Table of Contents
- 1 The lives of real people
- 2 The human experience of divorce
- 3 The interpretation of the divorce by the participants themselves
- 4 The meanings ascribed by others
- 5 Feeling judged
- 6 And now . . . a new marriage?
- 7 “Can I do this again?”
- 8 And Eucharistic communion?
- 9 The nature of Eucharistic communion
- 10 What does the present pastoral practice implicitly teach about Eucharist?
- 11 Judgment belongs to the whole Church
- 12 A changing view of the phenomenon of divorce-and-remarriage
- 13 Re-marriage-and-denial-of-Eucharistic Communion
- 14 The elephant in the Communion line
- 15 In conclusion
There are whole libraries devoted to the subject of a marriage entered into after divorce.
More specifically, the question becomes: what effect does the attempt to enter into a marriage after legal divorce have on a Catholic’s right to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist?
The consultation of the faithful during the first stage of preparation for the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops will almost surely highlight the issue.
In these reflections I suggest that before we consider the present state of Church policy and its justification for excluding the divorced-and-remarried from reception of the Eucharist we need, first, to comprehend the human experience of those Catholics who take such a step.
The lives of real people
Who are they? Before they are subjects of a community with legal rights and responsibilities they are flesh-and-blood men and women, created by God and redeemed by the self-offering of Jesus of Nazareth.
As such, what are they actually doing when they divorce and enter upon a new marriage? What are they notdoing? What experiences are they creating for themselves by taking this step? And whatmeaningdo they personally attach to their acts?
If we pretend to talk about marital union and leave out the level of personal experience and meaning we are talking about abstractions. We literally don’t know what we’re talking about.
A second consideration arises from this initial exploration: How do the actions of those who are divorced and entered into a second marriage affect the life of their fellow believers—the other members of the church community?
How are they taught by church leaders to view it? And what does theirexperience tell them about what is really going on? What meaning do those fellow Catholics attach to it?
The human experience of divorce
At its core a civil divorce consists in the public recognition that two people have declared themselves to be unable to fulfill the lifetime commitment of mutual fidelity they promised when they wedded—regardless of how that inability came about, or either party’s degree of responsibility for it.
The italicized phrase is crucial.
Of itself the fact of a divorce says nothing about the integrity (or lack of it) with which the two parties attempted to live out their commitment. It says nothing of the cultural or familial heritages and pre-marital human development (or lack of it) that shaped the two parties and their union.
It looks past all the related actors whose actions may have supported the couple or contributed, indirectly but really, to the breakdown.
The divorce tells the world simply that ‘we find ourselves unable to fulfill the promise we made when we married; the commitment no longer exists.’The bare fact. Nothing more nor less.
The experience of marital breakdown, whether it was acrimonious or peaceful, accepted or not, involves deep personal trauma. An unbreakable ‘we’ has proven to be an illusion. A dream has gone up in smoke.
People do not enter a marriage with the simultaneous intention of destroying it.
Instead, over time the couple discovers, often in spite of heroic efforts at making it work, that they—this individual man and this individual woman—are unable to fulfill the incredibly difficult promise they had made in good faith.
Divorce is a painful acknowledgement of human limitation. People who finally decide to divorce are ‘guilty’ only of being human.
A later canonical annulment may try to maintain that there was no genuine marital commitment in the first place; the couple’s heartbreak suggests otherwise. (It is intriguing to note that when a priest is released from the vow made at his ordination no one maintains that there had not been an ordination in the first place.)
In its catechesis on the dignity of the marriage bond, the Church teaches that it is ennobling and life-giving.
Yet when someone who has gone through the trauma of a failed relationship seeks the same good with a new partner, Church law treats that attempt as essentially disordered; enough to warrant refusal of the bread of life.
It should be noted that the divorce itself is not deemed so disfiguring to the body of Christ as to result in denial of Communion. By itself, divorce is viewed as the tragic result of human fallibility.
It is sad, for sure, but we can all identify with the experience of failure to live up to an ideal.
It is when divorced Catholics move beyond the experience of breakdown, commit to a new relationship, and call it ‘marriage’ that the church considers their action such a public repudiation of the indissolubility of marriage as to warrant the denial of Communion.
The interpretation of the divorce by the participants themselves
How do those involved in a divorce view what they are doing?
