Can Divorced and Civilly Remarried Persons Receive Communion?

A Guest Essay
by Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk
Archbishop of Utrecht

This chapter is taken from Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family ©2015 Ignatius Press. It is reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Editor’s Note: Through the gracious assistance of a reader, we were given permission to re-print this text from the so-called “Eleven Cardinals Book”, issued as one guiding response to the Synod on the Family. As the implementation of Amoris Laetitia continues apace, we believe this essay by Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht in the Netherlands remains as relevant as when it was written, if not moreso. We would like to thank the reader (who would prefer to remain anonymous) who sought this permission, as well as Ignatius Press for allowing us to re-print it here for the benefit of our audience.

In the last half century, one of the most heated debates in the Church has concerned the question of whether the divorced and civilly remarried can receive Eucharistic Communion. In a great many parishes in Western Europe, almost all these persons do receive it. Any priest who has the courage to be “mean” and to tell them that they are not properly disposed to receive can expect a very negative, emotional reaction. For the sake of the priests who are courageous enough to say so anyway, and also in the interest of the persons themselves who are involved, bishops have the obligation to bring clarity to this problematic situation from the doctrinal, theological, and pastoral perspective.

Doctrinal approach

In the 1970s, various theologians discussed this problem, without there being any precise pronouncement in this regard by the Magisterium of the Church. Nevertheless, there are loci theologici for this in Sacred Scripture and in the constant tradition of the Church that rule out the admission of the divorced and remarried to Holy Communion.

Jesus himself explicitly forbids repudiating one’s wife and contracting another marriage and describes the latter as adultery (Mt 5:32; 19:9; Mk 10:11–12; Lk 16:18). Saint Paul declares that it is unlawful for either the husband or the wife to separate: “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else be reconciled to her husband) — and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor 7:10–11).

The Eastern Orthodox Churches, which admit the possibility of a second and even of a third marriage of divorced persons, whereby they can receive Eucharistic Communion, see an argument for this practice in an exception that is supposedly found in the Gospel according to Matthew: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity (πορνία), and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9; cf. 5:32). However, does Matthew really allow an exception to the prohibition against divorce and remarriage for a married person whose spouse is guilty of “unchastity”? The question is: What is meant by the expression “unchastity”

with which the Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates the Greek term πορνία (porneia)?

1.) The meaning of the term πορνία is uncertain. It designates illicit sexual behavior, which may include adultery. We cannot jump to the conclusion that the term πορνία means adultery, because the Greek language has a word specifically for that: μοιχεία.

2.) According to the classic Catholic solution, Matthew is not presenting a real exception because the verb απολύω does not refer to divorce in the sense of the dissolution of the marriage that would clear the way for a second marriage. The aforementioned verb refers instead to a separation from bed and the cessation of cohabitation without a second marriage in the case of an adulterous wife. In this interpretation, the clause “except for unchastity” would have to do with the separation from bed and would imply that this is lawful only in the case of a woman guilty of adultery.[1] We should note that the assumption that Jesus here is allowing a second marriage for the divorced person is based on an argumentum ex silentio [argument from silence]: in fact, Jesus does not say explicitly that it is lawful to contract a second marriage after a divorce.

3.) It is most likely that πορνία here is a translation of the Hebrew term zênût, understood as an incestuous union within forbidden degrees of relationship (cf. Lev 18:6–18). In such a case there is in fact no marriage, and a decree of nullity would be required rather than a divorce. Therefore there is no obstacle to a marriage with another person. This use of the term πορνία is comparable to the use made by the Council of Jerusalem (around a.d. 50). The apostles, gathered in a council in Jerusalem, were answering the question of whether Christians of pagan origin must follow the Jewish law: “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity” (Acts 15:28–29; cf. Lev 18:6–18).[2]

Given the uncertainties about the interpretation of the relevant passages in the Gospel of Matthew, the only sure way to proceed is as follows:

1.) They must be interpreted in the light of the other pertinent passages in Sacred Scripture, which allow no exceptions to the indissolubility of marriage.

2.) The authentic, definitive interpretation is up to the Magisterium of the Church.

Except for a few statements—which are not always formulated unambiguously—by some regional councils and various opinions of some Fathers of the Church that are not always consistent with those expressed elsewhere in their writings, the Catholic Church has forbidden divorce and remarriage in her official pronouncements from the fourth century on (Synod of Elvira [300–303]).[3] The Magisterium has always been clear and decisive about the indissolubility of a ratified and consummated marriage and about the absolute prohibition of divorce followed by a new marriage,[4] as is clear from the following list, which does not claim to be complete:

  • Lateran Council III (1179);[5]
  • Council of Trent (1563), canons 6 and 7 on marriage; canon 7 says that marriage cannot be dissolved, even by adultery committed by one of the spouses;[6]
  • Pius VII, Brief Etsi fraternitatis (1803);[7]
  • Leo XIII, Encyclical Arcanum divinae (1880);[8]
  • Vatican Council II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 48;
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 2382, 2384, and 2385.

Contrary to the practice of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, which allow a second and even a third marriage for divorced persons, the Magisterium has always maintained the prohibition of divorce and remarriage, even for Eastern Rite Catholics (Council of Lyon II [1274],[9] Benedict XIV [1743][10]).

The moral object of a sexual relationship within the context of a civil marriage of a divorced and remarried person is ultimately a form of adultery, according to the above-cited words of Jesus himself. Seen in this light, the second civil “marriage” is not, in fact, another marriage, but a form of structured and institutionalized adultery. In 1803, Pius VII described the ratification of a second marriage after a divorce by pastors through their presence and their blessing as a “very serious crime” and a betrayal of their sacred ministry. These second marriages, Pius VII said, “should not be called nuptials, but rather adulterous unions”.[11] According to a longstanding practice of the Church, those guilty of adultery in general cannot receive Eucharistic Communion. The Council of Trent describes adultery as a mortal sin through which the person involved loses the grace of justification already received[12] and is unworthy to receive Communion, unless he or she has repented of the sin, has confessed it, and no longer commits it.[13] From 1981 on, explicit statements that divorced and civilly remarried persons are not to be admitted to Communion have been made by Saint John Paul II (1981),[14] by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1994),[15] and by Benedict XVI (2012).[16] Saint John Paul II used the following language:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.”[17]

The Church’s longstanding practice and repeated pronouncements of the Magisterium that a divorced and civilly remarried person cannot be admitted to Communion are standards indicating that this is an unchangeable doctrine.

Theological approach 

In a report that it issued in 1977, the International Theological Commission says that the fundamental reason why it is impossible for the divorced and remarried to receive communion is the incompatibility of their state of life “with the precept and the mystery of the Paschal love of the Lord”.[18] This is what Saint John Paul II affirmed in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio (84).

There is a fundamental analogy between the relationship of Christ and the Church, on the one hand, and the relationship of two spouses, on the other, as indicated in the Letter to the Ephesians (5:23–32). The heart of the analogy is the fact that in both relationships the parties “mutually give and accept one another”,[19] as stated in canon 1057 §2 (1983 CIC). In both cases, this gift is total, which also implies its definitive and therefore irrevocable character. The totality of the reciprocal gift of the spouses implies that it includes both the spiritual and the material dimension. Therefore, it is not a gift merely on the level of intention or emotion, but also encompasses the physical level, including sexual relations. We see here the importance of a correct, non-dualist anthropology that considers the physical dimension, too, as being intrinsic to the human person.

The Letter to the Ephesians adds that the love of the spouses is taken up into the charity of Christ himself, that is, into the reciprocal giving between him and the Church. The mutual gift between Christ and the Church is made present in the Eucharist, through which we share more intensely in this gift, that is, in his suffering, death, and Resurrection. Adultery—and therefore also a divorce followed by a new civil marriage—violates the totality of the reciprocal gift between spouses at the spiritual, emotional, and physical level and, consequently, is incompatible with the total, reciprocal gift between Christ and the Church, to which the gift of the spouses is analogous and into which it should be taken up. This is the fundamental reason why a divorced and remarried person cannot receive Communion.

