Before, during, and after the October Synod of Catholic Bishops on the Family held at the Vatican, there was much discussion about whether Catholics who are divorced and remarried should receive Communion. I believe that the people who reported on this debate assumed too much knowledge on the part of their readers who could well wonder what all the fuss was about. Why don’t such people receive Communion? Why does it matter to them, or to anyone else?
You might think that the issue from two months ago is old news and over, but the Synod was preparatory to another one scheduled for October 2015, so the issue will arise again. (A preparatory document for this October 2015 Synod was released on December 9, 2014.)
First, it is true that the Catholic Church prohibits Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and whose first marriages have not been annulled, from receiving Communion. In many reports, the phrase “whose first marriages have not been annulled” do not appear. “Divorced-and-remarried” is a kind of shorthand.
Second, while prohibited from receiving Communion, it is extremely rare for a person, whether a priest or a lay Extraordinary Minister of Communion, to refuse to distribute Communion to a person presenting him or herself for Communion. Consider the trouble a priest got into with Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, D.C., when he refused Communion to a woman, known to be in a lesbian partnership, at the funeral of her mother. Or consider how few pro-abortion Catholic politicians in the United States have been instructed not to present themselves for Communion or have been denied Communion.
As one would therefore expect, it is not uncommon for Communion to be given to someone who is not authorized to receive it. There have been notable instances of this, including Baptist President Clinton and Methodist First Lady Clinton in South Africa in 1998, President Reagan in 1983, and Prime Minister Blair. But of course it happens every day without any notoriety.
And thus, some Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and whose first marriages have not been annulled, do indeed receive Communion. If there was an occasion where they were denied Communion, they could go to another priest, another parish, another town, and receive Communion. There are two circumstances that enable this. The first is the presumption that anyone presenting him or herself for Communion meets the lawful conditions. It would be extremely rare for a distributor of Communion to know for certain that the person presenting him or herself for Communion is either not Catholic (and hasn’t become Catholic) or is in mortal sin (and has not confessed this sin and been absolved).
The second circumstance enabling divorced-and-remarried persons to receive Communion is the privacy accorded Church annulment proceedings. No one associated with a marriage tribunal (a panel that deliberates on petitions for annulment) may state whether a person has or has not sought an annulment, or whether a person has or has not been granted or denied an annulment, much less any details (except of course to the couple). This is so even to contradict or to corroborate someone, such as one of the couple, who speaks about such things. See this 2004 report by Edward Peters, a canon lawyer, on John Kerry and this 2009 report by Cathy Caridi, also a canon lawyer, on the matter of non-Catholic Sheila Kennedy and Catholic Joseph Kennedy. Only if a once-married Catholic presents him or herself for a second marriage to a priest would a copy of the declaration of nullity of the previous marriage be required to be revealed.
Thus, the fuss is not about whether a divorced-and-remarried Catholic, whose marriage has not been annulled, can receive Communion, but whether he or she may do so in accordance with Church (a/k/a canon) law.
Certainly, some readers of the reports before, during, and after the October Synod must wonder why there would be any law on this matter at all. They might also wonder why Catholics who are divorced-and-remarried, and those who minister to them, would care if they receive, lawfully, Communion or not. Isn’t it enough to be a Catholic? And attend Mass weekly? Etc.?
That Catholics capitalize the word Communion is an indication of the answer. That Catholic girls wear white dresses and Catholic boys wear white shirts and ties when they receive Communion for the first time (called “First Communion”) is an indication. That Catholics genuflect or bow before receiving Communion is an indication. That, before Vatican II, Catholics received Communion on their tongues, and many still do, is an indication. That, after receiving Communion, Catholics must consume Communion rather than walk back through the church with a host (the wafer of bread) in their hand, is an indication. That Catholics are repulsed by the use of a Communion wafer in a “black Mass” (like that in Oklahoma City in September is an indication. That, when a Communion wafer is exhibited in public, in a special receptacle for this purpose called a monstrance, Catholics kneel and adore, is an indication.
All this indicates the answer – the Catholic belief that Communion, whether in the form of a wafer of bread or of wine, is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, His humanity and His divinity. (See Gospel of John, chapter 6.) Catholics give Communion alternative names: Eucharist (Greek for “thanksgiving”), Blessed Sacrament, and Real Presence. This explains why the Catholic Church has rules on who can, and who cannot, receive Communion. And it explains why all Catholics want to receive Communion and want to be in a position to do so lawfully.
It also explains why it was totally ludicrous that Garry Wills would imagine a Catholic Church without a belief in the Real Presence.
