The Church on Reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried Catholics

While the present practice called for by the Church in regard to the reception (or non-reception) of Communion by divorced and married Catholics, a practice which emphasizes the objective and visible unity in the Church and in the life of faith that is appropriate to the Eucharist, may not be strictly a necessary consequence of the nature of the Eucharist and of marriage (one significant argument that it is not a strictly necessary consequence is the allowance under certain circumstances for non-Catholics to receive the Eucharist, though they are not objectively and visibly united in the fullness of the faith and life of the Church), it is a practical decision of the Church that has been repeated several times, and in itself calls for obedience. In what follows I outline some of the major points in the Church's practical teaching on this matter and in the surrounding discussion by theologians.

1972: Ratzinger's article On the Question of the Indissolubility of Marriage, in which he clearly states the Church's firm conviction of the indissolubility of valid sacramental marriage, but suggests a certain toleration of some second, non-sacramental marriages, that would allow the partners to receive Holy Communion, is appropriate and in keeping with the Church's tradition.

April 11, 1973: Cardinal Seper, prefect of the CDF, writes to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (USA), speaking about "new opinions which either deny or attempt to call into doubt the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church on the indissolubility of matrimony", and closing with the practical guideline:

In regard to admission to the Sacraments the Ordinaries are asked on the one hand to stress observance of current discipline and, on the other hand, to take care that the pastors of souls exercise special care to seek out those who are living in an irregular union by applying to the solution of such cases, in addition to other right means, the Church's approved practice in the internal forum (probatam Ecclesiae praxim in foro interno).

March 21, 1975: Upon a request for clarification of what the "Church's approved practice in the internal forum" is, Archbishop Hamer, the secretary of the CDF wrote:

I would like to state now that this phrase [probata praxis Ecclesiae] must be understood in the context of traditional moral theology. These couples [Catholics living in irregular marital unions] may be allowed to receive the sacraments on two conditions, that they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles and that they receive the sacraments in churches in which they are not known so that they will not create any scandal.

1978: The International Theological Commission publishes "Christological Theses on the Sacrament of Marriage", in which it affirms, thesis 12: "In receiving the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist, the church would let such parties believe that they can, on the level of signs, communicate with him whose conjugal mystery they disavow on the level of reality." Their life contains an "objective contradiction" to Christ's teaching, and is thus an obstacle to eucharistic unity.

September 26-October 25, 1980: Synod of Bishops meets in Rome to consider "The Duties of the Christian Family in Today's World"

Ratzinger writes a pastoral letter to the priests of the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising in which he states that those living in a second marriage, whose first marriage was invalid (or who are convinced of its invalidity?), but its invalidity cannot be canonically proven, can receive the Eucharist provided no scandal is caused. He further called for study of cases where the first marriage was valid, but someone wants to return to eucharistic union without abandoning the second union. (Referenced by James Coriden in "Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried" — I have not yet been able to find a separate verification that this is accurately represents what Ratzinger wrote, or the text of the letter itself.)

November 22, 1981: Familiaris Consortio re-affirms the Church's practice of not admitting the divorced and remarried to Eucharistic Communion.

84. … [Divorced and remarried Catholics should not consider themselves or be considered as separated from the Church.]… 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.

July 27, 1991: Theodore Davey ("The Internal Forum," The Tablet 245, no. 7878 (27 July 1991) 905-906), arguing from the statements of Cardinal Seper and Archbishop Hamer quoted above, interprets the "internal forum" practice as allowing for Eucharistic Communion in a number of situations: when a person is subjectively certain of the nullity of his or her previous marriage; when there are various reasons for not approaching a marriage tribunal; when there is the conviction of the validity of the previous marriage that since deteriorated to divorce and a second marriage has taken place, giving the following guidelines for the use of this solution:

  • there is no possibility of reconciliation between the spouses since the first marriage has irreparably broken down;
  • acknowledgement of any responsibility for the failure of the first union, and where necessary reparation is made;
  • the second marriage has been in existence for some time, morally speaking it is impossible to separate because of new obligations arising from the second union, and the partners to it are genuinely doing their best to live an authentic Christian life;
  • such Eucharistic sharing should in no way be seen as a questioning of the teaching on indissolubility, and by preaching and teaching, such a practice must be regarded as entirely exceptional.

He closes with the words "It should be noted that among the pastoral theologians who have helped to formulate these norms by their writing, the most distinguished is the present prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger." (referring particularly to Ratzinger's article On the Question of the Indissolubility of Marriage).

