Can the divorced receive communion?
Karl Keating: A valid Catholic marriage is binding, even if the couple is divorced . . .
God’s law isn’t invalidated by sloppy theology or hearts in the wrong place. The Church (as did Christ) doesn’t recognize divorce in the ecclesiastical sense. A valid marriage, once made, can’t be undone by a divorce, even if the spouses lose all love for one another.
Although marriage is permanent, the Church also recognizes that at times spouses can’t and shouldn’t live together, perhaps for the good of the children, perhaps for the safety of one of the spouses. In such cases the Church permits spouses to separate or seek civil divorce. But divorce only dissolves the marriage so far as the civil law is concerned. Marriage is a sacrament and is unaffected by a civil determination. Some may speak loosely of Catholic marriages being dissolved by civil divorce proceedings, but that’s sloppy theology. Only death ends a truly sacramental marriage.
Although civil divorce is always undesirable, living together may be even more undesirable. Consider the case of a drunken, abusive husband. The spouses separate, custody and support are fixed by a court — and the marriage continues. Neither spouse is free to marry again.
In the case of an annulment, however, the Church has determined there was no valid marriage in the first place because no valid consent had been given by one party. For a valid, sacramental marriage to take place, both parties must be capable of giving consent — and both then must consent to a life-long commitment and openness to children. If one party participates in the wedding ceremony with no intention to have a lasting marriage or with a refusal to have children, the marriage is invalid from the start, even if the intention is kept secret and the ceremony goes off (excuse the phrase) without a hitch.
No ecclesiastical penalty, such as excommunication, applies to divorced people. If they don’t attempt to remarry and if they are otherwise in a state of grace, they may continue to receive Communion. But if one spouse remarries while the other spouse is still living, the remarrying spouse has actually entered into an adulterous relationship. Since adultery is a grave sin, such a person is barred from Communion. In our society, in which many Catholics know their faith poorly and find themselves in what they may have thought were valid second marriages, the results can be especially difficult to deal with. But we do not deal with tough situations by abandoning God’s sacramental law.
Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 54 and 61 (Ignatius Press, 1995).