It is therefore not a discrimination to say that certain choices in life stand profoundly at odds with the reception of the Eucharist. If anything, the reception of the Eucharist should challenge the Christian to abandon the old ways of sin. It has often struck me as profound that in the eschatological parable of Mathew 22, the King, after inquiring about why the particular individual was not putting on the wedding garment, asked him to be thrown out! All are called into the Church. But all need the wedding garment of repentance to stay in the banquet hall of Christ, who came, to take away the sins of the world, and continuously invites us to go and sin no more. If God did not take sin seriously, why did Christ come? In the final analysis, the choice is ours: to follow the Jesus of the Gospels, or the Jesus of Boston Globe and the New York Times. Either our instructors are Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, or the editors of the social media. The former promises heaven, the latter, favorable Gallup polls and approval ratings. The stakes are obvious, and as Pascal once said, quite high!