Once More On Communion And Divorced-Remarried

Once More On Communion And Divorced-Remarried May 1, 2014

The always-excellent Ross Douthat does me the honor to respond to my post on the issue of communion for the divorced-remarried. (I posted that one Divine Mercy Sunday, which was fitting; today is the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker, make of that what thou wilt.)

I can’t really do Ross’s post justice with a blockquote and I really encourage you to read it in full, but Ross’s argument basically boils down to these few points:

  • Ross reiterates that the position of the Church is one that has been constantly held, is based on Scripture, and so on, which means the Church probably doesn’t have the authority to change it, which is always an unescapable point.
  • The Eucharist may be a “medicine for the weak”, but it’s a “two-dose” medicine that needs to be paired with valid confession, and “if you don’t intend to take some [emphasis his] positive step to separate yourself from a gravely sinful situation or arrangement” you can’t make a valid confession and you should pray instead of communing.
  • There should be an on-the-ground “latitudinarianism”, because indeed “perfect contrition” is drawn in shades of gray, but we shouldn’t change the rule as a result. Not because we’re hypocrites (although Ross recognizes that danger), but because indeed the law of the Church can’t recognize every situation fully and there is still room for one’s conscience.

All of this is fair enough. If you couldn’t tell from my previous post, this is an issue on which I am confused and unsure, and I think Ross has convinced me.

To sort-of try to move this in a productive direction, for me this only highlights–and this was one of the central points of my previous post–the need for spiritual direction for all Catholics.

Because if we’re honest here for a second, we will see that for many, if not most, divorced-remarried Catholics who want to partake in communion really want the Church to affirm their second marriages, which is not only impossible but the product of misplaced pride. But we also know that for many divorced-remarried Catholics, their desire to partake comes from a place of true faith. And many divorced-remarried Catholics are in a sort-of legal netherworld (I think of all those jurisdictions, and there are many, where the length of the annulment process sometimes reaches past a decade) or have other circumstances (a priest on Twitter mentioned adult Catholic converts who are in invalid marriages).

And this latitudinarianism, I think, if it is to become neither utter laissez-faire nor hypocrisy, must take place within the context of spiritual direction. The simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of Catholics aren’t catechized in the Eucharist (indeed, don’t even believe in the Real Presence!). And the simple fact of the matter is that spiritual direction is always great.

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  • James

    The issue of divorced and remarried adult converts is one that should be discussed further, especially considering the number of non-Catholics who entered into marriage fully consenting to what the Catholic Church requires of marriage is virtually nil. The canonical assumption that these marriages are valid (and in the case of non-Catholic Christians, sacramental) is misplaced and simply does not reflect reality.

    RCIA is enough of a deterrent to conversion, no reason to tack on the annulment process to it.

    • In fact, I’d go so far as to say we need an *automatic* annulment for any convert with a previous marriage in another faith.

      • JohnE_o

        Or in no faith at all…

      • Nicholas Haggin

        I’m leery of automatic anything in Church law, although I have reason to be sympathetic to your argument, as a devout member of the parish for which my wife was organist went more than a decade without Communion under such circumstances. Her husband, a convert, was briefly married pre-conversion to a woman who apparently never intended to be faithful or have children, and all but one of the pastors seemed to be unwilling to guide them through the annulment process.

        At the same time, I wonder if we’d need so many conditions on such an annulment that it would be no better than the current system.

        • We already have some automatic things in Canon Law- autoexcommunication is an obvious example, since this entire can’t-take-communion thing falls under that arena of Canon Law, then it seems reasonable to me that both the requirements and the relief become more regulated.

          But then again, as a software engineer, I have a tendency to favor information-heavy solutions combined with quick decisions that become easier with more information.

    • NicholasBeriah Cotta

      It reflected my reality. I was adamant that before I did RCIA, my marriage to my wife was valid-matter of fact I believe the grace imparted had something to do with *our* conversion.
      This proposal of yours if js just about changing for democratic purposes- “reflecting the reality” is about objective truth, not a current reflection of practice.
      I think that the idea that people who are not officially canonically taught about marriage (or whatever else) is a slippery slope that eventually leaves no room for the aboriginal vicar of Christ, (the law in our hearts). Despite not knowing the ins and outs of canon law, we are still responsible for our sins, and whether they are mortal can not be decided by some sort of “level of knowledge of Catholic teaching” requirement. Automatic annulments would be saying something about sin as much as taking care of non-Catholic marriages.

