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Love, Mercy, Justice: Communion for the Divorced and Remarried


In every age, the Church deals with issues and pastoral situations so murky that a solution to a member’s situation may seem impossible. In the modern age, very few Catholics understand the importance of the Church’s precepts. These precepts bind each member of the Church to certain obligations in order to direct the lives of the faithful to the Church’s good. Since these obligations are given to the faithful by the Church, the Church may dispense the faithful of these precepts for a legitimate reason. The Church cannot, however, dispense the faithful from God’s law. A pastor may dispense one or more of his parishioners from Sunday Mass, but he cannot dispense them from keeping the Sabbath day holy. Another precept requires the faithful to marry according to the laws of the Church. The bishop can dispense a Catholic so he or she may marry an unbaptized person. He cannot, however, dispense a man so that he can marry a man, for the definition of marriage is laid down by God, not the Church.

What happens, then, when someone returns to the Church after a long time and has lived a period of his or her life without a regard for these precepts, especially the precept concerning marriage laws?

Let us imagine that a man returns to the Church and his wife enters the RCIA process. We will imagine their names as James and Kelly. James and Kelly have two sons, one 4 years old and the other 6 years old. Throughout the RCIA process, the pastor discovers that James was married in the Church to his high school sweetheart, Rachel, but they divorced legally four years later. James and Kelly, married by the state when James was not practicing his faith, are so intent on being faithful Catholics that James diligently follows the pastor’s direction in requesting a declaration of nullity for his first marriage. For whatever reason, the Church cannot find sufficient grounds to declare the previous marriage null and void. In the eyes of the Church, James is still married to Rachel; moreover, this means that James and Kelly are not sacramentally married. James and Kelly are devastated, but do not want to give up on conversion. What will they do? Justice demands that they can no longer share a common life together: they must separate.

Enter Pope Saint John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981). In paragraph 84, John Paul II speaks directly to this situation:

“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’”

John Paul II balances here the demands of justice along with the path of mercy. In view of the fact that James and Kelly are not married sacramentally, justice obligates them to separate. They cannot live as if they were married. However, justice also demands that the children are raised by a father and a mother known to them. And so, in view of the good of the children, mercy can dispense the obligation to separate. John Paul II reemphasizes the Church’s practice: in justice, couples who are not married must live separate. Mercy does not condone the parents’ actions or give them freedom to share in the marital act, but it does recognize the good of the children. Mercy is employed in order to relax some obligation due to justice, not permit the perpetuation of sin.

Is this situation to be practiced with all divorced and remarried couples? No, of course not. The Church continues to reaffirm that justice demands separation. What is morally necessary, then, for a pastor to help arrange this situation? First, there must be children involved. Secondly, the couple must be formed to understand the grave importance of remaining continent, and this must be undertaken freely for the love of Christ, the dignity of marriage, and the salvation of the children. They must understand that this path of mercy for the sake of the children is not a free pass for them to engage in the marital act. They must live in separate rooms, observe the norms of chastity, and do nothing that would intentionally arouse the other, the end of which is the marital act. Thirdly, they must be committed to an intense daily prayer and a frequent reception of the sacraments to sustain them in this sacrifice. Along with this, they must allow the Church to accompany them through the direction of their parish priest. They must be honest and transparent about their struggles and temptations. Lastly, their situation must remain as much as possible a secret to prevent scandal. In James’ and Kelly’s case, the only people who know about their situation is them, the parish priest, the annulment contact at the parish, and possibly the RCIA director. Their sacrificial love is hidden from the eyes of the parish. They live a secret sort of penance.

