Ten Commandments: No Exemptions


Fr. Andrew McLean Cummings recently published an article entitled, “What Cardinal Kasper Really Said About Divorce.” He attempts to justify Kasper’s effort to overturn Catholic teaching concerning the unsuitability of divorced and remarried Catholics for the reception of Holy Communion. This teaching is the basis for Canon 915, which states that those “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”

Fr. Cummings writes:

[T]he cardinal does not call into doubt the objectively sinful state of those who have remarried outside the Church. Rather, and this is the key, he questions the personal responsibility of these persons for the situation in which they find themselves. . . .if some such people are subjectively innocent, why are they being excluded from full participation in the Church’s life? The obvious answer is that one cannot know for sure whether or not a person is subjectively innocent for [sic] his bad behavior. . . .Or was the sin merely “material,” as the technical terminology has it? Certainly, whether some people do indeed find themselves in an adulterous relationship through no serious fault of their own, and which people these might be, are not questions that a minister of communion can answer. Therefore, admission to communion must be based on objective criteria. . . .Cardinal Kasper simply raises the issue of individuals who are “subjectively convinced” of their innocence, but he does not pursue it. Not wishing to anticipate the work of the upcoming Synod of Bishops, he does not propose what pastoral approach should be taken in their regard. Nonetheless, it is clear that this is the fulcrum on which centuries of pastoral practice could be overturned.

Fr. Cummings is correct that centuries of pastoral practice would be overturned if the Church were to determine that a divorced and remarried Catholic who is subjectively convinced that his adulterous acts are not gravely sinful should be admitted to Holy Communion.

Denial of Holy Communion to the divorced and remarried, however, is not based on an assumption that everyone in an adulterous relationship is in fact subjectively guilty of mortal sin. (Canon law operates on the assumption that we are responsible for our external acts and their consequences, unless the contrary can be demonstrated). The denial is based on the assumption that those who publicly enter into an adulterous union (such as a second civil marriage) are committing objectively grave sinful acts of adultery, thus wounding the Mystical Body of Christ. When that is not the case, say for a couple who live as brother and sister in view of the good of raising their children, they can be admitted to Holy Communion after making a good confession, provided that scandal is avoided.

The Church’s teaching on the grave immorality of adultery compels her to protect the sanctity of the sacraments of Marriage and the Holy Eucharist by establishing canonical norms for the spiritual welfare of the person living in sin and the common good of the faithful. Simply put: the denial of Holy Communion to a public sinner is a charitable rebuke calling to conversion, and a strong message to the entire community: do not fall into such gravely immoral behavior.

The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts issued a Declaration in 2000 that answers Fr. Cummings’ central contention: “In recent years some authors have sustained, using a variety of arguments, that this canon [915] would not be applicable to faithful who are divorced and remarried.” They “offer various interpretations of the above-cited canon that exclude from its application the situation of those who are divorced and remarried. For example, since the text speaks of ‘grave sin,’ it would be necessary to establish the presence of all the conditions required for the existence of mortal sin, including those which are subjective, necessitating a judgment of a type that a minister of Communion could not make ab externo.”

The Declaration continues: “But the unworthiness that comes from being in a state of sin also poses a serious juridical problem in the Church: indeed the canon of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches that is parallel to can. 915 CIC of the Latin Church makes reference to the term ‘unworthy’: ‘Those who are publicly unworthy are forbidden from receiving the Divine Eucharist’ (can. 712). In effect, the reception of the Body of Christ when one is publicly unworthy constitutes an objective harm to the ecclesial communion: it is a behavior that affects the rights of the Church and of all the faithful to live in accord with the exigencies of that communion. In the concrete case of the admission to Holy Communion of faithful who are divorced and remarried, the scandal, understood as an action that prompts others towards wrongdoing, affects at the same time both the sacrament of the Eucharist and the indissolubility of marriage. That scandal exists even if such behavior, unfortunately, no longer arouses surprise: in fact it is precisely with respect to the deformation of the conscience that it becomes more necessary for Pastors to act, with as much patience as firmness, as a protection to the sanctity of the Sacraments and a defense of Christian morality, and for the correct formation of the faithful.”

The subjective conviction of a person in an adulterous second marriage that he is not culpable of a mortal sin cannot be the basis for overthrowing the canonical discipline of the Church regarding reception of the sacraments. Such a subjective conviction can only be truly arrived at if he judges his first marriage to be invalid, in which case the remedy is a Church tribunal, which alone has the competence to confirm or deny his contention. If he considers his first marriage to be valid, then he cannot in good conscience claim to believe in the truth and binding nature of the Sixth Commandment, and at the same time judge his adulterous behavior not to be mortally sinful. There are no self-created exemptions from the Ten Commandments.


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.