      • James

        The Church generally does not question an ongoing marriage. If the marriage is not valid, convalidation is the solution. It only gets tricky if one party or the other was not free to marry (i.e. was divorced and remarried).

        Society’s definition of marriage is so different than the Church’s one cannot assume that people do have the “law in our hearts” as was once the case. In many, if not most cases of those marrying outside the Church, Canon 1057 would apply should the question of the validity of the marriage come before a tribunal, as the couple was not consenting to what the Catholic Church requires couples consent to before marriage. What is needed is a faster way of applying Canon 1057, or perhaps an expansion of the Pauline Privilege to those married outside the Church and divorced and remarried before conversion.

        Canon Law (the law of the Church, made by men, not the Law of Christ) contains no shortage of absurdities about who the Church does and does not consider to be validly married. Many of these assumptions date from a very different era. Case in point—if a person who was baptized Catholic as a baby but not raised in the faith marries a Protestant in a full Protestant church wedding, the marriage is not valid. However, if two baptized, non-practicing, Protestants get married in Vegas, the Church presumes this to be a sacramental marriage.

    • I think I would tend to agree with that, though I’m not very familiar with those situations.

      • James

        They are very common in areas that not predominately Catholic, specifically the United States.

        In some of the same-sex marriage discussions, I have noticed a considerable difference in cultural assumptions about marriage between the United States and Europe, especially Catholic Europe. In the United States, marriage is legally strictly a private contract between consenting adults. Marital status has minimal connection to family or children. It’s easy to marry and (relatively) easy to divorce. There is considerable cultural pressure to marry, but relatively little stigma against divorce. In Europe, it seems the culture has held to more of the traditional ideas about marriage being oriented toward family and society, even if many Europeans aren’t interested in it.

        What this means is that many in the US have no idea—not even a cultural memory—of the Church’s definition marriage. The ideal is that marriage is lifelong, but divorce is seen as an option if things don’t work out. Many are horrified that the Catholic rite of marriage includes a promise to accept children. Put another way, what they are agreeing to when they marry is often not what the Catholic Church considers to be marriage.

        Put another way, the Church should not hold someone to a lifelong covenant who thought they were entering into a unilaterally dissolvable private contract.

        • Kasoy

          [Put another way, the Church should not hold someone to a lifelong covenant who thought they were entering into a unilaterally dissolvable private contract.]

          In such cases, civil marriage is most suitable and just simply skip Church marriage.

          • James

            Yet if two Protestants—even nominal Protestants—go to Vegas, the Church assumes their marriage is sacramental. Thus the problem with converts.

          • Kasoy

            If non-Catholics like to convert, I suppose they need to understand fully at least the most basic Catholic Church doctrines such as those about Matrimony, Holy Eucharist, and Sacrament of Reconciliation. Basic reading is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) (although sadly, I reckon many young Catholics nowadays have never even read the CCC which is freely available in the internet on many sites eg, http://www.vatican.va)

            If one does not agree with the basic Church doctrines, perhaps it is not advisable to convert.

          • Nicholas Haggin

            For the sake of argument, let’s assume this case, which is quite possible in the United States:

            Two baptized non-Catholics, who are nominal members of a communion which teaches that civil divorce dissolves a marriage, marry but divorce after a relatively short time. The woman then marries another baptized non-Catholic from the same or a similar communion. They settle down and start a family. After several years, they begin a deeper study of Christianity, are convinced of the Church’s claims, and decide to become Catholic. They certainly do not reject the Catholic teaching on marriage; rather, they come to accept it as part of their journey into the Church.

            Canon law presumes the marriage of two baptized non-Catholics to be valid, irrespective of what their previous communion teaches about divorce. Thus, the Church considers the woman’s first marriage valid and second marriage invalid. I think the teachings of the communion from whence someone is converting should affect our assumption of the validity of a previous marriage in such a case.

          • James

            Agreed. That’s the problem with the assumption of validity in a nutshell.

            Holding to the letter of the law, the woman would be required to leave her 2nd husband and children and return to her 1st husband (who has probably moved on himself), or live as brother-and-sister with her 2nd husband. Neither situation makes much sense.

    • ve6

      RCIA is an impediment to conversion certainly.

      • James

        “Holy Week and Easter were so beautiful. How do I become Catholic?”

        “Wait another year. We start classes in the fall.”


