Catholic Teaching on Marriage and Communion is Unambiguous

The Church teaching that the divorced and civilly remarried may not receive Holy Communion remains unchanged.

Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929), “The Last Supper”
Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852–1929), “The Last Supper” (photo: Public Domain)

I have received, from many of God’s faithful, requests for advice on how to understand the growing storm in the Church on the subject of marriage — and in particular on the subject of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. There are theologians and canonists who are better able to speak to the details and to the possible scenarios if Pope Francis continues to remain silent on this matter, but as a pastor of souls I feel that I must provide an answer.

First, I want to affirm my support for the cardinals (Walter Brandmüller, Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, and Joachim Meisner) who sent five questions (called dubia) to Pope Francis requesting clarification on some key parts of his post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. They have a right and the duty to ask for clarification, and the Pope has a pastoral duty to respond. As of this writing, he has not done so.

In the meantime, I feel I must give answers to the faithful who seek advice; they are both puzzled and alarmed by what they have heard. Some seek to understand the story itself and what might eventually happen. Will there be a schism? Will the teaching be changed? Can it be changed? Why does one diocese (e.g., Philadelphia) have a policy so different from another (e.g., San Diego)? Why all the ugly talk from Roman officials toward other cardinals and bishops?

I cannot answer all of those questions, but I feel compelled to respond to the one most pertinent to the moral lives of the faithful to whom I speak: Does the Church now permit the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion under certain circumstances?

Despite what others may have said, I must answer, “No.” Amoris Laetitia contains ambiguities; but ambiguities, even if written by a pope, cannot overrule the clear, certain, and unambiguous teaching of the Church.

What follows is a further explanation of my answer. Please remember that I am a pastor, not a canon lawyer. Do not expect a detailed discussion of technicalities. I speak to ordinary people to assure them that the teaching of the Church remains clear despite any ambiguities some may have introduced or wish to emphasize.

The Church teaching that the divorced and civilly remarried may not receive Holy Communion remains unchanged for the following reasons:

I. The Lord Jesus said, I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, (unless the marriage is unlawful), and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:9). Whoever leaves a valid marriage and takes up with another is objectively in a state of ongoing adultery. These are the words, not just of a Church Council, but of Jesus Christ Himself—words that He repeated often (Mat 5:32; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).

II. Adultery is enumerated among the most serious of sins due to the Lord’s teaching and its place among the Ten Commandments. Further, Sacred Tradition has entertained no doubts that even a single act of adultery is a grave matter.

III. The Holy Spirit says, through St. Paul, So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Cor 11:27-29). Thus, if a person receives Holy Communion while in a state of serious sin, not only does he not profit from it, he brings judgment upon himself.

IV. Historically, the Church has taken the admonition against the unworthy reception of Holy Communion seriously and soberly. The long-standing practice of the Church has been to warn the faithful against the reception of Holy Communion when it is clear that they are in a state of grave (mortal) sin. Confession is essential, along with the firm purpose of amendment necessary for absolution. This has been the clear, unambiguous teaching and practice of the Church from its very earliest days up through modern times.

  1. The Didache (ca. 100 A.D.) says this regarding the reception of Communion: If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.
  2. In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II wrote, The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. 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 (# 84).
  3. In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, Pope John Paul II wrote, The Church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways, not however through the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist until such time as they have attained the required dispositions (#34).
  4. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, The Synod of Bishops confirmed the Church’s practice, based on Sacred Scripture (cf Mk 10:2-12), of not admitting the divorced and remarried to the sacraments. … Yet the divorced and remarried continue to belong to the Church, which accompanies them with special concern and encourages them to live as fully as possible the Christian life through regular participation at Mass, albeit without receiving communion. … When legitimate doubts exist about the validity of the prior sacramental marriage, the necessary investigation must be carried out to establish if these are well-founded. Consequently, there is a need to ensure, in full respect for canon law, the presence of local ecclesiastical tribunals (# 29).
  5. The Catechism says, Today, there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence (# 1650).

V. Recent debates among bishops and cardinals have shown that some wish to change or “soften” the practice and teaching of the Church in this area. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis wrote on this subject in a way that has spread confusion among the faithful and even among trained theologians and bishops (see especially #302-305 and footnote 351). Different dioceses and conferences of bishops have adopted widely varying practices, threatening unity on an important matter. To date, Pope Francis has declined to answer the questions submitted by the four cardinals, which might help to provide clarity.

VI. As a pastor of souls, I cannot allow ambiguous and novel opinions to overrule the clear, certain, and long-standing teaching and practice of the Church from apostolic times. The care and salvation of souls is too important to leave to ambiguous directives or the application of debated and possibly dubious opinions, even if recorded by a pope in a post-synodal report and affirmed by certain bishops and cardinals.

VII. Conclusion. Because the Pope has declined to clarify (as of this writing), my response is to say that whatever ambiguities exist in Amoris Laetitia must be interpreted in the light of the Church’s constant teaching and practice since apostolic times.

Therefore, there is no change whatsoever in the norms and practices in this area, the opinions of certain theologians, bishops, and cardinals notwithstanding. A Catholic who is in an invalid marriage must refrain from receiving Holy Communion. This remains in force unless and until the situation can be adjudicated by the Tribunal of the Church or some external change such as the death of the former spouse or the cessation of conjugal relations occurs. I can say no less.

I cannot read Pope Francis’ mind. I cannot say why he has not addressed the stated ambiguities so as to end the varied interpretations and practices; but what I can say is that an ambiguous teaching cannot overrule certain teaching. I will continue to insist on what is certain and what has been certainly taught for more than two thousand years.