Divorce, remarriage and the Eucharist

Divorce, remarriage and the Eucharist

*By Msgr. Owen F. Campion

The Vatican's recent statement on holy Communion for the divorced and remarried moves to clarify an increasingly misunderstood, and prevalent, situation regarding marriage, and failed marriage, among Catholics.

The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of legislative Texts issued the statement. (In the American legal system, courts interpret laws. In the Church, this council interprets legislation.)

Reaffirming church tradition, the document said that Catholics who have been married, civilly divorced and then remarried without receiving a Church annulment, ordinarily cannot receive holy Communion.

Since the Church does not recognize the right of any earthly authority, and certainly not civil political authority, to define marriage or to end a marriage, it does not recognize civil divorce as an end to marriage. A person who civilly divorces and then remarries without first obtaining a declaration of nullity from a Church tribunal is regarded as publicly departing from the Church's teaching. Holy Communion, therefore, would be seriously out of order.

Is this a punishment? No. It is a statement of fact and an obligation. Remarried persons whose first marriages are still valid in the eyes of the Church dispute a fundamental belief of the community. The Church is obliged to assert this to the couple and to all. Receiving the Eucharist might lead some to wonder what, or how seriously taken, is the Church's teaching.

A qualification still exists. If such a couple abstains from sexual relations, and all else is in order, then they may receive the Eucharist. However, the council warned that such a couple must realize the potential for scandal. Others well may know that the couple is in a situation of civil divorce and remarriage, but others may not know that the couple has no sexual contact.

Pastors were urged to explain in private to invalidly remarried Catholics why the Church takes its position. If the couple persists in appearing for Communion, the priest should deny them the Eucharist, even publicly.

In this case, the council said that it was responding to some authors who have maintained that Church policy is unclear, or that civil divorce is sufficient to establish the presence of goodwill and conformity with doctrine.

At this moment, the problem is more European than American, although it is becoming more of a problem here. The United States takes the lead in the number of divorces, maybe in divorces among Catholics, but Europe has its share. The great difference is that many European Catholics, in effect, let civil divorce be the last word. They remarry without obtaining annulments and continue to receive holy Communion. Many, sadly, have identified themselves as Catholics but do not practice.

This difference enters the discussion about tribunals and annulments. Fewer marriage cases are brought to diocesan tribunals in Europe. People simply do not bother. On average, it is said, more American Catholics wish to be in contact with and at peace with the Church. For this reason, they approach Church tribunals. In the larger picture, however, Catholic practice is less frequent among European Catholics.

Present in many cases in Europe, and increasingly in this country, is the notion that religion is very private. In this thinking, the Church is unimportant or, worse still, it interferes with genuine piety.

This statement makes clear that sacramental marriage is a religious matter. No government ran define it. Valid marriage is for life. As such, remarriage, in the most usual understanding of marriage, with only a civil divorce in the picture, is a departure from ancient and reasserted Church teaching. Thus, all things being equal, the Church cannot allow the civilly divorced and remarried to approach the Eucharist without benefit of annulment. Otherwise, it at best would send mixed signals.

*ACKNOWLEDGMENT.---This article by Msgr. Owen F. Champion, (ocampion@osvcom) associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, appeared in the August 13, 2000 edition. Published by "Our Sunday Visitor Inc." 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington IN 46750. For subscription details write to Circulation Dept. at the address above or 1-800-348-2440.

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