Many conservative Catholics remain opposed to relaxing the canonical prohibition against granting Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried. And many progressive Catholics perceive their more conservative counterparts as caring more about abstract legal rules than flesh-and-blood human beings.
In my view, however, this particular perception is misplaced. Most Catholics who oppose relaxing the rules on Communion are neither heartless nor unmerciful. They think that a more lenient practice is inconsistent with Jesus’ words in the gospels—a debatable point, and one on which many scholars disagree. But more than biblical interpretation shapes the approach of such conservatives. They also believe the best way for the church to help weak and sinful human beings flourish in the long run is to hold the line on the canonical prohibition. This belief also needs to be challenged, because it rests on an unrealistic notion of the power of legal norms, including canonical norms.
As I understand the conservative Catholic case, it runs like this. Lifelong marital commitment increases one’s chances of personal happiness. Perseverance during the tough times is difficult but essential; studies show that most married couples who weather their storms find themselves in a better place in a few years’ time. The canonical prohibition has a carrot; it promotes the blessings of a lifelong sacramental union. But it also seems to have a stick—the threat of denying Communion incentivizes married couples to stick it out.
In the view of conservative Catholics, while the prohibition may appear cruel, it is actually kind. They admit that a few tragic cases may slip through the canonical cracks. But they point out that law, including canon law, is made for the general run of people. And in general, the pressure to stay together works for the well-being of the many more people who are able to work through their marital difficulties. They think of it like the U.S. Army: if unhappy recruits were simply permitted to leave basic training without any consequences, one or two people might be better off, but many others would be deprived of the benefits that sustained military discipline and commitment can confer.
So what’s the problem with this line of reasoning? The tough-love approach depends on the stick, not just the carrot. The Army analogy points to the basic flaw. If you walk away from basic training, the Army can and will put you in prison for desertion. In our society, there is no comparable threat for those who walk away from sacramental marriages, in either secular or canon law. In fact, nothing prevents a divorced and civilly remarried couple from starting afresh anonymously at a parish across town. No one is going to ask for a marriage certificate, let alone certificates of divorce and annulment, before giving them Communion.