Reply to Fr. Brian Harrison on Communion

The Church is headed for a great schism. The controversy that divides Catholics might not be Communion for the divorced and remarried. It might be the ordination of women deacons, or a new definition of doctrine on salvation for non-Christians, or some other subject area. But the way that conservatives behave toward the controversy of Communion for the divorced and remarried is the way that they will behave toward any controversy on discipline or doctrine. So the problem is not “what should we believe on reception of Communion”, but rather “how do we respond when we disagree with the Pope”.

Over at Renew America, Matt C. Abbott published a lengthy response from theologian Fr. Brian Harrison on the possibility of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried: Priest-theologian: if worst-case scenario at synod occurs, Catholics must resist changes. In my opinion, Fr. Harrison’s response typifies a common set of errors on the topic of the Papal authority over doctrine and discipline.

1. The first error is the unstated but strongly implied support for the status quo on Communion. Many Catholics are loudly proclaiming strong opposition to any loosening of the rules for reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried. But we don’t hear a single sound from them against reception by persons unrepentant from other grave sins.

The vast majority of Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics are guilty of one or more unrepentant objective mortal sins. A clear majority adhere to one or more material heresies on the Eucharist (they don’t believe in transubstantiation or the real presence), on same-sex marriage (they think it is a real type of marriage), on abortion (they do not reject all direct abortions), on contraception (they do not see the use of contraception as immoral), on sexual ethics (they do not accept the Church’s condemnation of various grave sexual sins), on Sacred Scripture (they do not accept inerrancy and infallibility), and on the teaching authority of the Church (they do not believe the Magisterium can teach infallibly). So, just on the topic of material heresy, most Mass-going Catholics are not worthy to receive Communion. Adherence to material heresy is objectively a grave sin. And although I can’t be the judge over hearts and minds, from the way that many Catholic speak publicly about Church teaching, it seems that formal heresy is not rare among these adherents to material heresy.

Many Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics use contraception on a continuing basis, and they have not confessed this sin. I recall a sermon from a priest at Mass, years ago: “As a priest who hears confessions, I can tell you that few people confess the sin of contraception. But I know that many of you are using contraception.” It is well-known that Catholics use contraception, without repentance or confession, and still receive Communion.

Most grave sexual sins are widely accepted in secular society, and it seems to me that a large percentage of Catholics commit much the same set of sins: masturbation, pornography, pre-marital sex, unnatural sexual acts in marriage, and other grave sexual sins. Yet very few Catholics go to Confession at all. It is apparent that a large number and a significant percentage of Catholics are guilty and unrepentant from some of these objective mortal sins. Yet we hear no complaints from any quarter on their reception of Communion.

It is my opinion that the rules for Communion should prohibit reception of Communion, ordinarily, if the individual is guilty of any objective mortal sin, including but not limited to those discussed above, and has not yet been to Confession. I would also require all Catholics to make a good Confession at least once every 3 months (with a one month extension for a just reason), in order to receive Communion. But I do NOT propose that this suggested discipline is the only acceptable decision the Church can make.

What alarms my sense of justice and honesty is the loud repeated adamant claim that the divorced and remarried absolutely must not receive Communion, while saying NOTHING about the many common grave sins committed, without repentance and Confession, by Mass-going Communion-receiving Catholics today.

How do we know that these persons, generally, are unrepentant? They do not go to Confession at all. Based on my analysis here: What If Every Catholic Went To Confession?, less than 10% of Catholics go to Confession at least once a month. The vast majority of Catholic go to Confession rarely, if ever.

2. The second problem with Fr. Harrison’s response is the confusion of doctrine and discipline. He starts by calling the rules for reception of Communion “discipline”. Then he claims it is unchangeable discipline. Next he switches to saying it is a teaching. And finally he claims it is an infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Fr. Harrison: “Indeed, it seems clear that Pope St. John Paul II has settled the matter in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #36, in such a way that even a future pope has no right to change the discipline…. Thus, Pope St. John Paul II affirms that this teaching can never be changed! It’s definitive and infallible by virtue of the ordinary and universal magisterium.”

