In Truth and Love

Author: Pennsylvania Bishops Conference


Pennsylvania Bishop

Pastoral Letter released July 29, 1994.

1. Marriage and Family Life Today

In this Year of the Family, as the church pays special attention to the joyful mission of promoting and supporting the sacrament of matrimony and family life, the complex reality of family life in the world today provides reasons for both encouragement and concern. We are encouraged by the great number of families who are bound together by Christian love and who, through their Christian lives, contribute to the growth of the body of Christ and the human progress of society. In these times when so many social and personal factors weigh heavily upon the commitment of married men and women to an indissoluble union that is total, exclusive, faithful and fruitful, it is especially encouraging to witness strong and stable marriages ordered to the mutual good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children.[1] Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has written of this encouraging reality:

"With reason it can be said that these families make up 'the norm,' even admitting the existence of more than a few 'irregular situations.' And experience shows what an important part is played by the family living in accordance with the moral norm so that the individual born and raised in it will be able to set out without hesitation on the road of the good, which is always written in his heart."[2]

The pope has also recognized the many challenges to Christian marriage and family life that have emerged in our day:

"Unfortunately, various programs backed by very powerful resources nowadays seem to aim at the breakdown of the family. At times it appears that concerted efforts are being made to present as normal and attractive, and even to glamorize, situations which are in fact 'irregular.' Indeed, they contradict the 'truth and love' which should inspire and guide relationships between men and women, thus causing tensions and divisions in families, with grave consequences particularly for children.[3]

In the midst of the serious obstacles presented by secular society, the church once again celebrates and affirms the sanctity of marriage and the profound joy of family life. With families, the church stands firm in defense of their fundamental rights against all programs, trends and efforts that are aimed at the breakdown of this basic unit of society.[4] To all families, the church gives guidance and support in their daily efforts to live faithfully according to God's plan for them.[5] For families in crisis, experiencing division or in relationships not sanctioned by the church which are sometimes referred to as "irregular unions," the church offers her loving care.

Regarding this last category, we are particularly concerned about the number of broken homes and about the suffering encountered by spouses and children affected by divorce. We are eager to offer the best and most authentic pastoral care to such persons.

In the hope of speaking with the spirit of Christ himself, we, the bishops of Pennsylvania, share these reflections with our brother priests "in truth and love."

2. Divorced Catholics

The church, striving always to imitate the compassion of Jesus, is most attentive to and concerned about the spiritual needs of Catholics whose marriages have failed and who have attempted a second marriage outside a Catholic ceremony. They are, even more in their suffering and pain, beloved children of God and valued members of the body of Christ. In true concern for their spiritual well-being, we strongly encourage all divorced and remarried persons "to listen to the word of God, to attend the sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to the works of charity ant to community efforts of 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."[6]

We are deeply grateful for the many sincere and pastorally sound initiatives in our local churches that offer spiritual care for families who have experienced the very real pain and disillusionment of separation and divorce. Many priests, religious and laypersons have dedicated themselves to this ministry, and in so doing have shared in a very beautiful way the spiritual journey of divorced Catholics and their families.

In this year of the family we have a special opportunity to recommit ourselves to the authentic spiritual and pastoral care of the members of the Catholic family who are separated and divorced, including those who have entered into irregular marriage situations. The church has much to offer such persons and we invite them to participate in a rich variety of pastoral efforts, including educational workshops, support groups, moments of prayer and personal spiritual direction. We also encourage our pastors to do everything possible to include to the extent allowed divorced Catholics in the life of their parishes.

3. Unacceptable Initiatives

But we are also aware and deeply concerned that well-intentioned but unacceptable initiatives are sometimes proposed in an attempt to minister to those involved in irregular marriages. For the sake of clarity and truth, and for the spiritual welfare of the faithful, we need to clarify once again that in reference to divorced Catholics only those who have received an ecclesiastical declaration of nullity of a previous marriage or whose former spouse is deceased are free to marry in the church and to participate fully in her life. For a person to remarry while a previous marriage is presumed to be valid, even though a civil divorce has been granted, is to enter a relationship which violates the teaching of Christ: "The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she is guilty of adultery too" (Mk. 10:11-12).

It is the adulterous situation and not simply the divorce which places those in this situation in opposition to the faith and practice of the church and which excludes them from eucharistic communion and from the reception of other sacraments, as well as from participating in certain ecclesial roles. Therefore, it is helpful to keep in mind several distinctions among divorced persons whose previous marriage(s) have not been declared sacramentally invalid by the lawful authority of the church.

