Let’s Add Some Random Thomism to the Public Debate on Communion for the Divorced and Civilly Remarried Catholics!

When I first heard about the Synods called for this year and next to discuss the pastoral issues surrounding marriage and the family, I squealed with glee a bit on the inside. Maybe out loud, too. Marriage and family life are a topic close to my heart and will probably be the primary study track I pick when I go for my PhD. It’s also a topic that has rarely been addressed in such a comprehensive scope by a large ecclesial body. Ergo, my giddy excitement for all things Synod related.

As the opening day of this year’s Synod draws closer, I’ve noticed the increase in punditry on one of the major concerns for marriage and family life: whether divorced and remarried Catholics (whose divorce is not annulled) should be given a dispensation to receive Holy Communion. Obviously there are those that support the dispensation option and those who don’t. To save you time and a great deal of head-scratching, read Bishop Tobin’s column and Edward Peter’s response. Both are intelligent, respectful, and articulate snapshots of each camp’s argument.

I’ve been troubled, however, by something when it comes to the public discussion about this issue running up to October’s opening of the Synod. It took me quite a while to figure out what it was, but I finally got my brain to cough it up. In all of the articles and op-eds I’ve read so far, there appears to be a complete lack of consideration for what’s known as “vincible ignorance”.

I freely admit that bringing up vincible ignorance is a nerd move, but it’s a bit of arcane exposition that has value to this discussion. According to St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica there are two main kinds of ignorance: invincible and vincible (or voluntary). In general, ignorance is the absence of the knowledge of things which we have a “natural aptitude” to know. We have an obligation to know some of these things, such as the articles of faith, in order to act rightly. Invincible ignorance is the complete inability to access such knowledge. Isolated tribes in the Amazon are a popular example; having no contact with the outside world, they do not have the means to learn about Jesus or his teachings. Ignorance is classified as a sin, but due to the involuntary nature of the tribe’s situation the penalty attributed to sin is commuted. They aren’t held responsible for their ignorance.

Vincible ignorance addresses knowledge of what we are obligated to know that we can acquire through study, but don’t. This is not about knowledge of quantum physics or sewing; if you don’t learn how to grow your own yeast and make bread from it, you will not have to answer for yourself before the pearly gates. It becomes an important consideration when talking about knowing the faith because the articles of faith exist for the express purpose of saving us from eternal death. Ignorance of these articles puts us in mortal danger, so to speak.

It sounds dramatic, but not all sins of vincible ignorance are that serious. Sometimes it is a matter of neglect. Say you live in Delaware. You decide to drive cross-country so you can visit SeaWorld. Somewhere in Nevada you get busted for a traffic violation that you’ve never heard of before. Sure, you didn’t know you were breaking the law, but neither did you check if Nevada regulated traffic in a manner different from Delaware. Most likely you’d get a warning and sent on your way; maybe the traffic cop is particularly grumpy and you get ticketed. Either outcome is justifiable. So it generally goes with vincible ignorance by neglect.

Ignorance by choice, however, is never ok. We simply cannot avoid knowledge in order to evade the responsibilities attached to such knowledge or diminish culpability when we are caught doing something wrong. Again, this does not hold for matters that have no effect on our soul. The Church doesn’t consider ignorance of things like arts and sciences sinful. In matters that touch on, in some way, the eternal trajectory of the soul ignorance becomes harmful. Harm to the soul comes under the heading of sin.

Why, then, is vincible ignorance important to the discussion on communion for the divorced and remarried Catholics? Code of Canon Law 1095. Part of the updated 1983 Code, code 1095 introduces psychological considerations and mental capacity into evaluating the valid sacramentality of a marriage when seeking an annulment. Streamlining the annulment process and removing “cumbersome” impediments to having an annulment approved is one of the most popular suggestions offered publicly by various bishops and pundits. Code 1095 opens the possibility to a significant increase in annulment approvals, and will probably be prominent in the Synod discussion.

There is one problem with that. Code 1095, with the added clause on a person’s psychological state, creates a difficulty in establishing consistent parameters for its application in annulment cases. To my knowledge annulment tribunals across the U.S.A. do not have a rule book that can be consulted to ensure a reasonable consistency of approval or denial based on universal standards. Each member of each tribunal must rely on their prudential judgment to come to a decision, which in turn is based on a certain amount of free interpretation on the nuances of Scripture and canon law. Basically there is no standard that can be applied at this time.

The ambiguity of code 1095 carries a disturbing implication. Failed first marriages can be, and sometimes are, attributed to the psychological immaturity on the part of one or both spouses. This “immaturity” is defined very broadly in many cases. For instance, the “my ex is a psychopath who harasses me on Facebook and prank calls the cops on me” type is one definition of immature. I’m willing to bet its also a common refrain in annulment cases.  An ex who slashes your tires or empties your bank account can be called immature (in addition to whatever expletives you prefer), but to say that this type of behavior nullifies a sacramental character runs on a slippery slope. It strongly implies that adult immaturity (outside of a genuine mental impediment that prohibits adult reasoning capabilities) is an impediment that cannot be reasonably overcome. It could become seen as a form of invincible ignorance. In fact, that line of reasoning has already taken hold in Italy. Married men are claiming their marriages are not sacramentally valid because their mamas have so much influence over them that they were compelled to follow her will over their own. It’s dubbed “mama-ism”, and it’s a thing, evidently.

Ridiculous, right? If that’s the thought these bullied Italian men make you think, then you already utilize the principle of vincible ignorance.

I will say again that I think what I’ve just laid out offers some benefit to the bishop’s coming discussions at the Synods, at least from a  technical standpoint. But what about the calls from Pope Francis and many bishops to approach the divorced and civilly remarried Catholics with mercy and compassion? Without mercy and compassion all we’d have is a technical standpoint.  Might as well call ourselves Pharisees. Mercy, which is the genuine distress at the suffering of another, is an essential feature of Christian discipleship. It’s an essential feature of Christ, to be more specific. To be merciful is to be like Christ.

Ultimately the mercy of Christ is what brings me around to the technicalities like the principle of vincible ignorance. Christ admits openly that the path of mercy is difficult to hear and hard to follow. At the same time Christ, in His mercy, did everything He could do to get everyone on that path. Salvation is bought for all by the Cross. Christ’s mercy is both specific and broad; technical and expansive. I have no idea how to turn that into practical solutions for the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. I certainly don’t envy the bishops in their task of discernment. But I hope that, when the Synod gets under way next month, the bishops will find the way to keep Catholics on the narrow way without closing the entrance.


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