My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This past May 2, I gave the keynote address for the Northwest Regional Canon Law Convention in Portland, Oregon, entitled, “Doctrine, Law and Practice in Light of Mitis Iudex and Amoris Laetitia,” two documents issued by Pope Francis. With regard to the question of pastoral care for the divorced and remarried, Pope Francis had suggested in a footnote, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” The qualifier, “in certain cases,” means that there is no indiscriminate, universal or blanket permission for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive holy Communion. One example of these certain types of cases would be what is known in the church as the brother-sister solution, in which the couple lives together publicly as husband and wife, but abstains from all sexual intercourse. In such cases, the couple who agree to live as brother and sister may receive holy Communion with the approval of the bishop, provided there is no danger of scandal.
A good example of this approach can be seen in the guidelines for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia issued by Archbishop Charles Chaput, which state, “Every Catholic, not only the divorced and civilly-remarried, must sacramentally confess all serious sins of which he or she is aware, with a firm purpose to change, before receiving the Eucharist. … With divorced and civilly-remarried persons, Church teaching requires them to refrain from sexual intimacy. This applies even if they must (for the care of their children) continue to live under one roof. Undertaking to live as brother and sister is necessary for the divorced and civilly-remarried to receive reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which could then open the way to the Eucharist.”
As part of the canon law conference in Portland, a married couple gave a presentation describing their experience of living as brother and sister. Listening to couple’s experience provided a deeper dimension to our understanding of the brother-sister solution as a lived reality and not just a theoretical notion.
The husband spoke first, describing how he had been baptized Catholic as a child, but left the church when he was a teenager and lived as an atheist for thirty years! Realizing that atheism left him feeling empty and without any purpose in life, he began searching and eventually found his way back to Catholicism.
The wife then described how she had been brought up in a Protestant church, but after years of her own searching, she came to the conclusion that the true faith is found in the Catholic Church. She and her husband both spoke with a Catholic priest about returning to the Catholic Church in his case, and entering into full communion with the Catholic Church in her case.
One obstacle for both of them, however, was that each had been married and divorced previously. The priest helped them complete their paperwork petitioning the diocesan tribunal for a declaration of invalidity, commonly called an annulment, of their previous marriages. He then explained to them that they had to make a choice until their annulments would be granted: since they would be considered by the church as still married to their previous spouses until their prior marriages had been declared invalid, they would either have to refrain from holy Communion if they engaged in conjugal relations as husband and wife, or they could go to holy Communion if they abstained from sexual relations and lived as brother and sister. Both of them quickly chose the latter, agreeing to live as brother and sister because they wanted to receive holy Communion. They lived this way as a family with their two sons for 19 months, at which time both of their previous marriages were declared to have been invalid and their current civil marriage was convalidated in the church.
When asked how they came to this decision to live as brother and sister, the wife responded by saying, “It was simple: We decided that God was more important than sex!” As simple as that answer may sound, it is also deeply profound. This couple quickly came to a great insight that they plainly saw as obvious in their view, but which seems to escape most people in our culture today. When you stop to think about it, the fact that so many people regard sex as more important than God is at the root of so many of our society’s ills, including abortion, contraception, adultery, fornication and homosexual relations.
After their talk, I thanked this couple for giving such a powerful example that obeying God’s Commandments is not impossible, if indeed we are convinced that God is more important than our own selfish desires. Coming to that conclusion and living according to that conviction of faith requires God’s grace, so we should pray for this grace because “with God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
May God give us this grace. Amen.