Sacramental Marriage and Communion for Divorced Catholics
Today the Catholic Church faces a daunting pastoral and sacramental challenge due to the sad fact that many Catholics who have married sacramentally are now divorced, civilly remarried, and having sexual relations with the new spouse. Assuming that the first marriage was not annulled, this is a situation that is objectively and gravely sinful, one that must be addressed with sound doctrine and a corresponding pastoral care that is based upon such doctrine, instead of contradicting it.
To explain whether such Catholics may receive the Eucharist, there are several points that we must address:
- The dignity of marriage
- Church teaching about the sacrament of marriage
- Why a person in mortal sin cannot receive Holy Communion
- Divorce vs. annulment
- Whether divorced Catholics may receive Holy Communion
- How divorced and remarried Catholics without an annulment can reconciled with the Church
The Dignity of Marriage
The dignity of marriage resides in the fact that God Himself created marriage at the very beginning of His creation. Genesis 1:26-28 and especially Genesis 2:24 are the key biblical passages in the Old Testament about the creation of man and woman and the institution of marriage. Genesis 1:26-28 tells us:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
Notice how the dignity of man and woman and their fruitful union is based on the fact that they are created in the image of God. This means that, of all visible creation, only man and woman have the inherent God-given capacity to enter into a deep personal relationship of knowledge and love with God Himself and with each other.
Genesis 2:24 establishes marriage as a direct creation of God Himself, and not as a product of blind forces or social and historical developments:
Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Since God is the Author of marriage, He has endowed it with certain goods (or values) and laws, that no human authority or society can change:
- A covenant between one man and one woman (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601)
- Unity and indissolubility (CCC 1643-1645)
- Fidelity for life (CCC 1646-1651)
- Openness to fertility (CCC 1652-1665)
We can summarize these values of marriage into three characteristics:
- The natural value of conjugal love
- The natural value of procreation
- The supernatural value of sacramentality
All of these values confer a special dignity to marriage, but most especially its sacramentality.
Marriage as a Sacrament
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. (CCC 1601)
In order to understand why marriage is a sacrament, we must first understand what a sacrament is in general:
The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life [grace] is dispensed to us. (CCC 1131)
A key word here efficacious. It means that the sacramental signs convey what they signify. The signs are not simply symbols of the reality of grace, they make present that reality. In the case of marriage the sign consists of the vows the groom and the bride exchange at their wedding and their conjugal union that later consummates those vows.
Every sacrament has a special grace. In the case of marriage, the special grace is making present the marriage between Christ and His Church. The Sacrament of Christian marriage is a reflection of the spiritual marriage between Christ and His Church. What an awesome dignity! St. Paul expresses this profound truth in his Letter to the Ephesians (5:25-32):
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loves himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourishes and cherishes it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh [Gen. 2:24]. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.
Notice how St. Paul refers to Genesis 2:24. Every religious leader in Israel, and of course Jesus Himself, considered this passage as the foundation of God’s institution of marriage. Nobody disputed that, not even the Pharisees who disputed Jesus’ defense of the indissolubility of marriage in Matthew 19:3-9.
St. Paul does not use the word “sacrament,” but “mystery.” He refers to the “great mystery.” He uses this latter term at the beginning of this Letter to the Ephesians, especially 1:9-10. The great mystery is God’s plan of salvation for all humanity, not only His own chosen People, the People of Israel, but all of us also, who together with Christ as our Head, comprise the New Israel, the Church (cf. Eph 1-3). This mystery, hidden in God since the foundation of the world, has been revealed in Christ in the fullness of time (cf. 1:3-9).
The Greatest Sacrament?
In his catechesis on the theology of the body (especially nos. 94-99), St. John Paul II calls this great mystery of God’s inclusive plan of salvation “the great sacrament.” This great sacrament had its origin in the very beginning of the creation of man and woman and their marriage in Genesis 2:24. Since Adam and Eve were in a state of innocence, their souls and bodies could convey the grace of God, and more so through their original unity in marriage in Genesis 2:24. By means of this unity, man and woman efficaciously conveyed the grace of God to themselves and to the rest of creation. That is why St. John Paul II called this original sacrament “the primordial sacrament.”
