Ignore the misleading headlines: the remarried cannot ‘now receive Communion’

The Church’s teaching has been consistent from the early Church to modern Popes. Last week’s events didn’t change it

Benedict XVI once spoke about the two versions of the Second Vatican Council. There was the “Council of the Fathers” – what Vatican II’s documents taught; but there was also the “Council of the media”, Vatican II as distorted by us journalists. The events of the last week call for an update of Benedict’s distinction. In the teaching of the Church, the remarried cannot take communion without a firm resolve to live “as brother and sister”. But in the teaching of the media – parts of it, anyway – this doctrine can be switched on and off. Last week, Catholic news was dominated by some guidelines authored by the Buenos Aires bishops. These guidelines said that the remarried could receive communion, as long as “in a particular case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability”. (Whether there are any remarried people who do not face such “limitations”, the document did not discuss.) What made it newsworthy was that the Pope wrote them a short letter saying that he admired the guidelines. Robert Royal and Ross Douthathave interesting things to say about the strangeness of the Pope’s letter; also strange was the way in which it was reported. The Church has consistently taught since its first centuries that a remarried person can’t receive Communion if they’re still having sex with their new partner. John Paul II restated this doctrine in Familiaris Consortio, describing it as a teaching, not of his own, but of God’s Church and God’s Bible. In Reconciliatio et paenitentia, he said the Church “can only” follow this practice.
In the CDF’s 1994 Letter to Bishops, publicly approved by John Paul and signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, the practice is referred to as “doctrine” three times; it adds that a change in discipline would be “impossible”, that this is a “constant and universal practice”, which is “binding” and “cannot be modified because of different situations”. In Sacramentum Caritatis, Benedict XVI affirmed this practice as “based on Sacred Scripture” – that is, God gave it to us. This is a teaching of formidable authority. The idea that a Pope could snap his fingers and overturn it – in a private letter which does not even mention the words “communion” or “remarried” – is a fantasy. But the fantasy has been solemnly reported as fact. The Irish Catholic leads its latest issue with a story headlined: “Divorced/remarried Catholics can now receive Communion.” That headline has already earned a deserved backlash on social media. Less alarming, but not by much, are a number of news sources, including Catholic ones, which report the Buenos Aires guidelines without even mentioning what the Church actually teaches. It makes me uncomfortable to bash fellow-journalists. But there are momentous questions involved here: whether confession of grave sin is necessary, or optional; whether we should fear the desecration of the Eucharist; whether the Church’s universal practice matters; whether the breaking of a sacramental marriage is a tragedy or a hiccup. The Church cannot change its teaching on communion for the remarried, not only because of the authority of popes and councils, but because nobody has made a decent case against it. If someone gets sacramentally married, and then has sex with someone other than their spouse, they are breaking a covenant with God which can only be healed by a resolution to amend their life. Some have tried to find a last-ditch justification, by suggesting that the Catholic teaching and practice of the last two millennia has overlooked a theological nuance. A gravely sinful act, they point out, is only a mortal sin if accompanied by full knowledge and full consent. Well, if you live by theological nuance you die by theological nuance, and experts such asDr Josef Seifert and Fr Brian Harrison have given powerful reasons to think this point is irrelevant. The Catholic tradition, says Seifert, has never attributed “a lack of knowledge” to people breaking fundamental precepts of the moral law; nor, says Fr Harrison, has it attributed “a lack of consent” to adults who consciously choose a sinful course of action over a period of time. Even if these distinguished theologians are mistaken, the last-ditch justification still fails. As I have outlined elsewhere, if actually applied, it would lead to a ludicrous situation in which priests were required to judge if their parishioners’ souls were spiritually dead before each Holy Communion. In other words – since no priest would want to apply such an examination – it would lead to the abandonment of Church discipline. The Buenos Aires bishops are (so far) an exception to the rule. The bishops of Poland and Costa Rica have said they’ll stick to the established practice; so have Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, and – in a document released last week – the six bishops of Alberta, Canada. So this can hardly be seen as an outdated doctrine which nobody bothers with any more. Bishops are happy to put it into practice; the laity have raised their voices to defend it. It shouldn’t be too much for the media, now and again, to mention it. By


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  1. Because of sin Jesus died for us, anybody must make and effort to run from it . It is good to tell person the true and live the remaining one for God

  2. What so ever fight they bring to the Holy true House of God, is only for a time. The prophecies must come to pass, but woe unto him through which it passes through. Hold unto your faith, for a time will come that will need it more than the air.

  3. I think…. And think… If this case, only the people who are holy can receive the communion. Where we can find the HOLY MAN on the earth? And how can make them HOLY and how to HELP them HOLY? How we can define the person is HOLY or not before receive communion? Unholy cannot enter the heaven but the question is ‘Where we can find them? I mean, the Holy man?

