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Because the issue of communion for divorced people is such a hot one, our discussion of the limits of authority had to include it. As the reaction showed, the limits of the argument are not necessarily readily understood. The response that the ‘Church teaches this and cannot change its mind’ introduces a false syllogism. In the example given in my last post, the Church would not be ‘changing its mind’, it would be developing its disciplinary procedures. Of course, it the Church were to say ‘hey, marriages break up all the time, that’s fine, get yourself remarried and we’ll still welcome you to communion, however often it happens’, then that would be a change; but except in the heightened rhetoric preferred by some, I see no sign that anyone is proposing anything of the sort. Is it really to be argued that the Church should make no attempt to meet its people where they too often find themselves? If we treat the Church as a law-court only, we forget its function as a spiritual hospital. Hospitals do not say ‘are you fit to receive our healing’, they try to heal.

That is not the same as the Church adopting the spirit of the age. The Church must not do that. But it cannot avoid seeing its people influenced by it. It needs to face up to its own inaction and inadequacy. How does it prepare couples for marriage? How does it help couples whose marriages are in trouble? Is it consistently pastoral in this most important of areas, or does it tend to ignore it until too late? How does it deal with those who come to it later in life, who have lived the sort of life which many do nowadays? Is it really to put across the message that it is better to have cohabited with many women than to have married one and failed? After all, in the former case, after repentance, there is no bar to marriage or communion after conversion, in the latter there is. A counsel of prudence here would be to say that no one who might convert to Rome in later life would be wise to get married – just in case it doesn’t work out. If the logic leads in that direction, then something is wrong with it.

I have seen some dismiss the idea of ‘pastoral needs’ with the written equivalent of a snort of derision. This seems an elementary failure of Christian understanding. Above all else, Christianity is pastoral; the rules exist for man, not man for the rules; to think the latter is to fall head-first into Pharisaism. What did God exact from each of us sinners as the price for His Grace? Nothing? Why then do we insist on exacting a price? The one price is the one we pay through love – that of penitence. If the Church tries to find a way to this place, then before crying ‘heresy’, let us first ask by what authority we say such things and by what authority the Church speaks? That, so it seems to me, sets a clear limit to our own authority.