Situations like those I have outlined were only hypothetical to me until the Family Synods began in 2014. In seminary, we read Familiaris Consortio and spoke at length about different situations and how to handle them. When certain heterodox prelates, however, began speaking publicly about readmitting to Communion divorced people who have remarried, these hypothetical cases quickly presented themselves as a concrete reality. Different couples revealed their situations to me, stating that they had lived apart chastely but in the same house for 3, 10, even 20+ years in order to provide for their children. While sadness can creep into their relationships when they think of what they have sacrificed, the grace of that sacrifice in their children almost immediately eliminates that sorrow. While the pleasure of the marital act is good, they recognize that a voluntary sacrifice of that good is redemptive. One couple’s child spoke to me in my office and said that she had known for a little over a year about the sacrifice her parents make every day for her. She smiled and said, “Because of their purity, they understand modesty and chastity in such a clear way that they can teach me well. I don’t need to look it up in my Catechism. They are a living catechism.”

Why did these couples come forward to their parish priest? They wanted to give me encouragement to preach what some might consider a hard truth. They asked me to stand up for the dignity and indissolubility of marriage and to let others know that it can be done according to the moral law. Every time someone said, “Don’t punish the divorced and remarried anymore; let them all come back to Communion,” they felt that someone was devaluing the sacrifices they daily make in faith and hope. Because of the private nature of their sacrifice, they were unable to speak up for themselves, so they were asking the Church to stand up for them and preach true mercy, not a false mercy that accepts and condones sin, or tells people that the teachings of Our Lord are too difficult.

Mercy requires deep sacrifice and a complete love of Christ, but, as these couples have proven, all things are possible with God.

24 thoughts on “Love, Mercy, Justice: Communion for the Divorced and Remarried”

  1. Jube domne benedicere.
    James and Kelly are not sacramentally validly married. Aloha Fr. Carter, this example you provided in the first paragraph, “the bishop can dispense a Catholic so he or she may marry an unbaptized person” is an example [disparity of cult] of a valid non-sacramental marriage. Not all valid marriages are sacramental. Two non-Christians can be validly married, and so can a Christian and a non-Christian as in your example. For example if Kelly was a non-Christian and now divorced from her non-Christian husband, if she cannot obtain a declaration of nullity for that ealier marriage, she also cannot be married to James. Sacramental marriages are those valid marriages in which each of the parties, the man and the woman, have valid baptisms [cf. Can. 1055 §1. –
    May you be blessed on earth and attain everlasting life. Amen.

      • Nit picking or not, it is correct. Since this priest speaks publicly and with authority he owes it to us all to get the facts straight.

    • This post demonstrates so clearly the exactitude of language necessary when discussing the canonical criteria for a “valid” marriage. Generalizations so frequently run off into the muddy ditch of misinformation.

      Among the worst of such generalizations: the misstatement that a decree of nullity “says that a marriage never existed” and its corollary, that the children of an “annulled” marriage are rendered (retroactively!) illegitimate.

      [As an aside, I’ve finally cleared up a question in my own mind about civil law and legitimacy of offspring. The standard caveat applies: Applicable state law is always controlling in civil cases. A legally-performed civil marriage “exists” (1) *unless* it is declared civilly “null” (and thus truly “never existed”) or (2) *until* it is ended by a final decree of civil divorce. A case for civil annulment is often raised early in the marriage, before the birth of children, but children born of any civil marriage are “legitimate” for purposes of civil law regardless of its termination by civil “annulment” or “divorce.” (SOURCE:]

        • I do appreciate that clarification. In my experience, adding another term (“putative”) confuses the laity even further.

          My point was that, contrary to popular opinion, the *civil* marriage did exist, regardless of canonical status.

  2. This past Sunday, the priest at my parish married a couple in front of the congregation. Apparently, the man was entering the Catholic church but was married before and the woman, his new wife, was granted an annullment from the Catholic church. The whole thing seemed so odd to me. Then at the end, the priest stated; if there’s anyone here that needs to find out if their previous marriage is valid or not or who needs an annullment, don’t feel afraid to call or make an appointment. Then he says, this brave couple wanted to take their vows in front of the congregation to let everyone know there’s nothing to it. After Mass, I could not help but think what I just saw and heard was actually happening. It was very Protestant and just so odd, so out of place……….