No Catholic believes that he or she is “worthy” to receive Communion. And, historically, there were times when the reception of Communion was infrequent for this very reason. Despite the liberalization of such rules and customary piety over the years, including in 1910 Pope Pius X’s allowing children as young as age seven to receive, one of the rules is that the prospective recipient must be “in a state of grace,” that is, not guilty of “mortal” sin that has not been absolved through Confession, the Sacrament of Penance. How does someone determine if he or she is guilty of mortal sin? By an examination of conscience. What is the content of the “conscience” being examined? A “well-formed” conscience relies on Church teaching of what is morally right and wrong.
So, there are many, many Catholics who cannot lawfully receive Communion on any given day before they have confessed their mortal sins. Mortal sins include fraud, murder, pedophilia, sterilization, lying, etc. (Think of the Ten Commandments.) It can also be a mortal sin to separate from, or divorce, one’s spouse – or to be the cause of the separation or divorce, without regard to any issue of later remarriage. It depends on the circumstances. Why is there not the same pastoral concern for all of these people in mortal sin as for the divorced-and-remarried? Actually, there is. Observers may perceive a difference only because the behavior of persons who are divorced-and-remarried is public and continuing.
Consistent Church teaching through the centuries is that marriage “in the Church” or “in the Lord” is indissoluble. So, marrying a second person without the benefit of the first marriage being annulled is adultery. This teaching is derived from explicit statements of Jesus recorded in the Gospels (see Gospel of Matthew, 19:6-8). The Gospels are deemed authoritative (or “canonical”) because they were declared to be such, over against other writings, by early bishops. The authority of the early bishops was derived from the eleven Apostles. They in turn were handpicked by Jesus.
Hence, the Catholic Church does not believe it has the authority to vary this teaching of its Founder. It is important to observe that the same Gospels and Church that make the reception of Communion desirable to all Catholics, including divorced-and-remarried Catholics, declare second marriages invalid and mortally sinful. If you believe the former, you believe the latter.
A number of Catholics have, therefore, scratched their heads at the proposal to allow Catholics who have married, divorced, not had their first marriages annulled, and remarried civilly, to receive Communion. They ask themselves which, if any, of the following statements are intended by proponents:
• Marriage is not always indissoluble.
• Remarrying after divorce without an annulment is not adultery and is not a mortal sin.
• One can receive Communion while in mortal sin.
• It is no longer necessary to obtain an annulment to receive Communion; it is enough to confess remarriage to a priest in Confession.
Can it be, they ask, that saints in earlier times died for a quaint notion: for example, John the Baptist for criticizing Herod and Herodias (Mark 6:17-18) and Thomas More for being silent regarding Henry VIII’s divorce (see the film A Man for All Seasons (1966))? And was St. Paul wrong for publicly criticizing and expelling a member of the Church in Corinth for cohabiting with (perhaps married to) the wife of his living father (Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians, 1 Cor. 5:1-8; 2 Cor. 7:12)?
Catholics asking these questions, like all Catholics, including priests and bishops, have what is called “pastoral concern” for divorced-and-remarried Catholics, but they don’t know how proponents of Communion for them can square these circles.
When we’re in mortal sin, we should feel isolated and shunned – but we have done it to ourselves. And for this condition, we need pastoral care – but that doesn’t mean abolishing the rules of morality we have grievously violated. Pastoral care requires speaking the truth to sinners. The Catholic Church has no diversity, no meaningful diversity, since all of its members are sinners. But it is an organization of exceptional, indeed heavenly, equal opportunity for Greeks, Romans, “barbarians,” men and women, slaves and freemen. (See Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, 3:28.)
Consider the sympathies garnered by various subgroups of divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Consider for example spouses who have been abandoned. (I was the friend of a Catholic man who, one day, took off with his 18 year old babysitter, abandoning his Catholic wife and four children.) This is certainly not a new pastoral concern. The pastoral issues posed by these baptized persons through the centuries were the subject in 1969 of a book by Joseph Montserrat Torrents, The Abandoned Spouse.
We ordinarily think of abandoned spouses as victims, as free from sin, but often it is the spouse who leaves who was the victim of abuse or of addiction to alcohol, gambling, drugs or pornography. None of these cases is a new pastoral problem. (My grandmother expelled her husband, an alcoholic and ex-convict, and raised their seven children on her own. Also, although the parents of St. Augustine, as he relates in his autobiography from the Fourth Century A.D., Confessions, did not separate, his non-Christian father Patricius drank heavily and abused his mother, Monica.) What is fairly new, however, is that these people, both the abuser and the addict, as well as their victims, have been allowed by our civil laws to divorce and to remarry.
