After years of both direct and indirect remarks on the subject, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx issued his most direct statement yet in favor of offering Communion to the divorced-and-remarried.
In an Oct. 14 address to his fellow bishops from around the world, gathered at the Synod in Rome, he said that “we should seriously consider the possibility – based on each individual case and not in a generalizing way – to admit civilly divorced and remarried believers to the sacrament of Penance and Holy Communion."
This should be permitted, he continued, “when the shared life in the canonically valid marriage definitively has failed and the marriage cannot be annulled, the liabilities from this marriage have been resolved, the fault for breaking up the marital lifebond was regretted and the sincere will exists to live the second civil marriage in faith and to educate children in the Faith."
Cardinal Marx’s statement follows years of increased calls from several of the German bishops for a change in the Church’s rules.
The Catholic Church acknowledges that marriage is indissoluble – that is, ended only by death, particularly in marriages between baptized persons, which are sacramental. The Church allows couples to seek an annulment in cases where they do not believe that a true marriage ever existed to begin with, for various reasons including immaturity, psychological illness and deception. However, if a sacramental marriage does exist, it cannot be broken by civil divorce.
Therefore, if a divorced person enters a new civil marriage – unless the Church has declared the nullity of their first union – they are in an adulterous union with their new partner, since they are still sacramentally bound to their original spouse. As a result, they may not receive sacramental Communion, as adultery is a grave sin.
Proposals to allow Communion for the divorced-and-remarried have surfaced numerous times in recent Church history. On at least four separate occasions in the last 50 years, Popes have rejected this idea, saying that the Church cannot change its teaching to go against the nature of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
During his flight last month from Philadelphia back to Rome, Pope Francis told journalists onboard the papal flight that giving Communion to the divorced-and-remarried was an overly simplistic solution to the problem.
The Pope recently announced new procedures to streamline the annulment process, making the process of investigating the nullity of a marriage less timely and costly.
However, Cardinal Marx suggested that the Pope’s actions are not sufficient. Even greater pastoral care from the Church will not prevent divorce, he said and “(t)he new method for determining the nullity of a marriage cannot cover all cases in the right way."
“Often the breakdown of a marriage is neither a result of human immaturity nor a lack of wanting to be married," he said.
The cardinal acknowledged the Church’s understanding of why the divorced-and-remarried are unable to receive Communion.
“The reason given for this is that civilly divorced and remarried believers objectively live in continued adultery and thus in contradiction to what is shown symbolically in the Eucharist, the faithfulness of Christ to his Church," he said.
However, he questioned, “does this response do justice to the situation of those affected? And is this necessary from a theological point of view of the sacrament? Can people who are seen to be in a state of grave sin, really feel that they wholly belong to us?"
Cardinal Marx said that the German bishops in recent months have discussed at length the problem posed by those who have entered into a second civil marriage while still sacramentally bound in their first marriage.
As an example of this discussion, he referenced a “study day" that has come to be known as a “shadow council," organized together with the Swiss and French bishops’ conference, and which advocated an acceptance of homosexual acts, among other things.
“Even if a resumption of the relationship would be possible – usually it is not – the person finds themselves in an objective moral dilemma from which there is no clear moral-theological way out," Cardinal Marx said in his address.
“The advice to refrain from sexual acts in the new relationship not only appears unrealistic to many. It is also questionable whether sexual actions can be judged independent of the lived context."
The cardinal questioned whether sexual acts in the second union “without exception be judged as adultery? Irrespective of an appraisal of the concrete situation?"
He suggested consideration of Communion for the divorced-and-remarried as a solution for the problem.
Numerous bishops have spoken out against this proposal, saying that it violates the clear teaching of the Church and the words of Jesus, who said in Luke 16:18, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery."