Divorce, Remarriage, and “Discerning the Body”

On Pope Francis’ Interpretation of 1 Cor 11:27-34 in Amoris Laetitia

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s suggestion of couples receiving a blessing,
“Spiritual Communion,” from the priest

Over the past year since its release, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (hereafter AL), has elicited a great deal of consternation among the faithful of the Catholic Church. The controversy surrounding the document has centered on its eighth chapter wherein the Holy Father suggests that in certain cases sacramental discipline need not require that divorced and remarried couples live “as brother and sister” if they are to receive the help of the sacraments. Yet, the present article does not deal with the well-known controversial Chapter 8 of AL described above. Rather, what I will be attending to here is a shorter and lesser-known section from the fifth chapter of Francis’ exhortation.

In this text, located over a hundred paragraphs prior to the document’s discussion of divorce and remarriage, the Holy Father proposes a particular reading of a biblical text that lies at the heart of the Church’s rationale for restricting those in a state of mortal sin from access to the Eucharist. The text to which I refer is the following exhortation of St. Paul to the Christians at Corinth:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor 11:27-29).

While a great deal has been written on Ch. 8 of AL over the past year, to my knowledge little attention has been paid to Francis’ interpretation of this passage in AL §185-86. This essay aims to make a contribution toward understanding what Francis intends with his interpretation of it, and how this interpretation compares to that of the dominant magisterial tradition, and of contemporary biblical scholarship. An evaluation of Francis’ position will be offered in light of Benedict XVI’s exegetical principles, and a brief concluding reflection will be made on the possibility of spiritual communion for the divorced and remarried as proposed by the emeritus pontiff.

The Traditional Magisterial Interpretation of 1 Cor 11:27-29
Catholics know well the traditional interpretation of St. Paul’s text. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “Anyone who desires to receive Christ in Eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance” (CCC §1415). While reception of the Eucharist wipes away venial sins, and preserves us from future mortal sins (CCC 1394-95), nevertheless the Catechism reminds us that the following is also true: “The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins—that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church” (CCC §1395).

Pope John Paul II wrote eloquently on this subject in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia:

The celebration of the Eucharist … cannot be the starting-point for communion; it presupposes that communion already exists, a communion which it seeks to consolidate and bring to perfection. The sacrament is an expression of this bond of communion, both in its invisible dimension, which, in Christ and through the working of the Holy Spirit, unites us to the Father and among ourselves, and in its visible dimension, which entails communion in the teaching of the Apostles, in the sacraments, and in the Church’s hierarchical order.1

John Paul II’s view reflects the prevailing interpretation of the Church Fathers. As a representative example, he cites St. John Chrysostom who writes:

I, too, raise my voice, I beseech, beg, and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called “communion,” not even were we to touch the Lord’s body a thousand times over, but “condemnation,” “torment,” and “increase of punishment.”2

John Paul also points to the Catechism which, he says, rightly stipulates that “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.”3 The pontiff then proceeds to teach quite unequivocally:

I, therefore, desire to reaffirm that in the Church there remains in force, now and in the future, the rule by which the Council of Trent gave concrete expression to the Apostle Paul’s stern warning when it affirmed that, in order to receive the Eucharist in a worthy manner, “one must first confess one’s sins, when one is aware of mortal sin.”4

Many other texts from Fathers, popes, and councils could be cited, but for the sake of concision the above should suffice to make clear the Church’s traditional interpretation concerning our issue.

