Chapter 5 - Divorce, Re-Marriage and Holy Communion


When a first marriage of a baptized couple was certainly valid, but ended in separation; and if one or both find themselves in a second union while the first spouse is alive, may they be admitted to receive Holy Communion? The response is "NO" unless the two live as brother and sister and avoid scandal. Peschke II, (1987, pp. 458 ff. and 1993, pp. 488 ff.) misleads readers on this point. So also does a joint pastoral of three German bishops dated 10 July 1993 (see its refutation in HLI Reports, Vol. 12, No. 4, April 1994). Familiaris Consortio (1981) gives the norms to be followed. A response from the Vatican on 14 October 1994 repeats the norms.

A. Brother and sister arrangement solution is possible

The brother and sister arrangement mentioned in Familiaris Consortio No. 84 is realistically possible for those in an irregular situation, if the couple have strong faith and if they receive pastoral and sacramental support. God makes possible what appears impossible to mere human powers.

Church history records that until the tenth century many married men were ordained as deacons, priests, and bishops. Once ordained, they and their wives accepted the obligation to practice continence, to cease sexual intercourse, to live as brother and sister. Christian cultural expectations supported this way of life for the clergy. Several Popes were reared in such families, as were some of the bishops, doctors, and saints. They knew that perfect chastity is possible for a man and woman sharing a common household.

The example of a brother and sister type of celibate life practiced by so many of the clergy during the first ten centuries of Church history commends itself as a possible solution for some couples today; for those especially who live in an invalid union, who have compelling reasons to keep a common household for the education of the children.

Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) advised the married clergy - all of whom were bound to abstain from sexual intercourse - not to live separately from their wives, but to observe perfect continence while living together in a common household. The rule of clerical celibacy stands, he said, following the tradition. He wrote to Anastasius of Thesalonika: "Let no one be deemed apt for the Levitical or priestly dignity or for the supreme dignity of the episcopate if it is found that he has not yet put an end to conjugal pleasure" (PL 54, 672b-673a). To Rusticus of Narbonne (458-459) he wrote in his 18th year as Pope, when he surely knew clerical conditions well:

The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar, for the bishops and for the priests; when they were [still] lay people or lectors they could freely take a wife and beget children. But once they have reached the ranks mentioned above, what had been permitted is no longer so. This is why, in order for their union to change from carnal to spiritual, they must, without sending away their wives, live with them as if they did not have them, so that conjugal love be safeguarded and nuptial activity be ended (quo et salva sit charitas connubiorum et cesset opera nuptiarum; PL 54, 1204; Cochini p. 262).

ST. AMBROSE (333-397) exhorted the clergy of the Church of Vercelli, married and unmarried, to avoid abuses and to observe perfect continence faithfully: "You who have received the grace of the sacred ministry in an integral body and with an incorruptible purity and who are alien to the conjugal community itself know that the ministry must be immune from offense and stain and must not be subjected to any injuries from possible conjugal relations. I did not leave this issue aside for the following reason: in many places that are quite remote, some men who exercise the ministry, even the priesthood, have at times sired children; they try to justify their behavior...Learn, O priest, O deacon ... to present your pure body to the celebration of the mysteries" (PL 16, 104b-5a; Cochini p. 236). Though fully aware of abuses, Ambrose was not at all disposed to change the discipline then in place.

ST. AUGUSTINE (354-430) wrote to Pollentius in 419 that lay husbands, separated from their wives by force of circumstances, have a duty to remain chaste; they have as models the very large number of clerics who were drafted into the clerical state unwillingly (inviti), and thereby constrained to live in perfect continence, renouncing conjugal intercourse with their wives; he remembered how Ambrose had been elected suddenly as bishop, and how the people of Hippo drafted himself to be their bishop. Just as the clergy, who may be drafted against their will, observe celibacy, so also husbands who are forced to work away from home must likewise be chaste:

That is why we inspire these men ... (and) give them as an example the continence of these clerics who were frequently forced against their wills to carry such a burden. Nevertheless, as soon as they have accepted it, they carry it, faithful to their duty until death. ...If a great number of the Lord's ministers accepted all of a sudden and without warning the yoke imposed on them, in the hope of receiving a more glorious place in Christ's inheritance, how much more should you avoid adultery and embrace continence, for fear, not of shining less in the Kingdom of God, but of burning in the Gehenna of fire" (CSEL 41, 409; Cochini pp. 289-290).