    • Ben, that is exactly what Divine Mercy is for. God is just, but He is merciful. We only have to acknowledge our faults, confess our sins and avail of the Father’s infinite mercy. No sin is too grave to be unforgiven except for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which is essentially a total rejection of God and His saving grace.

  4. Patrick, it’s the divorcing parents who are denying themselves full union with the community of the Church.
    Choices have consequences, and the choice to follow self interests down the path too divorce carries with it the consequence that, that path also leads away from unity with Christ, His Body, and His Church.
    Teach the kids that God’s laws and God’s ways require us to die to our own desires, so we can remain in union with Him. Christ gave His life, submitting His human desires, to the will of God the Father. And the Bible tells husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the Church.”
    Within the sacred covenant of marriage, men and women are allowed physical union with one another AND with God simultaneously, but breaking that covenant through adultery breaks both unions, which means we are no longer in “Communion” with God. That consequence is a result of the choice to break the covenant, not the choice of an overbearing Church authority.
    Teach the kids about choices and consequences, teach them the faith, and teach them that Heaven and its rewards are worth denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own selfish desires here on earth.

    • No Patrick, I understood your point. You missed mine. God is not evil. God invites us to choose him, in every action of our lives. If we abuse our free will and use it to choose evil, WE are the ones sending ourselves into eternal torment, in exchange for a couple of decades of physical pleasure.
      My point was exactly that parents need to choose to teach their children by word and example, that an eternity in Heaven is worth giving up a few decades of physical gratification on earth.
      Practically, this means one of two things: Either not remarrying if they separate from their spouse, OR giving sacrificially of their own desires while they are still in the marriage so that their desires for their own gratification don’t drive a wedge into the marriage to begin with. People only want divorce as an option when the hardness of their own heart blinds them to their own responsibility in their relationship.
      Parents are supposed to be an example of self-sacrificial love to their children, but if they cannot carry that out in their marriage, they stand little chance of teaching what they do not understand themselves. God is love. He will reveal Himself to any heart open to him. And we are called love Him first and foremost.
      The call to priestly celibacy is voluntary and simply another expression of self-sacrificial love; giving up our own desires, for the love of another, and for God.
      We have natural desires, yes, but God invites us to a share in supernatural joy. “Supernatural” literally means above nature, and to achieve that, we need to raise our expectations of ourselves above giving into natural desires.

      • Ah, but your own example misunderstands the roll of God and us, His children.
        God is the parent who knows how much pain awaits in the lifelong scars and nerve damage of a burn victim, and begs us to trust Him that if we will listen and forgo the temporary thrill of playing with matches, a lifetime of great joy awaits us. But if we choose to ignore Him, and bring the pain and scars upon ourselves, we have robbed ourselves of the life (eternity) of joy He created us for.
        God did not invent Hell. Satan created hell. It’s an absence of God’s presence, which to a soul, is torment, and Satan created it by being the first being who desired separation from God. Christ Himself likened it to Gahenna, the dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem that was burning trash constantly, continuously fueled by the refuse being thrown there, putrid in its odor and therefore confined outside the beautiful city of God. It was an allegory not lost on His audience, the residents of that city.
        There is greater freedom and joy available to us within the Will of God. Anyone who comes to understand who God is, and why He made us, can share in that joy. Converts constantly express the freedom they find when they realize that sin and anxiety are burdens God wants to free us from, and accept God’s Will in their lives.
        We were created for more than this life, and our hearts will remain unrested and anxious until we accept Him. I pray this peace will find you.
        Until then, your words have portrayed a child so intent on the matches, they are blind to anything or anyone else in the beautiful universe around them.
        And creation itself is evidence of its Creator. The most learned, scientific people in history attest to it, from Heisenberg, to Einstein, to Newton, to Lemaitre.
        Werner Heisenberg, Novel Prize winner and the Father of Quantum Mechanics said “The first sip from the cup of the natural sciences will make a person an athiest. But God is waiting there for them at the bottom of the cup.”
        Stay thirsty, my friend.

  5. I have to completely agree with you. I have left the church before because of stuff like this. I felt rejected by my church because I was leaving a bad situation.

  6. What about all the priests that sexually abused children and the church hid them from one parish to another. Allowing them to continue their sorted and sinful ways. They were still allowed to say Mass and give communion. Is their sin forgiven but, a divorced person’s is not? Double standards never sat with me very well.

  7. Jesus said the road to Him is narrow. If one cannot follow that road and abide by His commands then that person better not take the first step. What’s best for the kids? Parents who stay together and really live their Faith.

  8. Here’s a simple solution to avoid this conundrum. DON’T GET A DIVORCE! Marriage is for life. If you’re having marriage problems… WORK IT OUT

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Written by Raphael Benedict

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