“To Discern the Body” and to Receive the Eucharist “Unworthily”: Francis’ Interpretation
As the brief survey of some of the most authoritative works of the magisterial tradition attests, the Church’s traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 11:27-29 is quite clear. Yet in AL, Pope Francis appears to offer a different interpretation of what St. Paul means regarding the necessity of “discerning the body” (διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα) so as not to receive “unworthily” (ἀναξίως). The pontiff writes:

Along these same lines, we do well to take seriously a biblical text usually interpreted outside of its context or in a generic sense, with the risk of overlooking its immediate and direct meaning, which is markedly social. I am speaking of 1 Cor 11:17-34, where Saint Paul faces a shameful situation in the community.5

What does Francis have in his sights in asserting that the Pauline text under discussion is “usually interpreted outside of its context”? Francis certainly may have other candidates in mind, but it is difficult for one not to read this as the traditional interpretation (the “generic sense” of the expression, in Francis’ terms) according to which one ought to discern whether he is in a state of mortal sin and, if so, refrain from receiving the Eucharist until absolved through sacramental confession.

If Paul’s text is not to be interpreted in the traditional manner, what, then, is its true meaning? Francis contextualizes the passage in light of the rest of 1 Cor 11:

The wealthier members tended to discriminate against the poorer ones, and this carried over even to the agape meal that accompanied the celebration of the Eucharist. While the rich enjoyed their food, the poor looked on and went hungry: “One is hungry and another is drunk. Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”6

Francis does not cite the text to which I am about to refer, but underlying his assertion above lies 1 Cor 11:17-18 wherein the Apostle laments the “divisions” that have sprung up within the Corinthian church. Specifically, these divisions are between the poor and the rich of the Corinthian church, the latter of whom let their less fortunate counterparts go hungry while they fill themselves and get drunk. Francis thus specifies his understanding of the expression “to discern the body” as follows:

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 judgement against themselves (cf. 11:29). The celebration of the Eucharist thus becomes a constant summons for everyone “to examine himself or herself” (11:28), to open the doors of the family to greater fellowship with the underprivileged, and in this way to receive the sacrament of that Eucharistic love which makes us one body.7

For Francis, the act of “discerning the body” thus has two distinct but inseparable aspects. One discerns Christ’s body (σῶμα) present in the sacramental signs (i.e. his Real Presence), but his body (σῶμα) is also found in the believing community itself. As a representative Catholic interpretation of this passage, the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible comments that it is “[p]robably a wordplay on the term ‘body,’ which refers to the Eucharistic body of Christ, and to the ecclesial body of Christ made up of believers united to him. Recognizing Jesus in the Sacrament is thus coupled with recognizing him in our spiritual brothers and sisters (cf. Mt 25:34-40).”8 This interpretation makes perfect sense in light of the greater context of Paul’s letter. For instance, in the chapter immediately following the one we are considering, Paul famously lays out his vision of what we now know as the Mystical Body of Christ: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). And in the chapter immediately prior to our key text, the Apostle writes, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17).

Reflection on this marvelous interplay between the two meanings of Christ’s body prompts Francis to cite his predecessor, Benedict XVI. As the emeritus pontiff teaches, this sacramental mysticism “is social in character, for in sacramental communion I become one with the Lord, like all the other communicants.”9 Commenting on this text, Francis writes:

When those who receive it turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering, or consent to various forms of division, contempt and inequality, the Eucharist is received unworthily. On the other hand, families who are properly disposed and receive the Eucharist regularly, reinforce their desire for fraternity, their social consciousness and their commitment to those in need.10

Contrary to the way Catholics may be accustomed to seeing 1 Cor 11 interpreted, for Francis unworthy reception of the Eucharist is above all caused by neglecting the poor, and consenting to various forms of division. In other words, the faithful need to recognize that such sins can rise to the mortal level, and thus prevent one from approaching communion. Francis does well to make us face the reality of these social sins that we sometimes fail to take sufficiently seriously. This is certainly in-line with the Church’s traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 11. It is the apparently exclusive emphasis that Francis places upon the nature of the sin involved here that appears as new. 

