“And he said to his disciples: It is impossible that scandals should not come: but woe to him through whom they come. It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones.”
— Lk 17:1-2 (DRV)
One of the most sensible concerns raised by many of Amoris Laetitia (AL) critics has to do with the matter of scandal. Scandal, as defined by the Church on the Catechism (CCC), has a different meaning than the one used in common parlance:
“Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.”
— CCC #2284
So, the critics would argue that AL would induce scandal on the faithful, since admitting to communion people who are divorced and remarried would seem to convey the idea that their lifestyle was somehow validated. Onlookers would watch this and say to themselves: “If these people can divorce and remarry and still be admitted to the Eucharist, why can’t I do the same? It’s all good, after all!”
Indeed, one of the two reasons why Pope St. John Paul II did not accept this opening of the sacraments to the civilly remarried divorced is precisely how this practice could lead to scandal. From his apostolic exhortation (emphasis from now on are always mine):
“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”
— Familiaris Consortio (FC) #84
However, for the purpose of better delineating what scandal means on this topic, it is worth noting that Pope St. John Paul II did not close the possibility of communion to all divorced and remarried people. In fact, on the same apostolic exhortation (in fact, on the same section), we see an opening, if certain conditions are met:
“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples“”
— FC #84
In other words, if the divorced and remarried couple accepts to live in complete continence, then they can undergo the sacrament of Reconciliation and, afterwards, the Eucharist.
Nevertheless, this stirs a question: If one of the reasons why divorced and remarried people can’t be admitted to the Eucharist is how this would lead the other faithful into error regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage… how can this danger be avoided if communion is given to divorced and remarried people who are practicing complete continence? After all, whether a couple has intercourse or not is something very personal and intimate, something that would probably be unknown to many in the pews. So, how do we reconcile this apparent oversight in the document?
John Paul II does not say. FC is not clear on this issue. Fortunately, in spite of this, the Church didn’t fall into great confusion. This is what happens when people try, with good intentions and solicitous obedience and docility, to put in practice the manifest will of the pope, instead of clinging to any apparent contradiction to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
As far as I know, the way this has been resolved in practice has been to transfer the sacramental life of these couples into the internal forum. There, the couple would work together with the priest to live their lives the best they could, in accordance with the mandates of the gospel and with the help of the Sacraments, far away from prying eyes and scandalous judgments from bystanders.
Which brings us full circle back to AL. To mount a concerted opposition against AL based on the objection of scandal, it is necessary to first ascertain whether AL lends itself to scandal or not. If we read AL carefully, we can see that scandal is, indeed, a concern for Pope Francis too:
“I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that “the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal.””
— AL #299
If this were not enough, when confusion arose about how to reconcile the diverse parts of AL, Pope Francis clarified by publishing on the Acta Apostolicae Sedes that “there are no other interpretations” besides the one issued by the Bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region, which states:
“It may be convenient that an eventual access to the sacraments be done in a reserved manner, especially when conflicting situations are foreseen. But at the same time, we must not fail to accompany the community so that it grows in a spirit of understanding and acceptance, without implying confusion in the teaching of the Church about the indissolubility of marriage”
There is, however, another part of AL that may help shed more light on the topic of scandal… the much hated footnote 351, which opens the possibility of communion to some divorced and remarried couples:
“In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments. (…) I would also point out that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak””
This higlights a very concerning problem in the Church today, especially among Catholics who are well-read and knowledgeable about the faith: since we know only people who are not in mortal sin can receive the Eucharist, we started to associate communion with a state of righteousness. From there on, we started to unconsciously deduce that being in the communion line means a validation of one’s life.
The medicinal aspect of the Eucharist has been lost in our collective minds. The Eucharist is no longer viewed as a vehicle for grace to help us live a better life, to help us in our daily struggles with sin. Maybe in theory… but in practice it is no longer perceived as so, for how can someone assume that taking the Eucharist is a validation of one’s life if someone views the Eucharist as a way to grow into a holier life?
In recent years, these knowledgeable Catholics’ worldview has shifted to such a degree that orthodoxy seems to mandate a kind of Eucharistic policing of the communion lines. These orthodox faithful then self-ascribe to themselves the role of protecting the Eucharist from being taken from those whom they deem unworthy, even if they have no ecclesiastical authority to do so.
And herein lies a great problem, for the very seed of scandal is found in this mindset. It is only by judging the interior dispositions of another one’s soul from their external acts that we are able to get scandalized. If we saw the Eucharist as a way to help remedy the interior sinfulness of divorced and remarried persons and not as a reward for their external actions, then we would have no trouble in accepting their access to the communion lines, provided they are not in mortal sin (and we would have no way to know that, since grave matter of a sin is not sufficient for someone to be in mortal sin; cc. CCC #1857-1859;1862).