October 26, 1991: Cardinal Ratzinger responds to Fr. Davey in a letter to the editor ("Church, Pope and Gospel," The Tablet 245, no 7891 (26 October 1991) 1310-1311). What he had written was not "norms in any official sense", but "formed part of a suggestion (Vorschlag) I made as a theologian in 1972. Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium to whose judgment I would submit. . . . Now, the magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of the present Holy Father in Familiaris Consortio." He also addresses Davey's use of Cardinal Seper's statement:

Cardinal Seper’s mention in his letter of 1973 of the "approved practice in the internal forum" which Fr Davey cites was not referring to the so-called internal forum solution which properly understood concerns a marriage known with certainty to be invalid but which cannot be shown to be such to a marriage tribunal because of a lack of admissible proof. Cardinal Seper for his part was not addressing the question of the validity of a prior marriage, but rather the possibility of allowing persons in a second, invalid marriage to return to the sacraments if, in function of their sincere repentance, they pledge to abstain from sexual relations when there are serious reasons preventing their separation and scandal can be avoided.

July 10, 1993: three bishops in Germany (Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, Oskar Saier) issue a pastoral letter to those involved in pastoral activities in their diocese, in which they stated that a pastoral dialogue was needed to determine whether the "generally valid" prohibition against the remarried receiving the Eucharist "applies also in a given situation," and that there ought to be "room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases." Citing Familiaris Consortio, they note the Church's teaching that "divorced and remarried people generally cannot be admitted to the eucharistic feast as they find themselves in life situations that are in objective contradiction to the essence of Christian marriage," but remark that canon law can "set up only a valid general order; it cannot regulate all of the often very complex individual cases."  ("Pastoral Ministry: The Divorced and Remarried," Origins 23 (March 10, 1994), pp. 670-673).

October 14, 1994: after a series of meetings between the German bishops and Cardinal Ratzinger, the CDF sends, under the authorization of Pope John Paul II, a letter to the episcopacy worldwide: Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced-and-Remarried Members of the Faithful, which restates the position of Familiaris Consortio (including the two reasons cited above), adding, moreover, apparently in response to the suggestion that exceptions could be made in particular cases, "The structure of the exhortation and the tenor of its words give clearly to understand that this practice, which is presented as binding, cannot be modified because of different situations." (Origins 24 [October 27, 1994] 337, 339-41).

The German bishops respond to the CDF's letter with a message to the people of their dioceses in which they state that "we do not find ourselves in any doctrinal disagreement," with the position laid down by the CDF, but "the difference has to do with the question of pastoral practice in individual cases," and that there does "exist room, beneath the threshold of the binding teaching, for pastoral flexibility in complex individual cases that is to be used responsibly." (Ibid., pp. 341-44). This certainly seems to be disagreement from the statement of the CDF that the practice affirmed by Familiaris Consortio "cannot be modified because of different situations". However, they acknowledge that in light of the CDF response some of their own statements and principles "cannot be the binding norm of pastoral practice."

1998: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes the introduction to "On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried", published by the Libreria in the dicastery's series ("Documenti e Studi", 17). He there addresses and rejects a number of proposed reasons to change the Church's practice. He also indicates the need for further study regarding the possible applicability of epikeia in cases where, for instance, the judgment of an ecclesiastical court on the validity of a first marriage is mistaken, and regarding whether or not baptized persons who do not believe in God can enter into a valid sacramental marriage. (Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 refers back to this position of his, and affirms that the issue continues to need study.)

June 24, 2000: The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful who are Divorced and Remarried, clarifies that Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, "Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion," does not refer to what is subjectively grave sin, but to what is objectively so, and in particular, that it applies to those living in a second, invalid marriage. Pastors should do all they can to ensure that individuals themselves respect this law, but if they do not succeed in this, then "the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy."

July 25, 2005: Pope Benedict XVI in a meeting with clergy in the diocese of Aosta again indicates the need for further study regarding the possibility of a valid marriage by baptized christians without faith. "Those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not truly believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert, discover faith and feel excluded from the Sacrament, are in a particularly painful situation. This really is a cause of great suffering and when I was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I invited various Bishops’ Conferences and experts to study this problem: a sacrament celebrated without faith. Whether, in fact, a moment of invalidity could be discovered here because the Sacrament was found to be lacking a fundamental dimension, I do not dare to say. I personally thought so, but from the discussions we had I realized that it is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further. But given these people's painful plight, it must be studied further."

Feburary 22, 2007: Sacramentum Caritatis states "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."

References: Kenneth R. Himes & James A. Coridan, "Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried", Theological Studies 57 (1996), 97-123.

James A. Schmeiser, "Reception of the Eucharist by Divorced and Remarried Catholics: Three German Bishops and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith", Liturgical Ministry 5 (1996), 10-21.

Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus: "Living a Christian Life", Ch. 9: Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life; Question H: What Should Spouses Do If Their Marriage Is Troubled? —


10 thoughts on “The Church on Reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried Catholics”

    1. A second civil marriage to your spouse does not present an obstacle to the reception of communion. After all, you are in that case returning to the one who in fact was and is your spouse ever since you married that person.

