Wafer Wars

09.21.14 9:45 AM ET

The Great Divide Facing Pope Francis That Only Catholics Understand

Who can take Holy Communion? If people were honest, almost nobody you know.

ROME, Italy — Forget such lofty aspirations as ridding the Church of child abusers or clamping down on financial corruption, Pope Francis’s biggest obstacle in reforming the Catholic Church comes down to a tiny round gluten-rich Styrofoam-tasting wafer.

The Blessed Eucharist, Holy Communion, the breaking of bread, panis triticeus, the host with the most—whatever Catholics call the thin round wafer made of unleavened wheat, the sacrament of the Eucharist is the culminating point of any Catholic mass. And, according to Catholic teaching, the most important of the seven sacraments.  

Taking communion is when Catholics accept the ultimate sacrifice made for them—the body and blood of Christ who died for their sins—preferably on an empty stomach and with a clear conscience in a sin-free state of grace. In some Catholic families (disclaimer: like the one I grew up in), Saturday night confession was a pretty good way to ensure one could still be free of sin by Sunday morning mass (or in some cases, confession was followed directly by Saturday night mass in lieu of Sunday, just to be safe).

Communion in the Catholic Church is extremely important, but it is rife with hypocrisy. In some Catholic communities, eyebrows are raised when certain members of the congregation join the queue to take communion; in others, nobody balks because everybody’s straddling the same thin sinner-saint line. Many Catholics who stand up for communion know they are unworthy, but they are far too worried what the neighbors might think if they sit out a Sunday, speculating on what sins weren’t forgiven in time.   

The sin-free checklist is no joke: no birth control, no premarital sex, no masturbation, no homosexual acts, no fertility treatments, no taking the name of God in vain, the list goes on. Oddly, perhaps, the Catholics who generally do follow the rules to the letter and abstain from communion, proudly confined to the pew, are those who are divorced. For them, abstaining is a cross to bear, never mind that worshiping in a seemingly unforgiving Church at all is a major hurdle for many. The divorced are often the congregation’s obvious sinners, but the Catholic Church might consider a pre-communion litmus test questionnaire to make sure everyone who gets a host deserves it. They might be surprised how much money they would save on altar bread.

So it may seem curious that with all the major problems the Catholic Church is grappling with, from what to do with women to what to do with pedophiles, the most divisive issue for Francis would settle on the definition of divorce and just who among the world’s Church-going divorced Catholics deserves a wafer.

In fact, the communion conundrum highlights the first visible fissure in the church of Francis. And don’t think we didn’t see it coming. In April, Francis called up an Argentinean woman named Jacqueline Sabetta Lisbona who wrote him about how her priest refused to give her communion because she was married to a divorced man. Francis promptly picked up the phone and told her go ahead and take the wafer. Immediately after the news got out, the Vatican went into damage control, with the spokesman cautioning that “private conversations between the pope and parishioners do not reflect church policy,” and that no doctrine had been changed.

Last Sunday, the pope raised eyebrows again among conservative Catholics when he performed a marriage ceremony for 20 couples in St. Peter’s basilica, including a woman who had a child out of wedlock, a man whose marriage was annulled and several couples who admitted to cohabitating. It is unclear if the couples were asked to take a Princess Diana-style virginity test, or if they had just told the papal people that they had never tested the sexual waters before entering marriage. Or if no one asked. They all took communion.

The biggest backlash on the communion question will come on October 1 with the publication of a book called Remaining in the Truth of Christ on Marriage and the Catholic Church. The book will come out on the eve of the upcoming Synod on the Family extraordinary general assembly—the first for Pope Francis—to be held October 5-19 in Rome. It is jointly authored by five prominent cardinals who seek to draw a clear line among the Roman Curia on the issue of Catholic marriage, divorce and communion. The authors (Gerhard Ludwig Muller from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Raymond Leo Burke, who is rumored to be about to lose his post as the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, Walter Brandmuller, former head of the pontifical committee for Historical Sciences, Carlo Caffarra, archbishop of Bologna, and Velasio De Paolis, former Prefecture for the Economic Affairs) come down hard on Francis’s perceived leniency on the issue of communion and marriage, according to a preview piece in Italy’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper this week, which starts with the line “non possumus” Latin for “it is not possible.”

In the introduction by Cardinal George Pell, published in National Catholic Reporter, the Australian prelate, an ally who Francis recently appointed as the Secretariat for the Economy, writes, “Doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory. One cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the ‘remarried’ to receive communion.” According to the preview, he says, “the sooner the wounded, the lukewarm, and the outsiders realize that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of the doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated.”

That a book reminding Francis of all the many reasons he should not change church doctrine on this topic comes out just before the most important meeting he hosts on the very issue is surely no coincidence. According to the preparatory document sent to global congregations to pinpoint talking points for the Synod, the bishops and laity gathered will focus on issues like Catholic family life, birth control within the family, poverty in the family and Catholic marriage preparation. But the topic most people are watching is whether or not the Catholic Church will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Holy Communion. Spoiler alert: According to Vatican experts, they won’t.

The most confusing aspect of the argument is the fact that divorce is not actually a sin per se, it is simply not recognized in the Catholic church at all. If you marry in the church, you are married for life whatever the judge may decide on who gets the house, the kids and the debts. The church will cancel out the marriage in an annulment, which is a sort of a “Men in Black” neutralizer equivalent that serves to pretend the marriage never happened. If Catholics divorce and then remarry in a civil union (because Catholics cannot remarry in the church without an annulment), they are committing adultery, which is a sin under which they cannot receive communion unless they abstain from sexual relations in the new marriage. Again, that pre-communion questionnaire sin litmus test might prove handy.

Writing in The Boston Globe’s new Catholic website, Crux, noted Vatican expert John Allen warns that the synod will likely disappoint those who hope non-annulled divorced Catholics will be allowed to take communion any time soon—or ever.

Instead, he says, the synod attendees will more likely find a compromise in the process of annulments, basically following the quick and dirty American model of speeding them up so that divorced Catholics can just erase their failed marriages from the Catholic books in order to receive communion, which is not, of course, even close to the same thing as allowing divorced Catholics to take communion.

“Unlike divorce, which is premised on the idea that a real marriage is being dissolved, an annulment is a declaration from a church court that no marriage existed in the first place because it didn’t meet one or more of the tests in the church law for validity,” Allen writes, hypothesizing that those failures might one day include an Italian suggestion that “mamma-ism” or the influence of one’s mother-in-law might be a valid reason that led to the failed marriage. But he says not everyone wants to adopt the so-called American style annulment factory. “Speeding up the annulment process is not a slam-dunk, however, because there’s also a strong constituency that believes the system is already too loosey-goosey.”

At any rate, all the hype ahead of next month’s Synod is premature, since this synod only paves the way for a more decisive synod in 2015. Until then, divorced Catholics will likely remain in the pews while the rest of the sinners have their host and eat it, too.