What about the scandal for the other faithful, meaning those that are not as knowledgeable in the faith? We are living in an age of profound lack of religious education among the pews… Many of them don’t view divorce and remarriage as intrinsically evil. Is there a fear that these will get scandalized by AL into thinking civil divorce and remarriage is a-ok?
According to my experience, the fear of scandal amongst these is way overrated among the orthodox ranks. First of all, because Western and urban settings have lost the sense of community and become massified and depersonalized, many parish goers have no idea who the person standing beside them is, let alone his marital status.
But most importantly, most people who go to communion nowadays have no idea what the Eucharist really is, or how solemn or grave this Sacrament is. In my experience, they will enter the communion lines, without any conscience exam or without undergoing the sacrament of Penance… because they think that that is what is expected of them to do. They see everyone else doing it, they learned that this is the time to do it, so they do it.
This is a very sad state of affairs, but at least, there is a very small consolation… these people are not in danger of getting scandalized when they see a civilly divorced and remarried person taking communion. Many will be astonished to know that the Church doesn’t allow communion to people in those circumstances. This will come, in fact, as a surprise to many divorced and remarried Catholics, who have no idea about the ban themselves.
In this respect, people who are dissenting from AL are really seeing all of this from the wrong angle. Yes, they should be catechizing the masses about the Church’s unchanging teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. This is especially important in light of the crisis of values and family we are experiencing today. However, they should also be catechizing the masses about the true meaning of the Eucharist… and while they’re at it, about how to view the Eucharist as a medicine and not as a reward, so as to minimize the scandal when sinners receive communion.
For you see, if one of the main reasons to withhold communion is the possibility of scandal… then a way to deal with this is to minimize the possibility of scandal, so that as many people as possible can receive and get the benefits of sacramental grace out of it… especially if they are in a situation that makes it hard to live according to the gospel. Catholics should be overjoyed that any person who is not in mortal sin is able to receive the host, and should strive as much as possible to maximize attendance to this Sacrament.
However, this is not what formerly orthodox Catholics have been doing. Instead of rejoicing with the possibility of sacramental help for their brothers and sisters caught in sin, they will cling to their prejudice of Eucharist as a reward for good behavior and to their self-ascribed role of Eucharistic gatekeepers.
In doing so, they will rail against AL’s opening of communion to people who they view as in an external state of grave sin and will not budge on their opposition, no matter how much this is explained to them. They will invoke scandal, not as a sensible concern, but as a justification for their dissent.
And herein lies another great danger of scandal, often overlooked by papal critics. For giving communion to people in an objective state of sin is not the only way to give scandal… we give scandal whenever we push people away from the Church through our public example. As the CCC states: “Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. (…) Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
If a divorced and remarried person is set on a course of conversion that would eventually lead him to change his life, and then desists from that course because someone with no authority has kept him from the Eucharist, when the Pope has allowed it… then scandal happened.
Also, the dissent has spun completely out of control in certain places, like the social media. Formerly orthodox Catholics, who were once mouthpieces of Catholicism, wield quasi-protestant arguments to undermine papal authority, insult the Pope in an unhinged way, liken him to the Antichrist and spread a number of conspiracy theories against him. Who would want, when on the fence, to convert to a Church like this? I know of people who have not crossed the Tiber because of the division they witness inside the Church on this issue. Mind you, not the doctrine, the division.
I’ve also seen liberal Catholics denounce the hypocrisy from those who previously viewed the Pope as the ultimate authority and who called others CINOs and Cafeteria Catholics for not changing deep-seated worldviews incongruent with papal teachings. Those liberal Catholics will point to the conservative ones and say to the uncatechized masses (who are more receptive to hearing the former than the latter): “See? They also disobey the Pope when they disagree with him too! All their words about assent to papal teaching were just politically motivated, a way to lord over the others! Turn the tables on them and watch them act all the same!”
This too is scandal.
Dissenters who loudly proclaim their disobedience on social media or who broadcast it on Catholic television or who sell it through books are commiting the sin of scandal, a grave matter per the Catechism. It is, therefore, extremely ironic they are railing to keep other people away from Communion on account of grave matter. As Pope Francis warns us on the same AL (even though focusing on the social character of the Eucharist):
“The Eucharist demands that we be members of the one body of the Church. Those who approach the Body and Blood of Christ may not wound that same Body by creating scandalous distinctions and divisions among its members. This is what it means to “discern” the body of the Lord, to acknowledge it with faith and charity both in the sacramental signs and in the community; those who fail to do so eat and drink judgment against themselves.”
— AL #186
Public dissenters from AL should heed this cautionary warning from their Pope and change their attitudes and behaviors. Jesus warns us about judging others, for the same rod we use to measure will be used to measure us. He also tells us that we should remove the beam from our eye before trying to remove the speckle from our brother’s eye. Those who invoke scandal as a way to oppose AL should be very wary of giving scandal themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not what usually happens.
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.