    • So the new ‘wife’ was granted an annulment on behalf of the original wife or was this like a preemptive annulment in case this latest union didn’t last?

  3. “This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for
    example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the
    obligation to separate…”

    I should like to suggest that there may be serious reasons related to health, age, and financial constraints which might also affect the obligation to seperate.

  4. That is the key – sacrifice. AL promotes the lie that sacrifice is just too hard, that such situations are merely ideals only for the heroic few.

    • Yes, agreed the church is open to everyone and communion should only be received by catholics who are in a state of grace which applies to everyone. All of these “what if” scenarios (James & Kelly in this case) published to try and stir up the emotions do not have an effect on me because I have been in this situation and accepted the truth of the faith.

      I don’t know if I can agree with you on AL because I haven’t read the 200 or so pages.

      • AL is hard to get through and takes a very long time. I think there was another article within the last month on 1P5 dealing with the Kasper idea of non-heroic Christians which summarized AL problem areas in that regard. In any case, I know I read an article somewhere about that, perhaps otherwise at Rorate Caeli or Eponymous Flower.

  5. “While the pleasure of the marital act is good, they recognize that a voluntary sacrifice of that good is redemptive.”

    But since these people are not married, they are not sacrificing a good they are entitled to, rather they are trying not to sin. Whilst this is good, it is not a sacrifice per se. Rather than to say that they are making redemptive sacrifices, it is correct to say that they are striving to be holy and avoid sin in extremely difficult circumstances, namely an occasion of sin par excellence. Rather than speak of sacrifice, I’d sooner speak of certain purgatory in this context. I’d say that living as brother and sister would be a torment and a crucifixion of the sensual appetites if done well, but I fear this doesn’t happen very often in reality. I offer this as a corrective to an otherwise good article.

    • I am not sure this is a good article at all. But that being said, I entirely agree with what you are saying. According to this article, apparently this guy named James who may have left Rachel for Kelly, and this Kelly who got it on with James, are to be celebrated as making a heroic sacrifice. The times we live in!

      • You’re probably right. Perhaps we should ask for a retraction or amendment of this article! Having read the article section again, it seems there are no kids involved in this hypothetical situation, so it would seem best for the two to part company. If they cannot be reconciled to their original spouse(s) and there are no grounds for a declaration of nullity, then this seems like the best option. Otherwise, why remain in an occasion of sin? Sad but true. And there’s the sacrifice. 🙂

  6. Beyond the arguments here is the constant teaching of the Church that separated spouses are obligated to reconcile except in exceptional cases as in unprovoked adultery on the part of one of them.

    Even then, if the guilty one is repentant and wants to reconcile, the innocent spouse is urged to do so.

    So James is really expected to return to his first wife. This is Canon 1153, very much ignored. Except by Cardinal Brandmueller who wrote about it in his chapter in Remaining in the Truth of Christ.

  7. I once read a book entitled “Whom God Hath Not Joined” by Claire McAuley which is the story of a woman who realized she was in an invalid marriage. The book chronicles the she and her “husband’s” spiritual journey which resulted in their making the Frater-Soror vow to live a life of continence. The book is a good reminder that such sacrifices are possible with God’s grace and that there are couples living as brother and sister.

  8. I hope there are priests like you that will also give good counsel to those who are self-professed serious Catholics that are contemplating forcing a divorce on their family. Too many, I’m afraid seem to think that anybody who wants a divorce has the right to get one. In the USA, no-fault divorce does not result in just separation plans. Check out Mary’s Advocates webpages “Petition Bishop, Ask Church to Intervene” and “Terms of Catholic Marriage.” We point to experts that help couples.

  9. With all due respect Fr. Carter, what happens to poor Rachel now who might have been divorced when James began his affair with Kelly? Or, what happens to the children he may have had with Rachel? The instructions in Familiaris Consortio seem to forget those important issues.


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