August 28, 2015


Divorced and remarried are still part of the Church

We hope you read the article “Divorced and remarried are not excommunicated, pope says” in our Aug. 14 issue. Even if you didn’t read it there, you might have heard about it on TV because it made the national news.

You would have thought the pope was changing Catholic doctrine when, basically, all he was doing was stating a fact: Catholics who have divorced and are civilly remarried are not excommunicated.

But perhaps the reason his talk got so much coverage was his follow-up: “And they absolutely must not be treated as if they were.” Has the Church unintentionally given the impression that those who divorce and remarry without getting a declaration of nullity of their first marriage are no longer to be considered Catholics?

It’s true that those people, in most cases, may not receive holy Communion. That’s because of Christ’s teaching, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18).

Thus the divorced and remarried are considered as being in the same situation as any married man or woman who has sex with someone other than his or her spouse, or any unmarried man or woman who has sex with a married person.

This is the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. But there’s nothing that says that such people aren’t still Catholics.

But why, then, can’t they receive Communion? Because adultery is a serious sin and St. Paul taught, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27). Anyone who has committed a serious sin and has not had it forgiven in the sacrament of reconciliation must refrain from receiving Communion.

The Church teaches that sex outside of a sacramental marriage is also a serious sin. Therefore, those who do that, including cohabitating couples, also should refrain from receiving Communion. Another serious sin is missing Mass on weekends and holy days of obligation without a legitimate excuse, and people who do that also should not receive Communion if they haven’t confessed that sin.

But in none of those cases do we consider the sinners excommunicated. If they were, we’d have an awfully small Church. So why would people think that those who are divorced and remarried outside the Church are excommunicated to such an extent that the pope had to emphasize that they aren’t?

Probably because our parishes haven’t, as Pope Francis said, “openly and coherently demonstrated the willingness of the community to welcome and encourage” divorced and remarried couples and their families to participate in Church life. He said that praying, listening to the word of God, attending Mass, educating their children in the faith, serving the poor and working for justice and peace should be part of their lives.

Divorced and remarried Catholics throughout the world are awaiting October’s Synod on the Family in Rome, hoping that the bishops will find some way to allow them to receive Communion. From comments made by Pope Francis, it seems that this may be possible for some of those couples.

For example, the pope quoted St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio,” which said that there is an obligation, “for love of the truth,” to exercise a “careful discernment of situations,” noting for example “the difference between one who has endured a separation and one who provoked it” (#84).

At the same time, it is important to note that John Paul also taught in that same section, “However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried,” and gave several reasons for retaining this practice (#84).

From comments made by participants at last year’s synod, it seems possible that the annulment process may be speeded up. At present, it is often easier for a non-practicing Catholic who married outside the Church to get an annulment than an observant Catholic who followed the rules.

There also could be discussions about the teaching of who should receive Communion. We know that many Catholics who attend Mass only infrequently receive Communion when they do attend Mass without going to confession first. Will the bishops address that problem? What about cohabiting couples who receive Communion?

No matter what might happen in the future, at present it should still be true, as Pope Francis said, “Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church.”

—John F. Fink

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