What will it mean if Pope Francis follows the counsel offered by some of his closest advisors, including Cardinal Walter Kasper, and permits divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion? This prospect has only come to seem more likely given the Holy Father’s much discussed phone call to the Argentine divorcee. This subject has been much on my mind for the past few months, and now that the worthy Ross Douthat has raised its implications in a highly public forum—and a number of important Catholic commentators are writing about it in depth—I think it is time to lay out a few of the scenarios that come to mind.
Because the options are all rather unsettling, and opinions are deeply divided, it seems most useful to me to present the argument in the form of a three person dialogue, with each character representing a different perspective within the Church. In the past, some readers have objected to this genre, making assertions such as “fictional dialogues belong in fiction.” Tell that to Plato, St. Anselm, St. Thomas More, Erasmus, and Peter Kreeft.
To make things a little easier, I will label the characters’ viewpoints right up front:
John Paul: A faithful, orthodox Catholic who attends the most reverent Mass offered at his geographical parish.
Marcel: A self-identified “traditional Catholic” who attends the Latin Mass exclusively.
Josip: Raised a Byzantine Catholic, he attends that liturgy. He is politically and doctrinally conservative, but somewhat skeptical of Western conceptions of the papal Magisterium.
Marcel: Hey John Paul! If Pope Francis blows up the sacrament of marriage, will you still insist that Vatican II was a “renewal” of the Church sent by the Holy Spirit? Or will you finally start giving some thought to the alternative?
John Paul: This issue is completely separate from the texts of the Second Vatican Council. They are the only aspect of the Council that binds us—and none of them says anything implying that divorced, remarried Catholics are eligible for Communion. So your question is kind of incoherent. But go on—what’s the alternative?
Marcel: That we have been witnessing since 1960 the Great Apostasy predicted by a number of apparitions of Our Lady. That the orthodoxy, and hence the authority, of the popes who supported Vatican II is pretty dubious.
John Paul: You know what’s dubious? Private revelations. You know what’s binding? General councils of the Church and official statements of validly elected popes.
Josip: What happens if the official statement of a validly elected pope contradicts a fundamental Church teaching? Such as the indissolubility of marriage, based on the clear words of Our Lord, and infallibly taught by the Council of Trent.
John Paul: That could never happen.
Josip: Yeah, but what if it does?
John Paul: It’s sacrilegious even to play with such hypotheticals. It shows your lack of faith in the Church.
Josip: St. Paul was willing to consider what it would mean if Christ hadn’t risen from the dead. Divorce seems considerably less earth-shattering than that. What will it mean if Pope Francis does what he seems to hint he will do, which his closest advisors are saying in public he should do? According to Cardinal Kasper, the Church should give divorced Catholics a “pass” on the Ten Commandments and the words of Christ, and treat their sexual relationships with their new “spouses” as something other than adultery. That’s the only possible implication of allowing them to receive Holy Communion without vowing to refrain from sex.
Marcel: Which is exactly what the schismatics in the East have been doing for centuries. I’ll tell you what it would mean if “Pope Francis” does this: It will mean that he has lost the Catholic faith—and therefore the office of pope. The throne will be empty, as some say it was when Paul VI endorsed the heresy of religious liberty, and when John Paul II and Benedict went on to teach it as well.
John Paul: At Vatican I, the Council closed off the idea that a pope could lose the throne through personal “heresy.” Saint Robert Bellarmine had made that argument, but Vatican I rebuked it.
Marcel: What use is infallibility if it doesn’t prevent a pope from endorsing a Council that teaches heresy, then reiterating it in countless public statements and in a Catechism?
John Paul: What use is papal infallibility if a pope can go ahead and teach heresy—God won’t stop him—but then we get to say that he’s no longer pope? That makes infallibility an empty tautology: The pope is infallible, until he isn’t—at which point he isn’t pope anymore. The Pharisees would have winced at that kind of legalism. I certainly can’t imagine Christ winking at it.
Josip: If a pope ever taught heresy ex cathedra—which of course, I don’t expect will happen—it would prove something all right—that the Eastern Orthodox have been right all along. That Vatican I was not an infallible council, and neither were any of the other councils we have held without the Orthodox since 1054.
Marcel: Do you think Our Lord will be winking if the pope contradicts His plain words about divorce and remarriage?
Josip: No, I don’t. We’ll get back to the implications of that in a minute. First, I want to deny that religious liberty is a heresy. Yes, there are many, many papal statements endorsing the persecution of “heretics.” Obviously, the Council Fathers and the pope knew about those statements, which their opponents such as Abp. Lefebvre were constantly quoting in the debates. Clearly, the Magisterium concluded that those previous statements were not infallible—that in fact, they were wrong, because they endorsed violations of natural law and divine revelation, according to Dignitatis Humanae. Papal assertions that it is right to imprison Protestants would have been false—like papal statements condemning all lending at interest as sinful “usury,” and statements permitting the enslavement of Muslims defeated in “just wars.” Of course, admitting all this should make us a lot more careful about how much weight we attach to papal statements. Even when they reiterate “venerable” teachings like the condemnation of all lending at interest, and the embrace of religious persecution, most such statements are not infallible—and quite a number of them, in retrospect, were wrong.