Such distinctions include first of all those who have not remarried, as well as those who have remarried and seek to live in complete continence. These persons are eligible to receive the eucharist according to the regular norms of the church.

However, those who have remarried and live in a sexual relationship cannot be admitted to holy communion. In speaking of persons in such a situation, Pope John Paul II unequivocally teaches: "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.[7]

This instruction which summarizes the church's canonical pastoral response to divorced persons is sometimes misunderstood even by those who are well-intentioned. Some people inside and outside of the Catholic community incorrectly think that once a person has divorced he or she is no longer a member of the church. Such is not the case and we are inspired by the many divorced persons who have worked through their pain and suffering without remarriage and have continued the full practice of their Catholic faith.

Others who know that divorced Catholics remain members of the church and understand that those who have entered into irregular marriages cannot be admitted to holy communion react to this moral reality in different ways. Those who understand the teaching of the church on the indissolubility of marriage and on sexual morality regard this practice as fitting since the couple have placed themselves in an objectively adulterous situation that stands in direct violation of the teaching of Christ and his church.[8] Others look upon this practice as the mere imposition of church regulations or rules which they view as outdated in a society where so many marriages end in divorce. Some have proposed an approach that would allow divorced and remarried persons who, for any number of reasons, have not received a declaration of nullity of their first marriage(s) to receive holy communion on the basis of their sincere judgment of conscience that their first marriage was invalid. This so-called "internal forum solution" has also been invoked to justify reception of holy communion by persons in other objectively immoral situations.

We believe that those who promote unacceptable pastoral initiatives among divorced Catholics are in fact harming the spiritual welfare of those very persons they intend to help, and as shepherds of the flock we are concerned that the faithful not be misled in this regard.

In light of the serious confusion that sometimes occurs in this matter, we need to enunciate once again that divorced Catholics in irregular unions are not permitted to receive the eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps us to understand the theological and pastoral reasons for this necessary restriction.

4. The Eucharist: Union With the Body of Christ

"The principal fruit of receiving the eucharist in holy communion is an intimate union with Christ Jesus. Indeed, the Lord said: 'He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him."'[9] But there is more than a personal and subjective union here. Those who receive the eucharist are also united more closely to the body of Christ that is the church. It is an ecclesial unity which must be expressed in life as well as in liturgy. Otherwise, an unacceptable inconsistency results. "Through it (the eucharist) Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body-the church. Communion renews, strengthens and deepens this incorporation into the church already achieved in baptism. In baptism we have been called to form but one body. The eucharist fulfills that call."[10]

Because of the profound spiritual reality contained in the eucharist, and because it both signifies and causes a deeper union with Christ as well as his church, it is essential that those who approach the altar of the Lord do so properly disposed, free of mortal sin and free of any objective moral condition that sets them apart from the sacramental life of the church. "Anyone who desires to receive Christ in eucharistic communion must be in the state of grace. Anyone aware of having sinned mortally must not receive communion without having received absolution in the sacrament of penance.[11]

While those who live in irregular marriage situations are not permitted to receive holy communion, there are many other valuable spiritual practices which they can and should embrace, activities that serve to maintain some degree of union with Christ and his church. Such individuals do so with the hope that by the grace of God they will someday be canonically reconciled to the church and reunited to the Lord Jesus in the most profound gift of eucharistic communion.

5. Internal Forum Solution: Unacceptable for Divorced and Remarried

For similar reasons, the use of the so-called "internal forum solution" for cases of divorced-and-remarried persons who are personally convinced that their previous marriage was invalid is unacceptable, unnecessary and pastorally unsound. The canonical judicial procedures established by the Code of Canon Law to examine claims that a previous marriage was invalid are, in our view, comprehensive and responsive enough to declare invalid all marriages which truly are. As Msgr. Mario F. Pompedda, now dean of the Rota, remarked: "It would be purely academic to hypothesize about the existence of cases in which moral certitude could be reached only in the internal forum, that is, in conscience; such would be so rare that they should be considered practically nonexistent."[12] This is especially true since Canon 1536.2, combined with Canon 1679, allows tribunals to grant a declaration of nullity, in the absence of other "objective" proofs of a previous marriage's invalidity, on the basis of personal depositions of the parties themselves. The canons, however, further require that these personal depositions of the parties be corroborated by character witnesses for the parties, if possible, and by other relevant facts and supporting evidence (<Indicia Adminicula>).[13] These canons were added to the Code of Canon Law when it was revised in 1983 precisely to address cases in which proofs of invalidity-other than the declaration of the parties-are not available. Their presence in the code refutes one of the principal arguments for the use of the so-called "internal forum solution," making any use of it unnecessary and unacceptable.

