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Why don’t divorced and remarried people have access to communion?

Philippe Oswald - published on 01/21/13

Oftentimes, Catholics who divorce and remarry will be told that they cannot receive communion. What is the rationale behind this? Does the Church justify this sanctioning?

There is an objective contradiction between communion, the sacrament of the union of love between Christ and the Church, and the situation of those who are divorced and remarried. Nevertheless, this deprivation of communion is not an "excommunication," an exclusion from the Church.

Though this teaching may be difficult, Jesus’ teaching on divorce is clear: "What God has joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matthew 19:9). Entering into a new conjugal union (a second civil marriage or cohabitation) after a divorce consitutes a denial of the sacred indissolubility of marriage. The Church of Christ does not judge the person, but a state of fact.

Even Christ’s disciples found His teaching on divorce to be challenging. On this issue – as with others – we should not set the Church’s toughness and Jesus’ mercy in opposition.  Indeed, many argue that it is only a Church law. People thus assume that such a law does not have much to do with Christ’s law of love and mercy, even though such thinking would be in total contradiction with the Gospel. Saint Paul discussed this very matter, making clear that he does not offer a personal opinion but rather the mind of Christ when he wrote, "As for married people, this is what I prescribe (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband. If she does separate, she should not remarry" (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

We should view this teaching on the sanctity and indissolubility of the marital bond in light of Christ’s supreme love for His Church and of His total gift of self: "If the Eucharist expresses the irrevocable nature of God’s love in Christ for His Church, we can then understand why it implies, with regard to the sacrament of Matrimony, that indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires," (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis 29). Recognizing that divorce followed by a new union represents "a complex and troubling pastoral problem, […] one which increasingly affects the Catholic community as well," the Pope asks pastors to "discern different situations carefully, in order to be able to offer appropriate spiritual guidance to the faithful involved." But, he adds, "The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf. Mk 10:2- 12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments, since their state and their condition of life objectively contradict the loving union of Christ and the Church signified and made present in the Eucharist."

Hence the grave need for ecclesiastical courts to verify any legitimate doubts about the validity of a prior sacramental marriage, explains Benedict XVI. Once again, we should not put an opposition between the law and pastoral concern, says the Pope: "Rather, one should begin by assuming that the fundamental point of encounter between the law and pastoral care is love for the truth: truth is never something purely abstract, but a real part of the human and Christian journey of every member of the faithful" (Sacramentum Caritatis 29).

No one is without sin, and every Christian, whatever his faults, can receive communion once he is reconciled to God. But the "marriage" of a divorced person creates a situation that contradicts his first permanent commitment (if it were real – we are not speaking here of cases of nullity). It is this situation that prevents divorced and remarried people from having access to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion as long as they live as a couple.

The Church can not say anything different from her Master: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (Luke 16:18; see also Matthew 5:32 and Mark 10:11-12). St. Mark specifies for the Roman world which, unlike the Semitic world, allowed women to divorce their husbands: "And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:12). Before Jesus, John the Baptist dared tell Herod that he had no right to live with his brother’s wife (cf. Lk 20:10), and paid for it with his life (Mark 6:18 and Matthew 14:4-12). It is no wonder, then, that the Church’s position on marriage is heavily criticized, even today.

We often hear that the Church "rejects remarried people," but this is certainly not the case. The Church does not reject any baptized person, whatever their situation may be; otherwise, she would reject herself by rejecting one of the members of the mystical Body of Christ. Rather, it is the fact of remarriage itself which the Church rejects, affirming that it is not possible to live Eucharistic communion – the sacrament of the marriage of the Lamb – as long as one lives with someone other than the spouse to whom one is sacramentally bound by Christ. Sacramental reconciliation becomes possible only after the death of the first spouse (which puts an end to the religious marriage) or the second spouse (which puts an end to the cohabitation). It would also be possible in the event that the new couple received the grace to reach the decision to separate, or at least— if the separation is not desirable (for example, for the sake of the children)— to live a spiritual friendship by renouncing the intimacy proper to spouses.

Not receiving communion does not mean one is excommunicated. Eucharistic non-communion does not erase the baptismal communion that unites the faithful in one body. The injured or ill member is still part of the Church, the Body of Christ, and participates in her life.

In the text quoted above, Pope Benedict XVI explains that "the divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church, which accompanies them with special concern and encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving communion, listening to the word of God, eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in the life of the community, honest dialogue with a priest or spiritual director, dedication to the life of charity, works of penance, and commitment to the education of their children" (Sacramentum Caritatis 29).

We are often mistaken in believing that not receiving communion means being excommunicated – that is to say, excluded from the community. Yet the reality is different: abstaining from eucharistic communion does not erase the baptismal communion that unites the faithful in one body. The injured or diseased member is still part of the body. He is not dead, but alive to receive and give. This is particularly evident when there are children from the first or second marriage: separated parents are not dispensed from their educational mission. On a more general level, it is also true that each one can contribute to the community from his own poverty of heart.

MarriageSacramentsSynod on the Family
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