History thus illustrates that for a number of centuries married couples were expected to practice perfect continence after the husband was ordained to the clerical state. This fact suggests that invalidly married couples today, who have reasons to not separate their household and family, should be encouraged to follow the historical model of the once married clergy, by renouncing sexual intercourse. The way is then open for them, provided they also avoid undue scandal, to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. By earnest prayer, with frequent reception of the sacraments, they can do their duties both to the family and to God. Their brother and sister arrangement is a living testimony to the permanence of marriage, and to the power of grace.

If, therefore, couples in invalid marriages approach pastors requesting permission to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion; and if their reasons are plausible, e.g. the education of their children; pastors can prudently encourage them to prove their sincerity and their love for God by adopting together a brother and sister arrangement, while also avoiding scandal to members of the parish.

B. Doctrine as presented in Familiaris Consortio

The 1980 Synod of Bishops dealt with this pastoral problem at length, and Pope John II promulgated pastoral directives which are to be followed. The passage in Familiaris Consortio, No. 84 which is quoted here at length, explains the guidelines in force, and the doctrinal and pastoral reasons why they must be followed.

Divorced persons who have re-married

Daily experience unfortunately shows that people who have obtained a divorce usually intend to enter into a new union, obviously not with a Catholic religious ceremony. Since this is an evil, like the others, and is affecting more and more Catholics, the problem must be faced with resolution and without delay. The Synod Fathers studied it expressly. The Church, which was set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptized, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage. The Church will therefore make untiring efforts to put at their disposal her means of salvation.

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share her life. 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 in favor 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. Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope.

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have re-married. 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.

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 can not 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" (Note 180).

Similarly, the respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful, forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who re-marry. Such ceremonies would give the impression of the celebration of a new sacramentally valid marriage, and would thus lead people into error concerning the indissolubility of a validly contracted marriage.

By acting in this way, the Church professes her own fidelity to Christ and to his truth. At the same time she shows motherly concern for these children of hers, specially those who, through no fault of their own, have been abandoned by their legitimate partner.

With firm confidence she believes that those who have rejected the Lord's command and are still living in this state will be able to obtain from God the grace of conversion and salvation, provided that they have persevered in prayer, penance, and charity.

To this we can add that couples who live in an illicit union for the sake of upbringing children, who continue to participate in Holy Mass and prayer as described above, but abstain in the meantime from the Holy Eucharist and Penance, give an extraordinary and holy witness to the indissolubility of marriage, and to the holiness of the Church. As Pope John Paul II said to the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 29 September 1993), quoting Familiaris Consortio No. 20:

To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples...In a humble and courageous manner, they perform the role committed to them of being in the world a `sign' - a small and precious sign, sometimes also subjected to temptation, but always renewed - of the unfailing fidelity with which God and Jesus Christ love each and every human being.

We might add that when couples truly marry in the Church, they commit themselves to each other for life, "until death do us part." This lifelong commitment of fidelity is a very precious gift which couples value immensely. Were the Church to permit the divorced to re-marry, she would thereby rob marriage of this precious solidarity of an unbreakable lifetime commitment, and so deprive couples of this great joy and confidence in the permanence of their marriage.

The Church, commissioned by Christ, does the great service to marriage partners of cementing their lifetime commitment by never allowing the divorced to re-marry, and by refusing to administer the sacraments to those who break this law, unless they repent of their disobedience to God who made marriage permanent from the beginning, and their disobedience to Christ who restored this permanence and sanctified it by raising marriage to be a sacrament in which He joins the conjugal union with His saving power and grace.

