Cardinal Coccopalmerio's book is only the latest example of Catholic teaching being questioned

A few weeks ago, the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica published a startling article on women priests. Its arguments were familiar: the author, deputy editor Fr Giancarlo Pani, asked readers to consider whether an all-male priesthood might perhaps be outdated. “There is unease,” Fr Pani wrote, “among those who fail to understand how the exclusion of woman from the Church’s ministry can coexist with the affirmation and appreciation of her equal dignity.”

What is startling is that this appeared in a journal edited by one of the Pope’s closest advisers, Fr Antonio Spadaro; a journal very close to the Holy See – every page is vetted by the Vatican – which the Pope recently praised. It suggests that the Church, even at its highest levels, is now entering a full-blown civil war over doctrine. There was a further example yesterday, when Vatican Radio promoted a new book by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio says that the divorced and remarried can receive Communion if they have some wish to change their situation – even if they are not endeavouring to live “as brother and sister”. In some cases, the cardinal says, avoiding sex may be “an impossibility”. He gives the example of a man who is deserted by his wife. The man starts living with another woman. She helps to raise his kids. If the relationship breaks down, the man could be plunged into “deep despair” and the children would be left without a maternal figure. The cardinal writes: “Leaving the union would mean, therefore, not fulfilling a moral duty towards innocent persons.” If avoiding sex would “cause difficulty”, then they should continue having sex to keep the relationship going.

The implications of Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s argument seem at odds with the Church’s doctrine. To take the most obvious point first, the cardinal’s view that an adulterous sexual relationship is compatible with receiving Communion is simply in a head-on clash with Catholic teaching. That the two are incompatible has been taught by Pope St John Paul II in 1981, Benedict XVI in 2007, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994, not to mention Popes St Innocent I, St Zachary, St Nicholas I … One could go on.

But this is not the only problem with Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s book. Take his assumption that avoiding sex may be an “impossibility”. It is very hard to square this with the Council of Trent’s declaration: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” That means that God, our loving Father, will never stop helping us out. But Cardinal Coccopalmerio thinks that avoiding sin may sometimes be beyond us.

Again, the cardinal’s conclusions about continence “causing difficulty” seem dubious. St Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, condemned the idea that one could “do evil so that good may come of it”. The Church has interpreted this very strictly. St Thomas Aquinas, following this perennial teaching, said that one should not have adulterous sex even if it could save an entire country from disaster. But Cardinal Coccopalmerio thinks one can have adulterous sex if it would “cause difficulty” not to.

As for the question of Communion itself: clearly, someone in a continuing adulterous relationship is at high risk of being a state of mortal sin. Only God knows, but if someone is committing a grave sin, while “discerning” their path in relation to Catholic teaching, then this is a pretty substantial possibility. And taking Communion in a state of mortal sin is, according to St John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, the worst sin of all – worse than crucifying Christ. Many of the divorced and remarried stay away from Communion precisely to avoid committing a mortal sin. Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s approach suggests that this risk is, in some cases, too insignificant to be an obstacle.

Now, of course, the cardinal does not say any of this outright. He does not say, “I think John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the tradition of the Church are wrong. I suspect the moral law may sometimes be impossible to keep. I have no problem, in principle, with doing evil so that good may come of it. And I do not think that receiving Communion in a state of mortal sin is such a terrible sin that we need to take great precautions against it.” But the mere fact that he does not say these things is hardly a comfort.

The less generous interpretation would be that religious error always tries to avoid clarity. Blessed John Henry Newman noted that the Arians used “vague ambiguous language, which … would seem to bear a Catholic sense, but which, when worked out in the long run, would prove to be heterodox”. The more generous view is that the cardinal has not quite thought through his words, and would retract them if he realised what they implied.

Cardinal Coccopalmerio is a senior Vatican figure: his book has appeared with evident support from within the Vatican, and without official contradiction. And his opinion is close to that of many other prelates (such as the bishops of Malta and most of those in Germany). So the debate about Communion can no longer be seen – if it ever could – as a marginal squabble between “liberals” and “conservatives”. Nor can it be framed as a question of whether you prefer a bit more mercy or a bit more justice. It is now, quite plainly, a debate about whether the teaching of the Church is still valid. And that means the debate will run and run.