“Primordial” here does not mean “the first of the seven sacraments.” It means the original sacrament, the model for all the sacraments. The Sacrament of Marriage is not the greatest of all sacraments. The greatest of all sacraments is the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This is so because the Sacrament of the Eucharist signifies and makes present the once-and-for-all self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross for all humanity. The Mass does not repeat the suffering and death of Christ on Calvary. It is the actualization, the making present here and now of this once-and-for-all Christ’s self-gift for all humanity on the cross.
The only difference between Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross 2,000 years ago and the Sacrifice of the Mass is that the form of the sacrifice of Christ was bloody, whereas the form of the sacrifice of Christ made present and efficacious in the Mass is sacramental. That is to say, it is by means of symbols that Christ’s sacrifice is conveyed to us here and now. In the case of the bread and the wine, once the words of consecration are pronounced by the priest or the bishop, they cease to be bread and wine and are transubstantiated (their very substance, what they are, undergoes a change) into the body and blood of Christ, and by concomitancy, also into His soul and divinity (see CCC 1367).
When we communicate the body of Christ, we are changed into Christ. In this way we become united with our brothers and sisters in Christ, since they also change into Christ’s unique body. Now the Church is the body of Christ (see again Ephesians 5:30). Therefore, the Church is made and built up through the Eucharist. When we communicate Christ’s body we ratify the Covenant He has made with us through His sacrifice and death on the cross and confirmed by His Resurrection. According to Ephesians 5:25-32, our unity as one Church with Christ is a spiritual marriage with Him.
Therefore, for all of the above reasons the Eucharist is the greatest sacrament. However, the Sacrament of Marriage signifies the marriage of Christ and His Church in a visible, tangible manner: the husband and the wife, specially through their visible bodies, convey this reality. This is why the Sacrament of Marriage is the model of all sacraments, though it is not the greatest of them all. All sacraments have as their ultimate goal our union with Christ. Yet, it is thanks to the Eucharist that this union is possible in the rest of the sacraments, including matrimony, since the Eucharist makes the Church. At the same time, sacramental marriage makes sacramentally visible for all of us the spiritual reality of the Christ-Church union.
Because of original sin, the primordial sacrament lost its efficaciousness to convey grace. But Christ came and restored the primordial sacrament by raising the marriage between a Christian man and a Christian woman to the dignity of a sacrament.
Why Mortal Sin Bars Us from Communion
Because the Eucharist is an efficacious sign, symbol, and expression of communion with God, the Church has always taught that a person who is conscious of grave sin should not receive the Eucharist without first making a sacramental confession.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that grave sin freely chosen with true understanding, that is to say, mortal sin,
results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. (1861)
A person in such a state of non-repentant disunity with Christ logically cannot receive Him in Holy Communion until he or she sincerely repents and goes to Confession.
Catholic teaching makes clear that Catholics may receive Holy Communion if they are “properly disposed,” and if they have “sufficient knowledge and careful preparation,” in order to “understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.”
Canon 843. §1. Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.
§2. Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful, according to their respective ecclesiastical function, have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them by proper evangelization and catechetical instruction, attentive to the norms issued by competent authority.
The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics in situations of serious and ongoing external sin should not be admitted to Holy Communion. That determination has long been reflected in Church law, which conveys both to the Catholic community and to the individuals involved that certain objective circumstances can rupture communion with God and with the Church — the very communion the Eucharist signifies and conveys (cf. canons 912 and 916).
Canon 915. Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
To break this down:
- Grave sin – an objective situation of serious moral evil
- Manifest – known to the parish or some other community
- Persevering – ongoing or habitual
- Obstinate – continuing over a long period of time with no change of the will, or after a warning or exhortation from a pastor or other Church authority.
Divorce vs. Annulment
An annulment is a declaration by the competent Church authority that a previous sacramental marriage was in fact invalid. In other words, that there was not a marriage at all.
