Communion for the Remarried: Joseph Ratzinger

In a work of private theology, Joseph Ratzinger (1972) — who became Pope Benedict XVI — opined that the divorced and remarried should be admitted to Communion, in some cases, despite living with their second partner while the first valid marriage remains in force. This is essentially the same as the position of Pope Francis, a position widely condemned by the papal accusers.

Joseph Ratzinger: On the Question of the Indissolubility of Marriage (Originally published in German: “Zur Frage nach der Unauflöslichkeit der Ehe: Bemerkungen zum dogmengeschichtlichen Befund und zu seiner gegenwärtigen Bedeutung” in Ehe und Ehescheidung: Diskussion unter Christen, Kösel-Verlag, München, 1972, pp. 35-56. Translated by Joseph Bolin, March 25, 2011)

Excerpt from Ratzinger:

“2. The Church is the Church of the New Covenant, but it lives in a world in which the “hardness of heart” (Mat 19:8) of the Old Covenant remains unchanged. It cannot stop preaching the faith of the New Covenant, but it must often enough begin its concrete life a bit below the threshold of the scriptural word. Thus it can in clear emergency situations allow limited exceptions in order to avoid worse things. Criteria of such action must be: an act “against what is written,” is limited in that it may not call into question the fundamental form, the form from which the Church lives. It is therefore bound to the character of exemption and of help in urgent need – as the transitional missionary situation was, but also the real emergency situation of the Church union.

“Thereby arises, however, the practical question, whether we can name such an emergency situation in the present-day church and describe an exception that satisfies these criteria. I would like to try, with all necessary caution, to formulate a concrete proposal that seems to me to lie within this scope. Where a first marriage broke up a long time ago and in a mutually irreparable way, and where, conversely, a marriage consequently entered into has proven itself over a longer period as a moral reality and has been filled with the spirit of the faith, especially in the education of the children (so that the destruction of this second marriage would destroy a moral greatness and cause moral harm), the possibility should be granted, in a non-judicial way, based on the testimony of the pastor and church members, for the admission to Communion of those in live in such a second marriage. Such an arrangement seems to me to be for two reasons in accord with the tradition:

“a) We must emphatically recall the room for discretion that is built into every annulment process. This discretion and the inequities that inevitably come from the educational situation of the affected parties and from their financial possibilities should warn against the idea that justice can in this way be flawlessly satisfied. Moreover, many things are simply not subject to legal judgment and are nonetheless real. The procedural affair must necessarily limit itself to the legally provable, but can for that very reason pass over crucial facts. Above all, formal criteria (formal errors or conscious omission of ecclesiastical form) thereby receive a preponderance that leads to injustices. Overall, the transferal of the question to the act establishing the marriage is indeed legally unavoidable, but still a narrowing of the problem that cannot fully do justice to the nature of human action. The annulment process provides a concrete set of criteria to determine that the standards of marriage among believers are not applicable to a particular marriage. But it does not exhaust the problem and therefore cannot claim that strict exclusivity that had to be attributed to it under the reign of a certain form of thought.

“b) The requirement that a second marriage have proven itself over a long time as a moral greatness and have been lived in the spirit of faith in fact corresponds to that type of forbearance that is palpable in Basil, where after a long penance Communion is granted to the “Digamus” (= the one living in a second marriage) without terminating the second marriage: in trust in in the mercy of God, who does not leave the penance unanswered. If in the second marriage moral obligations to the children, to the family, and so also to the woman have arisen, and no similar commitments from the first marriage exist, and if thus for moral reasons the abandonment of the second marriage is inadmissible, and on the other hand practically speaking abstinence presents no real possibility (magnorum est, says Gregory II), the opening up of community in Communion after a period of probation appears to be no less than just and to be fully in line with the Church’s tradition: The granting of communio cannot here depend on an act that is either immoral or practically speaking impossible.

