By JOHN YOUNG
A Catholic couple living in an adulterous relationship are not necessarily subjectively in a state of mortal sin. Objectively their state of life is mortally sinful, but there is such great ignorance today about marriage and sexual relationships that we can’t presume that these people are subjectively guilty of mortal sin, and are therefore headed for Hell.
So it is possible for a Catholic, or a Catholic couple, to believe they are not doing wrong, or at least nothing gravely wrong, when in fact the relationship, objectively considered, is mortally sinful.
They may tell themselves they are choosing the lesser of two evils, particularly if they have children who would suffer if they separated. As for living as brother and sister, they may persuade themselves that the stress of doing this would lead to greater evils than maintaining a sexual relationship.
This way of reasoning is spreading rapidly among theologians, bishops, and priests. It follows, they maintain, that such couples should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Even though the Catholic position has been explained to them these couples may feel unable to accept it, or at least its application to their situation.
Even if they are wrong, God expects them to follow their conscience. So it seems harsh to forbid them the strength that would come to them through Communion. Indeed, receiving the sacraments and participating fully in the life of the Church may give them the supernatural strength to embrace the Church’s teaching more fully.
The above reasoning is the crucial factor in the push to change immemorial Catholic practice in refusing Communion to those in this situation. At first glance it may seem reasonable and merciful but in reality it is neither, as should be clear to any Catholic who examines the issue.
The assumption is that Catholics who are in the above situation, but yet want to go to Communion, are in a state of invincible ignorance — ignorance that excuses them from sin. Either that or else they are assumed to lack the strength to give up their sinful lifestyle. But is that so?
The proponents of this proposal would have the person in question discuss the matter with a priest. But if this were done, and the priest explained the correct position, how could it be maintained that the person was still in a state of invincible ignorance? The priest’s explanation should have removed that ignorance!
As for lacking the strength to overcome their sinful lifestyle, this ignores the truth that God gives us the grace to overcome temptations. As St. Paul says: “God is faithful and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Were this proposed concession allowed, the result would be that many people would be led into sin: They would tell themselves that they were entitled to receive the Eucharist while knowing in their heart that this were not so. They would be in the position St. Paul warns about when he says concerning the Eucharist that one who eats and drinks unworthily “will be guilty of profaning the Body and Blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 27).
Another objection to this novel proposal is that it would mislead people about the Church’s teaching that all sexual intercourse outside marriage is mortal sin, objectively speaking. Many would tell themselves that if the Church allows these people to receive the Eucharist there can’t be much wrong with the lives they are leading. It is a case of actions speaking louder than words, with the Church’s precept contradicted by her practice.
A further objection is that this concession would be cruel to those in irregular situations who refrain from Communion because they know it would be wrong for them to receive the Eucharist. If they saw others in the same situation going to Communion, this could lead them to do the same, even though their conscience forbade this.
It would be particularly difficult in the case of one partner refusing to go to Communion while the other partner strongly disagreed: The disagreeing partner would point to the fact that other couples in the same situation were not so “rigid,” and that many bishops and priests allowed this. Under such pressure some people would give in and violate their conscience.
Another evil from this allegedly merciful and pastoral concession would be the strengthening of subjectivism. There is a widespread fallacy that something may be right for me and wrong for you: My conscience may differ from your conscience, with no objective standard. That error would be strongly encouraged by this allegedly pastoral concession.
Then there are the implications for other forms of immoral behavior. People who are living blatantly immoral lives will claim the right to the Eucharist because their conscience is clear. Militant homosexual couples would show their contempt for Catholic — and natural law — morality by brazenly coming up for Holy Communion. And, logically, how could they be refused?
Can we go even further and say that this proposed change is based on heresy? Some argue that this is so. A reason given by the proponents of the change is that some people are unable to live up to Christian teaching in the area of sexual morality. Take a couple living in a state of adultery and who believe they must remain together for the sake of the children, but whose passions are so strong (it is alleged) that they can’t refrain from sexual intercourse.
This argument is criticized on the grounds that God offers us the grace to obey His laws. In fact, the Council of Trent defined infallibly that God gives us the necessary help to obey the moral law, and condemned the claim that the observance of the Commandments of God is impossible for one who is justified. “If anyone says that the Commandments of God are, even for one who is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to keep: let him be anathema” (Decree on Justification, canon 18).
However, I don’t believe this proposed change necessarily involves a contradiction of what the Council of Trent taught. Catholic moral theology recognizes, as does common sense, that the person doing something which is objectively evil may be free from the guilt of sin because their mind is clouded by ignorance, prejudice, fear, or other mitigating circumstances.
The error condemned by Trent is based on the claim made by Protestants in the 16th century that original sin so corrupted human nature that we are no longer free to avoid sin. That claim is a denial of free will.
Condemning this, the Council of Trent declares: “If anyone says that after Adam’s sin the free will of man is lost and extinct or that it is an empty concept, a term without real foundation, indeed, a fiction introduced by Satan into the Church, let him be anathema” (Decree on Justification, Canon 5).
Some people living in an adulterous relationship may indeed be free of mortal sin because of subjective factors affecting their judgment, but that is not a sufficient reason for relaxing the Church’s ban on such people receiving Communion.
Revoking the Church’s age-old position on this question would be anything but merciful. The consequences would be calamitous.