The answers to the question must be as numerous as those undergoing it.
On the basis of their personhood it is their sacred prerogative to make that assessment. Theirs is the privilege of naming that meaning, however accurate—or misguided—their assessment may appear to outsiders.
The trauma will be there in any case, no matter how they choose to name it.
The meanings ascribed by others
The action of divorcing does not take place in a vacuum, of course. It is not limited in its effect to the two parties. It is a social happening.
There may be children involved. Then others in the couple’s social circles hear that it has happened and, inevitably, they will have varying interpretations of the event’s origins and meaning.
Here are a few possible interpretations.
For those for whom the indissolubility of a marriage is the overriding consideration the second relationship will be viewed as an illusory attempt at some sort of social fantasy falsely called ‘marriage’. For them a second ‘marriage’ simply does not exist.
More judgmental neighbors might see the second union as an act of willful disobedience to Church authority on the part of the spouses. The two parties in the second relationship might be labeled (in the language of some pastors) adulterers.
On the other hand, some outsiders to the marriage might limit their response to expressions of sympathy—or even empathy—in the face of a human tragedy.
Those who are more intimately involved with one or other of the parties might even cheer the fact that a deep human tragedy is finally being confronted; a victim has finally summoned the courage to become an agent.
Whatever the response, the reality of social interpretation is an inevitable part of the experience.
We who are outsiders to the breakdown may be sufficiently developed spiritually to resist judging these neighbors of ours: rightly leaving judgment to God.
But even in that best-case scenario, we will probably experience instinctual, instantaneous assessments arising from our own cultural formation.
To keep those assessments from degenerating into the sin of moral judgment may take serious prayer and psychic effort on our part. We are, after all, not isolated monads. We live in a social network that inevitably creates initial unformed impressions in our spirits.
In a word: the power of reputation will inevitably be in play.
The feelings of the newly divorcing couple will be twisted and torn by innocent comments on the part of ‘neighbors.’ Particular events in the trajectory that lead to the eventual breakdown may be distorted beyond recognition. The parties may feel unjustly judged.
The ultimate impact of the process will depend on the maturity they bring to the wrenching experience from their earlier life development, as well as the support of caring friends or professionals they may be blessed with.
Before we move beyond the divorce itself we must be clear about another reality implied by the question I posed earlier: what are they notdoing by their action?
In spite of possible judgment by their neighbors, divorce does not of itself say anything about the parties’ personal character or moral state. It does not make them ‘bad people’. Sinners.
They are not, simply by the act of divorcing, espousing heresy or schism from the church community. They remain simply and essentially brother and sister to their Catholic neighbors.
And now . . . a new marriage?
We have looked at the basic reality of divorce. We have explored the act, its assessment by the actors themselves, as well as the reality of reputation and its power to impact their subsequent living.
What are we to then say about the second act in the drama: the (attempted) entry into a new marriage?
Perhaps the first thing we need to keep in mind is that the entry into a second union isa genuinely new and separate experience.
Divorcing a partner is one thing, joining a new one a totally separate act. It is a different animal.
If we fail to give appropriate weight to that newness, that uniqueness, we will not appreciate what is really going on. We will not appreciate what the entry into a new commitment exacts within the psyche of someone who has undergone a divorce in the first place.
Between the first promise of commitment and a second a whole life has occurred. Entering a second marriage involves an essentially different risk than that undertaken at the time of the first.
The content of the new commitment may seem the same as the original one. But it is not. Between the first and the second there has been a series of experiences, a unique history that inevitably shapes the psychic state of the now divorced partner.
“Can I do this again?”
The actual life of the partners in the first marriage has destroyed some illusions of their younger days. The self-assurance with which a partner entered into that earlier union has suffered a severe blow.
In the new moment, “Can I do this–again?” becomes a more existential question.And that does not take account of the further possibility that the other party to the new union might also have been divorced from another unique union and partner.
In the face of this disillusioning and frequently devastating experience, it is actually something to be applauded that one (or both) of the parties is now able to transcend the experience of breakdown and make the same—but totally new—pledge of life-long fidelity to a new partner.
A different divorced person might have settled for seeking emotional support and sexual fulfillment in other, less binding relationships. This person does not.