This declaration takes place after a very careful investigation by the diocesan canonical tribunal into the causes that prior to the marriage rendered such nuptial invalid. One of those causes could be that either the groom or the bride secretly harbored the decision not to have children indefinitely for no valid motive. The guilty party did not communicate this impediment to the other party nor to the priest in charge of their marriage preparation. In other words, the guilty party actually lied when expressing his or her consent to the conditions set by the Church in obedience to Christ for a valid sacramental marriage. The Church clearly teaches that one of the conditions for a valid sacramental marriage is the willingness of the would-be spouses to have children.
If the married couple happens to be sterile through no fault of their own, the sacramental marriage is still valid in virtue of the fact that sacramental marriage is an efficacious sign of the spiritual marriage between Christ and His Church. The couple may seek to have children through prayer and fertility treatments that respect the moral law and that they can reasonably afford. If none of these things work, they have not sinned at all. They can also seek to adopt children, but this effort again depends on the economic resources of the married couple. It is not a requirement of the Church.
If one of the would-be spouses discovers that he or she is infertile before the sacramental marriage takes place, he or she should communicate his or her situation to the other would-be spouse and to the priest in charge of their marriage preparation. If the latter still agrees to be married to the infertile party, then their sacramental marriage would still be valid for the reason just given above.
There are many other impediments to a valid sacramental marriage, but that is a topic for another article. The point is that an impediment to sacramental marriage can render such marriage invalid.
If an annulment has been granted, then the contracting parties are free to marry again sacramentally, provided they fulfill previous obligations they might have to children from the previous invalid (void, or null) “marriage” (cf. CCC 1625–1629, 1652–1654).
Divorce is different. A divorce means that a couple who is validly and sacramentally married decides to end their union through civil means (there is no “Catholic divorce”). If one or both spouses later decide to marry another person and have sexual relations with that person, then they are living in a state of mortal sin and may not have access to Holy Communion. The bond of a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble. The spouses are still married to each other. One of them or both of them are living in adultery.
But it may happen that one of the divorced spouses, especially one who did not seek the divorce and tried to maintain the marital union, does not seek to marry anyone else for the rest of his or her life – unless the other spouse dies. That innocent spouse is not living in sin and can receive Communion, unless, of course, he or she has committed another mortal sin and has not gone to Confession (cf. CCC 1650–1651).
The Church’s Authority to Determine a Marriage’s Validity
There is a strong biblical basis for the canonical (ecclesiastically legal) process to determine if a first sacramental marriage was indeed a valid marriage.
When Christ founded His Church He conveyed to her the power not only to teach faith and morals in His Name but also to make laws for the successful and disciplined living of His Gospel within the Catholic community:
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. (Matt. 16:18-19)
According to the Didache Bible, which was translated and commented upon by approved authors:
The keys represent the authority given to Peter to govern the Church and include the power to absolve sins and to make doctrinal as well as disciplinary pronouncements. (Commentary on Matt. 16:19, emphasis added)
On certain occasions, Jesus Himself gave disciplinary instructions to His disciples and to those who would follow Him after their deaths. In fact, He also gave the power of “binding and loosing” to the rest of His Apostles under Peter’s authority:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him about his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church: but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. (Matt. 18:15-18).
We must reiterate that Christ gave the leaders of His Church the charism to teach authentically in His Name:
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form [the Bible] or in the form of [the Apostolic] Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome [the Pope]. (CCC 85, emphasis added)
The Magisterium, or authoritative teaching body of the Church, is comprised of the Pope and the bishops who are in communion of doctrine and discipline with him. However, this teaching authority must be exercised in an unbroken line of fidelity with the living Tradition of the Church all the way back to the Apostles and to Christ Himself:
Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. (CCC 86, emphasis added)
The phrase “what has been handed on to it” refers precisely to the Apostolic Tradition, which contains the Word of God just as the Bible does. According to the Didache Bible, page 1816, the term “Apostolic Tradition” can also mean “Handing on the Truths of Christ” (cf. Luke 1:2; 1 Cor. 12:23; 15:3-4; 2 Pet. 1:16-19; 1 John 1:1-3; and Jude 3).