“The distinction attempted with the mutual relatedness of thesis 1 and 2 seems to be in accordance with the caution of Trent, although as a practical rule it goes beyond it: the anathema against a teaching that wants to make the Church’s fundamental form an error or at least a custom that should be overcome, remains in full vigor. Marriage is a sacramentum, it stands in the irrevocable fundamental form of the decisive decision. But this does not mean that the Communion community of the church does not also encompass those people who accept this teaching and this life principle, but are in a special predicament, in which they especially need the full communion with the Body of Christ. The Church’s faith will also thus remain a sign of contradiction: That is essential to it, and precisely by this fact it knows that it is following the Lord, who foretold to his disciples that they should not expect to be above the master, who was rejected by the pious and by the liberals, by Jews and by Gentiles.”

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11 Responses to Communion for the Remarried: Joseph Ratzinger

  1. doctormaniax says:

    Dear Ron, thanks for listening to my suggestion. I think that It Is important to acknowledge this early belief by Joseph Ratzinger and the fact that It didn’t prevent him from being created a Cardinal Just 5 years later.

    Today, many ultra-conservatives would claim that Benedict Is a great theologian and Francis nothing but an heretic or, at best, an ignorant. Would they dare to ask Benedict to excommunicate himself for his past teachings? This proofs that the conservative wing is nothing but a castle of cards ready to crumble at the first blow of the wind…

  2. Matt Z says:

    I’m guessing he means divorced and remarried, living together, AND living as brother and sister, not having sexual relations?

    • Ron Conte says:

      No, it does not seem so.

    • doctormaniax says:

      The brother and sister thing Is definitely not in the mind of Joseph Ratzinger, since he writes of the case when “on the other hand practically speaking abstinence presents no real possibility (magnorum est, says Gregory II)”

      In Christ,
      Alessandro Arsuffi (doctorwhomaniax)

  3. stefano says:

    Ron, would you kindly allow me a comment on this?

  4. stefano says:

    Thank you Ron.
    In 1972 Joseph Ratzinger was a full professor at the University of Ratisbon. Only in 1977 he was made Archibishop of Munich by GPII, and later in 1982 he was appointed Prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith.
    Therefore, what is reported above as the opinion of the future BXVI, was in fact just a private theological opinion for the purpose of theoretical research and debate on specialised magazines.
    Further, an academic opinion may change over time, and it must be assumed that Joseph Ratzinger effectively changed his opinion on this matter, given that he later expressed himself contrary to that very opinion, both as Prefect in official Congregation’s documents and as Pope in his formal teaching. Everyone has the right to a second opinion, and if at some point one finds himself in error, his first opinion can no longer be attributed to him.
    However, even assuming that his personal position on that matter remained unchanged since 1972, it must be concluded that, both as Prefect and as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has been able to distinguish between theoretical research and Magisterium, between his personal thought and that of the Church.
    Thank you for allowing a slightly diverging opinion.

    • Ron Conte says:

      We should not denigrate the theological conclusion of a renowned theologian (Ratzinger) by calling it “private” and mere “theoretical research”. It was, in 1972, a sound theological position on Communion, and I know of no evidence that Ratzinger/Benedict rejected this position at a later time. Moreover, this position is essentially the same as the doctrine of the Papal Magisterium and the accompanying discipline expressed in Amoris Laetitia. So it is not true that “it must be assumed that Joseph Ratzinger effectively changed his opinion on this matter”. Rather, we should conclude that as a faithful Catholic, Pope emeritus Benedict adheres to the teaching of the Papal Magisterium of Francis.

  5. stefano says:

    Well, I’m confused when you say that Ratzinger/Benedict never rejected his earlier position. BXVI taught authoritatively on the subject, not joining his own earlier conclusions, but rather confirming his predecessor JPII (see Sacramentum Caritatis n.29
    I am sure that he now adheres to the teaching of his successor, as everyone should, albeit this raises some issues. But this is subject for another discussion.

  6. stefano says:

    Well no, I am afraid, they are two opposite theses: either the divorced and remarried can receive communion in certain cases, or they cannot. So either Benedict was wrong as a theologian, or he was wrong as a Pope. And having Francis endorsed the conclusions of the theologian, he disproved the conclusions of the Pope.

    P.S.: I believe that no one can accuse the Pope of heresy. Moreover, in order to be technically accused of heresy, he would have to formally teach against the Dogma. Therefore I find the debate on the Pope heretic / critics heretic devilish and pointless. I am only interested in theological discussions, freedom of speech and of respectful criticism. I hope this clears any ambiguity on my side.

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