The Context and Meaning of 1 Cor 11:27-34 According to Contemporary Scholarship
Francis by no means invented the above interpretation of 1 Cor 11. Indeed, it represents the standard approach of scholars today to the passage under discussion. Richard B. Hays, for instance, writes:

[T]he problem that Paul is addressing at Corinth is not (overtly) a problem of sacramental theology; rather, it is a problem of social relations within the community. Paul’s vision of community comes into conflict with the Corinthians’ conventional social mores, which require distinctions of rank and status to be recognized at table: the more privileged members expect to receive more and better food than others.11

As Hays elaborates, we know from archaeological study that the dining room (triclinium) of a typical Roman villa in the first century (where the first Eucharistic celebrations were often held in colonies like Corinth) could accommodate only nine persons who would recline at table for their meal. Other guests had to remain in the atrium, which might have provided space for another thirty to forty people.12 Yet, to celebrate the Lord’s supper in this way—wherein the rich sit in the places of honor and consume the best food, while the poorer faithful sit at their feet and eat less or even nothing—is unacceptable. Hays puts it in this way:

The trouble with the Corinthians is that they are celebrating the Supper in a way that disregards this structure of covenant obligations, and demonstrates an odd amnesia about Jesus’ death. By showing contempt for those who have nothing, they are acting as though his death had not decisively changed the conditions of their relationship to one another. Paul, therefore, retells the story so as to spotlight the death of Jesus as the central meaning of the Supper.13

In this last sentence Hays is referring to 1 Cor 11:23-26 wherein Paul recounts the eucharistic words of institution found elsewhere with certain variations in the Synoptic Gospels.14 Paul appeals to the tradition of Jesus’ institution of the meal in order to remind the Corinthians that it is the Lord’s supper that they are supposed to be eating, not their own (1 Cor 11:20). As such, they are to remember the Lord’s sacrifice as they eat together, and this memory should bring a halt to their selfish behavior.15 As David Garland puts it, “Paul is arguing that when they recognize fully the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ, remembered in enacting the Last Supper, they will act compassionately toward their brothers and sisters in Christ.”16

Like Francis, therefore, Hays and Garland understand that the concern of 1 Cor 11 is decidedly social. Moreover, along with Francis he holds the following regarding what it means to receive the Eucharist “unworthily”:

Unfortunately verses 27–28 have often been taken out of context and seriously misinterpreted: the statement in verse 27 about eating the bread and drinking the cup “unworthily” has often been misunderstood… Paul’s call to self-scrutiny (v. 28) must therefore be understood not as an invitation for the Corinthians to probe the inner recesses of their consciences but as a straightforward call to consider how their actions at the supper are affecting brothers and sisters in the church, the body of Christ.17

As to the meaning of the expression “discerning the body,” Hays argues:

“Discerning the body” here cannot mean “perceiving the real presence of Christ in the sacramental bread”; this would be a complete non sequitur in the argument. For Paul, “discerning the body” means recognizing the community of believers for what it really is: the one body of Christ. Paul has already used this image for the church in 10:16–17, and he will develop it at greater length in 12:12–31a. Those who are failing to “discern the body” are those who act selfishly, focusing on their own spirituality, and exercising their own social privileges while remaining heedless of those who share with them in the new covenant inaugurated by the Lord’s death.

Those who eat and drink in this selfish way, Paul declares, are “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). What does he mean by this strange phrase? The later Christian tradition’s devout fixation on the sacred character of the eucharistic elements has led to interpretations such as the paraphrase offered by the NEB: “guilty of desecrating the body and blood of the Lord.” But this is to put the emphasis in the wrong place by focusing on the holiness of the eucharistic symbols per se. (Note that in v. 25 Paul avoids identifying the wine directly with the blood of Christ.) The problem is not desecration of the sacred elements, but rather offense against Christ himself.18

Hays is by no means alone among contemporary scholars in expressing the above view. Gordon Fee writes that Paul’s words have a long history of being read independent of their original context. Moreover, Fee pins this lack of interest in the passage’s original context on something dear to Catholics:

