What does the Church actually teach on the topic of Holy Communion and remarried-divorcees? Fr. Knittel gives some clear answers.
In the current state of confusion on the issue of remarried divorcees, we offer from DICI, this article by Fr. Francois Knittel, taken from the August 2011 edition of Strasbourg priory’s newsletter, La Lettre de St-Florent [St. Florentius’ Letter]. This clear reminder of Church doctrine has the merit of clarifying what some choose to make obscure.
Communion for remarried divorcees?
The doctrinal crisis the Church is currently experiencing can be observed and measured on two levels. It is manifest first in the new general directions of the Second Vatican Council (religious liberty, ecumenism and collegiality) as well as in the liturgical reform of 1969. But it is also manifest on a concrete level in daily life when issues such the ordination of women, the lawfulness of contraception, the burial of suicides or the cremated, the personal character of the sacrament of Penance, etc., are called back into question.
Communion for remarried divorcees enters into the second category, as witnessed by the numerous interventions by Rome on this theme during the last 30 years.
After listing several arguments of activists in favor of Communion for the remarried and divorced, we will examine the crux of the question, before ending by responding to these arguments.
Arguments in favour of allowing the divorced and remarried to receive Communion refer 1) to the example of Christ, 2) to the teachings of St. Paul and 3) to the discipline of the Church.
- The Evangelists tell us that during Christ’s life on earth, He accepted to eat with sinners (Matthew 9:11), allowed Himself to be approached by a sinner during a meal (Luke 7:37) and spoke with the Samaritan woman who lived with a man who was not her husband (John 4:9; 18-27). It is surely contradictory that the Church should push remarried divorcees away from Christ by refusing them Communion.
- St. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for the divisions appearing in their brotherly agapes, “and one indeed is hungry and another is drunk” (I Cor. 11:20). Is it not contradictory to have invited people to a meal (here, the Eucharist) and not to let them take part (here, to receive Communion)?
- The Church discipline that deprived publicly recognized sinners of ecclesiastical burial (1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1240, paragraph 1, 6) was changed by decree of the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith on September 20, 1973, stipulating, ”Funerals will not be forbidden for public sinners if they have given any signs of repentance before death and if there is no public scandal for the rest of the faithful.” Is it not then possible to change the discipline of Eucharistic communion in the same way, in favour of remarried divorcees?
The teaching of the Church
Baptism and Penance are called sacraments of the dead, because they establish or re-establish the life of grace in the recipient. The other sacraments are called sacraments of the living, because they increase grace in someone already in a state of grace.
The end of the sacraments is to give or increase grace in the recipient. The sacrament of the Eucharist allows the communicant not only to receive grace, but also the Author of all grace.
The Eucharist is therefore a sacrament of the living that requires the one who receives it to be in a state of grace that he may also receive Christ. Such is the first condition for receiving this sacrament worthily and fruitfully.
The warning of St. Paul to the Corinthians emphasizes this condition:
Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord." (I Cor. 11:27–29).
Do remarried divorcees satisfy these conditions for worthiness?
The Gospel records Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage:
For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife. And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (…) And he saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery." (Mark 10:6–9; 11–12)
In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul compares the union of spouses in marriage with the union of Christ and His Church:
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular love his wife as himself: and let the wife fear her husband." (Ephesians 5:31–32)
Just there is only one Savior, Jesus Christ, and only one Church, the Catholic Church, and their union is indissoluble, so it is with marriage which is one (union of one man and one woman) and indissoluble (union forever).
Remarried divorcees are therefore living in a state opposite to that willed by Christ and explained by St. Paul. This permanent and public state of grave sin makes them unworthy to receive Communion and incapable of receiving its fruits ([Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas], III, q. 80, a. 4). If this state is known, the priest is bound to refuse them Communion publicly (III, q. 80, a. 6). If they succeed in receiving Communion nonetheless, they commit a mortal sin of sacrilege (III, q. 80, a. 4).
In conclusion, let us respond briefly to the arguments set forth at the beginning.
- The contact with sinners that Christ authorizes in the Gospels have a very clear purpose: the cure of sinners and a call to conversion (Matthew 9:12–13), the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7:47–48), and the establishment of worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). Certainly, Jesus did not condemn the woman taken in adultery, but He instructed her to sin no more (John 8:11), for “neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers… shall possess the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9)
- Christ instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist and taught the precept of fraternal charity during a meal. The Early Church had maintained the habit of uniting the celebration of the holy mysteries and the fraternal agape. In his reproaches to the Corinthians, St. Paul distinguishes between two kinds of abuse: lack of charity to one’s neighbor during the agapes (I Cor. 11:18–22) and receiving Communion unworthily during Mass (I Cor. 11:27–29).
- By denying ecclesiastical burial to remarried divorcees, the Church intended to emphasize their public state of mortal sin—a state that is in no way modified, improved, or corrected by the prayer of the Church—and contrast it with the sanctity of Christian marriage. The recent change of this disciplinary measure in no way changes the minimum requirements for a fruitful Communion, but it illustrates the relationship between relaxing discipline and questioning doctrine.
Fr. Francois Knittel
(Source: DICI, 3-14-2014)
1 John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, Nov. 22, 1981, no. 84; Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, Dec. 2 1984, no. 34; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992, no. 1650; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to bishops on the access to Eucharistic Communion on the part of divorced and remarried faithful, 14 Sept. 1994; Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Declaration on Communion for the divorced and remarried, June 24, 2000; Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, Feb. 22 2007, no. 29.