Dear Father, With the October Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome drawing close, some are saying the Synod may allow the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. I thought this was impossible. Is it?
First of all, we should be clear that the Synod itself doesn’t allow anything. It discusses the issues and it is up to the pope, in his Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod, to decide what to do.
The issue you mention was discussed and it received considerable publicity in the Extraordinary Synod held in October 2014 to prepare for this year’s Ordinary Synod.
In that Synod a number of bishops, among them Cardinal Walter Kasper, argued strongly for giving Communion to the divorced and remarried civilly while others argued equally strongly against it.
What is the Church’s position?
We can begin by going back to the New Testament, where Jesus Christ himself spoke clearly on the question of divorce:
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12).
So a person who has left their spouse and married another is living in a state of adultery with the second person.
From the beginning, the Church has followed this teaching and has not allowed people who are divorced to be remarried in the Church, unless they have a declaration of nullity of their first marriage or their first spouse has died.
As a consequence those who remarry outside the Church are considered to be living in a state of sin and cannot be admitted to Holy Communion. This applies both to the previously divorced person and to the new partner.
The Code of Canon Law makes this clear: “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion” (can. 915).
The phrase “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” includes people who are not validly married in the Church, people in a de facto relationship, etc.
If there were any doubt, on 24 June, 2000, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts issued a Declaration clarifying that those who are divorced and remarried outside the Church fall under the prohibition of receiving Communion mentioned in Canon 915.
The Declaration mentions that the prohibition of receiving Communion when one is in a state of grave sin “is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws”.
That is, the Church is not free to change what is already forbidden by God.
Moreover, the matter was raised in the Synod of Bishops which discussed the Eucharist in October 2005. After the Synod Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, clarified that the position of the Church on this question remains unchanged.
Is there nonetheless some way that the divorced and remarried civilly can be admitted to Communion? Yes, there is.
If they cannot obtain a decree of nullity of their first marriage, they must repent of their sins in the sacrament of Penance and show their sorrow by agreeing to live “as brother and sister”, abstaining from sexual relations.
The Instrumentum laboris, or working paper, prepared by the Holy See for this year’s October Synod mentions this possibility in n. 123.
Cardinal Kasper himself, in a recent article in the German theological monthly Stimmen der Zeit, appears to accept this as the way forward.
Each case would have to be considered individually, he says, in order to ascertain full repentance of sin.
Remarried divorcees would undertake a “painful but salutary process of clarification and reorientation after the catastrophe of a divorce in a clarifying discussion process with a confessor”.
The purpose of such a “penitential process” would be for the remarried divorcees to arrive at an honest appraisal of their situation and for the confessor to assess whether they could be granted absolution.
For this they would have to be truly repentant: “The Sacrament of Reconciliation naturally includes repentance and the will to live according to the Gospel values in the new situation,” he points out. That is, the couple would have to be prepared to live as brother and sister. Let us pray that many will accept this solution.