The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.
A Brief Overview of the Events surrounding the Controversy
In the Roman Church a battle is raging over Pope Francis’s controversial apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In it the Pope seems to be altering an old pastoral practice of refusing communion to the divorced and remarried who has not made a commitment to live in celibacy. (As it is cumbersome to keep typing out the entire set of conditions whereby one is forbidden from receiving communion in this context, I shall simply use the phrase “the divorced” as a short hand for the entire claim, notwithstanding the irritation of canon lawyers at this imprecise condensed claim.) The offending paragraph can be found in Chapter VIII Footnote 351 of that letter which reads:
Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.351
351. In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium [24 November 2013], 44: AAS 105 , 1038). I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak” (ibid., 47: 1039).
While traditionalists insist that this part can be read in a manner which is consistent with the older practice, others have taken this as basically opening up the way for the divorced to receive communion. Already two episcopal groups, one from Buenos Aires, and the other from Malta, have published guidelines seemingly taking it in the latter direction. Pope Francis has replied privately to the bishops of Buenos Aires, who had submitted a copy of their guidelines to him, confirming their reading as the correct one. However the strongest expression to date of the permission for the divorced to receive communion comes from the bishops of Malta:
9. Throughout the discernment process, we should also examine the possibility of conjugal continence. Despite the fact that this ideal is not at all easy, there may be couples who, with the help of grace, practice this virtue without putting at risk other aspects of their life together. On the other hand, there are complex situations where the choice of living “as brothers and sisters” becomes humanly impossible and give rise to greater harm (see AL, note 329).
10. If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351)
No punitive or corrective action against the bishops of Malta has been taken as yet, seemingly implying a tacit acceptance by the Pope of their clear permission for the divorced to receive communion.
Yet in the midst of this four cardinals have made public a letter which they had sent to the pope privately asking for clarifications on exhortation. It has been labelled a “dubia” because it is requests the pope to clarify certain doubts concerning the exhortation, framing the question in the form of five yes and no questions. The letter has only been made public because the pope has ignored it.
Speculative Thoughts on How Events will Develop
From the point of view of political speculation, we have good reasons to infer that the pope does desire to see this alteration perpetuated but has fallen short of giving it explicit approval lest he provides a focal point for resistance. By writing a letter with sufficient ambiguity as to be read in the traditional way, while providing a nudge nudge, wink wink, hint hint to liberalising clerics, he gets to alter the state of affairs on the ground while shielding himself from outright condemnation.
If the Pope were truly in earnest about defending the standard traditional line, it would have been the simplest matter to answer the dubia. Yet while he has answered the bishops from Buenos Aires, he has tellingly chosen to ignore the four cardinals. Assuming that the traditionalist clerics remains paralysed, not being able to condemn the pope outright for he has not said anything explicit, while not being able to stop the other clerics from reading his exhortation in a liberal way for not possessing the necessary authority, communion for the divorced will simply become a fact of church life and perhaps eventually even accepted officially by the pope down the line as Roman Catholics become acclimatised to the new practice.
The Possibility of Change? The Example of Archbishop Theophan Prokopovich
If these changes become standardised, then it would confirm that the Roman Church can alter its practices with respect to something as vital as communion and table fellowship. What this would mean is that the Roman Church isn’t irremediably unreformable or incapable of change.
We need only be reminded of the curious example from church history of the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Theophan Prokopovich who was Peter the Great’s right hand man in the Russian Orthodox Church. Just as Peter the Great was modernising and Westernising Russia, the Archbishop was entrusted with the task of modernising the Russian Orthodox Church along German Protestant State Church lines. His catechism even reads very much like a Lutheran catechism and he introduced Protestant theology into Russian Orthodoxy. Marks of these could be discerned in the catechism of saints like Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow who virtually taught a Protestant view of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, the former as supreme, the latter as subordinate to it. Sadly the Russian Revolution more or less brought these steps towards a Protestant reform to an end.
This is one reason why I do not have as much of a beef with the Eastern Orthodox compared to the Romanists. Native Eastern Orthodox (unless they are Anglosphere converts) are actually less set and dogmatic about their particular distinctive. While certainly they do maintain it, they are not sectarian or utterly inflexible about it, nor do they have a vested interest in maintaining it in firm opposition to Protestantism.
While we certainly do not believe that the Roman Church will forsake their distinctives, such as their Marian dogmas, yet the possibly of change, especially in an areas as sensitive as communion, implies that they could adopt a much less sectarian attitude towards communion and fellowship with others. No one of course expects them to give up their distinctive theology or doctrines, yet, like the Orthodox, these could be maintained in harmony with a casuistical practicality on the ground in fellowship with Protestants.