Couples in Invalid Marriages Should Continue to Live as Members of the Church

In the General Audience of 10 August 1994 Pope John Paul II advised pastors to care for Catholics in irregular situations with great solicitude:

Today there are many other cases of people on their own, to whom the Church cannot fail to show sensitivity and concern. First of all there are the "separated" and "divorced" to whom I devoted special attention in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (cf. No. 83). Then there are "unwed mothers" who are subject to particular moral, financial, and social difficulties. I would like to say to all these people that whatever their personal responsibility for the tragic situation they are in, they continue to belong to the Church. Pastors, who know about their trials, should not abandon them to themselves; on the contrary, they should do all they can to help and comfort them, and to make them still feel part of Christ's flock. Even when the Church cannot allow practices that would contradict the demands of truth and the common good of families and society itself, she should never give up loving, understanding and being close to all those in difficulty.

The Pope then has warm words of courage for parents of broken marriages who do not re-marry and do the best they can to educate their children:

The Church feels particularly close to people with a broken marriage in their past, who persevere in fidelity, forgoing a second marriage, and devoting themselves as best they can to raising their children. It would be impossible for the Church and the Pope not to praise them for their beautiful witness of Christian consistency, lived generously in the midst of trial.

The Austrian Conference of Bishops declared, on 30 March 1988, that it is indeed very meaningful and profitable for these invalidly re-married couples to keep up their participation in the life of the Church while abstaining from the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion:

The Pope also stressed that the NO of the Church to reception of the sacraments by remarried couples after divorce is not an expression of a lack of compassion; it is rather a defense of fidelity and love for the indissolubility of marriage. These Christians are by no means shut out of the Church; much concern and love must be showered upon them. As Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized, "For them access remains open to plenteous opportunity for communion with the Word of God, for participation in the prayer life of the Church, in the Sacrifice of the Mass (which is also a real participation in the Eucharistic Mystery even without sacramental Communion); also for participation in charitable works of the Church and in her endeavors for more justice in the world; the vocation to work for their children as bearers of the Gospel message provides them with an important mission; they can and should take part in penitential reflections and acts, which are a part of the basic Christian and ecclesiastical existence" (Letter to priests, deacons and pastoral workers, II, 3).

C. Pastors: helping those in irregular situations

Pastors must do their best to thus give courage to divorced and re-married couples who do not agree to live continently as brother and sister, to continue to come to Mass, to be a part of the community, to nourish their faith and hope. God cannot fail to lend an ear to their earnest efforts and to help them. For by their faith, their prayers, and their public obedience to the ruling of the Church to refrain from Holy Communion, they give witness to God, to the Church, and to their fellow parishioners, that marriage is permanent, until death; and that they trust that God will be merciful to them if they keep their faith intact, and will lead them to final repentance and reconciliation with Himself.

Conversion typically has a past history of many steps which led, one by one, toward the final YES to God's entire law. The Prodigal Son returned only after he had taken the time, during his sad experiences, to reflect about the benefits of peace in his former home. Pastors should encourage all re-married couples to practice their faith, to pray, to hope, to do works of charity; and to keep in their hearts the kind of nostalgia which finally led the Prodigal Son to complete conversion.

These Catholics, living now in a sinful situation, are permanently marked as children of God with the seal of Baptism. The same is true of couples who come to Mass but refrain from Holy Communion because they continue to practice contraception (see other chapter). They are part of the chosen people of God, as were the sinful sons of Jacob, the ones who decided to murder their brother Joseph, but eventually sold him into slavery instead. The Book of Genesis reveals the mystery of God's faithfulness to these inheritors of the covenant who were very great sinners. God did not give up on them, but neither did He splash whitewash over their sin. By no means did God abandon them from His love, but neither was He satisfied until He had helped them see the evil of their past action and repent for it. The Bible sets the record straight for all times to come. Genesis tells how the brothers had wickedly sold Joseph as a slave; but behind the scenes God was really sending Joseph down to Egypt for a good purpose. He turned their evil design into a perfectly good ending. This incredible action of God is revealed by Joseph who said to his brothers when he was reconciled to them:

"Come close to me." When they had done so, he said, "I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save your lives that God sent me here ahead of you" (Gen 45:4-5).

But Joseph said to them: "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Gen 50:19-20).