Is there such a thing as a discipline that no future pope has the right to change? Absolutely not. Each Pope has the full authority over doctrine and discipline given to Peter. A Pope cannot bind future Popes to his decisions on discipline, thereby reducing the authority of all future Popes. If that were possible, the authority of the Popes would progressively diminish, as such decisions accumulated. I discuss this at length in my book: In Defense of Pope Francis, and I give examples of failed attempts by Popes to bind future Popes to discipline.

Each Pope is bound by the past infallible teachings of the Magisterium. But these teachings are part of unchangeable infallible Divine Revelation, so there is no progressive diminishment of authority, just an increase in knowledge. Thus, each Pope does have the right to change discipline, regardless of the past decisions on discipline of past Popes and Ecumenical Councils.

Fr. Harrison jumps from calling these rules a discipline to an unchangeable discipline to a teaching to an infallible teaching. This type of conflation of discipline is ridiculous. It’s a discipline, then its unchangeable, then it’s a teaching, and finally it has become infallible, all in the space of a couple of paragraphs. Discipline is not doctrine. The Church has two swords (per Unam Sanctam), authority over doctrine and authority over discipline. Conflating discipline with doctrine has the effect of reducing these two types of authority to one.

No one talks about Jesus in all of this controversy. What happened when Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees with the case of a woman caught in adultery? Jesus refused to implement or support the Mosaic death penalty. He nullified that Old Testament discipline, and in effect nullified all Mosaic death penalties (though under the eternal moral law the death penalty remains a possible just punishment). Yet this change of discipline did not change the teaching of Sacred Scripture against adultery at all.

In fact, the Council of Florence infallibly taught that all the Old Testament disciplines are now dispensed. Yet this total nullification of all Old Testament disciplines did no harm to doctrine at all. So a change in discipline is not equivalent to a denial of doctrine.

3. The third problem with Fr. Harrison’s response is the implied claim that a non-infallible teaching of the Pope can possibly be heresy. He considers the point of controversy about reception of Communion to fall under doctrine, and to be an infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Then he proposes the hypothetical situation where the Pope teaches the contrary as a non-infallible act of the Magisterium. He is not accusing Pope Francis of heresy; it is a hypothetical. However, he seems to think that a non-infallible teaching of the Pope can be heresy. He calls it “a monumental papal error”. He sees this error as contrary to an infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. He does not say “heresy” or “heretic”, but there is no other possible conclusion. A monumental error contrary to an infallible teaching is a roundabout way of indicating heresy.

My position is that no valid Pope can ever teach or commit heresy, in any way, shape, or form. See what Saint Robert Bellarmine said on this subject.

But I also think that discipline is not doctrine, so there is not even a question of whether an error on discipline would be heretical. An imprudent discipline is not a doctrinal error. A foolish discipline is not a doctrinal error. A monumentally stupid discipline that causes you to shout and pull out your hair is still not a doctrinal error. Pope Saint Celestine V made many errors in exercising the temporal authority of the Church. His many mistakes in this regard were the main cause of his resignation. Yet he is a valid Pope, a canonized Saint, and no one accuses him of heresy.

4. The Council of Trent states: “no one, conscious to himself of mortal sin, however contrite he may seem to himself, ought to approach to the sacred Eucharist without previous sacramental confession.” But this assertion is discipline, not doctrine. For the same passage calls this rule: “ecclesiastical usage” and then gives the example of an exception: “This the holy Synod has decreed is to be invariably observed by all Christians, even by those priests on whom it may be incumbent by their office to celebrate, provided the opportunity of a confessor does not fail them; but if, in an urgent necessity, a priest should celebrate without previous confession, let him confess as soon as possible.” Therefore, this decision of the Council of Trent is of discipline, not doctrine. For it is a “usage” of the Church, which admits of exceptions.

There is a core doctrine within this discipline, which is that persons who receive Communion must be baptized and in the state of grace (as far as they are aware). So if a Catholic is unrepentant from actual mortal sin, he must not receive. He would violated the doctrine of the eternal moral law that forbids reception of the Lord in Communion while not in a state of grace. But perfect contrition after actual mortal sin returns the soul to the state of grace, allowing reception of Communion in some circumstances.

