Pastoral Ministry to the Divorced and Remarried

Author: Most Rev. Gracida


Bishop Rene H. Gracida, D. D.

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

To liberate family life from the consequences of sin, the new law of Christ includes clear and explicit teaching about divorce and remarriage. The law of Moses permitted divorce under certain conditions (see Dt 24:1-4, Lv 21:7). There were two schools of thought in Jesus' time about possible grounds, and some Pharisees wanted Him to state His position (see Mk 10:2-4, Mt 19:3).[0] But instead of taking sides in their argument, Jesus rejected the assumption, common to both sides, that there could be grounds for divorce. The law's provisions, he explained, were . given "because of your hardness of heart" (Mk 10:5); in other words, Moses did not authorize divorce but only regulated a practice which should never have existed. Having pointed out that the law's provisions could not be taken as a sound standard regarding divorce, Jesus stated the true standard, God's plan in creating human beings:

But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has "joined together, let no one separate." (Mk 10:6-9)

Marriage as God created it joins the spouses so closely that they are two in "one flesh."

One might suppose that our Lord's "let no one separate" merely replaced the old law's provisions for divorce with an exceptionless prohibition of it. But when the disciples pressed Jesus on the matter, He clarified the point: "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). Now, if "let no one separate" merely prohibited divorce, it would be possible, though wrong, to dissolve one's marriage and enter into another true marriage. And, of course, if the new relationship were a true marriage, the intimacy pertaining to it would be marital. So, by saying that such intimacy is not marital but adulterous, Jesus made it clear that a new relationship cannot be a true marriage. Therefore, separating what God has joined is not merely wrong but impossible.

Marriage is indissoluble.

In marrying, even couples who do not share our faith generally anticipate that their love will last; permanent marriage is their ideal and hope. Thus, Jesus' teaching on marriage's indissolubility, far from arbitrarily burdening His disciples, wonderfully confirms the mutual love of a Christian bride and groom: what they want is exactly what God has provided for them. Since by baptism they are members of Christ's body, their one-flesh marital communion is in Jesus, and their marriage's indissolubility signifies His indivisible union with the Church.[1]

Christian marriage is therefore a sacrament, a dependable channel by which the Holy Spirit provides all the graces husbands and wives need to live up to their responsibilities: "Christ himself, the instituter and prefector of the most holy sacraments, merited for us by his passion the grace that would perfect natural love, strengthen the unbreakable unity [indissolubilem unitatem], and sanctify the spouses."[2]

Thus, the new law of Christ, which consists primarily in grace[3] provides Jesus' followers not only with the truth about marriage but with the power to live by that truth.

In some cases, of course, couples appear to get married and embark upon what seems to be a married life but, for some reason, are not really married: their marriage" is invalid. Such cases can be examined by the Church and, if invalidity is established, the marriage is declared null. In other cases, a marriage, though valid, "has not been fully constituted as a marriage" because it has not been consummated by marital intercourse, by which the two actually "become one flesh."[4] In such cases, the Church understands Christ's teaching as permitting, under certain conditions, the dissolution of a non-consummated marriage. Moreover, exercising the power conferred on her by the Lord, the Church sometimes applies the Pauline privilege (see 1 Cor 7: 15) to dissolve a non-sacramental marriage—that is, a marriage involving at least one unbaptized person—in order to free a Catholic to live his or her Christian life in peace.

Christian churches and ecclesial communities separated from the Catholic Church hold, on various grounds, that even the valid and consummated marriage of two baptized Christians can be dissolved. However, since well before the Reformation, the Catholic Church's constant and most firm teaching has been that God's plan for marriage revealed by Jesus Christ excludes without exception the very possibility of dissolving a valid sacramental marriage which has been consummated.[5] Moreover, no faithful Catholic can suppose that the Church has been mistaken or is mistaken in this teaching, for that supposition was absolutely excluded by the Council of Trent.[6]


Through the centuries, most Catholic married couples, empowered and assisted by the grace of their sacrament, have resisted temptations, overcome failings and persevered until death in their one-flesh communion. Unfortunately, however, non-belief pervades contemporary culture and in many ways influences our ideas and expectations, with the bad result that many of us—bishops, priests, religious and laity—now assume that we have a right to personal happiness in this world. Then, when we must choose between that happiness and the solemn commitments we have made to one another and to the Lord, the cost of faithfulness is likely to seem too high.

