You might have heard or read quite a bit about the issue of remarried couples and the Eucharist. Still, amongst the hype, there hasn’t always been a lot of clarity about what’s at the heart of it all.
Why can’t remarried couples receive communion? Is it some kind of punishment for people getting divorced? Do those who do receive communion think they are better than the others? What ever happened to mercy?
Let’s go through the issue step-by-step.
Receiving the Eucharist
The Catechism lays it out clearly in three points:
- The Lord addresses an invitation to us, urging us to receive Him in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: “Truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. (Jn 6:53)” (CCC 1384)
- To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor 11:27-29). Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion. (1385)
- The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins – that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church. (1395)
Now let’s take a brief look at divorce.
Is Divorce a Sin?
The Catechism says 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)
Still, there are situations for which the Church considers separation necessary and recognizes certain (rare) circumstances where civil divorce can be “tolerated”: “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)
Answer? Divorce is not necessarily a sin. There are (few) cases where it is justifiable or even necessary.
So what’s the problem with Holy Communion? The problem arises when the divorced person remarries, without having first obtained an annulment of the first marriage.
Christ is painfully clear on this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mk 10:11-12)
Conclusion? If the divorced couple is remarried civilly, the union cannot be recognized as valid, and this goes against Christ’s teachings.
Cathy Caridi, an American canon lawyer, explains the following:
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)
So now what? Three issues come up.
1. The person’s spiritual well-being
One might ask, is this rule of non-reception of the Eucharist some punishment or even an exploitation of the individual who is suffering?
Fr. Paul Keller, O.P. says the following:
“This question more than suggests that the Church has no place in protecting the faithful from the condemnation they bring upon themselves, as St. Paul warns. Were the Church to remain passive and permit Holy Communion for one not properly disposed, she would be liable to judgment for a different kind of exploitation: the failure to keep her children from wrongdoing and sin, as well as the failure to guard faithfully and dispense the sacraments. The Church’s long-standing watchfulness is not exploitation or manipulation; it is charity pure and simple. It is the concern of the mother that her children not ingest the wrong medicine lest it become a poison. […]”
2. The need to maintain reverence towards the Eucharist
Caridi notes the following:
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 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.
3. The need to avoid public scandal
What about the cases where a couple has accepted the Church’s request (CCC 1650) to live in “complete continence,” meaning that they have resolved to continue to live together (many times for the good of the children) but to do so as brother and sister (no longer engaging in sexual relations)?
Seeing how such a choice falls into the intimate privacy category, most or all of the parishioners will be ignorant of the decision. Here’s where the possibility of public scandal comes in: what will the other faithful think when they see a remarried couple receiving communion (unawares of their decision)?
Assuming that the remarried Catholics do not speak openly about their choice, Caridi explains:
There is a 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.
Is Validating Your Marriage Impossible?
Fr. Steve Flynn recently encouraged people to take action. “Some people have nothing standing in the way of validating their marriage in the Catholic Church, but have never approached the Church to ask for help. In rare cases, I’ve heard of couples having a negative experience and giving up. If you intend on living together faithfully as husband and wife for the rest of your lives and desire the Sacrament of Marriage, there is no reality or excuse that should stop you from approaching the Church to have your marriage validated. Sometimes people are paralyzed by uncertainty. Contact your local parish. They can help answer all the questions you have. Call and ask.”