Unfortunately, a higher interest in the Table per se and in sacramentalism has often caused the text to be read independently of its present context, so that a variety of other options have been suggested for “unworthily” without self-examination, not realizing the real presence, without contemplation of the crucified body of Christ, with any form of sin in one’s life, etc.19

Of course, the Catholic can hardly concur wholeheartedly with the above view that the Church’s longstanding sacramental interpretation of 1 Cor 11 is best characterized as “unfortunate.” However, that does not mean we have nothing to learn from the insight of the contemporary academy, as Francis himself clearly believes.20

Evaluation of Francis’ Position in Light of Benedict XVI’s Exegetical Principles
In light of what has been said above, “discerning the body” as expressed in 1 Cor 11 requires that those who would approach the sacrament do so with attention to the mystery that that the Eucharistic body and the ecclesial body of Christ are truly one. Accordingly, Francis does well to emphasize that neglecting or discriminating against the poor of Christ’s ecclesial “body” causes one to receive the Lord’s Eucharistic body “unworthily.”

Francis’ interpretation of the Pauline passage in AL §185 coheres with the pontiff’s overarching concerns regarding the poor as evinced throughout his pontificate. As he makes clear in Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wants a Church which is poor and for the poor. And he adds that none of us—even we who regularly perform many other important works of charity—can consider ourselves exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.21

Further, the Holy Father’s precise readings of what it means “to discern the body” and to receive the Lord “unworthily” are likely governed largely by his fundamental conviction that the Church is not a “tollhouse” and that the Eucharist is “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”22 In other words, Francis suggests that communion in the Lord’s body and blood may be approached as a means toward the goal of communion, rather than as the goal itself.23 In light of the above affirmations from early in his pontificate, it should not be surprising that Francis expresses in AL a very specific view of what it means to receive the Eucharist unworthily, and that he wishes to open the door for certain of those who have been divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist. For, according to Francis, the Church is a field hospital, and the Eucharist is the medicine we need to be giving those wounded on the battlefield of life.

Francis’ position on the role of the Eucharist as viaticum is certainly not without its problems, and merits extensive treatment in its own right, but here my point is simply to elucidate Francis’ take on 1 Cor 11 in light of his broader Eucharistic vision. That said, there is much to commend in the pontiff’s ever-present emphasis upon the vastness of God’s mercy, and in his admirable desire for all to receive the Lord in the Eucharist. Moreover, his emphasis upon the sometimes neglected social implications of 1 Cor 11 reminds some of us who are not accustomed to dealing directly with the poor, that care for them is our responsibility as Christians, and that neglecting them can even cause us to receive the Eucharist unworthily.24

Yet, as Benedict XVI reminds us, in our interpretation of Francis we must also be wary of approaching Scripture with a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.25 As the emeritus pontiff has shown throughout his career, it is possible to wed the best of ancient exegesis, and the best of modern scholarship, to help tackle thorny issues such as the present one. In light of this exegetical vision, Francis’ use of modern scholarship to help elucidate the meaning of 1 Cor 11 represents a legitimate contribution to the Church’s understanding of the text. Moreover, his critical stance toward the “usual,” “generic” interpretation of Paul’s letter is not necessarily out of line on the terms of Benedict XVI’s exegetical program, because Benedict’s ressourcement of the patristic-medieval tradition is a critical retrieval. In other words, it once deeply respects longstanding interpretations of the past, yet it does not require affirming that the ancient tradition comprehensively grasped the original context and intention of a given biblical passage.26

That said, to sideline the longstanding broader reading of Paul’s words, as some of the above authors have done, and as Francis’ brief comments at least appear to do, is to sever the literal sense of Scripture from its authentic development within the Church. To be sure, Paul’s exhortation to “discern the body” entails discerning his presence in the poor of the community, and the scholarship summarized above does make a strong case that this constitutes the Apostle’s immediate concern. However, if we apply the exegetical principles exemplified so lucidly in the corpus of Benedict XVI, there is no reason why Paul’s intention should not also have extended to a concern for faith in Christ’s presence in the sacrament. It is not as if the Corinthians of the first century needed a robust explicit understanding of the doctrine of transubstantiation in order to receive the Lord, but I think it stands to reason that Paul expected them to have some understanding that Jesus was present in the Eucharistic species. Indeed, this presence might even be described as primary, insofar as reception of the Eucharist, is in Paul’s view, precisely what creates the mystical union of the ecclesial body: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17, emphasis added).

