Romola, another masterpiece by George Eliot

IMG_0384(My desire to have more people read George Eliot outweighed my desire to divulge all of my thoughts on this book. For this reason, I do not unveil any major plot points in Romola. Fear not to read the following thoughts on George Eliot, and take it rather as an exhortation to read on your own!)

I hesitate to write about George Eliot lest I say anything unworthy of one who I think may be the greatest novelist in the English language. My fascination with George Eliot began early last semester, when I opened the first page of Middlemarch and saw Eliot making conjectures about St. Teresa of Avila and what allowed her to accomplish so much in her time. As I continued and found the main character, Dorothea Brooke, to be modeled on the person of St. Teresa, I was instantly hooked. Upon finishing Middlemarch, I did not believe a novel could begin, proceed, or end in so satisfying a manner, but I continued to read anyway and soon had finished more of Eliot’s novels: Mill on the Floss, The Lifted Veil, Daniel Deronda, and I am now writing this post upon finishing Romola. In my opinion, none of these has outdone Middlemarch, and yet they have only confirmed my preference for George Eliot over every other English-language novelist.

(A quick note before continuing: “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans. Unlike Charlotte Bronte who initially wrote with a pen name, but is now always identified by her birth name, George Eliot continues to be referred to through her pen name, although always with feminine pronouns. This always surprises and distracts people who discover this in conversation, so I decided to omit pronouns in the first paragraph and then insert this note before continuing.)

By claiming for George Eliot the title of greatest English novelist, I know this requires an explanation for those who think Jane Austen deserves this title. As delightful as Austen is in everything she writes, “her works are but miniatures”, as one critic puts it. She concerns herself beautifully with a very small set of concerns. Whereas Austen typically ends her novels with a suitable marriage, George Eliot saves most of her story for what happens after the wedding and her characters have interests that reach far beyond domestic tranquility. There are also two elements almost entirely missing Jane Austen, which take center stage in the work of George Eliot: religion and the intellectual life. The closest Austen gets to considering these is in Northanger Abbey, when the narrator satirically derides the novel, and then in Mansfield Park, when there is a discourse on the usefulness of clergy and common prayer. To look at these elements in Eliot, it is necessary to take each in turn.

I already mentioned about how Middlemarch begins with an observation about the life and times of St. Teresa of Avila. Silas Marner, probably Eliot’s most widely read work, begins with the banishment of a man from a Puritanical community, and this sets the stage for everything that follows there. In another novel, she has a character discover the Imitation of Christ and change her life, and in another, the plot revolves around the meaning of Judaism. There is even a reference to a natural Manichaeism in Mill on the Floss! In Romola in particular, set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts a radical (and even political) sort of Catholicism which she compares and contrasts with pagan elements existing in that time and place. She is meticulous in showing the causes and effects of the change of religious attitudes within her characters, and the great care with which Eliot depicts this is especially remarkable when one learns about the development of her own religious attitude. In a future post, I would like to consider more closely the religious history of George Eliot, who began as an evangelical, but later became more agnostic and even published translations of Feuerbach and an early historicizing account of the life of Jesus. Despite all of this, and partly because of it, she depicts the interior life of her characters in a most accurate way, keeping their freedom intact even as she shows all the motives at work. It is especially true of Middlemarch, but in all of her novels, one can hardly walk away without growing in sympathy for the lives and struggles of others.

