What roles can remarried play in the Church?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Dear Father, If divorced and civilly remarried people cannot be admitted to Communion, in what ways can they be involved in the life of the Church?

The final report of the synod of bishops on marriage held in October 2015 spoke at some length, and very positively, about the involvement in Church life of persons who have been divorced and are now remarried civilly. It did not specify the exact form this involvement might take.

The report contains three paragraphs on the matter. To be sure, these paragraphs received the largest number of negative votes when they were voted on by the synod fathers, because they were seen to be ambiguous.

While the paragraphs did not make express mention of the divorced receiving Communion, some feared they might be interpreted to mean that.

Paragraph 84 of the final report is the most comprehensive on the matter. It reads in part: “The baptised who are divorced and civilly remarried should be better integrated into Christian communities in the various ways possible, avoiding every occasion of scandal. The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral accompaniment, not only so that they know they belong to the Body of Christ which is the Church, but so that they may have a joyous and fruitful experience in it. They are baptised, they are brothers and sisters, the gifts and charisms of the Holy Spirit flow into them for the good of all. Their participation can express itself in various ecclesial services: so the Church must discern which of the various forms of exclusion practised in liturgical, pastoral, educational and institutional life might be overcome. Not only should they not consider themselves excommunicated, but they ought to be able to live and mature as living members of the Church, experiencing her as a mother who also accompanies them, who cares for them with affection, and who encourages them on the way of life and of the Gospel. This integration is also necessary for the care and Christian education of their children, which is the most important consideration. For the Christian community to care for these people does not weaken [the Church’s] faith and its witness to the indissolubility of marriage; rather, in this care the Church properly expresses her charity.”

While the report does not go into specifics as to how the divorced and remarried might be involved in the life of the Church, Pope St John Paul II did mention some specific ways in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (1981), which followed the earlier synod of bishops on the family held in 1980. There he wrote: “The Church, which was set up to lead to salvation all people and especially the baptised, cannot abandon to their own devices those who have been previously bound by sacramental marriage and who have attempted a second marriage. The Church will therefore make untiring efforts to put at their disposal her means of salvation …

“Together with the Synod, I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptised persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life. They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts in favour of justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace (n. 84).”

In practice, the divorced and remarried should be encouraged to pray and do penance, to read the Scriptures, to attend Mass along with their children, to have their children baptised and brought up in the faith, to send their children to a Catholic school if they wish, to participate in works of charity and justice, etc.

On the other hand, for obvious reasons it would not be appropriate for them to be readers in Mass or extraordinary ministers of Communion, although they could certainly be invited to sing in the choir.

A good rule of thumb would be to invite them to assume those roles that could be assumed by a non-Catholic. In general, they should be welcomed into the family of the Church to which they belong and, as St John Paul II concludes the paragraph cited above, “Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope” (n. 84).

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