The Genesis story about the sons of Jacob is a fine illustration of the ways of God toward His favorite creatures: humans, who are created in His own image and likeness. The Bible does not hide the wickedness of the murderous brothers of Joseph, but makes this quite obvious. Having done so, Genesis teaches expressly that God made good come out of their past evil, when they finally cooperated, goaded by the unravelling events of their later lives. The self-righteous brothers got very rough treatment from Joseph at first, which was a kind of "tough love;" but the stern discipline brought them to their senses. Only then were they reconciled to Joseph and to their own inner selves.

Those in the Church who pretend to be elder brothers of the prodigal son should never forget that we all march as a band of sinners in a pilgrimage headed by the Christ who suffered and died for our sins.

God's favorite design, as seen in the Bible, is drawing the crooked lines we give to Him into beautiful straight lines of goodness. St. Paul writes as much: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom 8:28). This gives us the confidence that sinners who faithfully come to Mass and pray will experience this goodness of God in due time; they can again make good triumph over evil in their lives if they persevere, with the help of their pastors and of a supportive community. Following the rule of the Church, they should faithfully worship as part of the Catholic community, but refrain from Holy Communion while living in their sinful situation.


Titia confesses to you: The Ecclesiastical Court has judged that the invalidity of her first marriage cannot be proven, and that she is not free to marry the man she now lives with. But she knows for sure, despite it all, that her previous marriage was not valid. From what she says, you also become convinced that her re-marriage is in good standing. May you allow her to receive Holy Communion in this action of the internal forum?

Answer: No, you may not allow her to receive Holy Communion. Marriage and attempted re-marriage is not only a matter of the internal forum, between herself and God; it is also a social institution with public effects. What the Church cannot solve in the external forum, any individual priest cannot solve differently in the internal forum. People cannot just make up their own minds about Church discipline, which is necessary for the body of the faithful.

However, as confessor you may present the case to the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, which in some few, rare cases, can issue a declaration of freedom to marry. This is the only "internal forum" solution that is legitimate; all others, though done mistakenly by "compassionate" pastors or confessors, offend doctrine, reason, canonical process, and sound theology. For a fuller treatment, see Msgr. William Smith, "Re-married Divorcees and the Eucharist," originally in The Priest (Australia) Winter/Spring 1993, p. 7., and quoted at the end of this chapter.

For further reading, see Paul Likoudis, "Three Top Theologians Criticize Three Dissenting German Bishops" in The Wanderer, 28 July 1994. See also "Pastoral Ministry to the Divorced and re-married" by Bishop Rene H. Gracida, Bishop of Corpus Christi, Texas, in The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, June 1994.

The Vatican Speaks

On 14 October 1994, the Vatican published a document which again confirmed the ban on receiving Holy Communion by divorced Catholics in invalid marriages. The three German Bishops who had mistakenly allowed some exceptions to the Church's teaching then rescinded their policy.

The Vatican letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul II. It states that:

In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are re-married civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists (Catholic News Service, USA, 14 October 1994).

The document added that the church is concerned to accompany these people in a pastoral manner and invites them to participate in Catholic life insofar as the situation permits. To receive Holy Communion, couples must separate; or if that is not practical because of children etc., they must "take upon themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples."

In the long run, this teaching is a powerful support for the permanence of marriage, and will, hopefully, motivate couples to make those extra needed efforts to hold the marriage together when major difficulties arise.

The following extract is from a contribution by Rev. Msgr. William B. Smith to The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter, Vol. 9, No. 3, June 1986, pp. 16, 17, supplied and republished with permission.

E. Re-married divorcees and the Eucharist

(by Rev. Msgr. William Smith)

Msgr. Smith states: "There are at least four basic objections to the so-called 'internal forum' solution: it is contrary to sound Doctrine, sound Logic, sound Law and sound Theological and Pastoral practice.