Apart from the question of the canonical judicial procedure the "internal forum solution" in which individuals make a personal and subjective judgment about their canonical status is, in fact, a flawed pastoral solution because it cannot bring about the full reconciliation of the couple to the church. The couple's full participation in the life of the church can be re-established only through an ecclesiastical declaration of nullity or the death of a former spouse and the convalidation of the new union. Through these public acts of the church the couple will not only be admitted to holy communion, but will be entitled to share in the full life of the church available to all the laity. We encourage all Catholics who find themselves in irregular marriage situations, and therefore sadly separated from holy communion, to avail themselves of the tribunal process in their local diocese with the hope of being completely reconciled to the sacramental life of the church.

6 Unacceptable Extension of The "Internal Forum" Solution

Although originally employed to justify the reception of holy communion by divorced- and-remarried persons whose personal judgment was that their previous marriage was invalid, the so-called "internal forum solution" has been applied, although erroneously, in other similar situations. For example, it is now sometimes utilized by those living together without the benefit of marriage; by those civilly married; and by those in other objectively immoral situations. In these cases some persons claim that their subjective judgment of conscience allows them to receive holy communion. Those who exercise pastoral ministry in the church, particularly our priests, as well as all the members of the church, should understand why such rationalization is contrary to the true good of the church and ultimately detrimental to the spiritual welfare of the individuals involved. We emphasize this point for several reasons.

First, the "internal forum solution" has the effect of ratifying an erroneous judgment of conscience against the reality of objective moral truth. As a result, an opposition between the moral law which is normative and the subjective judgment of an individual's conscience is established and maintained. Such dichotomy leads only to spiritual harm. The ratification of erroneous judgment of conscience obscures the demand for moral truth. And in this way it can be seen as a "pastoral" solution which proposes "a kind of double status of truth ... [permitting] one to do in practice and in good conscience what is qualified as intrinsically evil by the moral law. A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil."[14] True conversion of heart and growth in holiness are thus hindered since the person sees no need to repent, reform and grow in the spiritual life.

Second, the "internal forum solution" undermines the teaching of the Lord and the church on the indissolubility of marriage and the sanctity of sexual union. Like marriage itself, the reception of the eucharist is an essentially public act. When individuals receive the eucharist, they proclaim their belief not only in the sacramental body of Christ, but also their sincere adherence to the teachings and practice of the church. As noted previously, for Catholics whose living situation violates the moral law the reception of the eucharist is contrary to the public situations in which they find themselves.

This unacceptable contradiction applies to the divorced and invalidly remarried, as well as to the individuals who are in other irregular situations mentioned above. By allowing persons in these situations to receive the eucharist the harmful consequences of the objective contradiction between the moral law and their real-life situation is overlooked. As a result, it might appear to some that the teaching of the church, which is the authentic expression of the law of Christ, represents only a vague ideal with no relevance to daily life rather than a life-giving precept meant to be followed with Christian faith and trust.

Third, we are concerned about the problem of scandal. Scandal is much more than a vague discomfort people experience when they see someone doing something wrong.

The more serious danger of scandal is that in witnessing such situations others will be confused, weakened and misled into immoral behavior themselves.

The consequences of scandal are very real in the case of persons receiving the eucharist without the proper moral disposition. Permitting divorced-and-invalidly-remarried persons and those living in other morally objectionable relationships to receive the eucharist is potentially a source of great confusion and disunity within the body of Christ as well as a source of scandal. If the church were to allow this practice it would itself become a participant in the trends of our society that undermine the stability of marriage and family life. This would, of course, be completely contrary to its divine mission to be the "salt of the earth" and "light of the world" in speaking and teaching about the sacrament of matrimony. The ministers of the Gospel, then, would have succumbed to the influence of secular culture rather than struggling to transform the sinful world through the power of the Gospel of Christ.

7. Conclusion

In attempting to address the sensitive topic of pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics we recognize the complexity of the social and personal trends of our time, and we understand the many difficult challenges presented to marriage and family life.