IMG_0382In addition to the religious aspect of her novels, George Eliot displays an erudition wide and deep in all of her novels, and especially in Romola. Before writing any fiction, Eliot parodied the know-it-all heroines of her contemporaries in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and satirically comments in many of her books that Greek is too difficult for the mind of a woman (George Eliot herself was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian). Eliot avoids the pitfalls that she criticizes, and many times over, as a trope common to several of her novels is the intellectually capable female becoming either obsessed or repulsed before a wider intellectual project. Since Romola is placed within the Italian Renaissance, the reader is constantly impressed by the learning of many characters in the book, which itself demands that the reader already have some background knowledge but at the same time encourages the reader to get more. One instance of this is a description of a back-and-forth early on between two scholars, one clearly superior to the other, each of exchange of which contains a Latin poem, each one satirizing on the last and including ever more obscure references to the classical use of certain words. It was not necessary, but I was so impressed, that I put down Romola for a week in order to work on my own Latin, attempting to read classics (Ovid and Quintilian) and eventually settling for the Vulgate, which I am currently working through at a slow pace. Romola also made want to read the Italian poets, reread The Prince by Machiavelli, study up on 14th and 15th century paganism, and look more closely at the controversy surrounding Girolamo Savonarola. I also need to go back to Florence. I cannot think of any other author that brings so much to the table in this way, especially without feeling artificial or stuffy.

Alongside her erudition in philosophy and literature, Eliot also shows herself an expert in describing painted works that she herself has invented. (I just learned that this is called ekphrasis.) I am thoroughly impressed when I find an author capable of using mere words to convey the effect of music or painting. This first stood out to me when I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and he describes a piano-violin fugue that occurs within an interview. It is the first time the child with the violin has ever played a fugue, and Hesse allows the reader to discover with him the effects of this form of music. Even in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I did not otherwise care for, there is a beautiful scene where Hanno is rapt by his mother’s music, such that the reader almost hears the same. As for the description of painting, Homer can be credited as the first to do this with his lengthy description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. George Eliot places a painter in three of her novels, and always gives such a description that the reader wants to see the finished project, though he has a fair sketch in his mind. These paintings are less essential in other novels, from the humorous sketch of Casaubon as Aquinas in Middlemarch to the mournful series about Berenice in Daniel Deronda, but in Romola they take on a more integral role, from the tabernacle adorned with Bacchus and Ariadne to the painted horror of Tito Melema, as well as a scene of the blind Oedipus with Antigone.


One other distinctive aspect of this novel is the depiction of evil, and evil with a beautiful guise. In Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, there is certainly cruelty and bitterness, and yet I do not think it ever quite arrives at malice. Daniel Deronda depicts some straightforward evil, but it is most striking in Romola, where Eliot makes the reader fall in love with a character who ends up beyond redemption, all in a desire to avoid whatever is unpleasant. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Eliot leads the reader right up to the moment when a choice has to be made, when one can choose the good or the easy, and envision the consequences both far and near. Besides the malice of one particular character, there are other who are almost like ghosts, haunting the imaginations and consciences of characters within the book. There is nothing quite like this in her other novels.

If I had to Romola to any other novel, I would point to The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Eliot, like Manzoni, beautifully describes life in an Italian city and seamlessly blends the historical and the fictional. Both authors manage to show both the most glorious and the most ugly manifestations of religion, especially when it is mixed up with baser motives. Her occasional use of Italian may be difficult for those less familiar with the language, but there is nothing essential that one would miss beyond a few jokes and some pleasant poetry (my Penguin edition even included notes to elucidate these bits).

Since I am unwilling to divulge any essential plot details, but always want to say more, let me know if you have read any of her novels! I am certainly willing to talk further about them, but not at the expense of “spoiling” the enjoyment of a first read.

The Qur’an: My first reading


The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

When talking about the Qur’an with others, I like to ask “Is it an ancient text or a medieval text?” Most people will say ancient right away, but it does not fit nicely on either side. Muhammad died in 632, and so the text of his book was written in a period that is referred to as either late antiquity or the early middle ages. To give some context: In the West, St. Benedict has only decades ago written his rule which will give stability to Europe in the Middle Ages, and St. Isidore and St. Gregory the Great are wrapping up the era of the Church Fathers in the West. And yet these developments have no direct bearing on the Qur’an. When Muhammad refers to “Romans”, this refers to those who are living in Greece and Turkey, what history now refers to as the Byzantine Empire (and most translations of the Qur’an will just say “Byzantines” instead of “Romans”). In the Eastern Empire, the Patristic era has not yet ended. St. Maximus the Confessor will arrive around 650 to determine the Monothelite controversy, and then the following century will be concerned with the Iconoclasm controversy—a controversy that inspired (in part) by iconoclastic Muslim neighbors, but which is ultimately resolved (in part) through the writings of St. John of Damascus, who wrote under the protection of an Islamic patron.