The person who marries again takes a new risk, bearing witness to the value he or she had hoped for from the first union.
The act of commitment may appear to be the same but it is not. It is being made now in the face of a deeply defeating experience. This is a new person, one whose self-confidence has been shaken, addressing a new person with his or her own story of wounds and blessings.
When you come right down to it, to treat it as simply ‘a re-marriage’ is more than a misnomer; it is an unfair distortion of what is being attempted.
We should be in awe at the courage it takes to begin again.
And Eucharistic communion?
For Catholics the entry into a second union gives rise to a new question: how is the divorced-and-newly-marrying person related to the community of Jesus’s followers, his Church? And more specifically, to the Eucharistic food and drink that are the life-blood of its each and every member?
It may turn out that the real key to finding the best pastoral response to the reality of marriage-following-divorce lies, not in the nature of marriage. It rests on a clearer understanding of Eucharist.
To answer those questions we must first be clear about the essence of Eucharist, prescinding from any individual’s state in life.
I fear that the long controversy about the real presence of the Lord, and even more, that of transubstantiation, has clouded over the fact that Eucharist communion, at its core, is an act of free offering on the part of the Lord.
It is a gift, utterly undeserved by each and every one of those to whom Jesus offers himself.
The nature of Eucharistic communion
What is at stake is, after all a three-pronged complex of relationships. There are: the individual communicant, the Church as a body and the loving offer of Jesus himself.
True, the gift of Communion is offered essentially to the community of his faithful followers, the people of God. It is in virtue of that bond of unity that the individual believer is gifted.
Eucharistic spirituality becomes distorted when the individual recipient is viewed as a monad with no relationship to the body of his followers. “Me-and-Jesus” spirituality is a fantasy.
Jesus was not a pop guru who cultivated a long list of hyper-individualized fans; he entrusted his life and mission into the hands of an organized body, which has members and organs with varying levels of responsibility for its continuance across the ages.
One of the most profound of those responsibilities is the power entrusted to Church authorities to define what is to be expected of those who are blessed with membership in the body.
Jesus offers himself at the Eucharistic table to those who were joined to himself explicitly through the act of Baptism—and who have not effectively renounced that bond by some personal action.
Sadly, individual baptized Catholics remain capable of actions that implicitly but really constitute an essential rupture between the individual and the community of the Church.
There are actions taken that so profoundly distort the relationship of the individual to the Church as to contradict the very nature of membership.
An individual may espouse and publicly profess an understanding of one of the Church’s fundamental beliefs that runs counter to the Church’s self-definition. That constitutes heresy.
On the other hand, the individual may not profess such a doctrinal error but, instead,behavein such an unloving way as to separate himself or herself from the Church’s life: the individual is then in schism.
In either of those cases those responsible for the Church’s self-presentation may conclude that the individual has in effect rejected communion with the community. They have self-excluded themselves.
In that case, to continue to present oneself at the table is to claim a fiction. A decree of excommunication merely proclaims what is already a fact.
Our question then becomes: does attempting to enter a new union after a divorce constitute either of those forms of rupture? Does the Lord’s gift-offer still stand for one in such a state?
By proclaiming such a person ex-communicated, Church authorities could be risking a fundamental distortion of the Lord’s will.
What does the present pastoral practice implicitly teach about Eucharist?
Jesus spoke of the gift of his body and blood as food, as nourishment. And more significantly, he said it was necessary for life: unless we eat of it we do not have life within us.
Our Church professes that these words are not mere metaphor. If we appreciate fully all that his words imply, to deny Communion to people who have been baptized into that life and have not rejected union with the Church must seem a form of imposed spiritual starvation.
If our Church is to deny that essential sustenance to individuals who still publicly profess their belief in the lordship of Christ, it would seem that such a denial must only be on the grounds that they are guilty of some commensurate insult perpetrated against his body.
Apparently only a public act of apostasy would fill that bill.
The present practice does not treat Eucharist as the gift of unconditional love—of divine grace. It makes it instead a reward for what leaders consider good behavior.
In effect, Holy Communion becomes, not the undeserved gift of a magnanimous God but rather a prize for good behavior.
In the case of marriage, communion is reserved for those who are either successful in fulfilling an (admittedly) very difficult life-long commitment or who, if the covenant has broken down, commit themselves to remaining celibate for the rest of their lives.
