It is a recent perception that Spiritual Communion is always beneficial to the divorced and remarried regardless of the state of their souls.
During the 3rd Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 (see Relatio synodi, October 2014, §53), "[s]ome synod fathers maintained that divorced and remarried persons or those living together can have fruitful recourse to a spiritual communion. Others raised the question as to why, then, they cannot have access to sacramental Communion." In subsequent discussions of this matter, both online and in print, certain confusions arose concerning the nature of Spiritual Communion and when/if those who are divorced and civilly remarried can have recourse to it. This brief article clarifies the matter by first looking at what the Church teaches on receiving the Eucharist before discussing when an act of Spiritual Communion may be appropriate.
We begin with the Council of Trent, which explains the tri-fold distinction concerning reception of Holy Communion:
One may receive only sacramentally because they are sinners. Others receive it only spiritually; they are the ones who, receiving in desire the heavenly bread put before them, with a living faith ‘working through love’ (Gal. 5:6), experience its fruit and benefit from it. The third group receive it both sacramentally and spiritually (can. 8); they are the ones who examine and prepare themselves beforehand to approach this divine table, clothed in the wedding garment (cf. Matt. 22:11f ).”
Like all Christians, the divorced and remarried must imperatively be in the state of grace in order to receive Communion both sacramentally and spiritually. If this is not the case, they must first recover the state of grace by going to confession with true contrition.
By establishing a life together and having intimate relations although at least one of them is bound by a valid sacramental marriage, the divorced and remarried enter into a counterfeit marriage. Not satisfied with sinning by adultery in act – which was already reproved by the Old Law (Ex. 20:14) – and in thought – which Jesus Christ sternly blamed (Matt. 5:28) –, they turn this sin into a stable and permanent condition of life. The state of mortal sin that results from this is the consequence that makes it impossible for them to receive the Eucharist worthily, unless they first purify their conscience through the sacrament of Penance.
Contrition – the necessary preliminary to a valid absolution – requires of the divorced and remarried not only sorrow for their past sins, but also the firm purpose to sin no more. Concretely, this means that they must, without delay, put an end to their life together and to their intimate relations, which ordinarily constitute near and free occasions of sin. If they do not accomplish these necessary changes, their contrition is only apparent, the absolution invalid, and the confession sacrilegious. Obviously, partaking of Holy Communion in such a condition would only make their situation worse.
Per se, the divorced and remarried have an obligation to separate, for living together places them in a near and free occasion of sin.
Per accidens, their life together can and must be tolerated when they have grave obligations in justice towards the children born of their union. Although in a near and necessary occasion of sin due to the fact that they live together, they must nonetheless without delay put an end to all intimate relations. Separate bedrooms, which will allow them to live as brother and sister, are an indispensible condition for the absolution of their sins. Making this requirement concrete will appear to them as an unequivocal sign of their return to God and their effective ability to receive His pardon.
If their condition as divorced and remarried is unknown to the community to which they belong, there is nothing to hinder them from receiving Communion publicly. That is to say, their reception of the Eucharist will not cause a public scandal or appear as an affront to faith and morals. However, If this is not the case, the fact that the couple have children together may lead others to believe the couple continues to have intimate relations. In such circumstances, their public reception of Communion may cause scandal and they should therefore be encouraged to make frequent acts of Spiritual Communion. It should be up to the discretion of the couple's priest when and if they should be given Communion privately.
However, this counsel is not suitable for those who are not in the state of grace, either because they continue to live together when they can and must separate, or because they continue to have intimate relations when their life together is tolerated for serious reasons. Indeed, the dispositions of soul required to draw profit from Communion – faith and charity - are identical whether the Communion be spiritual or sacramental. This is confirmed by Fr. Felix Capello, S.J. in his Tractatus Canonico-Moralis: “[H]e who is in mortal sin” must at least “repent in his heart if he wishes to spiritually communicate profitably." This is further supported by Fr. Francis D. Costa, S.S.S., in his study, "Nature and Effects of Spiritual Communion," from the Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America in 1958: "The person [making an act of Spiritual Communion] must be in the state of grace, since this is a necessary condition for Holy Communion, and also because this desire is essentially an act of love of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament."
Even though divorced and remarried couples who have not repented would find no merit in acts of Spiritual Communion, it is still praiseworthy to instill in them an ardent desire for receiving the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist. Such persons should be reminded in charity that they place their immortal souls in grave danger by continuing to live in sin. So long as they persist in their sin, they cannot properly partake of Communion; to do so would place their Salvation in even greater peril.