  • Kasoy

    As I said in my previous post, those divorced-remarried couples can always resort to spiritual communion if they feel that in their conscience they are worthy to receive Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. By refraining from sacramental communion, they avoid scandalizing some of their fellow parishioners and perhaps even their priest. Young people who know them may get the wrong impression that the Church tolerates these things. And if God see them worthy to receive communion spiritually, He will give them what they desire.

    As a faithful Catholic, I follow what the Church Magisterium proscribe esp in cases of publicly known people who are out of grace (eg, those who publicly support abortion, celebrity couples who live out of marriage). I cannot be a faithful Catholic if I choose to follow only those rules that I agree with and disregard what I do not agree with. This cafeteria Catholicism. Perfect love of God is total obedience to His laws.

    Just like what happened to Jesus, those who cannot fully accept His words left Him. (see John 6)

    [As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him. Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.]

    • JohnMcG

      The specific word that caused those to leave Him was that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and unless we eat of His Flesh and dring of HIs Blood, we shall not have life within us.,

      Asking people to resort to spiritual communion seems to conflict with these words as much as the divorced remarried couple is in conflict with His words on marriage.

      • Kasoy

        Spiritual communion has exactly the same effect as sacramental communion except one does not receive the physical consecrated host. In both cases, one receives the whole Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity of Jesus in his soul. (see The Dialogue of Catherine of Siena for its full exposition)

        It is (as mentioned in the same book) possible to receive spiritual communion many times in a day every time we ask Jesus for it.

        Below is a short prayer for spiritual communion:

        My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You have already come, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.

  • JohnMcG

    One of Ross’s other points was that “on the ground” latitudinarianismm but not officially, because it can lead to scandal. The official laws need to be firm, even if we tolerate some latitude in their application.

    Which is OK as far as it goes, but one modern complexity that I think we have to deal with is that the first step someone may take in their journey back to the Church is to their keyboard to find official documents (with no latitude) rather than to the local priest, who may exercise some mercy.

    This is the converse of the problem that launched this discussion — that when the Pope makes a merciful pastoral decision, it is news and creates a precedent, even if one is not intended.

    It seems that mercy does need to apply somewhat inconsistently, and I’m not sure our modern media world can tolerate such inconsistency. If DM Couple A is admitted to communion, why not DM Couple B?

    I would like to say that we should trust the pastoral decisions of the relevant authorities, but I’m not sure how far that goes.

    • Right, which is why I come back to spiritual direction as the way, imperfect though it is, to square that circle.

      Why is DM Couple A admitted and not DM Couple B? Bc DM Couple A has been in spiritual direction with Fr O’Connor for five years, and he’s decided to give them communion.

      • JohnMcG

        That would be nice, but I’m not sure the type of Catholic inclined to make such a superficial comparison would be willing to accept than explanation.

        And maybe, they wouldn’t accept any explanation, and the type of couple that wouldn’t is probably not the type of couple that should be admitted.

        But I think these type of couples (and their cheerleaders in the press) will always be with us, no matter how much we shore up our catechesis, and I don’t like the idea of presenting them with (what looks like) a closed door.

        But “hypocrisy” (by which I mean inconsistency, not actual hypocrisy), is still one of the only sins we punish. If DM Couple A is white and DM Couple B is not, I don’t think people will fail to notice. Or rich, etc.

        Again, I am open to the possibility that the Holy Father is trying to teach us that we need to extend mercy anyway, and leave these concerns in God’s hands, and I think we would all benefit from seeing the hierarchy’s actions as opportunities for us to learn rather than grade.

        • All fair concerns. I think the thing to remember is that we are dealing in the world of “least bad” options. I don’t think there’s a good one.

  • I think the real problem isn’t with divorced and remarried couples, but with catechesis in general, which has generally been destroyed by modern thinkers.

    If there was more faith in the Real Presence, there’d be a lot less divorce and remarriage to begin with.

    • I definitely agree that lack of faith in the Real Presence is probably the biggest problem facing the Church today.

  • JohnE_o

    As James and Theodore discuss, and Pope Francis reportedly has alluded to, perhaps the solution is to take a look at what the requirements are for a sacramental marriage.

    I’ll use my own situation as an example since I know it best…

    Way back in the day, I was baptized as a youth at the local Protestant/non-denominational church down the road. I couldn’t tell you today what the form used was – Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, if that matters at all.

