Back to Forum

An Air of Change: Reception of the Eucharist for the Divorced and Civilly Remarried?

By: William Mattison III

In the months leading up to the 1968 promulgation of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, there was a sense in the air of imminent change in the Catholic Church on the teaching pertaining to the regulation of births. This sense was further fueled by the tabling of the topic in Vatican II, and the leaked news that the commission appointed by Paul VI to examine this issue would issue a (non-unanimous) recommendation that contraception could indeed be at times permissible in marriage.  In the past several months in the U.S. a comparable sense of anticipation is in the air.  The issue today concerns reception of the Eucharist for Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried.  This sense is precipitated by Pope Francis’ reference to the Eastern practice of oikonimia regarding Eucharist during his July 2013 interview returning from World Youth Day, and by Cardinal Walter Kasper’s introductory speech on the family given to the cardinals at their February consistory. 

 In 1994 a group of three German Bishops, including then Bishop Kasper, issued a pastoral letter outlining circumstances whereby a divorced person may in good conscience and with sufficient diligence approach the table of the Lord to receive Holy Communion if :  a) the first marriage was in fact null despite no such tribunal declaration or b) the first marriage had indeed been dissolved rendering one free to remarry. 

             Months later, the CDF under then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued a statement that clearly rejected the German Bishops’ proposal.  Its strongest refutation was against the reliance on individual conscience to make determinations on essentially public matters such as marriage as it re-affirmed current practice as proper to the Church’s teaching on indissolubility. 

             So, what can we expect in the coming years? We should not expect any change in Catholic practice on the basis of individual determinations of conscience since marriage is an essentially public matter (one’s conscience cannot determine that one’s civil marriage is over, legal action is required).  Yet whatever will be decided about ongoing Catholic practice, we can hope for careful thinking on the sacramental bond of marriage. 

Fundamentally, three arguments govern why divorced and civilly remarried Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist.  First, there is the matter of whether one in mortal sin can receive Holy Communion.  Based on Christ’s teaching on remarriage constituting adultery (e.g., Mk 10:11), this more general norm would generally apply although it is not commonly taught despite its evident applicability (cf, Familiaris consortio 84 or Catechism 1650).  Second, there is a legitimate concern for scandal here, lest it seem the Church does not take Christ’s teaching on indissolubility seriously.  Third, to cite John Paul II, “[the divorced remarried] 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 his church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist” (FC 84).  This claim points to something about the sacramental bond of marriage that is distinctively evocative of the union with Christ and his Church, and since this is also true of the Eucharist, the divorced and civilly remarried cannot receive the Eucharist. Since it relies on a vision of the sacramental bond, this last argument provides an occasion for more careful thinking about this topic. 

             Am I suggesting that no change will happen? Certainly, we should not expect a quick reversal of any current practice, though further reflection on the sacramental bond could conceivably lead to change.  It provides a wonderful occasion for dialogue with the Eastern Church that endeavors to honor the Lord’s words on remarriage and adultery, and allows those who are divorced and remarried to receive the Eucharist. In the East, the marital bond is thought to continue beyond death; in cases of remarriage after the death of a spouse, the possibility of more than one sacramental marital bond is conceivable and does not preclude reception of the Eucharist.  Similarly, embracing the Eastern practice of oikonomia, the Church could recognize that a failed marriage has indeed already dissolved due to human brokenness, rendering one free to remarry and receive Communion.

 One lesson that everyone can agree on since Humanae Vitae is that these and other matter require careful reflection and clear teaching by the Church.  The upcoming Synod on the Family presents an occasion for the Church to reflect carefully on this and other difficult pastoral issues.