Although these Eastern Romans are mentioned by Muhammad, even these are further removed from the Christians he would be most familiar with. The Persian Empire (also called Sassanid or Sasanian) covered much of the Middle East in his time, and as a consequence of its opposition to the neighboring Roman Empire, as well as doctrinal controversies in the 5th century, the Christians that populated much of the Middle East were not Orthodox and Catholic, but were Monophysite or Nestorian. And further beyond that, based on the stories he tells about Biblical figures (stories which he assumes his readers are familiar with), he probably had interaction with Christian Gnostics of some sort. The clearest instance of this are the stories of Christ’s childhood which are directly from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Besides Christians, Jews, and Gnostics, he is most often writing against idolaters and polytheists, which made up the vast majority of his audience in southern Arabia. I think this context is helpful for seeing the Qur’an, not as a book that fell from the sky (even if in pieces), but as a work shaped by a more interesting religious milieu.

All of that being said, the Qur’an is a rather strange work. Unlike the Bible, which is divided into books of rather straightforward genres (narrative, poetry, maxims, letters), the work is some mixture of all these and without any clear structure (the suras/chapters are more or less ordered from longest to shortest). There are bits of narrative, but only bits, and often they are repeated many times. Some of the more entertaining bits were those about Abraham becoming angry with his father and other relatives for their idolatry and attempting to convert them to monotheism, as well as the stories about Solomon controlling demons and Jinn. Perhaps the most intriguing story (and one which shows up about 7 times), is about the fall of Satan. God creates the first man and then commands all of creation (including the angels) to bow down before him. Satan refuses, on the basis that he is a creature superior to man and so ought not to bow down. His punishment is eternal damnation, though he requests permission to tempt man until the end of time, and his request is granted. What strikes me as bizarre in this story, is that there seems to be no reason why an angel should bow down to a man. In a couple tellings, God’s will itself is presented as the reason, and this alone is to suffice. I am tempted to think a piece is missing from the story, and that this piece is found in Christianity. In Christ, you have the one who is both God and man, and so a man whom the angels should bow down to (and indeed we see the angels praise him the Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Revelation). Furthermore, there are medieval Christian accounts of the fall of Satan, that relate his pride to a refusal to bow down to a creature, that is, to Christ in his humanity. I will need to do more research, but I suspect that both the Quranic and medieval Christian accounts have some common source in an earlier patristic writer.

Most of the Qur’an will not strike a reader as out of the ordinary. He is often praising the divine attributes (All-Compassionate, All-Merciful, Omniscient, Omnipotent) and the general outline of its moral teaching should be familiar (along the lines of the 10 commandments). Even a few points of divine revelation, especially the Last Judgement and the Resurrection of the dead, are told in a way that is generally familiar. Muhammad became creative in many of the details: the four rivers of the Garden are water, milk, wine, and honey; the dark-eyed virgins on green cushions; the reception of a book in either the right hand or the left hand (you want it in the right hand). The problems in the Qur’an are most obvious when he is speaking about the Trinity and Jesus. With respect to the Trinity, he basically lumps the teaching together with polytheism, and makes frequent rejections of any position where God is said to have a son. Again, I think this mistake was easy to make on account of the bizarre for of Christianity he encountered. See this quote: “Remember when God said to Jesus son of Mary: ‘Did you really say to people: Take me and my mother as two gods, instead of God?’” No, I do not remember that at all. Here is one more, where Jesus supposedly prophecies the coming of Muhammad: “Remember when Jesus son of Mary said: ‘Children of Israel, […] I bring you glad tidings of a messenger to come after me called Ahmad.’” Again, I do not remember that at all, since it is nowhere in the Bible, and yet he expects his reader to be familiar with such sayings. Even his usage of the title “Jesus son of Mary”, as true as it is, seems to be repeated so as to distance Jesus from his more prominent title, the son of God. This is reminiscent of the Nestorians who denied Mary the title “Mother of God” and separated the two natures united in Christ.

One other aspect of the Qur’an that stands out is the insistence on the importance of the book itself, even referring to it as “the Arabic Qur’an”. In one surah, there is even a repetition of the claim that it is a book very easy to memorize. This stands in stark contrast to the New Testament, where Jesus does not write any books, and usually only quotes or reads from them in order to manifest their fulfillment. Whereas the New Testament gives the impression of being a collection of narratives and letters put together after the fact, and by different human authors, Muhammad often repeats the importance of holy books. And not only the Qur’an, but also the Torah of Moses and “the Evangel” of Jesus. My translator renders as “Evangel” what is probably just the Arabic word for “Gospel”. I imagine he made this choice lest anyone think he is referring to the any of the 4 canonical Gospels, none of which Jesus wrote, or to the Gospel in a broader and not necessarily written sense. Again, this points to a tradition of Jesus that no longer exists in our own day but had some currency in the Arabic world of late antiquity.

The main reason I can think of for reading the Qur’an is that it forms some part of the lives of over a billion people on the earth. That being said, there may be easier ways to learn about Islam than reading through the Qur’an. The interests that led me to read it were its connections with Syriac and Gnostic Christianity, as well as the way it lays the foundation for Islamic law.

Classics List

IMG_0363Looking around various literature blogs, I saw a number who joined a so-called “Classics Club”. Those who join make a list of 50 books to read within 5 years, and then write a blog post on each book as they finish. I have been using Goodreads for a few months now, writing only brief reviews, but I think it would be worth the effort to deepen my reviews. Now to come up with the list…

  1. Romola. George Eliot. (#2)
  2. Felix Holt, A Radical. George Eliot.
  3. Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen.
  4. The Vulgate.
  5. The Qur’an. (#1)
  6. The Master and the Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov.
  7. Out of Africa. Karen Blixen.
  8. Kristen Lavransdatter. Sigrid Undset.
  9. The Master of Hestviken. Sigrid Undset.
  10. Rosmersholm. Henrik Ibsen. (#3)
  11. Anna Karenina. Leo Tolstoy.
  12. Barchester Towers. Anthony Trollope.
  13. Doctor Thorne. Anthony Trollope.
  14. North and South. Elizabeth Gaskell.
  15. Metamorphoses. Ovid. (#6)
  16. Ivanhoe. Walter Scott.
  17. Loss and Gain. John Henry Newman.
  18. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. John Henry Newman.
  19. Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather.
  20. O Pioneers!. Willa Cather.
  21. The Cyberiad. Stanislaw Lem.
  22. Brighton Rock. Graham Greene.
  23. Nine Stories. J.D. Salinger.
  24. To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf.
  25. Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf.
  26. Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett.
  27. Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Bronte.
  28. David Copperfield. Charles Dickens.
  29. The Idiot. Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  30. Demons. Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  31. Absalom! Absalom!. William Faulkner.
  32. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe.
  33. Italian Journey. Goethe.
  34. The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James.
  35. Life of Johnson. James Boswell.
  36. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon. (*)
  37. The Dubliners. James Joyce.
  38. The Trial. Franz Kafka.
  39. Moby Dick. Herman Melville.
  40. Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust.
  41. Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck.
  42. Il fu Mattia Pascal. Luigi Pirandello.
  43. Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore. Luigi Pirandello.
  44. Il Gattopardo. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
  45. Delta Wedding. Eudora Welty.
  46. Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan.
  47. My Disillusionment in Russia. Emma Goldman. (#5)
  48. The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas.
  49. Helena. Evelyn Waugh. (#4) (*)
  50. A Train of Powder. Rebecca West.

Well, there it is. I will probably not be super consistent in sticking to this. Most of these books are either sitting on my shelf, sitting on my Amazon wish list, or have come up in recent conversation. I first wondered if I could come up with a list of 50, and then I wondered how it could stop there! But it will serve as a reference (and at least encourage me to finish the books on my shelves!). I only put two George Eliot novels on the list, but I will probably continue to read whatever else I can find by her. The same goes for Anthony Trollope–I do not know how much I will like him, but I may end up reading far more than the two books I put on the list.

(The numbers in parentheses indicate the order in which I read them. An asterisk indicates an extra post on the same book.)

More information here:

Projected completion date: April 22, 2022.

False Etymology: Holofernes

IMG_0362I recently began reading the Vulgate from the beginning. The reading is not too difficult, but there are words I need to look up every so often. The most recent word was holus, holeris, which means cabbage or vegetable. My mind instantly went to Holofernes. Perhaps his name means cabbage-ferns (as impossible as the Latin origin is, the fern is even more impossible–for it comes from the Old English fearn). This led me to remember the early seasons of Dragon Ball Z, where all of the Saiyans are named after vegatables (Vegeta, Kakarot=carrot, Raditz=radish). And then I remembered that many scholars think the Book of Judith is invented, and then I thought how bizarre that Akira Toriyama and the inspired author of Judith should resort to the same tactic for naming their villains.

Then, seeking out the true etymology of the name, I found a blog post on an Old English poem concerning Judith and Holofernes:
Because the poem is Old English, the author plays on the false Old English meanings of the whole of his name!

(The true etymology goes back to Persian apparently, where pharna means “glorious”.)

One more tidbit: I was surprised to see that reptiles reptant. Apparently repto, reptare means to creep or crawl, and so our word “reptile” means a creature that does just that.

Basil and the Mysteries

img_0303“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learned the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence.”

-Saint Basil, On the Holy Spirit 27

(Also cited by Gratian, Decretum, Distinction 11, Capitulum 5.)

Raymond on Paying but not Demanding

img_0300As I was reading commentators on Amoris Laetitia, and trying to think of difficult marriage situations, I remembered passages in Raymond of Penyafort’s Summa on Marriage. In these passages, there is doubt about the validity of the marriage, and consequently a limit on the enjoyment of the rights proper to marriage. What follows are two scenarios where Raymond (following the Liber Extra, a book of Papal Decretals that Raymond edited) judges it is acceptable to pay the marriage debt, but not to demand it. I left the Liber Extra passages in Latin, since the sense of them are basically in the passages from Raymond.

From Raymond of Penyafort, Summa on Marriage

Title XIII, The Impediment of Bond (p. 58)
“Suppose a wife believes her husband is dead and she contracts with another. Say that as long as she believes it and he does not return she is excused from adultery and fornication on account of the ignorance of fact.” “But what if he does not return and, nevertheless, she believes he is alive; what should she do? She should not demand the debt from the [second] husband, but pay if he demands.”

“Dubitans de morte coniugis, nisi prius certificetur, contrahere non debet, et, si contraxit, reddat, sed non exigat debitum. Et si postmodum sciat primam vivere, dimittat secundam. Abbas Siculus.

Lucius III. universis Christianis in captivitate Sarracenorum positis.

Dominus ac redemptor noster (Et infra:) Sane, super matrimoniis, quae quidam ex vobis nondum habita obeuntisconiugis certitudine contraxerunt, id vobis auctoritate apostolica respondemus, ut nullus ex vobis amodo ad secundas nuptias migrare praesumat, donec ei firma certitudine constet, quod ab hac vita migraverit coniux eius. Si vero aliquis vel aliqua id hactenus non servavit, et de morte prioris coniugis adhuc sibi existimat dubitandum: ei, quae sibi nupsit, debitum non deneget postulanti, quod a se tamen noverit nullatenus exigendum. Quodsi post hoc de prioris coniugis vita constiterit, relictis adulterinis illicitisque complexibus ad priorem sine dubio coniugemrevertatur.”

Title XXI, How an Accusation Is to Be Made against a Marriage (p. 78)
The scenario is a case where two men related to each other end up marrying two women who are related to the each other. Later on, “a judgment of divorce between one and his wife is rendered by the Church because of consanguinity. So the question arises whether the other, on account of this, can be separated from his wife, or how he ought to conduct himself with her.” Raymond says that the other couple should not be separated since a judgment concerning some persons does not affect other persons.

But then he makes a distinction with respect to carnal union: “either he know that consanguinity or another perpetual impediment exists between himself and his wife, or he believes it. In the first case he should nether demand nor pay the debt. In the second, if he believe for a probable reason, he should pay, but not ask. However, if he believes for a slight or inconsiderable reason, he should pay, and if he can, lay aside his erroneous conscience and afterwards demand.”

“Si coniux scit pro certo impedimentum matrimonii, non debet reddere debitum, sed potius excommunicationempati; si autem hoc credat ex causa probabili et discreta, potest reddere debitum, non autem exigere; sed si ex levi et temeraria causa, deposita conscientia potest reddere et exigere.


Inquisitioni tuae breviter respondentes credimus distinguendum, utrum alter coniugum pro certo sciatimpedimentum coniugii, propter quod sine mortali peccato non valeat carnale commercium exercere, quamvis illud apud ecclesiam probare non possit, an impedimentum huiusmodi non sciat pro certo, sed credat. In primo itaquecasu debet potius excommunicationis sententiam humiliter sustinere, quam per carnale commercium peccatumoperari mortale. In secundo vero casu distinguimus, utrum habeat conscientiam huiusmodi ex credulitate levi et temeraria, an probabili et discreta; et quidem ad sui pastoris consilium, conscientia levis et temerariae credulitatisexplosa, licite potest non solum reddere, sed exigere debitum coniugale. Verum quum conscientia pulsat animumex credulitate probabili et discreta, quamvis non evidenti et manifesta, debitum quidem reddere potest, sed postulare non debet, ne in alterutro vel contra legem coniugii, vel contra iudicium conscientiae committatoffensam. Tu ergo iuxta responsionem praescriptam super illo procedas articulo, de quo nos consulere voluisti.”

Initial Thoughts on Coccopalmerio

img_0273I was recently asked about Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s recent comments on how to interpret Amoris Laetitia. This gave me an opportunity to spell out some of my thoughts on the possible situations where discernment might lead to the conclusion of permitting someone in an irregular marriage situation to receive the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. The following is all lifted from an email I sent to someone. They are by no means definitive, but just a thinking-out-loud.


I hadn’t been keeping up with news the last couple weeks, so your email was the first I heard about Coccopalmerio’s new little book. One first note is that even though Coccopalmerio is the President of the Council for Legislative Texts, and even though his book is published by the Vatican, he is not publishing it as head of that Council and so it does not function as authentic interpretation of the law.

Looking around a few websites, it sounds like he is basically open to “discerning” situations where it would be possible to give communion to people in irregular marriage situations, just as the bishops in Germany, Malta, etc. What I’ve read from him looks a bit more moderate than these others, inasmuch as he sees certain cases as exceptional. I’ve been trying hard to figure out what these exceptional cases look like. In the case where you have a couple civilly married that is committed to living as brother and sister, there is no objective sin, and (so long as no scandal is involved) I think everyone agrees that such persons could be admitted to the sacraments.

The cases that people are more interested in are those where the irregular couple continue to have sexual relations, since this seems (pretty obviously) to mean that they are objectively in a state of sin. Now Coccopalermio says that all that is necessary is “verification of two essential conditions — that they desire to change that situation, but they cannot act on their desire”. The only cases I can think of where they cannot act on the desire seems to be where there is disagreement between the persons involved with respect to either understanding or will. I will give two scenarios where I think there is reason to consider giving communion to a civilly remarried person.

The first case is disagreeement of will between the spouses: both spouses know they are in an irregular situation (i.e. not actually married), and one spouse wants to abstain from sexual relations, but the other one does not. Both of these people live together perhaps for a number of reasons (financial dependence, children) and so that it would be inconvenient for them to live apart. Here it seems possible to me that one spouse could have a real desire to abstain from relations, but this is impossible while living in the same house with someone who is not committed to living in that manner. Now there is a distinction that St. Raymond of Penyafort makes for dealing with certain odd marriage situations that may be relevant in this case. He distinguishes between requesting the marriage debt and paying the marriage debt, and gives some cases where he thinks it would be morally acceptable to pay the marriage debt but not morally acceptable to ask for it. Now in this case, it is not a true marriage, but I think there may be a difference between to requesting relations and acquiescing to someone seeking sexual relations (especially when to resist could lead to dangerous consequences). I’m not 100% sold on this, but it is the sort of case that I would consider.

The second case is like the first, but with an added element. Let’s say that a woman was married to a man who then left her, and is now civilly married to an unbaptized man with whom she has 3 children. She has been from the Church for years and now is wanting to go to confession and receive communion again. Since she is objectively still married to the man who abandoned her, this means that relations with her irregular spouse would be adulterous, and so she should not have relations with him. From her side, this seems clear enough. But now look at the conscience of the unbaptized man. He is not a man of faith, and so he does not have any sense of anything but civil law governing his marriage situation, and so objectively has no reason to think that he is not legitimately married to this woman who was divorced from her first husband according to civil law. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong in having relations with a woman whom he considers in good faith his spouse. Again, it seems this is a case where the woman involved could certainly not ask the marriage debt, but perhaps could acquiesce to the man who asks it in good faith. Again, I’m not completely sure on this, but it is a case I would consider.

Here is another case that comes to mind: Polygamy exists among Muslims. Let’s say there is a Muslim woman who is the third spouse of a Muslim man, and she comes to faith that Jesus is Lord. In societies where Sharia Law reigns, I don’t think she could be expected to separate herself from this man upon whom she depends, especially in a society where the civil law does not give her freedom to leave. In such a case, I would be inclined to admit this woman communion, following the same distinction: so long as she does not ask the marriage debt, but only renders it. This case is similar to the second case, but the lack of freedom involved is more obvious and certain.

So those are the cases where I think it may be possible that the conditions named by Coccopalmerio, “that they desire to change that situation, but they cannot act on their desire”, might actually be met. Looking at his comments, I think he would apply it more widely. But I as far as I understand it, it would only be one-sided situations where there is a disagreement between the irregular spouses that I can even conceive of a moral impossibility. If it was both spouses coming to me, and both Catholic, I can’t imagine “discerning” to give them communion unless they were at least committed to living chastely. “Oh, you’re both Catholic? You both understand the Church’s teaching on marriage, and accept that you are not actually married? But you are going to continue having sexual relations but want me to give you communion?” No, I can’t imagine giving communion in that case. Now, if they were committed to living as brother and sister and occasionally fell (for it is reasonably difficult to live continently with someone to whom you are attracted and with whom you have been in the habit of having relations with), then that would be another matter. Some people have trouble seeing the difference.

Again, I am not completely convinced in the cases I have named for you, but I only think that these sorts of situations are the sort where a debate is actually possible.


If anyone out there has comments, feel free to share! Just today, I purchased Coccopalmerio’s book, so I will be able to take a closer look at what he is actually saying and to think it over. More to come…