We must realize that the question about administering Communion to divorced and civilly remarried persons is not an incidental, secondary matter. If we were to agree that it was, we would also be agreeing that the mutual gift of the spouses did not have to be total, either at the spiritual or at the physical level. Consequently, we would be compelled to change the Church’s doctrine about marriage and sexuality in other areas. In this way we would weaken our essential arguments against adultery in general. The argument against the use of contraceptives is that their obstruction of the gift of maternity and the gift of paternity through the conjugal act makes the spouses’ reciprocal gift and therefore the totality of the gift itself incomplete at the physical level (cf. Familiaris consortio 32). In abandoning the requirement of the totality and reciprocity of the gift, we would have to accept the use of contraceptives. If we were to agree that the reciprocal gift of the spouses did not have to be total and, therefore, that it was lawful to prevent the gift of a new life, we would be compelled to accept also sexual acts that are not directed to procreation at all, such as homosexual acts. The question of whether divorced and civilly remarried persons can receive Communion is intrinsically joined to other questions of marital and sexual morality.

Proposals for pastoral practice 

More than a year ago, a Dutch journalist from a Catholic television station asked me why a divorced and remarried person must not receive Communion. I gave an answer based on the essence of marriage and of the Eucharist as described above. The journalist’s reaction was typical of the present era: “Your Eminence, your answer is clear, but I am not sure I can explain it to my sister.” Apparently he meant a divorced and remarried person. Since I do not know her, I do not dare to evaluate her capacity for understanding or her lack thereof. Nevertheless, there are two obvious possibilities: either his sister does not accept the Church’s doctrine about marriage and the Eucharist, or she knows only that the Church forbids the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, without, however, really knowing the doctrine and, therefore, without understanding the reason behind the prohibition. The latter possibility is the more likely one in a country in which catechesis has been seriously neglected for half a century. In addition, there is the currently prevailing culture of pronounced individualism, which does not accept commonly held ideas or opinions, especially if they are thought to be imposed by an authority.

The solution to the problem of admitting the divorced and remarried to Eucharistic Communion is not primarily in speculating about a possible nullity of marriage because of a faulty knowledge of the faith or a lack of faith per se on the part of those who contracted it. Nor should we seek the solution in a simplification of the procedure for declaring nullity of marriage or in a special penitential process aimed at creating the possibility of receiving Communion without putting an end to the adulterous relationship. In his encyclical Veritatis splendor, Saint John Paul II refutes the misconception that pastoral practice consists of seeking to offer compromises between the Church’s doctrine and complex everyday reality in the form of “so-called ‘pastoral’ solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium” (56). True pastoral ministry means that the pastor leads the persons entrusted to his care to the truth definitively found in Jesus Christ, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” ( Jn 14:6). We must seek the solution to the lack of knowledge and understanding of the faith by transmitting and explaining its foundations more adequately and clearly than we have done in the last half century. The task that Christ has entrusted to us is, indeed, to proclaim the faith. In speaking about the foundations of the faith, we must realize that what has just been described is part of a broader problem. This problem touches on the essential content of the Church’s doctrine on marriage and the Eucharist and also on the meaning of tradition and of the Magisterium. The Church by creating or at least tolerating confusion in this area at the same time creates or tolerates confusion with regard to fundamental questions of the faith. The problem of Communion for the divorced and remarried is therefore one part of a much larger problem.

Based on what has been said so far, it seems to me that it is important to consider the following proposals:

1.) Every couple who present themselves for the sacrament of matrimony must receive thorough preparation, consisting of at least five or as many as ten meetings, which are to provide a clear and effective explanation of the central truths of the Church’s doctrine, especially those truths regarding marriage and sexuality. There are good examples of these Christian marriage preparation courses in some ecclesiastical provinces and some new movements.

2.) Whenever couples present themselves for a marriage in the Church, one should have the courage to ask them explicitly whether they accept the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. When the answer is uncertain or negative, it is necessary to dissuade them from marrying in the Church and, in their own interests, to be more selective in admitting such couples to the sacrament of matrimony. Otherwise, they run the risk of ending up in cohabitation and irregular relationships for which, often, it is not easy to find solutions in keeping with the Church’s doctrine if their marriage fails and they divorce.