5. The accusation of adultery against the divorced and civilly remarried needs to be moderated. Some divorced and remarried persons did not have a valid first marriage, so their current sin is not specifically adultery. Some divorced and remarried persons may have ceased from sexual relations. For the couple in any marriage might cease from relations, after a time, for a range of different reasons. It should not be assumed that the couple are presently sexually active. Whether or not they should separate depends on the circumstances. They might stay together, without sexual relations, for the sake of the children. So it is both imprudent and judgmental to assume that all the divorced and remarried are in the same situation: unrepentant adulterers.

It is also immoral to assume that all divorced and remarried persons who commit objective mortal sin are necessarily guilty to the extent of actual mortal sin. Equating objective mortal sin with actual mortal sin is a serious error in salvation theology, and just as serious on the topic of reception of Communion. Some persons who commit objective mortal sin are still in a state of grace, because their choice lacks full knowledge or full deliberation.

As for those divorced and remarried who go to Confession, they may well have a purpose of amendment, not to engage in relations with their civil spouse. And yet they might fall into that sin subsequently. So it is gravely immoral to assume that all divorced and remarried who approach Confession lack the firm purpose of amendment or even that they have sexual sins to confess. They may have confessed and repented years ago, and may be currently chaste. Or they may have the firm purpose of amendment, but sometimes fall back into that grave sin.

I don’t want the Pope to approve of Communion for divorced and remarried persons who are unrepentant from grave sexual sins. But if the Pope approves of Communion for divorced and remarried persons who go to Confession and try to reform their lives (including chastity in their civil marriage), I can object only on the grounds of the imprudence of this decision. It is not a doctrinal error.

Objective mortal sin is not always actual mortal sin. When a sin is objectively gravely disordered, I use the term “objective mortal sin”. And when a gravely immoral act is chosen with full knowledge of its grave immorality and full deliberation, only then is it an “actual mortal sin” which deprives the soul of the state of grace.

The person who is unrepentant from actual mortal sin may never morally receive Communion. Never under any circumstances, even at the hour of death. However, perfect contrition from actual mortal sin returns the soul to the state of grace, permitting reception of Communion, in some circumstances, prior to Confession.

The Church can never permit reception of Communion by persons unrepentant from actual mortal sin, as this act would itself be a grave sin. But the Church has ALWAYS permitted the reception of Communion, with perfect contrition, prior to Confession, in some circumstances. See the quote from the Council of Trent (n. 4) above.

It is unjust to assume that all divorced and remarried persons are guilty of actual mortal sin.

6. The Church has the authority to decide discipline, to decide what is doctrine and what is only discipline, and to teach and correct in the realm of doctrine. The main problem on the topic of Communion is the implicit (or explicit) rejection of that authority. The commentator speaks as if his own understanding and judgment were infallible, and as if the Pope could err to almost any extent.

It is false to claim that the Church lacks the authority to permit reception of Communion, prior to Confession, with perfect contrition, in some circumstances. And only the Church Herself has the authority to decide what those circumstances should be. We faithful souls can make suggestions and offer opinions, but it is sinful to speak as if our judgments and preferences for this discipline are infallible dogma, as if the Pope himself goes astray if he disagrees. A large number of Catholics have decided this issue, by discussing it online and in print. And they speak as if the Pope and the body of Bishops would go astray from infallible doctrine if the decision of proper authority in the Church differs from the common opinion of a self-appointed group of faithful guardians of doctrine.

The Pope has the authority. He alone holds the keys of Saint Peter. You and I do not. It is all kinds of wrong for anyone, lay person or priest, to go online and pre-judge the situation, pre-condemning the decision of the Pope. The assumption that your own assessment of the situation, as regards doctrine and discipline, cannot err is prideful. The extent of error possible in any decision on discipline or non-infallible doctrine by the Pope is quite limited. But individual priests and laypersons can err to a much greater extent.

7. My next point is on the topic of licit theological dissent. See the magisterial document issued by the U.S. Bishops (1968) called Human Life in Our Day, n. 49ff.

The non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium do not require the full assent of faith (theological assent). They require a lesser degree and different type of assent called the religious submission of mind and will (religious assent). And since the non-infallible teachings allow a limited possibility of error, they also allow a limited possibility of licit dissent. A non-infallible teaching can never err to such an extent as to lead the faithful away from the path of salvation. And since the errors possible are limited, licit dissent must also be limited.