In like manner, the Catholic who follows the lead of Benedict XVI ought not to reject the Church’s understanding of “unworthiness” as a reference to mortal sin, nor do we need to cease believing that to receive the Eucharist while in such a state is to profane the Lord’s real presence in the sacrament. Paul’s immediate emphasis upon the sort of “unworthiness” present in the social situation of the Corinthian church does not amount to an exclusion of other forms of “unworthiness” that would prevent one from approaching the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood. George Montague puts it well:

Repentance, confession of sin, the will to reconcile and to embrace the needy—these are the threads of the red carpet that we roll out to welcome the eucharistic Lord … If we are aware of any serious, unrepented sin, we should not approach the altar until we have repented and confessed.27

Emphasizing the need to embrace the needy does not mean that we need not also confess other mortal sins before approaching the Eucharistic table. Pope Francis, though, does not explicitly affirm this in the context of AL §185-85. However, it is possible that he, unlike some of the non-Catholic interpreters mentioned above, would not exclude the traditional interpretation were he to further clarify his position. Indeed, as one of my students in a seminar I am teaching on this subject pointed out, in his brief treatment of Paul, the pontiff does not explicitly deny the traditional interpretation, but rather states that the usual broader reading of Paul carries “the risk of overlooking its immediate and direct meaning” (AL §185).

Spiritual Communion: A Practical Suggestion from the Emeritus Pontiff
I would like to conclude by reflecting on a recent text from the emeritus pontiff which frames this entire question well, and in light of the specific question of how to better integrate the divorced and remarried in the Church without putting them in state wherein they would be—to use Paul’s phrase—eating and drinking judgment upon themselves (1 Cor 11:29):

In many countries it has become customary for persons who are not able to receive communion (for example, the members of other confessions) to approach the altar with their hands folded over their chests, making it clear that they are not receiving the sacrament, but are asking for a blessing, which is given to them as a sign of the love of Christ and of the Church. This form could certainly be chosen also by persons who are living in a second marriage and, therefore, are not admitted to the Lord’s table. The fact that this would make possible an intense spiritual communion with the Lord, with his whole Body, with the Church, could be a spiritual experience that would strengthen and help them.28

Benedict speaks here both of receiving a “blessing” which makes possible “an intense spiritual communion with the Lord.” This is similar to the 1994 statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which reads:

[I]t is necessary to instruct [the divorced and remarried] faithful so that they do not think their participation in the life of the Church is reduced exclusively to the question of the reception of the Eucharist. The faithful are to be helped to deepen their understanding of the value of sharing in the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass, of spiritual communion, of prayer, of meditation on the Word of God, and of works of charity and justice.29

The recommendation of spiritual communion, then, has been indicated magisterially as an avenue that ought to be further pursued in lieu of simply admitting any and all divorced and remarried persons to receive the sacraments. Yet, even here the question is more complicated than as at first it might appear. It is important to avoid conceiving spiritual communion as a substitute for sacramental communion, and thinking that one need not desist from mortal sins in order to receive communion spiritually. In other words, it is hard to see how a person not properly disposed to receiving sacramental communion could, at the same time, somehow be able to make a spiritual communion.30 As the emeritus pontiff himself suggests, much more work needs to be done on this subject. In any event, I think we can at least say that in approaching the priest for a blessing, as Benedict suggests, one does not thereby eat or drink judgment upon himself.