With so many scandals involving those of us who had promised celibacy or vowed virginity for the kingdom's sake, one is hardly surprised by the dismaying rate of divorce and civil remarriage among Catholics. Yet each divorce is a tragedy for those involved, hardly any of whom get by without great suffering. Where there are children, they often suffer the greatest injury. Not only are they always deprived of the concerted parental love and care to which they are entitled, but they often are impoverished, and sometimes they even become pawns in their parents' hostilities. Eventually, in seeking to rebuild their lives, many people who have been divorced look for happiness in a new intimate relationship and enter into a civil marriage.

Many Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried, I realize, feel that the Church does not understand them or care about their problems. To them I say: you remain very dear brothers and sisters in Christ. Jesus remains your Good Shepherd, and, as your pastor appointed by him, I stand by you and am ready to help you.

What can I do for you? That depends on what your situation actually is. Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried should discuss the circumstances with a priest, who will look for a possible solution. In a few cases, the previous relationship was a marriage but never consummated; or it involved a person who was not baptized, and so was not sacramental. In some other cases, the relationship was consummated and would have been sacramental, but, despite appearances, for some reason was invalid and not really a marriage. If the priest finds a reason to think that there might be a solution along one of those avenues, he will gladly help prepare the case for submission to the judgment of a Church tribunal.

Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the work of Church tribunals in evaluating the validity of marriages. The process is not very expensive or otherwise burdensome for the petitioner, and the modest charges are waived for people unable to pay them. Moreover, with the 1983 revision of the Church's law, the requirements for proof of nullity can be met whenever there really was something that prevented the relationship from being a valid marriage.

Some suggest that a civilly remarried Catholic can decide for himself or herself whether a previous relationship was a valid marriage. But other people are involved, and no interested party is a good judge of his or her own case. Moreover, a sound judgment requires expertise and training even beyond the usual seminary courses in Church law, so that individuals who attempted to 'judge their own cases very often would be mistaken. Therefore, the Church's law rightly forbids individuals from trying to decide their own cases, even with a priest's advice and help.[7]

What if you have civilly remarried and your first marriage was valid, sacramental, and consummated? Even so, you are not cut off from the Church. Like other Catholics, you have both the right and the responsibility to participate in her life in many ways: to listen to God's word and cherish it, to pray without ceasing, to attend Mass, to contribute to works of charity, to help in efforts to promote justice, and to do penitential works. Such participation in the Church's life not only is good in itself but necessary to sustain faith and hope, which dispose a Christian to accept the grace of repentance. By fulfilling these religious responsibilities, moreover, you will be the good example which is essential for bringing up your children in the faith and helping them prepare for the sacraments.

What about receiving Holy Communion? Taking into account the discussion at the 1980 Synod of Bishops, Pope John Paul II clearly answered this question by saying:

"...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...Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples."[8]

To many, that way of life will sound impossible and no doubt it would be for men and women acting on their own, unaided by God's grace. But with God's grace, a Christian can do everything God asks.[9] So, to you I offer this saving truth: that way of life certainly can be achieved by any couple who repent their past sins, constantly call on God for needed help, and do their very best to live blamelessly in God's sight. Even those who do not choose to make that commitment, but who accept the truth about their situation, should continue to hope for salvation. The Church prays for them and trusts that the Lord will be ready to receive them with tender mercy whenever they are ready to avail themselves of reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance and amend their lives.


I regret that you are receiving advice from some theologians and pastors [10] that is inconsistent with Pope John Paul's teaching which also is mine and which indeed, has been the Church's constant teaching on this matter. No doubt, their intentions are good, and their desire to help is sincere. Yet, they under estimate the power of God's grace. Moreover, they misleadingly suggest that only the Church's pronouncements and laws are at stake in this matter.

Jesus' teaching itself, however, is embodied in the relevant Church pronouncements and laws. By making it clear that marriage is indissoluble, that teaching enables Christian couples to recognize how great a good true marriage is and to enjoy the blessings which God, from the beginning of creation, intended for man and woman. If the realization of God's plan were not at stake, it would be possible to scrap Church pronouncements and laws in order to help civilly remained couples. But since those pronouncements and laws implement God's plan as revealed by Jesus, I, as your delegated pastor, cannot do other than adhere to the Good Shepherd's word.

