Is Pope Francis going to let the divorced and remarried receive Communion?

Divorce & Holy Communion: 12 things you need to know
Divorce & Holy Communion: 12 things you need to know (photo: Register Files)

Pope Francis has made a number of statements that the Church needs to reach out pastorally to the divorced and civilly remarried.

This has started a lot of speculation that he may drop the Church’s discipline regarding whether they can receive Holy Communion.

It would be stunning if he did so.

But is he likely to do so?

Here’s are 12 things you should know about why the speculation is overblown . . .


1) What is the Church’s discipline regarding divorce, remarriage, and Holy Communion?

If a person gets divorced, that does not mean that he is unable to receive Communion.

However, if that person then gets married outside of the Church, without an annulment (and/or without a dispensation from the Catholic form of marriage), then the person is not ordinarily able to receive Communion.


2) Why?

Because Jesus taught was emphatic about the permanence of marriage. Simply getting a divorce in the eyes of men does not mean that you aren’t still married in the eyes of God.

Thus, unless special circumstances apply, the person’s first marriage will still be binding and his new marriage will be invalid.

If he’s leading a normal married life (involving sex) then, in Jesus’ own words, he is committing adultery against his former wife.

Don’t take my word on that: CHECK IT OUT. This teaching is from Jesus Christ himself.

Adultery is a grave sin, and any person living in unrepented, unconfessed grave sin is not eligible to receive Holy Communion.


3) What kind of special circumstances would allow a divorced person to remarry and still receive Communion?

Examples include:

·      The first spouse has died, thus dissolving the bond of marriage.

·      The person has received an annulment from the Church, showing that the first marriage was not valid in the first place.

·      The person is willing to live as brother and sister with the new spouse, thus eliminating the problem of adultery.


4) How have some people proposed the Church address this issue?

Some have suggested that there might be ways to allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion anyway. Suggestions include:

·      Letting the parties themselves decide whether they are in good conscience and thus go to Communion.

·      Letting their pastor decide whether they should be allowed to go to Communion, even if they don’t have an annulment and are continuing to have sex.

·      Adopting a practice similar to that of some Eastern non-Catholic Christians, where a second and even a third marriage are allowed, though the first marriage was valid.

·      Just letting them go to Communion as an act of mercy.

The Catholic Church has rejected each of these approaches as a falsification of Jesus’ teaching.


5) Why have some people thought Pope Francis may change the Church’s practice on this matter?

The number of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics today is huge, and there is the question of how best to facilitate their reconciliation with the Church.

Recent popes, including John Paul II and Benedict, have expressed concern regarding this situation and a desire to reach out to those in this situation.

Recent actions of Pope Francis have indicated that he, too, wants to find the best way to help them pastorally:

·      He has acknowledged the problem in interviews and expressed his desire to help such people pastorally.

·      To illustrate one approach that has been tried, he mentioned the Easter non-Catholic practice of allowing second and third marriages, but without saying that the Catholic Church should or might adopt this practice.

·      He has called an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops for next year that will, in part, discuss the pastoral care of such persons.


6) Is there reason to think that the speculation on him changing the Church’s practice is overblown.

Yes. Archbishop Gerhard Muller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has just published a lengthy (4,500+ word) article in the Vatican newspaper which appears to be designed to correct such speculation.

You can read the whole thing HERE. (It's well worth reading.)


7) What does Archbishop Muller say in the piece?

Basically, in a gentle and pastoral way, he firmly and decisively reasserts the Church’s current practice and the reasons for it.

He covers the biblical basis for the Church’s teaching and practice on this subject, as well as its doctrinal history.

In particular, he goes through the options mentioned in question 4 and shows why they are false.


8) Can you give an example of what he says?

Yes. For example, regarding the idea that people should be admitted to Holy Communion just as an act of mercy, he writes:

A further case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy.  Given that Jesus himself showed solidarity with the suffering and poured out his merciful love upon them, mercy is said to be a distinctive quality of true discipleship. 

This is correct, but it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology.  The entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same. 

An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive.  The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. 

If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. 

Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11).  God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. 

Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father.

Good stuff!


9) What do you make of this piece?

I think it’s a deliberate attempt to correct speculation that Pope Francis is going to drop the Church’s discipline on the civilly remarried and Communion.

In particular, I think it’s an attempt to not get expectations up on this point for the forthcoming Extraordinary Synod.


10) Who is Archbishop Muller speaking for, here?

He’s certainly speaking for himself, as the piece carries his name.

However, I strongly suspect that he is, in fact, speaking for Pope Francis. It would be extraordinary for the head of the CDF publishing a piece like this if the Pope were even contemplating a change on this point.

The two men are in significant contact. They have regular meetings (usually on Friday afternoons) to discuss the work of the CDF, and with all the speculation in the press, it would be irresponsible of Muller in the extreme to publish such a piece in the Vatican newspaper (L’Osservatore Romano) without running it past the Pope first.

It is far more likely that the piece was published with the Pope’s blessing and, quite possibly, that it was even written at his instigation.


11) If the Pope wanted to tamp down such speculation, why wouldn’t he do so himself?

We’ve seen it happen before that the CDF has been used to correct press speculation based on what a pope has said.

A prominent case of this happened in the reign of Benedict XVI, after a controversy over condoms got started due to a question Benedict was asked in the interview book Light of the World.

Rather than come out and speak in his own voice, Benedict had the CDF release a 1-page clarification on his behalf.

Given the way that the clarification is written, I suspect that Benedict may have written it himself, though he chose to release it through the CDF to prevent the pope of being put in the position of having to tell the press, “Well, what I really meant was this . . .”

I suspect that basically the same thing happened here: Pope Francis made statements to the press that were ambiguous and that touched off a firestorm of speculation.

To solve the problem, without having to make the correction himself (which would, among other things, harm the positive image he’s trying to build with those distant from the Church), he decided to have the CDF issue a clarification.

Given the way that this clarification is written, though, I don’t think Francis wrote it himself. It has a precise, meticulous character that suggests it was written at the CDF, likely by Muller himself.


12) So what is going to happen with the Church’s approach to the civilly remarried?

It’s a given that the Pope will continue to stress the need to be pastorally close to them and to help them draw closer to the Church.

Benedict XVI did that, and Francis is certain to continue the approach.

We’ll have to wait and see what practical forms this takes, and it will be a major point of discussion at the forthcoming Synod of Bishops, but I would be gobsmacked if the discipline regarding receiving Holy Communion were simply dropped.

That discipline is too closely based on biblical principles and infallible Catholic teaching, and Archbishop Muller’s article seems written precisely in order to communicate that the idea of dropping it is not on the table.

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