  1. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §35-36.
  2. St. John Chrysostom, Homiliae in Isaiam,6, 3: PG 56, 139 (Vatican translation). See also Chrysostom, Homilies in 1 Corinthians, 28.2.
  3. CCC, §1385; cf. Code of Canon Law, §916; Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, §711
  4. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, §36; cf. Council of Trent, Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, Chapter VII, in The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Oecumenical Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848).
  5. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, §185 (emphasis added).
  6. Ibid., §185, citing 1 Cor 11:21-22.
  7. Ibid., §186 (emphasis added). In light of the greater context of AL one may wonder, as one of students expressed on this topic, whether Francis is also lamenting here the “scandalous distinctions” that occur when, as he describes it, the divorced who have entered a new union are at times wrongly ostracized and treated as “excommunicated.” Cf. ibid., §242.
  8. Curtis Mitch and Scott Hahn, eds., Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), 302.
  9. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §14. See also George Montague, First Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 190-202.
  10. Francis, Amoris Laetitia, §186 (emphasis added).
  11. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 193-94.
  12. Ibid., 196. See also Montague, First Corinthians, 191 and Craig Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 96-97.
  13. Hays, First Corinthians, 199.
  14. For a discussion of the differences between the four Institution Narratives, see Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to The Resurrection (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 115-37 and Matthew J. Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017). 156-64.
  15. Hays, First Corinthians, 194.
  16. David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 553.
  17. Hays, First Corinthians, 200.
  18. Ibid., 200-201.
  19. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 560n11.
  20. A less negative yet still critical treatment of the Patristic interpretation of Paul on “discerning the body,” see Garland, 1 Corinthians, 552 and Keener, 1-2 Corinthians, 98-99.
  21. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §198, 201.
  22. Ibid., §47.
  23. As an indication of this, when speaking to a group of Lutherans the Holy Father suggested along the same lines: “To share the Lord’s banquet: is it the goal of the path or is it the viaticum {provisions} for walking together? I leave that question to the theologians and those who understand. It’s true that in a certain sense, to share means there aren’t differences between us, that we have the same doctrine – underscoring that word, a difficult word to understand — but I ask myself: but don’t we have the same Baptism? If we have the same Baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together? You’re a witness also of a profound journey, a journey of marriage: a journey really of the family and human love and of a shared faith, no? We have the same Baptism.” Francis, Interview (November 16, 2015).
  24. There is precedent in the likes of Chrysostom for denouncing the neglect of the poor at the Lord’s Supper. See Chrysostom, Homilies, Homilies in 1 Corinthians, 27.4.
  25. Benedict XVI, Christmas Address to the Roman Curia (December 22, 2005).
  26. For a summary of the emeritus pontiff’s exegetical vision of this synthesis between ancient and modern exegesis, see Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted, 56-100.
  27. Montague, First Corinthians, 202.
  28. Ratzinger, “Zur Fragenach der Unauflöslichkeit der Ehe. Bemerkungen zum dogmengeschichtlichen Befund und zu seiner gegenwärtigen Bedeutung,” in Joseph Ratzinger Gesammelte Schriften, Band 4 (Herder, Freiburg, 2014), 600–621. The translation of this work here is taken from Sandro Magister, “In the Synod on the Family Even the Pope Emeritus Is Speaking Out,” Chiesa (December 3, 2014).
  29. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Concerning Some Objections to the Church’s Teaching on the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful (1994), 6. See also Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, §55.
  30. For an outstanding treatment of this problem, see Paul Jerome Keller, OP, “Is Spiritual Communion for Everyone?,” Nova et Vetera 12 (2014): 631-655. See also Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole, OP, “Communion sacramentelle et communion spirituelle,” Nova et Vetera 86 (2011): 152-53. As Keller and La Soujeole observe, there is a danger in confusing the “desiring of a sacrament” from the “sacrament of desire.” One the one hand, the sacrament of desire permits a participation in the res (reality) of the sacrament when there is some exterior obstacle to receiving the sign (the sacramentum tantum). Desiring a sacrament, on the other hand, refers to a situation wherein one has an interior obstacle that prevents him from receiving the res of the sacrament. Writes Keller: “We must be clear on this: not all desiring may be fulfilled. This is the case, not because the object is unattainable, but because one lacks the disposition or ability to attain the object…One might say it is not a real desire, for to desire the end is to desire the means to the end. To desire union with Christ, one must also desire to remove whatever obstacles one has placed to this union…To desire Holy Communion, to make a true spiritual communion, entails being able to make such a communion.” Ibid., 644-45.
Dr. Matthew J. Ramage, PhD About Dr. Matthew J. Ramage, PhD

