Communion and the Divorced and Remarried

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Communion and the Divorced and Remarried

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 11 February 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A recent discussion at a deanery meeting had one priest reveal that he gives Communion to divorced Catholics remarried outside the Church without a decree of nullity, under the authority of the "inner forum" regardless of their conjugal activities. In light of CCC 1650, what is he talking about? Am I missing something? — G.S., Florida

A: No. 1650 of the Catechism says the following:

"Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ — 'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery' — the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence."

This must be complemented by the following number:

"1651. Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons: 'They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace.'"

The Catechism summarizes long-established Church doctrine but also takes into account several debates undertaken over the last few decades.

Practically every pastor has to deal with good people who have entered into new stable relationships while a previous Church marriage still exists. It often happens that the second relationship has endured much longer than the first and has been blessed with children. For many such faithful the fact of not being able to receive Communion is painful.

Such difficult situations led some bishops and theologians to propose the "internal forum" or "good conscience" solution for some specific cases of divorced and remarried couples.

The authors of this theory differ as to the definition and application of this supposed solution. In synthesis, it is a pastoral response made by a person, with the help of a priest, in which the person becomes convinced in conscience of the invalidity of a previous marriage even though an external judicial determination regarding this validity cannot be resolved. This conviction would thus allow a return to the sacraments.

However, opinions can be quite diverse as to how to apply this proposed solution. Some authors insist that this solution is not granted by a priest but only acting under his guidance. Others explicitly say that it is a decision made by an appropriate priest made without recourse to the tribunal.

Likewise, others sustain that before the internal forum can be invoked, it is necessary for the person to have attempted to recur to the external forum (marriage tribunal) but with no process going forward due to procedural or other difficulties. Others sustain that there might be cases where the person can decide even without ever contacting the tribunal if there are good reasons for not doing so.

The writers supporting this "internal forum solution" at the same time recognize that it would be restricted to only a certain subset of divorced and remarried couples and is not a blank check to readmission to the sacraments.

Among the conditions noted by these authors are: that they can receive the sacraments without causing scandal in the community; that they promise to have their marriage regularized on the death of the first spouse; that they have shown stability in the second bond; and that they understand that their being allowed to return to the sacraments implies no change in Catholic doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage nor constitutes an official decision regarding the invalidity of the previous marriage.

We have necessarily simplified the arguments of these authors but hope that we have not misrepresented them.

At the same time, we must insist that these are opinions and do not represent official Catholic doctrine with respect to the internal forum.

The Church's official teaching on this topic is contained in a series of documents. We will touch upon the most important for our argument.

On April 11, 1973: Cardinal Franjo Seper, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), wrote to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (in the U.S.), 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." He closed with the following 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)."

Some bishops asked for clarifications of what was meant by the approved practice in the internal forum. On March 21, 1975, Archbishop Jean Hamer, 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."

These documents, plus Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation "Familiaris Consortio," form the basis of the doctrine found in the Catechism.

In 1994, two years after the promulgation of the Catechism, in response to several suggestions that there could be some pastoral exceptions to this doctrine and the norms of canon law in particular cases, the CDF wrote a letter to the world's bishops, "Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by Divorced-and-Remarried Members of the Faithful."

This document restates the position of "Familiaris Consortio" and the Catechism (including the two reasons cited above), adding, "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."

This basic doctrine has been confirmed once more in the 2007 apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis": "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."

Therefore it is clear that the Holy See has ruled out the possibility of the "internal forum solution" as a valid way of resolving questions of marital validity. The act of getting married is a public act, before God and before society and therefore questions regarding its validity can only be resolved in the external forum. Admission to the sacraments may only occur in the situations outlined in the Catechism.

However, all recent popes have felt acutely the painful plight of those couples who are in this situation. From the first months of his pontificate Benedict XVI called for further study of this difficulty. Pope Francis has likewise broached this subject and has called on the bishops to propose possible initiatives that will help the Church to attend to these members of Christ's body in a better way.

Yet, as one eminent cardinal has noted regarding this topic, "Black will not become white." No pastoral solution can change the Gospel or the Church's established teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

The most important pastoral action that the Church can and should do is to strive to promote the Christian formation of young Catholics so that they approach marriage with the intention of cooperating with God's grace in making a lifetime commitment. In other words, the best long-term solution to divorce and remarriage is avoiding divorce in the first place.

At the same time, it would be naive to think that some marriages will not fail, or that there will be no invalid celebrations. This is an inevitable consequence of human weakness and human freedom. Likewise, there is now a large number of Catholics in irregular solutions who have concrete pastoral needs, and the Church is impelled to find ways to assist them, while respecting Christ's teaching on the sanctity of marriage.

This will probably be the spirit with which Pope Francis and the bishops will explore whatever avenues and initiatives might be available, to bring the light of Christ to all members of the Church.

* * *

Follow-up: Communion and the Divorced and Remarried [2-25-2014]

Several readers responded to our Feb. 11 piece on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, including some who suffer greatly because of their situation. They are in our prayers even though we cannot offer them any concrete solutions to their present difficulties apart from those already offered by the Church.

Some pastors wrote asking if the absence of a marriage tribunal, or one which has a backlog of several years, would change the answer I gave.

Since the reply was based on the principle that the internal forum cannot decide questions of marital validity, the lack of legal resources does not change that principle.

This does not mean that these problems should not be addressed; indeed, in some countries the efficiency of tribunals requires urgent action. While not a canonist I am sure that some streamlining of procedures could be done that would speed up the conclusion of the process, especially in those cases where the evidence for invalidity is quite clear.

At the same time, the annulment process has to be serious so as to establish the fact of nullity. With respect to the invalidity of a sacrament, probability is insufficient. This is also one area where a wider use of canonically trained women religious and laity could be of great benefit. Some positions such as judicial vicar are necessarily priests, but priests are often engaged in a wide range of pastoral activities as well as the tribunal. Qualified laity and religious could, and indeed in some countries already do, improve the efficiency of tribunals with no difference in the scrupulous attention to establishing the facts.

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