The result of this policy is to distort not only the nature of the Eucharist but to disfigure the face of the compassionate Lover Himself.
Judgment belongs to the whole Church
In our reflection thus far we have been implicitly assuming that the authority (and responsibility) for concluding that people attempting a second marriage have denied themselves access to the Eucharist belongs solely to the hierarchy. But is that so?
A long, orthodox tradition in our Church’s thinking has held that the gift of the Holy Spirit has not been limited to those called to its teaching office. It is given to the whole-Church-as-a single-body. It is manifested also through the sensus fidelium.
It is not my intent here to venture into the thickets surrounding that notion and the way it might be revealed behaviorally.
In its broadest terms it must mean at least that responsibility for the Church’s teaching does not rest on the hierarchy alone, but somehow rests on the body of the faithful as a whole—clergy and laity.
If the long, orthodox tradition concerning the power of the sensus fidelium has no operational consequences it remains only a pious fiction.
My argument is that, if the voice of the laity is significant even in the area of Church teaching, surely it must not then be excluded from the process by which the community makes its pastoral policy choices.
In particular, how can it be a sign of pastoral wisdom for our Church to exclude from the decision about something as pastorally significant as reception of Eucharist the experience of those who are actually called to live the commitment expressed in the vows of marriage?
By contrast to dogmatic pronouncements, the pastoral policies of the Church are not infallible. They are essentially contextual in nature; changeable.
Whether they represent the wisdom of the Spirit depends on whether they actually enhance the spiritual lives of the faithful in constantly changing eras in our understanding of complex human realities.
For example, the Church’s position on something like conversion therapy for gay men and women cannot be deduced from some supposedly transcendental proposition; whether the practice is beneficial or not is a matter of scientific study of its effects.
Similarly, our view of the morality of usury changed as a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of money and economies developed.
A changing view of the phenomenon of divorce-and-remarriage
Marital breakdown and re-marriage has become more prevalent in recent centuries.
We may lament that fact, to be sure. We might long for many things that characterized the culture of yesteryears, whether they were real or existed only in our fantasy.
But few would deny that the choice to enter into a marriage covenant today is a more complex phenomenon than it was when people lived smaller, more tightly knit communities.
The young gang members in West Side Story evidence a worldly wisdom when they cut off the angry comment of the drugstore owner, “When I was your age . . .” and cry, “Dad, you were never our age!”
I would suggest that one result is that the inclination to pass judgment on the divorced has become more attenuated in today’s less communal world.
The complexity of modern life has made us more aware of the fallibility and fragility of all human relationships than might have been the case in simpler times.
Perhaps, more importantly, Catholics of today are the product of a different catechesis than those of earlier generations.
Say what you will about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and its pluses or minuses, it surely called us to greater awareness of the Gospel warning against judging our neighbors than the Jansenistic view of life that prevailed in the preceding era.
The Church is called to see itself as a pilgrim people: human, unfinished, fallible and sinful-but-loved unaccountably by a merciful God.
And more tellingly, that tectonic shift has been augmented by the renewed emphasis on divine mercy in the teaching of recent popes, culminating with Francis.
There is surely no Catholic, whether cleric or lay, today who takes pleasure in the fact that the divorced-and-remarried are denied access to the Eucharist.
Their fellow Catholics desire that these brothers and sisters in the faith be blessed with the life and spiritual sustenance offered in Eucharistic Communion.
This empathy reveals what I would call a ‘pastoral sensus fidelium’, a sign of the presence of the divine Spirit of mercy and compassion, at work in the people of God.
Calls for a change in the discipline that excludes Communion for the divorced-and-remarried have surfaced in recent councils and synods around the globe. It can be anticipated that the curve will grow in the future as well, until the discipline is changed in response to the call for mercy.
Those energies are telling us that we must be doing something wrong.
Three broad possibilities come to mind. Are we working from a distorted understanding of the experience of remarriage-after-divorce? Are we missing what Eucharistic Communion is all about? Or have we created an unwarranted and destructive link between the two?
Or, again, is the widely held perception that the present policy is misguided rooted in a mixtum-gatherum of all three? Is the issue one, not of Church doctrine, but rather a catechesis that has wandered far from the power of Jesus’s vision of things?