Dr. Matthew Ramage is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He earned his MA from Franciscan University and his PhD from Ave Maria University. He is author of the book Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas (2013, CUA Press).


  1. Avatar bill bannon says:

    If only Pope Francis used context exegesis when he asserted on February 21,2016 from his window to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square that the fifth commandment forbade the death penalty. The fifth commandment is given inter alia in Deuteronomy in which God also gives the Jews multiple death penalties in two chapters in the same first person imperative that He used in giving the fifth commandment. Also God gave all mankind a death penalty (for murder only) in Gen.9:5-6 which is cited completely in ccc #2260. That Pope Francis used absolutely no context exegesis in this latter issue of the death penalty and yet used context exegesis in the Amoris Laetecia remarriage and Eucharist issue…is inconsistent. Whereas his two predecessors tried to say that modern prisons are so secure now that the death penalty is no longer necessary, Pope Francis is pushing the idea as again last week…that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong just as slavery is ( homily May 11,2017). It cannot be intrinsically wrong if God repeatedly mandated it…many times to the Jews, once to all mankind in Gen.9:5-6 which is reechoed in Romans 13:4.

    • Avatar William Murphy says:

      Thanks for this very helpful comment. That Feb 2016 address is not the first time that Pope Francis has given grossly misleading advice on the morality of the death penalty. In an address to a conference in 2014 he declared that the death penalty is impermissible and that a life sentence is also a kind of death penalty. As one commentator pointed out, if you deny the possibility of a life sentence the case against the death penalty collapses.
      As I pointed out at the time, the Pope plainly has an unpleasant vested interest here. One of his fellow Jesuits is likely to die in a US prison after being given a 25 year sentence for the usual offences and one of the most vile Boston priest pedophiles was brutally murdered in prison.
      As for the idea that modern prisons are so secure that the death penalty is no longer necessary….well, these gentlemen plainly have never heard of murders inside prisons. One British prisoner is currently in an ultra-secure isolation unit after killing three prisoners when he was serving a life sentence for murder. We cannot execute him and we dare not release him.
      The practical consequence of recent Papal advice is that more innocent people will die. If even the worst murderers are going to be released sometime, a few will go on to kill again. A typical average in the UK is 6 people murdered per year by released murderers.

      • Avatar bill bannon says:

        William: Our Supreme Court in the U.S. halted the death penalty in 1972/ studied deterrence studies..liberal and conservative for four years/ and resumed it in 1976 in the pertinent states…finding that it saves lives not as to passion murders but as to criminal murders despite our ten-year appeals rate ( California–20 years). Non-death penalty, northern Latin America from Brazil to Mexico…c. 12 heavily Catholic non-death penalty countries are the most murderous areas on earth by 2012 U.N. figures. Death-penalty dominant Asia is the safest. Both areas unlike Europe have millions of poor. Brazil has c.50,000 murders a year, and China has c.11,000 a year, with 7 times the population of Brazil. This goes to Catholic suppression in China. Why would China allow a strong voice to Catholicism if it’s new anti-death penalty view of three Popes might bring criminal chaos as China sees in a third of Catholic countries. They’d be foolish, and their policy with murderers now is that of all Popes, from 1250 until 1952 at the least. They’re honoring Romans 13:4 and three Popes have given it dead silence.


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