Catholics who choose to remarry, without an annulment of their first marriage, are not ignorant of the consequences. They are, shall we say, “consenting adults.” No matter the cause of their divorce, they exercise their free will to remarry knowing it is mortally sinful. They don’t remarry with any realistic expectation that the Church will change its rules. They know there is a huge moral difference between the first and second marriages. The first was “in the Church” and the second is not. Many of our sins are spur-of-the-moment. Some are well-planned. Marrying is almost always well-planned. Catholics know Church teaching, so that when they remarry without an annulment, it is “in-your-face,” “damn the consequences.”
To be sure, our human sympathies grow with each passing year when a first marriage failed (because of abuse, addiction, or whatever) and the current, second, marriage appears to be successful. To the “married” couple and to the world, a second marriage doesn’t look like “sin.” Rather, it appears as marriage, good and wholesome and attractive. But not all things attractive are without sin. Sin always looks attractive. (See C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942). That’s why a conscience must be well-formed.) After time in a second marriage has passed, does the sinful state of a second marriage convert into one of grace? Are there squatters’ rights on Communion, on heaven? A kind of adverse possession? Is there forgiveness without Confession and without any change in the person’s behavior?
The Catholic Church instructs separated Catholics, divorced Catholics, and divorced-and-remarried Catholics the same, namely, they continue as baptized members of the Church and are required to continue to attend Sunday Mass and obey the Ten Commandments. Separated and divorced Catholics are encouraged, like all Catholics, to confess their sins and receive Communion. The prohibition of divorced-and-remarried Catholics from receiving Communion is not a lifetime ban. To be lawfully admitted to Communion, the divorced-and-remarried must either recognize the continuing validity of their first marriage, and live apart from, or as sister and brother with, their second civil spouse, or obtain an annulment (if of course such is possible under canon law).
Is this too much to ask of a human being? Is it too much to ask people not to remarry, to, perhaps in their words, live a life of loneliness, to live an unhappy life, to live a life without sex? Some of Jesus’ disciples said this to His face: “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” (Matt. 19:10)
Let’s consider a well known story from the Gospel. In chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, Jesus broke a taboo and had a long conversation with an unaccompanied Samaritan woman by her town’s well. As noted above, Jesus had proclaimed the principle of the indissolubility of marriage in an abstract discussion with Jewish scholars of the law. Now, however, He was presented with a human being and her pastoral issue.
The Samaritan woman, responding to Jesus’ outreach, kindness, and the respect He showed her in their conversation, confessed her sin voluntarily to Him. And He confirmed it to her. There was great, great charity in His speaking the truth to her. The divine law on marriage is not opposed to divine compassion.
Jesus pointed out that, although she has regarded all of the men with whom she has lived as her husbands, they and the man with whom she was currently living were not. Only the first one was. Her conversation with Jesus became part of the Gospel story for two reasons. First, she quickly publicly announced it to the townspeople, proclaiming, “He has told me every [seriously bad] thing I have done.” Second, presumably she told many listeners for the rest of her life the details of her conversation with Jesus.
After her announcement, the townspeople invited Jesus to remain and He did so for a couple of days. “Many” came to believe. What happened during these two days, and later? Do you suppose that the woman with whom He had spoken at the well told Jesus that she had had one failed marriage after another but that this current one was a good one and she was entitled to some happiness, and that Jesus said “Okay. I’m glad things are working out for you this time”? Or, do you suppose that He spoke to her -- and to her “husbands,” instructing them to “go and sin no more” as He had others? (John 5:14, 8:11) Maybe He told them that a man who truly loved a woman would not give her a scorpion (see Luke 11:12) and a woman who truly loved a man would not give him a serpent. Maybe He asked them, as He had asked others, what would it profit a man to gain a woman, or a woman a man, if it meant that they would lose their souls. (See Matt. 16:26; Mark 8:36)
It is true that those who have sinned greatly are the more grateful for divine mercy. Jesus made this abundantly clear when He ate at the home of Simon the Pharisee and a woman, a public sinner, parked herself at His feet and washed them with her tears and anointed them with perfume. (Luke 7:37-50) But Jesus’ love and compassion does not allow us to presume on His mercy and remain in our sin, as difficult as it is to leave our sin. The greater the sin, the longer we have lived in it, the more difficult it is to leave. Ah, but the rewards!
Sometimes it may be easier to understand the truth from someone other than Jesus. So, listen to the baseball coach in A League of Their Own (1992): “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard…is what makes it great.”
(Ed. note: The thesis for the author's master’s degree was Aquinas on Marriage.)