Conscience & Communion

What’s a Remarried Catholic to Do?

What should we say, amid a culture in which marriages evaporate like mist, about the sacramental status of divorced and remarried Catholics? What should we do?

Though our era is rife with failed marriages, the pastoral problem posed by divorce and remarriage has confronted the church from the very beginning. Recall Paul’s advice to those faithful in Corinth who married unbelievers (“If the unbeliever separates, however, let him separate. The brother or sister is not bound in such cases”) and Matthew’s “exception” to Jesus’ teaching on divorce (“Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery”). In modern times, eminent theologians and canonists ever since the Second Vatican Council have been debating the proper pastoral approach to divorced Catholics who have remarried, and church authorities have staked out a fine line of official pastoral policy.

The principal documents guiding this policy are John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio, a 1994 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried, and a 2000 declaration of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. The policy dictates that while those who divorce and remarry without an annulment or dissolution of their first marriage are not subject to canonical penalty (excommunication or interdict) and remain fully incorporated in the church, bound by all the obligations of other Catholics, they are not to be admitted to eucharistic Communion unless they separate from their spouse—or agree to abstain permanently from sexual intercourse, living together “as brother and sister.”

My modest and quite limited suggestion here is that this policy admits of exceptions. Stated most simply, my position is that Catholics living in “irregular marriages”—specifically, those who have remarried civilly after experiencing the tragedy of divorce—might, in exceptional cases, resume participation in the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. In my view, personal conscience has a role to play in the decision such couples make, assisted by a priest or other pastoral minister, to resume participating fully in these sacraments. This pastoral approach, with its emphasis on personal conscience, has been proposed and rejected in the past, but the debate over it is ongoing and vigorous (see “A Modus Vivendi?” January 13).

The pastoral process of resuming sacramental participation involves no canonical judgment regarding a former marriage, no decision about its validity or invalidity. But as a process of moral discernment about personal worthiness for Holy Communion, after true repentance and God’s merciful forgiveness, it presumes several conditions. First, if a canonical solution to the situation of the divorced and remarried couple exists, it should be pursued. That is to say, if the couple has access to a church tribunal or office and can have their present union validated, following the annulment or dissolution of the first marriage, they should do so. If this option is not possible, however, there remains the judgment of conscience. This process of reconciliation to the sacraments involves a moral judgment of conscience that calls for serious personal reflection over a period of time.

The guidance offered to pastors and communities by John Paul II in The Role of the Christian Family emphasizes that each situation and its actual causes should be considered case by case, and careful discernment should be exercised. But such discernment in my view will often disclose suitable candidates for reconciliation. Many divorced and remarried couples view themselves as truly married, living in a committed conjugal relationship imbued with what Roman law called affectio maritalis, “a married state of mind.” Their union has an official status; it is a civil bond, recognized by the government, that carries with it serious responsibilities. Moreover, many share the mutual self-giving and acceptance that constitutes a true conjugal communion, an intimate community of married life and love.

Those with such a mindset should consider the following criteria as they discern their proper disposition for penance and Holy Communion:

• The first marriage is irretrievably broken, and several years have passed since the original couple separated.

• Catholic parties to a second marriage have repented and sought forgiveness for any sinful actions that contributed to the breakdown of the first union.

• The parties to the present union are fulfilling their responsibilities to former spouses and children.

• The present union appears to be stable and enduring. It has been in place for some time, usually several years.

• The parties are rightly motivated, that is, not by reasons of reputation or personal gain, but by a genuine desire to participate in the sacramental life of the church.

• Every effort is made to avoid giving scandal or bad example, so that none of the faithful are led into error or confusion regarding the permanence of marriage.

Throughout this process, the couple should seek the counsel and guidance of a pastoral minister of the church. They should carefully examine the church’s teachings regarding marriage, moral life, and the sacraments of penance and Eucharist, as well as their own situation within their parish community. The problem of scandal should be viewed in the context of that community, where (especially if it is a larger parish) the couple’s “irregular situation” may not be known. They and their pastoral guide can explain the process of their sacramental reconciliation to those who might inquire about it. (In earlier times, John Krol, who became the cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia, was known to suggest that anyone who asked about the couple be told that “Father was able to work something out for them.”) As a last resort, the couple might decide to take Communion in another parish, where their situation is not known.

It is significant that the process of reconciliation I am describing entails no juridic act. It is not an act of the power of governance, but rather a moral judgment, a decision made in conscience. Those who engage in it, namely the remarried couple and their pastoral advisor, do not do or change anything in the juridic order. They make no judgment of validity or invalidity of the prior marriage. No authorization or permission to access the sacraments is sought or given by any authority figure. Such decisions are not matters of the legal order, but of the moral order. The process of discerning possible access to the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion is not a canonical judgment at all, but an examination of one’s own conscience.

