In recent years Pope Benedict XVI has been overseeing the publication of his opera omnia, or collected works. Assisted by the current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Benedict is republishing, under the name Joseph Ratzinger, all his theological writings, nine volumes of which have been issued so far (in German, by Verlag Herder). The most recent volume contains a 1972 essay, on the indissolubility of marriage, whose conclusion Benedict has seen fit to rewrite. The original essay, written when Ratzinger was a forty-five-year-old professor of theology at Regensburg, had proposed that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics be allowed to return to Communion in some circumstances. In an important change, that proposal is conspicuously missing from the newly rewritten conclusion.

The original conclusion acknowledged both that the church is “of the New Covenant” and that it remains “in a world in which there continues to exist unchanged ‘the hardness of heart’ (Matthew 19:8)” of prior times. And so church practice “must begin in the concrete”—taking into account the damage done, even by the church itself, through such “hardness of heart.” Specifically, with regard to Scripture’s clear teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, Ratzinger in 1972 concluded that, in some second marriages, it would be “immoral” to demand separation as a condition for allowing the spouses to return to Communion. “When the second marriage produces moral obligations with regard to the children, the family, and even the wife and there are no analogous obligations stemming from the first marriage,” Ratzinger wrote, “openness to eucharistic Communion, after a trial period, certainly seems to be just and fully in line with the tradition of the church.”                 

The new, rewritten conclusion retains the original essay’s observation about our human hardness of heart, but proceeds to note that we are in a new “concrete” situation—and then asks a question Ratzinger did not ask forty-three years ago: “So what can be done concretely, especially at a time in which the faith is being watered down more and more, even within the church?” Times have changed, Benedict seems to be saying, and readmission to the sacraments is no longer an option. Instead he recommends that divorced Catholics who have civilly remarried be offered “intense spiritual communion with the Lord,” including a blessing at Sunday Mass when they “approach the altar with their hands folded over their chests.” Spiritual communion, yes; sacramental communion, no.

Times may indeed have changed since 1972—but have they changed so radically as to invalidate the earlier essay’s conclusion? That earlier essay had appealed to such Church Fathers as Origen, St. Basil, and St. Augustine to argue both that the indissolubility of marriage has been “definitive” church doctrine from the beginning and that “within the ideal that is in fact determinative for the church, there was evidently again and again in the concrete pastoral application a more elastic practice.”  For remarried Christians that more “elastic practice” included, in some cases, returning to the sacraments.

The original essay’s concluding paragraph began by restating the “irrevocable” nature of marital consent, then added: “This does not rule out that the eucharistic Communion of the church should also embrace persons who recognize this doctrine and this principle of life but find themselves in an emergency situation of a special nature in which they have particular need for full communion with the Body of the Lord.” In its final sentence the essay called this twofold claim a “sign of contradiction that will remain in the church’s faith.” Indeed this sign of contradiction is “essential” to the church, Ratzinger argued, whose Lord “proclaimed to his disciples that they must not presume to be above their master, who was rejected by the pious and the liberal.”


WHY DID HE change his mind? There is a complicated back story to Benedict’s revision, one containing some theological and ecclesial infighting. Last February the 1972 article by Ratzinger was cited—approvingly—by Cardinal Walter Kasper in his introductory remarks to the consistory of cardinals convened by Pope Francis to discuss the issue of the family, preparatory to last fall’s synod; in affirming his view that the divorced and remarried should be admitted to Communion, Kasper cited Ratzinger’s essay as offering “an appropriate solution” to the dilemma. Yet that 1972 article was the first and only time Ratzinger ever took such a position publicly. Thereafter he reverted to the traditional ban on Communion, and actually helped strengthen it when, as prefect of the CDF, he signed the September 1994 letter to the bishops in which the Holy See rejected the more liberal position staked out by certain bishops—including Kasper. Apparently Ratzinger’s dissatisfaction at Kasper’s use of his essay last year led to his decision to recast its conclusion in his collected works. 

It is, in the view of many, an unfortunate alteration, a diminution of the vision of faith put forth in the earlier essay’s conclusion. In sum, for Ratzinger forty-three years ago, a willingness to live within the tension between a definitive doctrinal claim and a pastoral duty to embrace those of “particular need” was not a contradiction needing to be ironed out, but rather a sign of discipleship. This willingness is missing from the new conclusion, which dissolves that “essential contradiction” by dropping a pastoral embrace in favor of a definitive doctrine. Effectively, Benedict forgets what his earlier essay held as fundamental.

Such forgetting finds a sharp challenge in an idea first expressed by German Catholic theologian Johannes Metz in 1977, just a few years after Ratzinger’s original essay. Metz said that at the center of Christianity stands the “dangerous memory” of the death and resurrection of Jesus, with its promise of the coming Kingdom of God (Faith in History and Society). We must cultivate this dangerous memory to overcome any temptation to “bathe everything from the past in a soft, conciliatory light,” Metz insisted, and instead allow the past to “reveal new and dangerous insights for the present.” What we need is a fuller memory of the past, but Benedict’s rewritten conclusion moves in the opposite direction; it forgets what is difficult about the past and thus avoids “dangerous insights for the present.”