We commend those faithful Catholics who struggle every day, sometimes even heroically, to be faithful to the teaching of Christ about marriage and family life. And we care deeply about the true happiness of all those whose choices have placed them in situations which are, in varying ways, opposed to Catholic faith and practice. We, too, feel the pain of their separation from the eucharist. It is for these reasons that we have chosen to speak in truth and love about the dignity and moral challenges of the sacrament of matrimony.

We firmly believe that all pastoral practice related to the family must start with the premise that God has provided for us a beautiful and sometimes challenging plan for marriage and family life. We know that the church, as a loving mother, provides the means for true reconciliation and communion. "If it is a question of a transgression that concerns the individual alone, one need only refer to the injunction: 'Go, and do not sin again' (Jn. 8:11). But if rights of others are at stake, mercy cannot be shown or received without addressing the obligations that correspond to these rights."[15]

We urge all those involved in the public ministry of the church to realize that only in the fullness of the love of Christ and the true teaching of the church will married couples experience the abundant spiritual potential of their marriage commitment. And it is only in that same love and truth that these couples in irregular marriage situations will be able to discover authentic and lasting peace.

We join our Holy Father in praying that this "Year of the Family become a harmonious and universal prayer on the part of all 'domestic churches' and of the whole people of God! May this prayer also reach families in difficulty or danger, lacking in confidence or experiencing division, or in situations which <Familiaris Consortio> describes as 'irregular.' May all families be able to feel the loving and caring embrace of their brothers and sisters."'[16]


1 For a discussion of these characteristics of the conjugal covenant and of the importance children have to marriage see: <Gaudium et Spes> in the documents of Vatican II, 1965, Nos. 48-50; Pope Paul VI, <Humanae Vitae> 1968; Pope John Paul II, <Familiaris Consortio>, 1981; Pope John Paul II, Year of the Family: "Letter to Families," in Origins, March 3, 1994, No. 17.

2 "Letter to Families," No. 5.

3 Ibid.

4 Pope John Paul II, <Familiaris Consortio>, No. 46.

5 See <Familiaris Consortio>, especially Nos. 11-16, for a summary of the church's teaching on this matter which has its basis in Genesis 1:27-28, 2:24 and Jesus' affirmation of God's original plan in Mark 10:6-9; Matthew 19:4-8.

6 <Familiaris Consortio>, No. 84; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1651.

7 <Familiaris Consortio>, No. 84; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1650.

8 Mk 10:11-12; The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1650.

9 Ibid., No. 1391.

10 Ibid., No. 1396.

11 Ibid., No. 1415.

12 Msgr. Mario F. Pompedda, "Noted Rotal Auditor Explains Canonical Status of Catholics Who are Divorced and Civilly Remarried," L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, Sept. 16, 1992.

13 Canon 1536.2 states: "In cases which concern the public good, however, a judicial confession and the declarations of the parties which are not confessions can have a probative force to be evaluated by the judge along with the other circumstances of the case; but complete probative force cannot be attributed to them unless other elements are present which thoroughly corroborate them." Canon 1679 states: "Unless full proofs ate present from other sources, in evaluating the depositions of the parties in accord with Canon 1536, the judge is to use witnesses regarding the credibility of the parties if possible, as well as other indications and aids <indicia et adminicula>)." For authoritative commentaries on this canon see Ignacio Gordon, <Novus processus nullitatis matrimonii: inter cum adnotationibus> (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, 1983), p. 33, No. 143, nota r.; Mario Francesco Pompedda, <Il processo canonico di nullita di matrimonio: legalismo o legge di carita?" Ius Ecclesiae I (1989), p. 446; Joaquin Calvo, in Code of Canon Law Annotated. (Montreal: Wilson and Lafleur Limitee, 1993), p. 1036. For a discussion of the doctrine and jurisprudence which led to the legislation in Canon 1679 see: Cardinal Pericle Felici, "<Formalitates iuridicae et aestimatio probationun.>" Communicationes 9 (1977), pp. 180-181. Note that Canon 1536.2 and Canon 1679 of the Latin Code of Canon Law are included in identical language in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches under Canon 1217.2 and Canon 1365.

14 Pope John Paul II, <Veritatis Splendor>, October 1993, No. 56.

15 Pope John Paul II, "Human Laws Reflect Truth," L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, Feb. 2. 1994.

16 "Letter to Families," No. 5.