A debate has been brewing in the Catholic Church as of late. You may have read several blog posts by the canon lawyer, Dr. Edward Peters, on this point. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has not allowed Catholics who get a civil divorce, and then “re-marry” without Church permission, can not receive Holy Communion. There are those, even in the upper echelons of the hierarchy, who believe this stance should change. Since this is a complex issue, let me explain it in-depth.
Baptized Catholics who marry non-Christians, or baptized non-Catholics, do not have a sacramental marriage. Such a marriage, therefore, is dissoluble, under certain circumstances. Namely, the non-Catholic spouse must prevent the Catholic from practicing his/her Faith. There could conceivably be other circumstances, but we aren’t engaging in an exhaustive study. I am not a canon lawyer.
For baptized Catholics who marry other baptized Catholics, these marriages are generally considered indissoluble. However, there is an exception. If the marriage is not consummated, it isn’t final. An unconsummated marriage is, therefore, dissoluble.
A marriage may be annulled, but too many people think annulments are a “Catholic divorce”. This is an incorrect view of annulments. Annulments mean that a marriage that seemed to be legitimate was, in fact, never legitimate. For this, there must be some circumstance on the actual day of the marriage that would prevent a legitimate marriage. One example of this would be if one party in the marriage was secretly determined to prevent the conception of children.
In the Catholic Faith, marriage is considered a sacrament. As such, it is primarily the business of the Church. So any marriage between a Catholic and anyone else must be done in the presence of a Catholic priest. (The local ordinary, however, may grant permission otherwise; though this is rare.)
If a Catholic is married in a non-Catholic church, or by a justice of the peace, this marriage is not recognized by God. Such a Catholic is living in a state of mortal sin, and hence, can not receive Holy Communion. No one in the state of mortal sin may receive Holy Communion.
Any Catholic legitimately married in the Church, but then divorcing said spouse, and getting “re-married” without an annulment, is also in the state of mortal sin. Traditionally, the Catholic Church has said such a person may not receive Holy Communion. Why? Because such a person is living in a state of mortal sin.
Now, however, there are clergymen who want this to be changed. They say the Church should be more compassionate. We should let Catholics getting “re-married” without first getting an annulment, and then continuing to live on that sin, should be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Why? The reasons vary, but none of them are convincing.
Here you might ask, “But what about those “re-married” Catholics who go to Confession? Can they continue living with their pseudo-spouse, and still receive Holy Communion?”
The Church has traditionally answered no to this question. The fact is, such a person is still living in the state of mortal sin. It’s like apologizing for punching someone in the groin, but continuing to do it!
That leads me to my main point. I personally oppose changing this stance. The Catholic Church has always said that once a Catholic has consummated a sacramental marriage-as long as there is no reason to grant an annulment-the marriage remains legitimate. Hence, any Catholic living with a pseudo-spouse is living in a state of mortal sin. Hence, they shouldn’t receive Holy Communion. If such Catholics can receive Holy Communion, why not practicing homosexuals? Why not anyone in an essentially perpetual state of mortal sin, no matter what that sin is? Do you see the floodgates such a change would open?
There is one more objection to address. Annulment tribunals are not infallible. So, it is conceivable that it could refuse to grant an annulment when such should be warranted. An annulment tribunal might also grant an annulment when one is not warranted. So, what if a tribunal makes a mistake? Can the Catholic ignore the tribunal’s decision and receive Holy Communion anyway?
The answer is no. An annulment tribunal’s decision is not final until the bishop decides on it. He can either accept or reject the tribunal’s decision. So the decision ultimately comes from the bishop (a successor to the Apostles, and possessing the fulness of Apostolic Authority).
Though a decision on annulments is not considered infallible, it does not give one the excuse to ignore the decision. Discipline in the Church is up to the hierarchy. This authority was given them by Jesus Christ. The laity can not ignore the hierarchy’s decisions regarding Church discipline. Even if one thinks they deserve an annulment, they must accept it if the bishop denies the request. Equally, a person who thinks an annulment was not warranted, must accept the Bishop’s decision in the affirmative.
Allow me to restate my position one last time. I believe the Church should continue to deny Holy Communion to Catholics who “re-marry” without getting an annulment. Such a person is, essentially, living in a state of perpetual adultery. If such a person can receive Holy Communion, then we will have to give it to others living in a state of perpetual mortal sin, such as practicing homosexuals. This the Church must not allow!
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity