Divorced Catholics and the Eucharist

Q:  What does canon law really say about divorced people receiving Holy Communion?  –Sean

A: The issue of who may, and who may not, receive the Eucharist lawfully is a canonical question with deep theological roots. Consequently, the Church has spoken on this matter not merely in the Code of Canon Law, but also in the Catechism and in other theological contexts. As always, canon law follows theology, and the two are consistent, for they can never contradict each other.

The code states that Catholics are not to be allowed to receive Holy Communion if they are under the penalty of excommunication or interdict, or obstinately persist in manifest grave sin (c. 915). Canon 916 notes that as a rule, anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass (in the case of a priest) or receive the Eucharist without previously having been to sacramental confession. This is entirely in keeping with the Catechism’s teaching that “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (1385).

It is important to note that at issue here is not only a Catholic’s own personal, internal spiritual state, which might very well be known to him alone; but also his external, visible status in the Church, that may be known by other members of the faithful as well. The Church is therefore concerned simultaneously with three different, although interrelated issues: (a) an individual Catholic’s personal spiritual wellbeing; (b) the need to maintain reverence toward the Most Holy Eucharist; and (c) the need to avoid public scandal.

With regard to divorced Catholics, let’s try as best we can to examine these issues separately, beginning with a divorced person’s spiritual state. Theologically, we Catholics know that we should not receive the Eucharist when we are in a state of grave sin. Does the fact that a Catholic is divorced, in and of itself, constitute a mortal sin?

The answer, of course, is no. The Catechism of the Catholic Church does, it is true, give us a general theological norm about divorce in general, noting rightly that “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law…. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign” (2384). Yet while the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is, by its very nature, intended to last until death, it acknowledges that being divorced is not necessarily sinful.  If, for example, one spouse is divorced by the other, it is obviously possible for a Catholic to find himself divorced entirely against his will! The Catechism makes a very clear and necessary distinction:

It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage (2386).

Therefore one can and certainly does encounter sincerely devout, practicing Catholics who happen to be divorced. Such persons are hardly excluded from the sacraments simply because their spouses chose to divorce them.

There are other situations in which a Catholic spouse might very well find that divorce is, unfortunately, the best way to resolve a difficult situation. To cite the Catechism again, “if civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense” (2383). In circumstances involving abuse and violence, for example, the Church certainly understands that a divorce may be legally necessary. A battered wife, or a spouse seeking to protect children from an abusive situation by taking the means required under civil law to keep the abuser away, can hardly be considered morally culpable for obtaining a divorce for reasons of physical safety. Similarly, a divorce may be civilly necessary if one spouse is bankrupting the family with compulsive gambling. In such a case a Catholic might need to obtain a divorce in order to safeguard the financial wellbeing of the rest of the family.

So we can see that it is entirely possible for a good Catholic to be divorced! Since this is the case, why is it that we hear the Church teaching that divorced Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist?

The fact is, the Church does not teach that Catholics are forbidden to receive Holy Communion if they are divorced. Rather, it teaches that a Catholic who has been divorced and remarried, without having first obtained an annulment of the first marriage, is not permitted to receive the Eucharist.

For those of us who believe what the Catholic Church teaches about the sacraments, the logic of this position is actually quite straightforward. A Christian marriage lasts until the death of one of the spouses—unless a Catholic marriage tribunal has ruled that the marriage was null from the beginning (see “Marriage and Annulment,” among many others, for further discussion of Catholic marriage annulments). If a Catholic obtains a civil divorce, but does not have a declaration from the Church that his marriage was null, he is still married in the eyes of the Church—even if civil law asserts that his marriage has ended. A person in this situation cannot remarry in the Catholic Church; he is impeded from doing so because he is already married to someone else (c. 1085).

Consequently, if a Catholic does remarry under these circumstances, he necessarily does so outside the Catholic Church, either in a non-Catholic religious ceremony, or in a civil proceeding (before a justice of the peace, for example). The Catholic Church naturally does not accept that this second marriage is valid! Instead, the Catechism teaches that the remarried Catholic is living in a state of sin with the new spouse:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. (1650).

In other words, society reasonably presumes that a husband and wife are engaging in sexual relations. Consequently, the Church regards the relationship between a Catholic and a second spouse as adulterous, if the first spouse is still living. And since adultery constitutes a grave moral evil, a Catholic who is living in this situation is not permitted to receive the Eucharist. To quote the Catechism yet again, “The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion” (2390).

If a divorced and remarried Catholic wishes to receive Holy Communion, what can he do? Catholic sacramental theology is unequivocal on this point, and so it doesn’t give him a lot of options. This is where the reverence due to the Most Blessed Sacrament fits directly into the picture. In order to safeguard the dignity of the sacrament, the Church will never, ever condone the reception of the Eucharist by a Catholic who persists in an adulterous union. Therefore, if a divorced and remarried Catholic wishes to receive the Eucharist, he must first repent of his adultery, and receive sacramental absolution. But in order to be truly sorry for his sins, a Catholic must have the resolution to avoid them in future. Thus the adultery has to end—it’s as simple as that.

This is why paragraph 1650 of the Catechism, noted above, concludes as follows: “Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.” A remarried Catholic must resolve that he will no longer engage in sexual relations with his second spouse—ever. This means that he must either separate from the second spouse altogether; or they must henceforth live together as brother and sister, rather than as husband and wife.

The number of married couples who would willingly agree to the latter arrangement, in order to receive the Eucharist, is presumably slim—and yet it is a fact that they do indeed exist. There definitely are Catholics among us who remarried outside the Church, but subsequently wished to rectify their situation for spiritual reasons.  They have made a good confession, firmly resolving to sin no more. With their spouses in agreement with their decision, these remarried Catholics are still living with their second spouses, but in total continence. (In many cases, the presence of minor children in the house has led the couple to decide to continue living together, for the good of the children.) Catholics like these are, spiritually speaking, once again entitled to receive the Eucharist.

The relative rarity of this situation, however, leads us to yet another issue: the possibility of public scandal. If the Catholic faithful see a divorced and remarried Catholic receiving Holy Communion, what will they think? Will they immediately assume that the Catholic has agreed with his second spouse to abstain permanently from all sexual relations? Or will they instead be more likely to conclude that the remarried Catholic is living in sin with his second spouse, and nevertheless is being permitted to receive Holy Communion?

Canon 915, already cited above, notes that a Catholic cannot receive the Eucharist if he persists in manifest grave sin. The point is, if the Catholic faithful see that a priest gives the Eucharist to someone whom they know is living in a gravely sinful manner, they might naturally—and wrongly—conclude that such a sinful lifestyle must be morally acceptable. In such a situation, the need to avoid public scandal is crucial!

There is tremendous need for tact and diplomacy in situations like these, on the part of both the remarried Catholic and his pastor. It might, depending on the circumstances, be preferable for these Catholics to refrain from receiving Holy Communion at large Masses, where their action can easily be seen and totally misunderstood by others in the congregation. An understanding parish priest can make an effort to ensure that these parishioners can receive the Eucharist in a more discreet way.

In other cases, some remarried Catholics have been known to speak rather openly about their now-continent relationship with their second spouses. This certainly should clarify their fellow parishioners’ potential confusion; but such public frankness about this very private matter is understandably not something which all remarried Catholics are obliged to embrace! We Catholics have no right to know the internal spiritual status of our fellow Catholics—but at the same time we should not be given reason to believe, rightly or wrongly, that the sacraments are being abused, by our fellow parishioners and with the apparent consent of the parish priest.

We can see that the Catholic Church tries her best to balance multiple concerns simultaneously. The right of Catholics to receive the sacraments must be assessed in light of the very real need for reverence toward the Most Blessed Sacrament. The need to uphold publicly the dignity of Christian marriage, and the Church’s consequent opposition to divorce in principle, must be weighed against the legitimate spiritual needs of the Catholic faithful, who may very well be divorced—and even remarried!—and yet entitled to receive the Eucharist.

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