Divorced and "Remarried" Catholics and the Eucharist

E. Christian Brugger
November 07, 2013
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Is the Church inclined to change its teaching?

On October 8, 2013, Pope Francis announced that an extraordinary synod of bishops will take place in October 2014 on the theme, "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization".

Speculation immediately arose as to whether the synod might recommend that the Church modify its traditional norm prohibiting divorced and "remarried" Catholics from receiving Holy Communion.

The prohibition has long been a bugbear of progressive Catholics who believe it's unnecessarily strict and divisive. Catholic journalist, David Gibson, for example, recently stated that the norm has "alienated untold numbers of Catholics and their families" resulting in a "silent schism". He lamented that international efforts aimed at pushing the Vatican to change its position have been "rebuffed."

Is the announcement an indication that change is on the horizon? Is it really "legitimate to wonder," as Vatican watcher, John Thavis, recently blogged, "where the church is really headed" on this question?

I suggest that those who hope for substantive "change" are in for a bitter disappointment. The pastoral practice is a necessary correlate of the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, which is a precept of divine law.

In this essay, I consider the most common theological argument in defense of changing the norm, what I call the "conscience" argument. I then reply to it.

The "conscience" argument

In early October, the Office of Pastoral Care of the German archdiocese of Freiburg published a paper entitled "Recommendations for Pastoral Ministry" (RPM). The paper received special attention because Freiburg's archbishop, Robert Zollitsch, is chairman of the German Bishops' Conference.

RPM states that civilly divorced and "remarried" Catholics may return to Holy Communion if they do so following "a decision taken responsibly and according to [their] conscience." Such a decision must include: [1] a reasonable judgment that there is no real possibility of reuniting with their original spouse; [2] sincere repentance for any wrongdoing that contributed to the first union's breakdown; [3] a resolve to enter the second union with a "new moral responsibility".

Within a day of the paper's publication, Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, put the brakes on the Freiburg initiative saying publicly - but without explicitly mentioning the Freiburg paper - that "offering special pastoral solutions by individuals or local offices can risk causing confusion."

The influential canon lawyer, Rev. James A. Coriden, co-editor of the "New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law", repeats the conscience argument. In a 2011 essay in the journal Word and Worship entitled "Divorced and Remarried Catholics: Conscience is Still Decisive," he states that the "personal judgment of conscience plays a key role in this decision [by divorced and civilly remarried Catholics] to return to the sacraments" (89).

Coriden is no fool. He knows very well that his conclusion is inconsistent with the doctrine of the absolute indissolubility of a validly instituted and consummated Christian marriage. His solution, however, is not to drop the argument. Rather, he denies marital indissolubility (see his 2004 essay in Theological Studies entitled "The Indissolubility of Marriage: Reasons to Reconsider").

The most influential formulation of the argument came in July 1993 from three powerful German bishops as a pastoral compromise for divorced and "remarried" German Catholics.

Then archbishop of Freiburg, Oskar Saier, vice president of the German Bishops' conference, together with Bishop (now Cardinal) Karl Lehmann, president of the Bishops' conference and Bishop (now Cardinal) Walter Kasper, one of Germany's most influential theologians, published a pastoral letter and accompanying principles on ministry to divorced and "remarried" Catholics.

They taught that a divorced and "remarried" Catholic could obtain admission to the Eucharist if following "a personal review of . . . conscience" he became "convinced his approaching the holy eucharist can be justified before God." The German bishops specified eight criteria to guide the decision-making and mandated the participation of a priest in the process. The bishops offered their guidelines to all divorced and "remarried" Catholics, including those in sexually intimate second relationships, even when their first unions were unquestioningly sacramental having been validly ratified and consummated and their first spouse was still alive.

The traditional norm articulated

In response to the German initiative, Cardinal Ratzinger, in 1994 published two documents on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (document 1 and document 2). In the first, he states that the traditional prohibition stems from the indissoluble nature of marriage as established by God and testified to by Christ himself. The Church has no discretionary authority over divinely established norms and cannot sanction pastoral practices that contradict them. He then writes:

In other words, if the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.

In the second, Ratzinger asserts plainly that "members of the faithful who live together as husband and wife with persons other than their legitimate spouses may not receive Holy Communion." He then states: "Should they judge it possible to do so, pastors and confessors...have the serious duty to admonish them that such a judgment of conscience openly contradicts the Church's teaching."

The conscience argument was most recently rejected - and the traditional norm restated - by the Prefect of the CDF, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, in response to speculation that the Church might change its teaching. On October 23, 2013, in an article published in the Vatican newspaper, L'Oservatore Romano, Müller writes:

It is frequently suggested that remarried divorcees should be allowed to decide for themselves, according to their conscience, whether or not to present themselves for holy communion. This argument, based on a problematical concept of "conscience", was rejected by…the CDF in 1994… If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals. Marriage is not simply about the relationship of two people to God, it is also a reality of the Church, a sacrament, and it is not for the individuals concerned to decide on its validity, but rather for the Church, into which the individuals are incorporated by faith and baptism.

He then quotes a 1998 address by Cardinal Ratzinger:

If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception.


The authority, continuity and clarity with which the traditional norm has been repeated (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Familiaris Consortio, no. 84) establish the doctrinal conditions for a clear reassertion of the norm by Pope Francis and the synod next year. This alone will not solve the pastoral problems raised by the large numbers of couples in irregular unions. But neither will flirting with pastoral solutions that contradict divinely established norms. As Pope Benedict XVI taught us so clearly, caritas and veritas must never be separated.