Conscience in the Catholic tradition is a fundamental and sacred expression of human dignity, an inner voice to consult and obey in the process of making moral judgments. “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man,” observed the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et spes. “There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.” Commenting on this passage shortly after its publication, Joseph Ratzinger asserted that “over the pope as expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” And the council’s Dignitatis humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom) spoke more strongly still:

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the meditation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of this life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.

Conscience, in our moral tradition, is recognized as the proximate norm of personal morality. “The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do,” wrote John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical Veritatis splendor. “It is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil.” Yet as such—as the judgment of an act—conscience is not exempt from error. The possibility that one’s conscience can be mistaken underscores the need for counsel, prayer, study, and reflection before one undertakes to act. We all are called “to form our conscience,” John Paul II wrote—“to make it the object of a continuous conversion to what is true and to what is good.”

In the matter at hand, the judgment of conscience addresses a divorced and remarried person’s disposition to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Eucharist. This personal judgment of conscience concerns whether or not one is “in the state of mortal sin.” “Am I in the state of grace or in the state of sin?” such a person must inquire of himself or herself. “Am I living in adultery or in a committed marital relationship?” “Have I repented of whatever sins I may have committed relative to my former marriage and asked God to forgive those sins, and has God forgiven them?” “Will my going to confession and taking Communion publicly lead others to take their marriage vows less seriously or even to betray their spouses?”

It is worth recalling that the long-standing practice of the church has been to accept the conscientious decision of the person who presents him or herself to receive the sacraments. At stake here is the church’s disciplinary policy of excluding the divorced and remarried from the sacraments of penance and Eucharist. Is this policy a universal and absolute norm? Or does it admit of an exception, based on an informed judgment of conscience, that a person is worthy to receive the Eucharist—as worthy, that is, as anyone else who asks for the forgiveness of his sins at the beginning of every Mass and who proclaims, before partaking of Christ’s body and blood, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”?

To answer this question, I would invoke the virtue of epiky (from the Greek epikeia, or equity), an ancient and honored staple of Roman Catholic ethics. Epiky is that species of legal justice that compensates for the inherent inadequacies of general rules as they are applied to particular situations. It recognizes that individual circumstances can and do vary, and serves to direct justice by seeking the just result. Epiky allows, in other words, for legitimate exceptions to rules that are themselves legitimate.

We all know what it means to make exceptions to legitimate rules, whether parental rules for children’s behavior; traffic laws or municipal ordinances; even religious obligations like the Sunday observance, penitential fast and abstinence, or sacramental preparation. Some exceptions are little more than lame excuses, but others are legitimate exceptions, based on good reasons. Paul VI used to refer to actions inspired by personal conscience and a sense of responsibility as expressions of “a suitable power of discretion” (congrua potestas discretionis). In my view, a person, following a rightly formed conscience, who judges that the general policy barring the divorced and remarried from the sacraments of penance and Eucharist does not apply in his or her particular situation may well be exercising the virtue of epiky. Such careful and prayerful judgments are not evasions or excuses, but just and reasonable applications of the general rule to individual circumstances. The existence of legitimate exceptions to the rule is recognized.

The notion that the faithful are entitled to make a judgment in conscience about their access to the sacraments of penance and Eucharist reflects a long-standing moral position. John Paul II, in his 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, clearly asserts that “the judgment of one’s state of grace belongs only to the person involved, since it is a question of examining one’s conscience.” However, he reminds us, outward conduct, especially that which appears to be contrary to the moral norm, also reflects and impacts “the good order of the community” and “respect for the sacrament.”

The argument set forth here applies to the sacraments of penance and Eucharist, not to remarriage in the church. It does not suggest that a second marriage can be celebrated. Rather it describes a moral judgment regarding personal worthiness for Holy Communion. It proposes an exception, based on the primacy of conscience and the virtue of epiky, to the general policy of exclusion from the sacraments. It is true that marriage is not a purely private matter, but one with public significance. For precisely this reason, the effect that this personal decision of conscience has on the moral integrity of the local Christian community must be part of the discernment process. Still, conscience is always in play, and its judgment is a legitimate and decisive consideration.

Ultimately, this debate about access to Holy Communion engages our convictions regarding the nourishing, healing, and reconciling power of the Eucharist. As John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia:

The saving efficacy of the sacrifice is fully realized when the Lord’s body and blood are received in Communion. The eucharistic Sacrifice is intrinsically directed to the inward union of the faithful with Christ through Communion; we receive the very One who offered himself for us; we receive his body which he gave up for us on the Cross and his blood which he “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

It remains my belief that personal conscience has a role to play in the decision to participate fully in the celebrations of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, and that the guided process of a return to sacramental participation through stages of moral discernment is a legitimate option for divorced and remarried Catholics. Are there dangers of delusion and self-deception in such judgments of conscience? Surely there are, but that is the reason for protracted reflection and wise counsel. The Holy Spirit guides Christ’s faithful people when they attend to the Spirit’s prompting.

This article is part of a Commonweal reading list on Catholic marriage today.

Published in the 2012-01-27 issue: 

Rev. James A. Coriden teaches canon law at the Washington Theological Union.

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