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Was Early Church Tolerant of Divorce?

February 04, 2017
The sinful woman approaching Christ during a meal (Luke 7:37)

Many argue falsely that following Christ's example of mercy, Penance and Eucharist should not be denied to the divorced & remarried.

The Example of Christ

Objection


The Gospels relate that during His life on earth, Christ accepted to eat with sinners (Matt. 9:11), allowed a sinful woman to approach Him during a meal (Luke 7:37), and conversed with the Samaritan woman who was living with a man who was not her husband (John 4:9,18,27). Now refusing the sacraments to the divorced and remarried amounts to keeping them away from Christ who “will have all men to be saved” (I Tim. 2:4). In keeping with the saying sacramenta propter homines, it would be right to facilitate access to the sacraments for all men, including the divorced and remarried.

Answer


The objective of Christ’s contacts with sinners in the Gospel was to call them to conversion (Matt. 9:12-13), to forgive their sins (Luke 7:47-48) and to establish the cult in spirit and in truth (John 4:23). While Jesus did not condemn the adulteress, He did bid her to sin no more (John 8:11), for “adulterers shall not possess the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 6:9).

The sacraments were instituted for men, but they must receive them with the required dispositions: repentance for sins for the sacraments of the dead1 - including penance – and the state of grace for the sacraments of the living – including the Eucharist. If the divorced and remarried persons do not intend to renounce carnal commerce, they lack these dispositions and the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance cannot be administered to them without a sacrilege.

  • 1. “These two sacraments, Baptism and Penance, are on that account called sacraments of the dead, because they are instituted chiefly to restore to the life of grace the soul dead by sin” (St. Pius X, Catechism, 4th part, ch. 1 §2).
St. Paul preaching the Gospels - Raphael (courtesy Restored Traditions)

St. Paul’s Reproaches to the Corinthians

Objection


St. Paul reproached the Corinthians for their faults against charity in their fraternal agapes, where “one indeed is hungry and another is drunk” (I Cor. 11:21). Now the present discipline maintains the obligation for all faithful to sanctify the Lord’s day by assisting at Mass, but excludes some of them – in particular the divorced and remarried – from communion. This lack of charity is in urgent need of a remedy.

Answer


Christ instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist and taught the precept of fraternal charity during the Last Supper. That is why the early Church kept the habit of combining the celebration of the sacred mysteries with fraternal agapes. In his reproaches to the Corinthians, St. Paul clearly distinguished between those who go against fraternal charity during these agapes (I Cor. 11:18-22) and those who communicate with the wrong dispositions during the liturgy (I Cor. 11:27-29).

While the Church orders all the faithful to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass every Sunday1, she places them under no obligation to receive communion every time. All the faithful are called to unite themselves to the sacrifice of Calvary renewed sacramentally on the altars: some to free themselves of the chains of mortal sin, others to continue to progress in the life of charity. But, without prejudice for the frequent communion encouraged by the Church2, only the faithful in the state of grace can receive the sacrament of the Eucharist fruitfully.

In a previous article, we explained how Church teaching about the conditions for Confession and Communion comes from Christ and the Apostles. They are consequent with the life of charity, God’s life given to us through Baptism, and the promise of eternal beatitude.

  • 1. CJC/1917, canon 1248; CJC/1983, canon 1247.
  • 2. St. Pius X, Decree Sacra tridentina, December 20, 1905; CJC/1917, canon 863.