      Having a civil marriage to a different person while your spouse is alive, and living with person as though married, is an obstacle to receiving communion because it is contrary to the fidelity promised to your spouse. But the decision to "remarry" one's spouse is obviously not being unfaithful to one's spouse. One should, however, make a good confession that includes all infidelity to one's spouse that led to or followed the divorce, as well as, of course, any other grave sins since one's last confession.

  1. Quote "June 24, 2000: The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful who are Divorced and Remarried, clarifies that Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law,…… "the minister of Communion must refuse to distribute it to those who are publicly unworthy."

    (1)Who is ever "worthy" to receive communion?
    (2)So who is stigmatised as "PUBLICLY" unworthy? (By the Objective condition of their lives)
    The Banker/Hedgefund Manager? ( Sorry, We've "gone soft" on Usury)
    The Arms manufacturer, The soldier. The employee of the Military-Industrial Complex? (Oh we deserted Christ's strictures on this too!)
    The greedy that deprive the poor of the world's resources? (No, greed is no longer "The root of all evil" it is good)

    No, all morality is now prurience. The divorced-remarried are the only unforegiveables.

    I have been with my second wife faithfully for 30 years and raised a family with her. The only scandal I could cause, would be to two families if I disturbed the peace to get an annulment.
    And if I had murdered my first wife I could have been foregiven and eventually remarried and take commuion!
    Yes I am a sinner. But I have sinned more in other things, but these other misdeeds are no obstacle to communion.
    Let him who is without sin stone me.

    1. Good comments. For close to 10 years I did not take the Eucharist (I have been a Catholic believer for 11 years). I used the time during the Eucharist reception to pray for all of those going to receive. I counted it a privilege. However if my righteousness is dependent on my receiving an annulment (which I did but not my husband) then why Christ? Christ accused the religious of his time of being "white washed sepulchers filled with dead men's bones putting burdens on people they were not meant to carry."

      I could/cannot deliver myself from the power of sin and death and even though I love Christ with a powerful attitude of gratitude it is He and He alone that has freed me from the power of sin and death; that power to separate me from my beloved Father God.

      A very kind friend introduced me to the Internal Dialogue speaking of rightly dividing the word and the application of righteousness, conscience, as they apply to the question of divorce, forgiveness etc. I now take the Eucharist and participate in Confession with clarity of conscience and a spirit of peace knowing that Christ and Christ alone is my source of deliverance. Christ crucified before the foundations of the world a forgiving spirit not subject to the will of man but the Holy Will of God our Father. Praise His Holy Name.

  2. This would mean that priests who leave the priesthood to marry would be excluded from taking Holy Communion because they denied their sacred vows and divorced the Bridegroom, i.e. Christ.

    It would also mean that Mary Magdalene would have been excluded from communing with Christ, even though she was one of Jesus' most adoring followers.

    It would also make the forgiveness of sins through Christ's death and resurrection conditional not universal.

    Why would divorced Catholics ever go to Mass? It would be like be invited to dinner and not being allowed to sit at the table to eat. That is untenable.

    Sin and promises broken to God are sad and regrettable but not unforgivable. What man or woman has fulfilled the promise of sinlessness? Only one has done this, and He is at the center of our faith. Who needs communion with Christ more? A repentant divorced sinner or a non-repentant church law keeper. Doesn't this remind us of the Sadducees and Pharisees that Jesus called "vipers"? I talked to someone recently who said that only 5 to 10 percent of Italians attend church regularly–I was shocked! It seems to me that the Catholic church should focus on bringing people back, not chasing them away.

  3. This is a fine, scholarly, analysis. It is particularly pertinent in the light of Cardinal Martini's post mortem plea – that it is those who, for a variety of reasons, find themselves in an illicit marriage wo need the grace of the Sacrament.

  4. I understand that the great Church Father St. Augustine of Hippo abandoned his concubine, whom he loved, and his son after 15 years to marry a woman picked for him by his mother. The wedding never took place. Is the lesson here: don't marry within the church, keep your options open?

    On a more personal note:

    My Mother was divorced and a Catholic. My father was from a strict Catholic family and was ostracized for marrying her. On my Mother's deathbed the priest asked her if there was anything he could do. She said she always wanted to be married in the Catholic church so the two of them could take communion. Not a problem, said the priest. He married them (i stood up for them). Last rites, marriage, communion, all within an hour! What forgiveness, love and charity extended to us by that wonderful man! The priest understood his mission as a representative of God's wonderful Grace. My thanks to him for having the Word In his heart and on his lips.

    1. If someone rejects the Church's understanding of marriage, and considers this understanding to be inflexible, inhumane and inconsiderate, it certainly does make sense for him or her not to marry within the Church, doesn't it?

    2. Dear Bob,

      Thank you for sharing this beautiful story of love. It's going to stick in my mind for a long time in good way. You can feel the love and joy radiating from your words.

      Again, thank you for the blessing of this.

      Yours faithfully,

      Old-English Ascent

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