Though that word always is life giving, it sometimes seems burdensome, crushing, even deadly. Christ foresaw that experience, and so he forewarned us: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mk 8:34; cf Mt 10:38, Lk 14:27). The cross seems to offer nothing but pointless misery. Jesus himself shrank from it, and accepted it only out of obedience to the will of the Father (see Lk 22:41-44). Yet Christ was willing to die for our sins, and "for the sake of the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:2). It was Jesus' hope of joy for us and for himself that made the cross endurable. And, as He could not have experienced Easter morning had He not accepted Good Friday's suffering, so we cannot gain heaven unless we bear witness, even to the point of martyrdom, when that is necessary to remain faithful.

As in times past, many married couples strengthened by God's grace, remain faithful even today despite pressures to conform to the surrounding culture. You who remain faithful encourage and inspire other Christians, including me. I admire and am grateful to those divorced Catholics who have resolved never to remarry; I am humbled by those who accept the duty to forgo the satisfaction of bodily intimacy with their partners so that, reconciled through the Sacrament of Penance, they can receive Holy Communion and enjoy intimacy with Jesus. All of you, in bearing witness to marriage's indissolubility, thereby bear witness to the indissoluble communion of our Lord Jesus with his Church.

That communion, now veiled in the Eucharistic signs, will be manifest in the marriage feast of heaven. All are invited to that banquet, and all who are ready to enter into it when their time comes will experience unending happiness. Compared with that happiness, the brief suffering of this life are as nothing (see Rom 8:18). Moreover, those who listen to and keep Jesus' word lose nothing by the sacrifices they must make in this world. For, having obeyed the Lord, they will find in heaven—healed, completed, and transformed—"all the good fruits of our nature and effort."[11]

I pray that you will follow Jesus closely and share in that joy. Please pray that I shall share in it with you.

Asking God to bless you in every way on this, the solemnity of Pentecost, I remain Sincerely yours in Christ

Bishop of Corpus Christi May 22, 1994


0 For a contemporary exegesis of Mk 10:1-12, see C. S. Mann, Mark: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, 27 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986), 386-94

1 See Council of Florence, Bull of Union With the Armenians (November 22, 1439), DS 1327.

2 Council of Trent, session 24 (November 11, 1563), Teaching on the Sacrament of Marriage, DS 1799.

3 See St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 106, a. 1.

4 John Paul 11, General Audience (5 Jan. 1983), 2, Insegnamenti, 6.1 (1983), 42.

5 Karl Lehmann, "Indissolubility of Marriage and Pastoral Care of the Divorced Who Remarry," Communio, 1 (1974), 230: "From the beginning of the 13th century onwards, the principle of the indissolubility of marriage quite definitively prevailed in the decisions of the popes and in canon law (even in regard to non-consummated Christian marriages, except in the case of religious profession)."

6 Council of Trent, session 24 (November 11, 1563), Canons on the Sacrament of Marriage: "5. If anyone says that the bond of marriage can be dissolved by a spouse on the grounds of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or continued absence: let him be anathema" (DS 1805); "7. If anyone says the church erroneously taught and teaches, according to evangelical and apostolic doctrine, that the bond of marriage cannot be dissolved by the adultery of one of the spouses; and that neither party, even the innocent one who gave no grounds for the adultery, can contract another marriage while their spouse is still living, and that the husband commits adultery who dismisses and adulterous wife and takes another woman, as does the wife dismissing an adulterous husband and marrying another man: let him be anathema" (DS 1807).

7 CIC, canon 1085, 52: "Even if the prior marriage is invalid or dissolved for any reason whatsoever, it is not on that account permitted to contract another before the nullity or the dissolution of the prior marriage has been legitimately and certainly established"; canon 1671: "Marriage cases of the baptized belong to the ecclesiastical judge by proper right."

8 John Paul 11, Familiaris consortio, 84, AAS 74 (1982) 185; the internal quotation is from John Paul II, Homily at the close of the sixth Synod of Bishops (October 25, 1980), 7; AAS 72 (1980) 1082.

9 Council of Trent, session 6 January 13, 1547), Decree on justification, chap. 11: "God does not command the impossible, but by commanding he instructs you both to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot, and he gives his aid to enable you [note omitted]; for his commandments are not heavy (see 1 Jn 5:3), his yoke is sweet and his burden light (see Mt 11:30). Those who are children of God love Christ; and those who love him (as he himself bears witness [see Jn 14:23]) keep his words which, of course, they can do with the divine help" (DS 1536; cf canon 18, DS 1568).

10 And now even from a few bishops: "Pastoral Ministry: Divorced and Remarried," Origins (March 10, 1994), 670-76.

11 Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 39; also see Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 48.

Diocesan Press Corpus Christi, Texas 1994