This implies that any theological opinion that contradicts the authentic teaching and interpretation of the Word of God handed down to us by previous Magisteriums ought not to be accepted by any person, no matter what authority or high-profile figure in the Church has expressed it.
Some Catholics claim that the Church should allow some remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion without a declaration of annulment of the previously attempted sacramental marriage. They claim that this should be done for “pastoral reasons.”
But the mission of the pastoral ministry of the Church is to help Catholics live out the Commandments of God, not to contradict them. A careful reading of Familiaris Consortio, cited above, makes clear that the pastoral care of the Church towards remarried Catholics who have not obtained an annulment is to live in such a way that the indissolubility of sacramental marriage is honored and respected, not trampled upon.
Can Divorced Catholics Receive Communion?
The Church desires that Her children reconcile their marital situations. She has the authority to regulate how she approaches this process, but she cannot call evil good. This is why she may bar Catholics from the Eucharist when they are in valid sacramental marriages, but are divorced and civilly remarried.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio on (“The Christian Family in the Modern World”), Pope St. John Paul II discusses the issue of the many divorced Catholics who intend to marry again, this time civilly. This is an evil that the Church has to address with decisiveness and without delay. Christ commanded His Church to lead all people to salvation. Therefore, the Church cannot simply leave on their own those Catholics who are living in grave sin. She must make all efforts to offer them Her means of salvation.
The Holy Father goes on to tell pastors that they have the serious obligation to carefully discern every situation. There is a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their sacramental marriage but have been unjustly abandoned by their spouses, and those who have destroyed their marriage themselves. There are also those who have entered a second (civil) marriage for the sake of their children and who are convinced internally that their previous sacramental marriage was in fact invalid.
The Pope then calls on pastors and all good Catholics to help and pray for those who are divorced and to help them realize that they are not separated from the Church, Who continues to be their merciful Mother. In fact, because of their Baptism, they must share in the life of the Church. They should go to Mass, persevere in prayer and penance asking for God’s grace, perform works of charity, and raise their children in the Catholic faith.
But according to Familiaris Consortio:
However, the Church reaffirms Her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples. (84)
This latter teaching of not engaging in sexual relations has nothing to do with a negative view of human sexuality or with an attempt to use continence as a “punishment” for these Catholics. It has to do with what we have already said about true conjugal relations, that only they signify the unity between Christ and His Church.
I’m a divorced and remarried Catholic without an annulment. How can I be reconciled with the Church?
Those remarried Catholics who wish to reconcile with the Church ought to receive pastoral help. If they are living under the same roof as their new partner for the sake of their children, they should be helped to abstain from sexual relations. If they do not have any serious reason to live under the same roof, they should also be asked to abstain from sexual relations, and if necessary, they should be asked to live separately to avoid temptations.
Then they should go to Confession for the sin of adultery with sincere repentance and the clear willingness not to sin anymore.
If possible, efforts should be made to reconcile with the original spouse. If this is not possible, then the civilly remarried couple should either separate completely or live as brother and sister under the same roof for serious reasons, such as children they must care for.
If those conditions are fulfilled, then both of them may receive Holy Communion and continue to participate in the life of the Church.
We must all pray and help, according to our possibilities, these brothers and sisters of ours to live according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as faithfully taught by the Magisterium of His Church.
Father Shenan J. Boquet, MDiv, MSBe, President of Human Life International, contributed extensively to this article.
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Adolfo is the Director of Education for Hispanic Outreach for Human Life International and of HLI's Hispanic outreach arm Vida Humana Internacional. He has a Masters in Theology from St. Vincent de Paul Regional (Major) Seminary and a License in Moral Theology from the Alphonsian Academy in Rome.
Adolfo has traveled frequently to VHI’s affiliates in Latin America to give talks, training sessions, and media interviews. He has authored and co-authored books, articles, reports, and a pro-life training course for Hispanics in the U.S. Adolfo has also participated in the production of two TV pro-life series in Spanish, which have been aired through EWTN en Español.