    Something like 15 years later, I had become agnostic and married a woman – who also did not consider herself a Christian – in a ceremony performed by a friend of ours who called herself a Pagan Priestess and signed off on the civil marriage license using credentials derived from her ordination in the Universal Life Church.

    That marriage ended after a couple of years and life went on for me until I met a wonderful woman who calls herself a lapsed Catholic. She had been previously married in a strictly civil ceremony. That marriage had ended years before I met her.

    Now, if I were to join the Catholic Church and do everything by the book, it is my understanding that my options would be:

    A: Divorce the love of my life and send her from my house so as not to cause scandal. (not gonna happen)

    B: Remain in the same home, but live as brother and sister (and not the ‘Flowers in the Attic’ sort of brother and sister way). Which isn’t going to happen.

    C: Spend a big chunk of time and effort documenting events that happened twenty years ago and attempt to enlist the help of my ex-wife and her family in the process. And, quite frankly, I have no desire to re-open that part of my past.

    I’m open to investigating Catholicism – they have a long history, the people at the church seem nice, its looks like a good way to meet people in the area, and what they teach might even be true.

    But if I have to jump through a long series of hoops AND get in touch with my ex-wife, with no guarantee that my first marriage will be found ‘invalid’, I’m not inclined to start the process in the first place.

    On the other hand – if the rules for determining if my first marriage was invalid were as simple as the ones that apply to my cradle Catholic wife’s first marriage (Civil marriage not consecrated by a Catholic Priest? I’ll just stamp that as ‘not Sacramental’ and you can get on with your business.) – then, sure, I’d fill out that one page form and get it signed off.

    • I have a friend and a fellow Knight of Columbus whose situation is both more difficult and stranger, but since there is no remarriage involved, he can receive the eucharist.

      His wife left him when he was diagnosed, as an adult, with a congenital heart defect. Dealing with the operations since is what led him to the faith. My Canon Lawyer of a Pastor (he really is a Canon Lawyer) has pretty much told him that he *should* seek an annulment anyway, and that spousal abandonment is pretty much a slam dunk. He hasn’t done so due to his illness and due to not really wanting to get married again any time soon.

      • JohnE_o

        Yeah, I’d agree that the thing to do would be to get the paperwork done as early as possible since the more time that passes, the more difficult it is to find the people needed to testify.

        What are the rules on spousal abandonment? The reason my first marriage ended was that my ex left me in order to shack up with someone else.

        • That would certainly qualify as spousal abandonment. I don’t think you even need witnesses for that one. Canon 1151 and 1153 covers it nicely.

          Here’s a very old article on the subject.


        • Kasoy

          Based on what I read in EWTN.com (pls refer to topic on Civilly married couples), your first marriage is not recognized by the Catholic church (ie, you and your 1st wife are not sacramentally married.

          Your 2nd wife’s 1st civil marriage is also not recognized as sacramental marriage either.

          Your 2nd civil marriage to her will also not be recognized by the Church as sacramental.

          As far as the Church is concerned, both you and your 2nd wife are not sacramentally married.

    • There is a big, big problem with the bureaucratic and byzantine way the annulment process is set up.

      Of course, the danger is that if you swing the pendulum too far on the other side, you end up with a hypocritical situation of annulments just being “Catholic divorce.” But I agree the pendulum has swung too far.

      With regard to your own personal situation, I would say a couple things:
      – The Church is made up of sinners and is never going to be perfect. As a matter of fact, your own personal situation is irrelevant to the question of whether the Catholic Church was founded by God and is indwelled by Him. That’s the question I would focus on, through reading and prayer and eucharistic adoration, if I were you.
      – Annulment *declares* that a marriage was invalid, it doesn’t *make* it invalid. Which means if a marriage is invalid, it’s invalid whether it’s been declared that way or not. This is a gray area, but if in all conscience and honesty you sincerely believe that your previous marriages were invalid according to the law of the Church, I think you would be able to partake.

      • JohnE_o

        What I don’t understand is how a civil marriage ceremony presided over by a non-Christian minister, between two people who at the time did not consider themselves Christian, could be a Sacramental marriage.

        • Kasoy

          I think you and your 2nd wife can marry in a Catholic Church as both your previous marriages are not considered as sacramental marriages (see EWTN.com – civilly married couples)

          • JohnE_o

            Yeah, but the paperwork! Oy vey, the paperwork!!!

          • arcadius

            You might not actually need an annulment. I’d discuss this with a priest.