John Paul: It’s unhealthy and impious for faithful Catholics to be sifting papal statements and determining which ones are “wrong.” If the Church decides, at a later date, to override what a previous pope has said, then and only then may we draw such a conclusion.
Marcel: Like good little Communists, we should wait to hear what Moscow decides is the new “party line,” then pretend that we have believed it all along? I don’t buy it.
Josip: So John Courtney Murray should not have written in defense of religious liberty, since it wasn’t yet Church teaching? And Catholic bankers shouldn’t have loaned money at reasonable rates of interest, but waited for the centuries to pass until the Church realized that the previous teaching hadn’t been infallible—and in fact, was wrong?
John Paul: That would seem like the safe, obedient course of action.
Josip: And if Pope Francis approves Holy Communion for sexually active divorced Catholics, will it be safe and obedient to accept that as well?
Marcel: It will be proof that he has lost the Catholic faith, and the right to call himself pope. I bet that the bishops of the SSPX hold an election to find a real pope.
John Paul: I renew my objection to talking about such a development as if it were really possible. But for the sake of argument: If Pope Francis permits this kind of pastoral policy, it will be gravely mistaken—on the order of popes in past centuries allowing choir boys to be castrated to sing in the Vatican.
Josip: Surely this issue has greater implications than that. How will we explain to homosexuals that they cannot be sexually active outside of marriage, and still receive Communion—when we permit that to heterosexuals? Even I’m kind of offended by that. Will anyone, anyone at all, still take the Church’s ban on birth control seriously, when it’s giving people a pass for adultery? Which one is a more obvious violation of natural law?
John Paul: The pope would not be teaching error, but merely tolerating it. As in previous centuries, when popes were lax about enforcing clerical celibacy, or allowed the sale of indulgences.
Marcel: No, you’re wrong. If the German bishops started allowing this evil practice—which they probably already are, because they don’t want people to stop checking the “Catholic” box on their tax forms, and depriving the Church of money—that would be one thing. But if the pope permits it for the universal Church, that’s something else entirely. It’s right up there with him personally ordaining a woman as a priest, or adding an eighth sacrament. It would be heresy, plain and simple.
John Paul: But he wouldn’t be teaching ex cathedra….
Josip: So if this happens, it won’t necessarily prove that Vatican I was wrong and the Eastern Orthodox are right about the structure of the Church. (Though of course, they will still be wrong about marriage—but then they don’t claim to be infallible.)
John Paul: No.
Josip: Or that Marcel is right and that the pope will have lost the throne?
John Paul: Absolutely not.
Josip: But it will prove that papal authority, and the divine protections we attribute to it, are a heck of a lot narrower than we used to think. It will completely demoralize faithful Catholics who have been relying on papal statements to decide what they believe about critical issues—from war and peace to economics, from birth control to gay “marriage.” In effect, it will say that every papal statement in history is subject to future revision—except for the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Those, at least, will be set in stone. Apart from that, everyone will be reduced to a kind of cafeteria Catholicism—unless, as Marcel said, they decide to stuff previous Church teachings into the Memory Hole and simply follow the Party Line. That would make things simpler. Oceania has ALWAYS been at war with Eurasia.
John Paul: I miss Pope Benedict XVI.
Marcel: I miss Pope Pius XII.
Josip: What do you think really motivates Pope Francis? I don’t think he’s just another post-Conciliar progressive.
Marcel: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
Josip: It might in fact be a decoy.
John Paul: It seems to me that the pope is reaching out to the kind of people with whom John Paul II and Benedict XVI somehow couldn’t connect.
Marcel: People who want to claim that they’re “Catholic,” in the same sense that they’re “Irish” or “Italian”?
John Paul: No! I think he’s trying to convert the liberal’s false compassion for the “marginalized” into a genuine Christian concern for the needy.
Marcel: The “needy,” in this case, being prosperous divorced couples in Germany and the U.S.? Weakening marriage, in any way, really hurts the poor.
John Paul: But I wish that Pope Francis would keep his outreach within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.
Marcel: Yeah, that would be nice. It seems like the least we can ask… of a POPE.
Josip: What if there’s something else going on? What if Pope Francis thinks that papal claims have been exaggerated, to the point where they needlessly block ecumenism—especially with the Eastern Orthodox?
Marcel: For all his talk of collegiality, he seems to have no problem using his power—against us Traditionalists.
Josip: But if he uses his power this time, to dismantle the traditional teaching on marriage, what would that mean for the authority of the papacy?
John Paul: Assuming the Holy Spirit allows it to happen…
Marcel: …And we don’t see a sudden resignation, “health crisis,” or falling meteorite…
Josip: The doctrinal contradiction would dismantle the papacy too—at least as we have known the papacy since… 1054. Which would remove the main barrier to unity with the East.
Marcel: So you think Pope Francis is practicing ecumenism by “auto-destruction”?
Josip: I don’t know. Maybe he thinks of it as Perestroika.
John Paul: That’s impossible. It’s apostasy. God will never permit it.
Josip: Unless He does. In which case… well then, we’ll know who was right all along, won’t we?
John Zmirak is author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived here.