I HAVE HAD MY own reasons to revisit the past of late. My eighty-two-year-old mother has recently taken to telling me and my siblings stories that we had not heard before—difficult stories about her life growing up in Boston. In October, she and I flew from Minnesota to visit her last remaining brother, then eighty-eight and living with advanced dementia in a Boston nursing home. On the flight, my mother told me of a phone conversation she’d had with her brother a few years before, when he was still conversational. “Was our childhood as bad as I remember it?” she had asked her brother. “Worse,” he replied. At the nursing home my uncle did not speak, but smiled in what seemed to be wordless recognition of my mother. The visit turned out to be their last; he died three weeks later.

These events have further opened the floodgates for my mother, increasing her desire to look back and understand dangerous memories from her early life. They center around the difficulties created by her mother’s alcoholism, divorce, and remarriage. One memory concerns another family who would help on Sundays by taking my mother to church with them. “My mother wasn’t allowed inside the church, divorcée that she was,” my mother recalled. “The other family would not physically step into our house, but would honk their car horn from our driveway to let me know it was time to come with them.” Another memory concerned one of her grade-school teachers—in her Catholic school—who from time to time would instruct her to stand so the rest of the class could “see what the child of a divorcée looks like.”

My mother does not in the least lay her life’s challenges at the feet of the church. Her mother’s alcoholism interrupted her early life more than the church’s teaching about divorce and remarriage, and the consolation and hope my mother has received from decades of active membership in the church far outweigh the suffering. Still, her difficult stories were fresh in my mind and heart when I read Benedict’s revised conclusion—and when a colleague shared with me some of her own memories of being a Catholic-school seventh-grader, in the early 1960s. After suffering many years of spousal abuse, my colleague’s mother had gotten up the courage to divorce her husband. Word had apparently gotten out, and “I was called out of class one morning,” my colleague recalled, “and told that the pastor wanted to see me. Monsignor was in the office and told me that my mother would go to hell, unless I talked her out of getting divorced.”

My colleague was so overwhelmed by that visit that she remained silent about it for years. When she finally did tell her mother, she learned that the monsignor had phoned her those many years before with the same message—reminding her, over the telephone, that she was a sinner, was not welcome to Communion, and would certainly end up in hell if she failed to raise her children in the Catholic faith.

My colleague’s mother eventually remarried, and for years she and her husband brought her children to Sunday Mass and remained in the pew while the children went to Communion. This woman apologized for the rest of her life for “leaving” the church; in her sixties and dying, this divorced and remarried woman wrote a letter to her own mother (who outlived her) that included the following sentence: “Please tell me that you understand what I did, and that you hope we will meet again in heaven.”

These stories have something to say to any of us wanting to take seriously the sign of contradiction, the dangerous memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not to allow such stories into our lives is a failure of compassion. In his fine essay on Johannes Metz and "dangerous memories," Michael J. Iafrate cites Metz's reminder that compassion literally means a “willingness to suffer the sufferings of others.” * I am not suggesting that Pope Benedict lacks compassion. But I am suggesting that something is missing from his account of the past—namely, that tension he earlier called essential to church faith. His new conclusion comes, he writes, “at a time in which the faith is being watered down more and more”; but in my view it is not adequate to what is being asked of us now. What we need is not to drop the “essential contradiction” he referred to in 1972, but to learn how to live with it, and in it, together.

In fact, Pope Francis seems now to be asking precisely this of us. At the end of October’s first installment of the two-part Synod on the Family, he asked all present to open themselves to a year of “true spiritual discernment,” so that when the synod reconvenes next October it can “find concrete solutions to so many difficulties and innumerable challenges that families must confront.” 

How do we achieve such discernment? In his 2011 book Katholische Kirche: Wesen, Wirklichkeit, Sendung, Cardinal Walter Kasper—appropriately enough—named three rules for discerning the movement of the Spirit in the church. I find the one Kasper calls “ecclesiological” especially timely. “The Spirit is a Spirit of unity,” he writes. “The Spirit does not divide, but brings together and orders charisms within the church into a whole.... Prophetic speech must serve the building up of the community.” This rule sounds very much like Ratzinger’s 1972 concern that we attend to those in emergency situations who “have a particular need for full communion with the Body of the Lord.”

Might not opening ourselves to hear the stories of people whose lives have been deeply affected by church pastoral practice around divorce and remarriage help us understand what true communion might be? Might it not assist us in learning how to build up the community—and so contribute to the year of true spiritual discernment that Francis recommends?

*An earlier version of this essay did not include the citation of Michael J. Iafrate's "'We Will Never Forget': Metz, Memory, and the Dangerous Spirituality of Post-9/11 America (Part II)," which appeared in September 2009 at Vox Nova. This essay has since been revised to reflect the inclusion of the citation.

This article is also part of a Commonweal reading list on Catholic marriage today.

William McDonough is professor of Theology and coordinator of the Masters in Theology Program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Published in the February 6, 2015 issue: View Contents
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