It would seem that we have arrived at the crux of the contemporary dilemma that calls for some new pastoral response.
On the one hand, there is the Church’s doctrinal position that it does not have the authority to annul a valid, much less sacramental marriage and sanction a union contracted after a civil divorce.
On the other, there is the evidence of a pastoral sensus fidelium that considers the denial of Eucharist to someone who has entered on a second union—regardless of the validity or non-validity of that second union—to be, if not an act of injustice, at least unwarranted.
We have arrived at the third possibility mentioned at the outset of these reflections: that the church’s choice to link an individual Catholic’s entry into a second union to the denial of Communion is itself misguided.
Even granting the absolute indissolubility of marriage, does it follow that denial of Communion is the Church’s best, or only pastoral response to a divorced Catholic who re-marries?
The two realities are, after all, matters of a very different order. Indissolubility is a doctrinal position and presumed to be unchangeable; denial of Communion is a pastoral option and, as such, subject to evaluation and revision in light of experience.
The denial of Communion is a policy choice, not intrinsically linked to the doctrine of indissolubility. In that light the question to be answered must be: is the policy choice effective? Does it in fact ‘work’?
That depends, in turn, on the answers to two further questions. The first concerns the goal intended by the policy: what is it trying to achieve?The second asks whether the policy is suited to the attainment of that goal: does it actually create the intended effect?
In recent times Church catechesis, in an effort at minimizing the punitive aspect of the policy, has emphasized a medicinal intent: the goal of the policy is to encourage the remarried to enter upon a deeper reflection on the state of their spiritual life, leading to a deeper conversion to the Lord. And possible reconciliation.
The effort is laudable, to be sure. But is it good pastoring?
It seems nearly impossible to eliminate the impression that someone is being punished when a policy takes away a privilege that comes with the gift of faith.
More importantly, however, there is an irony here. A policy that proposes to enhance spiritual growth begins by cutting off its most enriching sustenance.
Those Catholics living in second marriages must find it strange indeed to hear a message that tells them they will be given the healing grace to leave their ‘disordered state’ if they are denied the food of the Lord’s life.
This is strange medicine indeed.
The elephant in the Communion line
Any evaluation of the present canonical restriction on Communion for the divorced-and-remarried must confront the fact that there are divorced-and-remarried Catholics whose adult discernment of the Lord’s will for them leads them to take their place in the Communion line every Sunday with the rest of the Lord’s people.
Some? A few? Many? Only the Lord who reads hearts knows. But to pretend they do not exist represents willful blindness.
They have made their discernment as adults and decided that the Lord wants them to receive the bread of life. Their discernment included content that those who have not had their experience did not have to face. But it is their attempt to face the Lord honestly.
Others will disagree with their conclusion, but they have not walked in their sandals. Those who tsk-tsk at their presence need to get a spiritual life.
I raise them up simply as a matter of fact. They are not on a crusade to change the discipline. They respect the judgment of those whose discernment leads them to forego Communion; they ask only that the same respect be accorded to their own adulthood.
They intend no disrespect. Their understanding of the Lord’s invitation simply outweighs any sense of transgression on their part.
The present restriction fails the test of pastoral wisdom on three accounts.
First, it is implicitly based on a distorted understanding of the gift of the Eucharist.
Second, it reveals an unjust caricature of the experience of divorced-and-remarried people committed to following Jesus within the Catholic communion. And third, it is an unnecessary and ineffective response to behavior that calls for respect rather than punishment.
What alternative might future synodal discernment around the globe propose to Pope Francis for his adoption?
That is of course the difficult burden placed on delegates, clerical and lay together. Although the present discipline of denial is widely viewed as pastorally inconsistent with the mercy of the Lord, any proposed relaxation would surely be highly contested.
My personal dream takes the form of whimsy.
Rather than offer a formal policy draft, what if they were to use a form more suited to this pope’s temperament? What if, instead of a new formal canon, Francis were to simply proclaim the following from the balcony of St. Peter’s?
To all of our beloved brothers and sisters living out the
sacred commitment of marital fidelity:
Thank you for sharing with the rest of God’s people your
faith-filled longing to join us at the feast of the Lord’s mercy.
We have missed you for too long. Welcome home!
George Wilson SJ is a retired ecclesiologist living in Baltimore, Md.