Fr. Harrison proposes that a decision of Pope Francis, such as he describes, would be an error in a non-infallible teaching: “if Pope Francis does promulgate a document allowing the Kasper proposal, it will be non-infallible….” and it would also be “false and unorthodox” as well as “a monumental papal error.” He then proposes that the faithful must oppose the decision:

“So instead of becoming part of authentic magisterial teaching, this new document, if it is issued, will have to be resisted and openly rejected by faithful Catholics as a monumental papal error.”

It is contradictory for Fr. Harrison to say that such a papal decision would be a non-infallible teaching, and then say that it is not really “part of authentic magisterial teaching”. Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 25, refers to the non-infallible teachings of the Church as authentic teachings of the Magisterium:

“This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.”

Even a non-infallible teaching that is to some extent erroneous is of the authentic magisterium. We cannot judge each teaching, and then exclude from the authentic Magisterium all the teachings that we ourselves judge to be in error. In such a case, we would not be giving true assent to the Magisterium, for we would exclude from the Magisterium all that contradicts our own ideas. True faith involves submitting the mind and will to the teachings of Jesus and His Church, even when your own mind does not see the veracity of the teaching. When you put yourself above the Magisterium, to judge and even to condemn and oppose, you lack the required religious submission of mind and will.

But given that a particular non-infallible teaching, hypothetically, is in error, licit theological dissent is permissible and faithful, but limited. Per the document of the U.S. Bishops, Human Life in Our Day:

“51. When there is question of theological dissent from non-infallible doctrine, we must recall that there is always a presumption in favor of the magisterium. Even non-infallible authentic doctrine, though it may admit of development or call for clarification or revision, remains binding and carries with it a moral certitude, especially when it is addressed to the Universal Church, without ambiguity, in response to urgent questions bound up with faith and crucial to morals. The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church and is such as not to give scandal.”

If Pope Francis approves of some type of loosening of the rules for reception of Communion by the divorced and remarried, Fr. Harrison says this rule “will have to be resisted and openly rejected by faithful Catholics as a monumental papal error.” And he writes: “We can only pray that in the 15 remaining days of the synod, the Holy Spirit will dispel this kind of insanity from the minds and hearts of our Church leaders.”

Licit theological dissent does not include obstinate public opposition to Church teaching. It does not include telling Catholics around the world, via the internet, to resist and openly reject a papal decision on discipline or a non-infallible doctrine. Nor does it include portraying any claimed error as “monumental”, or “insanity”, or other rhetorical exaggerations. Licit theological dissent does not include deciding, in advance of any papal document, against the papal decision and then informing Catholics that they too should be prepared to reject such a decision.

The dissent proposed by so many Synod commentators includes no “presumption in favor of the magisterium”, no respect for the “moral certitude” that accompanies non-infallible teachings addressed to the Universal Church, and no shame at “impugning the teaching authority” of the Pope. This proposed dissent does “give scandal”. In some cases, these commentators are suggesting (or outright stating) that such a decision by the Pope would be heretical.

Are the reasons for this dissent “serious and well-founded”. They might seem to be. But I see a lack of understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in protecting the teaching authority of the Church from grave error. The Holy Spirit does in fact protect the Church, keeping Her always indefectible, whether we pray for this benefit or not.

8. Does the Church have the authority to permit reception of Communion, by the baptized faithful, after actual mortal sin, with an act of perfect contrition, prior to a good Confession? Yes. For the Council of Trent permits the same in the case of a priest who cannot get to Confession. And it is permitted in the case of any baptized person near death and unable to go to Confession.

Can the Church widen this permission beyond these exceptional cases? She has the authority, since doing so does not contradict the eternal moral law. The baptized communicant is in the state of grace due to perfect contrition. If the Faith is persecuted severely, in a particular nation or eventually in most of the world, so that going to Confession is very difficult and rare, the Church can and should extend this permission for the reception of Communion more generally.

If the Church were to extend this permission more generally without a grave circumstance, my opinion is that the decision would be imprudent, but still not heretical. The Church has the authority from Christ to make these types of decisions. And all the internet commentators put together do not have the authority to decide otherwise.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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