The issue of divorce can be a source of confusion and pain for many Catholics
By Father Cal Christiansen
Q: My husband and I recently divorced after 23 years of marriage. After being married in the Catholic Church our relationship started out strong, but as the years went by we became estranged and lived as strangers in the same house. We decided to divorce each other last year. I heard that the church teaches that divorced Catholics should not receive Communion. Is this true?
A: Thank you for your excellent — and difficult — question! Recent studies on marriage show that, while their rates of divorce are significant, U.S. Catholics are less likely to divorce than people of other religious affiliations. But divorce does present the church with a significant challenge. More than 11 million divorced Catholics like you — about 28 percent of those Catholics who have ever married — are in need of the church’s pastoral outreach.
Msgr. Richard Albert distributes Communion during Marquette University's Mission Week Mass at the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee Feb. 6, 2013. (CNS photo/Juan C. Medina, Catholic Herald)
Getting back to your question, the quick answer is yes they can. The obstacles preventing a divorced individual from receiving holy Communion — such as serious/mortal sin or excommunication — apply to all Catholics. The act of divorce does not by itself prevent an individual from receiving the Eucharist.
A more difficult question
Your question, however, opens the door to a more difficult and sensitive one, where much of the confusion lies. What about divorced and remarried Catholics? While an individual who is divorced may receive Communion, divorced and remarried Catholics must first have their prior marriage declared invalid, unless their prior spouse is deceased.
This admittedly is a difficult teaching of our church because many of our divorced faithful choose to remarry.
To understand this teaching, we first must understand what happens when a sacrament is celebrated. A sacrament is a visible sign of God’s love that forms a permanent spiritual reality. This is easy to understand when we look at the sacraments themselves. Once the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, there is no ritual or rite to turn it back into bread and wine again.
Once someone is baptized or confirmed, there is no way to “unbaptize” or “unconfirm” them. Once a sacrament has been celebrated validly without impediments, a new, permanent and unbreakable spiritual reality is brought into existence.
‘Sealed by God’
The same thing happens within the marriage bond. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “The consent by which the spouses mutually give and receive one another is sealed by God … the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved.”
Once marriage is celebrated validly and consummated, a marriage bond comes to be, a permanent and unbreakable sign of God’s love for us.
That’s why the church teaches that when someone divorces and remarries without first having the prior marriage declared invalid, the original marriage still exists (if both parties are still living). This understanding is based on the words of Jesus himself: “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9)
This perennial teaching was upheld recently by the church when Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, following the consistent teachings of Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and, now, Pope Francis, affirmed that divorced and remarried Catholics whose prior marriages have not been declared invalid or dissolved cannot be admitted to receive Communion.
Recognizing the need for compassion and sensitivity, he also reaffirmed the responsibility of the church and its ministers to reach out pastorally to divorced and remarried individuals, encouraging them and inviting them to participate in the life of the church in other ways.
May God’s blessings be with you today and always!
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