Each time I attend Mass at my parish church, I struggle to discern: Am I about to encounter my risen Lord, who welcomes and loves me as I am, or am I about to commit a serious sin?
My fellow divorced and remarried Catholics will recognize this quandary. Our circumstances vary, but we share the knowledge that according to church law, many of us are no longer welcome at the eucharistic table.
Two new publications bring fresh insight, even hope, to those struggling with this issue. The first, of course, is Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love” (April 8). The second is the subject of this review: A Body Broken for a Broken People: Divorce, Remarriage and the Eucharist, by Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B.
“The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, does not change the church’s teachings on marriage and family life. However, the pope asks pastors to “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity of various situations.” He emphasizes the importance of individual conscience in moral life, and he urges that divorced and remarried couples be encouraged to participate in the church. He warns pastors against applying moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives.”
“The Joy of Love” deserves first claim on Catholics’ reading time, but the 2016 edition of Moloney’s A Body Broken makes an excellent companion piece.
Moloney, a prolific author and well-traveled scholar, revised and expanded an earlier work in response to Francis’ call for research on biblical and theological traditions regarding marriage and family.
Francis issued that challenge after the October 2014 meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family. Moloney obliged in hopes that his research would assist the bishops when the synod reconvened in October 2015.
However, the new edition of A Body Broken deserves readership well beyond bishops and cardinals. It is a valuable resource for all Christians who grapple with divorce and other examples of the “broken body” that is Christ’s church.
Moloney carefully guides readers through the biblical texts and early Christian traditions that shaped today’s understanding of the Eucharist. He writes clearly and concisely, saying what he plans to tell, telling it and recapping what he has told.
He opens with the earliest description of the eucharistic ritual and who can participate: Paul’s admonitions to his fractious flock in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. Moloney argues that these texts have been incorrectly used to justify reserving the Eucharist for only the “worthy.”
Moloney continues with chapters on the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, examining in detail how each relates to stories of the “feeding miracles” and the Last Supper.
The Fourth Gospel (John’s) has no explicit description of Christ changing bread and wine into his body and blood. Instead, Moloney probes the eucharistic themes in Jesus’ sharing of a “morsel” with the traitor Judas and in the risen Lord’s appearance to two disheartened disciples bound for Emmaus.
Moloney examines the context of each community being addressed, from the recent Corinthian converts of the 50s C.E. to a new generation reading John in about 100 C.E. He raises points that these first audiences perhaps took for granted but that elude us two millennia later.
Again and again, Moloney notes the brokenness of those Jesus embraced: tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, the poor, the self-satisfied, the disabled, the troubled in mind. Jesus’ own disciples quarreled about who would be first in the kingdom. Peter denied the Lord three times, and Judas betrayed him.
Yet Jesus loved each with a love passing all understanding. He shared his final meal with his fallible disciples, knowing that they would flee his crucifixion a few hours later.
Current church law limits the Eucharist to those judged worthy—in this case, those who enjoy sacramental marriages. But these laws may be based on a “distorted tradition,” Moloney notes, quoting no less an authority than Joseph Ratzinger (then a professor, later Pope Benedict XVI).
Moloney concludes, “Our legislation on marriage, divorce and admission to the eucharistic table should accept the overwhelming evidence of the Eucharistic teaching of the New Testament: The eucharist is Jesus Christ’s presence among us in his body, broken for a broken people. Members of the community who have married and subsequently divorced, but who retain their commitment to Christ and his Church belong to those broken people” (Moloney’s italics).
This is a controversial thesis, but Moloney brings impressive credentials to this discussion. An Australian Salesian priest, he earned advanced degrees in Rome and at the University of Oxford. He has published many books and studies, especially on the Gospel of John. He has taught in Europe, Israel, Australia, East Asia and the United States. In recent years he was professor of New Testament and dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, then provincial superior of the Salesians of Don Bosco in Australia and the Pacific.
Scholars will appreciate that the chapters are heavily footnoted, inviting them to plunge deeper into the matter. The notes are so readable that even casual readers may accept that invitation. A 27-page bibliography demonstrates the depth of the author’s research.
Some may dismiss Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love” as an act of expediency—a ploy to make church teachings more palatable so the institution can survive. However, A Body Broken makes a case for change based on biblical scholarship and the church’s authentic traditions. It offers reassurance that the pope and many bishops are on solid ground.
It may be years before the bishops’ discussions and “The Joy of Love” can be translated into changes in church law. However, I personally rejoice at the prospect of a more welcoming, less judgmental church.
I would like to return to confession—a solace I have avoided for fear that I won’t receive absolution. I’m hopeful that my loving, prayerful second marriage (to a divorced Lutheran) can be blessed in some way.
A Body Broken offers reason for hope among all God’s broken people.