Fidelity – to Spouses and Christ’s Words

Is the most serious problem confronting Catholic families today the fact that the Church does not consider divorced and remarried Catholics suitable to receive Holy Communion? I don’t think so. I doubt most Catholics would. But in the run-up to the October Synod on the Family a number of influential churchmen seem to be of the opinion that this is the most significant problem we must deal with, and deal with in a way that the Church has never done before. A full court press is on by those who advocate that the Church change her teaching and practice on this matter.

That teaching and practice concern the indissoluble nature of marriage, and hence the adulterous nature of any second marriage entered into while one’s spouse is still living. In 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), in a statement issued under the instruction of Pope John Paul II, stated quite plainly: “Members of the faithful who live together as husband and wife with persons other than their legitimate spouses may not receive Holy Communion.”

That teaching and practice also concern the clear obligation that anyone who is conscious of being in a state of mortal sin may not receive Holy Communion. If someone who is knowingly in a state of mortal sin receives Holy Communion, that person commits a mortal sin of sacrilegious reception of the Body of Christ.    

That teaching and practice also concern the public nature of marriage, such that any claim that a marriage was entered into invalidly must be proven before an ecclesiastical tribunal. It is not sufficient for one or both of the spouses to assert that, in good conscience, they consider their marriage to be invalid, and thus they consider themselves free to marry again. If this standard of private judgment were adopted, how would we deal with a claim of invalidity by one spouse when the other spouse was equally convinced that the marriage was valid?

The CDF stated in 1994: “The mistaken conviction of a divorced-and-remarried person that he may receive holy communion normally presupposes that personal conscience is considered in the final analysis to be able, on the basis of ones own convictions, to come to a decision about the existence or absence of a previous marriage and the value of the new union. However, such a position is inadmissible.”

Marriage is regulated by canon law in order to safeguard the sanctity of the sacrament, to set forth and uphold the rights and duties of the couple, and to provide for the common good by defending the nature and purpose of marriage. Catholics are obliged to marry in the Church and to submit to the laws of the Church on marriage. This is part and parcel of the Christian vocation to be living members of the Mystical Body of Christ, with due submission to the Pastors of the Church and the laws enacted to safeguard the Faith and the unity of the Church.

The Code of Canon Law teaches (canon 1134): “From a valid marriage there arises between the spouses a bond which by its nature is perpetual and exclusive. Moreover, a special sacrament strengthens and, as it were, consecrates the spouses in a Christian marriage for the duties and dignity of their state.”

This leads to the question: How do we know if the marriage is valid? Canon 1060 states: “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.”

This presumption of validity is absolutely crucial to the life of the Church: What you vow at the altar has a real effect: you become married for life. It is not make believe, it is not a contingent thing subject to reversal. You are married and you will be treated as such by the Church. If a cause exists that rendered the vows ineffectual, that has to be proven, not simply asserted.

A lawfully married person is permitted to formulate a doubt about the validity of his or her marriage, but that doubt must be submitted to an ecclesiastical tribunal where it will be adjudicated.

So the notion that an individual should be allowed to judge the validity of his own marriage, with the juridical effect that he would be able to declare the marriage invalid and then remarry in the Church is truly revolutionary. It destroys the objective legal order in the Church. The reality of any marriage bond would be subject to self-decreed disappearance based on the personal judgment of the person involved.

It has also been have suggested that even when the validity of the first marriage is not impugned, it would be merciful to give Holy Communion to “contrite” persons who remain in invalid second marriages. The strange notion that Catholics who persist in an adulterous second marriage should be able to receive Holy Communion is completely wrong. Adultery is a serious offense against God’s law.

Again, the CDF stated in 1994: “In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ, the Church affirms that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes Gods law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists.”

The CDF also warned: “If these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Churchs teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”

So it comes down to this: misplaced charity seeking to eliminate the hurt that some divorced and remarried Catholics experience in not being able to receive Holy Communion has led to insistent proposals that, if adopted, would depart from Christ’s own words, gravely offend against Catholic doctrine, and threaten the unity and peace of the Church. Let us pray for the Synod Fathers.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.