Conclusion: The Roman Catholic Narrative of a “Never Ever Changing Tradition”
The narrative of traditionalists and other neo-conservatives in the Roman Church is that of the Roman Church being the guardian of never ever changing traditions. Despite the fact that the development of doctrine render these claims theologically suspect, this has been the defining narrative of what it means to be a Roman Catholic.
The problem of course is that many conservatives and traditionalists have drawn a “red line” at communion for the divorced as that part of the never ever changing tradition. However should the changes “inspired” by Pope Francis’s exhortation take root and become a permanent feature of Roman Catholicism, that narrative would be thrown into a crisis which I doubt will survive.
If the Roman Church no longer defines itself according to such “never ever changing” narratives, there is no doubt that, theologically at least, the Roman Church will change. Roman Catholic practices on the ground will continue the way it always has of course, high ecclesiastical politics, especially on such a subtle point, rarely have substantive impact upon ground level behaviour, however the thinking of the clerics and learned laity will be considerably altered.
Once the possibility however of “moving on” from past practices and beliefs becomes a conscious reality, we Protestants can certainly hope that in the distant future, an internal gradual Reformation may be entirely possible.
Annex: The Analogy between Communion for the Divorced and Protestants
What Exactly is the Sin in the Divorced and Remarried Situation?
It is of course not my intent to settle internal Roman Catholic disputes as to which of the two paths, liberal or traditional, is the most faithful to their “deposit of faith”. I simply wish to sketch out however, briefly, the two different readings of this issue, before turning to the question of what it means for Protestants.
As I understand the issue, it boils down to the question of what exactly is the sin for the divorced and remarried.
For the liberal side, they seem to contend that the act of the divorcing is itself the sin. However, if the sin is confined to the act itself, then clearly one can repent of that act and simply move on. The couple in question can make a good faith effort, if it were practical or feasible, to be reconciled with their old spouses, however failing that, a cardinal suggested that a period of penitence followed by absolution would suffice. In short, they can repent of the act of divorcing, make a good faith effort at undoing the damage caused by the act and restoring broken previous marriage, but if that should prove practically impossible, they have done all they can and can simply serve out a period of penitence for their sin followed by an absolution.
For the traditionalist side, the sin is grounded, not in the divorced act of divorcing and remarrying but in his married state. A marriage once made cannot be dissolved except by death. To copulate with anyone other than the one whom one has married is simply adultery and a sin, full stop. This is why they insist on the full formula of “divorce, remarried, and not having made a commitment to live as celibates.” They argue that one can indeed contract a civil marriage and even remain in it and there is no sin in that. What is the sin is not the divorcing but the adultery if a divorced and remarried couple were to copulate. Without a declared commitment to eschew such sexuality activity, the divorced is in the state of adulterous sin and as such cannot receive communion.
The issue of course is much more complex than what I’ve presented it, but as I said, I don’t have much interest or need to settle internal Roman Catholic disputes, I simply raise these points to discuss how it might affect Protestants.
Good Faith Effort at Ecclesiastical Reconciliation?
How does this apply to Protestantism? The Pope in his letter does distinguish between the “objective situation of sin” and “subjective culpability”. Now a person who has divorced and remarried is, presumably, in an “objective situation of sin” having forsaken his spouse and marital duties and taken on another spouse. There is no doubt that this is an “imperfect” situation, and can reasonably be described as an “objective situation of sin”. However, having said that, one can live in an imperfect situation while still being subjectively blameless, especially if one has already made a good faith effort, as per the liberal reading, of being reconciled back to one’s former spouse. After having exhausted all of one’s options at one’s subjective disposal, one then can with a clear conscience with full assent in their “internal forum”, “move on”, and all this of course is already premised on the fact that the person in question has repented and has tried to make restore and repair what his sin has damaged.
It is easy to draw the dots from this situation to that of the practical possible of communion with Protestants. Although, as per the Roman claim, all who refuse to be subject to the Roman pontiff is in the objective situation of sin, yet after having made a good faith effort to be persuaded of distinctive Roman claims, one’s internal forum still does not grant assent to them, it is entirely possible to be as such “invincibly ignorant” and be able to receive communion in good faith. This allows the Roman Church to continue to uphold their doctrinal claims and standards, at least officially, while exercising a practical casuistry at the ground level.