A question on divorce and excommunication

A question on divorce and excommunication January 16, 2015

Updated 01/17/2015

I have a quick question on divorce and excommunication:  was it ever the case in the United States that Catholics who obtained a civil divorce were excommunicated?  I am not talking about barring from communion those who are divorced and then remarry outside the Church.  Rather, was the act of getting a civil divorce itself ever grounds for being barred from communion?

This seems to be a simple question, but I have wasted a large chunk of the afternoon trying to find an answer, to no avail.  Clearly, there is a deep seated perception that this was/is the case:  dozens of marriage tribunals and ministries to divorced Catholics in dioceses across the US have published emphatic statements that  being divorced does not mean you are excommunicated.  However, to complicate matters, at least one such site said Catholics “are no longer exommunicated” for getting a divorce, implying that at one time they were.   Moreover, it is fairly easy to find testimony from people talking about how they or their parents were driven out of their parish Church because of a divorce—if not formally excommunicated, then practically so.   But again, this may have been social shunning rather than actually being barred from the sacraments.

I found one note that said that the Council of Baltimore in the 1840s imposed this penalty, but then the bishops revoked it in the 1880s.  And I have seen several contradictory statements about some action by the USCCB (or the Pope at their behest) in 1977.

Since this is no longer the case, this may be a minor point.  But I cannot help but feel that I need to understand the history and context of our treatment of those who have gotten divorced in order to better understand the pastoral reality we are facing today.  So please, help me out here, preferably with some solid references.

Coda:  part of the reason I got thinking about this was that Sandro Magister published an excerpt from an article by a Catholic biblical scholar, Guido Innocenzo Gargano, re-examining Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew’s Gospel.  The argument is too long to summarize, but I recommend that you read his translation here.  (He also provides a link to the full article, unfortunately in Italian.)

According to the article cited below (available behind a paywall at JSTOR) the divorced and civilly remarried were excommunicated in America between 1884 and 1977.  This penalty only applied in the United States:

In 1884, American bishops at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, becoming increasingly alarmed at the rising American divorce rate, decreed that any American Catholic who remarried after a civil divorce was automatically excommunicated from the Church. The Decree read in part:

it clearly appears that a most serious guilt attaches to those who seek to dissolve their marriages by appeal to the civil authorities, or, what is worse, obtain a civil divorce and attempt a new marriage,in spite of the lawful bond which still exists in the sight of God and His Church.To punish these crimes,we decree that an automatic excommunication be automatically incurred by those who attempt a new marriage after divorce.
In 1886, papal approval was granted and this decree was instituted only in the United States; no where else did Catholics have such a severe penalty placed upon them for remarriage.

The author goes on to note that the decree was widely misunderstood by both laity and pastors as imposing excommunication on those who got a civil divorce, even if they did not remarry.  Further, the Church itself seemed to encourage the ostracizing of those who got a divorce. (See footnote 25; it is unclear to what extent this applied to those who only divorced as opposed to those who divorced and remarried.)

This historical information is to provide context for a sociological analysis of annulment rates in the US.  One interesting statistic emerged:  while America has a higher divorce rate for Catholics, it has a lower remarriage rate than other countries with substantial Catholic populations and liberal divorce laws.  Further, American Catholics who do remarry are much more likely to seek an annulment.  (See Table 2.) There are several possible interpretations of this statistic:  the most optimistic is that it suggests a deeper appreciation of the sacramental nature of marriage.  The author, on the other hand, posits that this is a legacy of the greater stigma associated with divorce and remarriage due to the excommunication decree.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!