1. Doctrinal. It seems to me that what some people pose as 'internal forum' or 'good conscience' solution is precisely what the Council of Trent formally anathematized in Canon 7 of Session 24 (DS. 1807). In particular, there is no shortage of learned studies about precisely what the Fathers of Trent meant by "matrimonii vinculum non posse dissolvi". For example Piet Fransen has written:

"This canon deals only with what the textbooks call 'intrinsic indissolubility' of marriage, namely that a marriage does not ipso facto break up because of adultery, or in terms that come closer to Luther's thought in his De captivitate babylonica, with the fact that the partners decide this question among themselves in their own conscience." P. Fransen, "Divorce on the Grounds of Adultery" in The Future of Marriage As Institution (New Concilium, 55) (NY: Herder and Herder, 1970) p. 96.

Now, allowing as we must for all the needed distinctions and nuances of the famous canon 7 of Trent (especially what did not touch Eastern Orthodoxy), it seems to me what some propose as 'good conscience' solution is precisely what Trent did anathematize. Therefore, such a proposal is contrary to sound Doctrine.

2. Logical. Rev. J.T. Catoir has written: "The presumption for the validity of the first marriage may be wrong. He then counsels the following question via internal forum to resolve the fact. Do you feel you are living in sin? Do you understand your present marriage is an adulterous one? If the concerned person has studied the statements of the Church, reviewed his life situation with a priest, struggled with the questions involved, and "still has no sense of sin, then he ought not be deprived of the Eucharist." (J.T. Catoir, Catholics & Broken Marriage, Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1979, p. 59)

This is both illogical and rests on a distorted notion of the autonomy of subjective conviction. If the other spouse of the same marriage followed the same process, studied the same statements, asked the same questions, and still had a sense of sin - is it believable to state that she is married to him but he is no longer married to her?

It is simply illogical to confuse the order of thought and the order of reality. Even if the person is absolutely subjectively convinced - in 'sincere' or 'good' conscience - that will not unmake or dissolve the ontological status of the marriage bond.

3. Canonical. Canon 1420, 1 denotes the Judicial Vicar or Officialis, Canon 14251, 1, b, 'bond of marriage' - among those cases reserved to a collegiate tribunal.

Some advocates of so-called 'internal forum' solution limit their application to those cases that were introduced to a proper Tribunal but for some reason were not fulfilled or completed; some others place no such limitations. Nonetheless, it makes no canonical sense to say, in effect (via internal forum) that what the Officialis can not solve in the external forum, any priest can solve in the internal forum.

The response of internal forum advocates will be that they are judging only subjective worthiness to receive the Eucharist, but Marriage is a social sacrament with public effects. One can not pretend to talk about only one aspect of the question as if that were a complete understanding of the whole question.

4. Theological - Pastoral. I would venture to say that few Pontifical documents have ever addressed this cluster of questions with more explicitness than the stated and repeated teachings of Pope John Paul II. In particular, consider Familiaris Consortio:

..."However the Church affirms her practice, which is based on Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have re-married. 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 His Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist... ."

"Similarly, the respect due the Sacrament of Matrimony... , forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who re- marry." Pope John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), No. 84.

The same teaching is repeated in No. 34 of Reconciliatio et Poenitentia (2 December 1984) also by Pope John Paul II. Thus, although this is in concise and hurried form it seems to me that continued proposals about so-called 'good conscience' solutions are contrary to sound Doctrine, sound Logic, sound Law and sound Theological and Pastoral practice. To continue to suggest this possibility, while the highest authorities of the Church preclude it, is pastorally irresponsible in the extreme - since it offers a false hope to troubled persons which cannot be fulfilled.

Msgr. Smith is careful to use the term 'correct' in regard to formation of conscience; Fr. John Hosie, SM oft quoted in the Frontline article as a prominent local proponent of this so-called "internal forum solution", prefers the term 'good'. In this context, the word 'correct' refers directly to the objective truth of an act while the word 'good' refers directly to the subjective sincerity of the agent. This underlines a simple fact: there is no guarantee that, just because people wish to be and do good, they will always act correctly. Moral questions involving conscience contain this as a basic ingredient. It is because personal sincerity about a decision is no guarantee that it is a correct one, that in the formation of a correct conscience one is bound to seek the Church's teaching.

Next Page: Chapter 6 - Natural Family Planning. Ogino's Discovery
1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6, 7 , 8