The purpose of these proposals is to prevent failed marriages. Another aspect is the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried couples. According to the Church’s doctrine and longstanding practice in this regard, these persons cannot be admitted to Communion or to the sacrament of penance. Nonetheless, they should be invited to participate in the life of the Church and in her liturgical celebrations, to the extent possible within due limits. By using some creativity, ways should be found of assuring them that they are welcome in the Church. One classic bit of advice to persons who cannot receive Communion because of their state of life is generally to make a spiritual communion. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1994[20] and Benedict XVI in 2012[21] recommended this also for the divorced and remarried. This communion does not consist of receiving the Host, and therefore it is accomplished, not materially and corporeally, but rather spiritually by means of silent, interior prayer, with which the person expresses to Jesus faith in his Real Presence in the Eucharist and an ardent desire to receive it. One can make a spiritual communion during celebrations of the Eucharist by a mental prayer, while remaining at one’s place, while the others go forward to receive sacramental Communion. However, even someone who is making only a spiritual communion could come forward with the others to receive a blessing instead of Communion. In Dutch dioceses, during Communion, while obviously allowing also the option of remaining at one’s place and uniting oneself with Christ in silent prayer, all who want to are invited to come forward. Those who cannot receive Communion are asked to come forward with their arms crossed on the breast as a sign of the desire to receive a blessing. In this way it is possible to show all those who cannot receive sacramental Communion that they are welcome. This practice has proved to be an effective way of putting an end to heated, tiresome discussions about the fact that someone who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, especially Protestants who are present at Eucharistic celebrations, cannot receive Holy Communion. The practice just described has dispelled the idea that they are excluded. The same can happen also in the case of divorced and civilly remarried persons. It is necessary to insist on the fact that spiritual communion and/or a blessing are also a source of grace.

One objection often raised is that a person who has the option of making a spiritual communion also has the right to receive sacramental Communion. This objection is based on the presumption that there is no difference between the two. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains this difference, making an analogy between baptism of desire and spiritual communion. The effect of the sacrament can be obtained by receiving it in desire, not in reality. Thus some individuals have been baptized with the baptism of desire. As we said earlier, spiritual communion consists of an ardent desire to receive the Eucharist. In an analogous sense, the effect of the Eucharist can also be obtained by means of a desire to receive this sacrament, although its effect is produced in a more complete way when it is actually received.[22]

Aside from the invitation to participate in liturgical celebrations to the limited extent possible, it is important to offer the divorced and remarried the pastoral care that is offered to all the faithful: personal pastoral accompaniment, the possibility of meetings and personal conversations, and the possibility of participating in the group activities of our parishes. The challenge for pastors is to show that the practice of the faith and participation in the life of the Church are not limited to Eucharistic Communion, although this is “the fount and apex of the whole Christian life”.[23] Besides attendance at Eucharistic celebrations, making a spiritual communion, and receiving a special blessing at them, the divorced and remarried should be encouraged to read and listen to the Word of God, to practice lectio divina, to persevere in prayer, and to perform charitable works—things that ought to nourish and characterize every Christian’s life anyway.



[1] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei lectura, 522 and 1559–60; cf. DH 1327.

[2] Cf. B. T . Viviano, “The Gospel according to Matthew”, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond Edward Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland. E. Murphy (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000), 643.

[3] DH 117.

[4] The idea that the Council of Nicaea (can. 8, DH 127) allows a second marriage after a divorce is based on a misinterpretation. Taken in context, this is a canon against the Novatians and therefore a rejection of their conviction that a second marriage after the death of a husband or of a wife was unlawful.

[5] DH 754–56.

[6] DH 1807.

[7] DH 2705–6.

[8] Leo XIII, Arcanum divinae, February 10, 1880, in ASS 12 (1879–1880): 385–402.

[9] DH 860.

[10] DH 2536.

[11] DH 2706.

[12] Decree on Justification, chap. 15, DH 1544.

[13] Decree on the Sacrament of the Eucharist, chap. 7, DH 1647. Cf. Paul’s statement: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself ” (1 Cor 11:27–29).

[14] John Paul II, apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio (November 22, 1981) (FC), 84.

[15] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful (September 4, 1995), 4.

[16] Benedict XVI, Pastoral Visit to the Archdiocese of Milan and 7th World Meeting of Families ( June 1–3, 2012); Address during the Evening of Witness ( June 2, 2012).

[17] FC 84.

[18] International Theological Commission, Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage (Rome, 1977), 5.3.

[19] In the documents of the Magisterium, the essence of marriage is described as a “mutual giving of self ”; cf. Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes (December 7, 1965), 49.

[20] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful (September 14, 1995), 6.

[21] Benedict XVI, Pastoral Visit to the Archdiocese of Milan and 7th World Meeting of Families ( June 1–3, 2012); Address during the Evening of Witness (June 2, 2012).

[22] Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 80, a. 1 ad 3.

[23] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium (November 21, 1964), 11.

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