Giving Communion to remarried Catholics

If the current Church ban is lifted, it must be true to the teaching of Jesus, writes David Quinn

Pope Francis has called an extraordinary synod of the Church to take place next year in Rome. It is only the third such synod since the end of the Second Vatican Council. The theme of the synod is ‘The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation’.

One of the big questions the synod will examine is whether remarried Catholics can receive Communion. Pope Benedict had previously flagged that this is an area that ought to be looked at. (Curiously, whenever Benedict indicated flexibility on a point he received little or no publicity. Whenever Francis indicates flexibility he receives massive publicity).

This issue is a classic example of the need on the one hand to maintain the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage, and on the other to show mercy and compassion to those whose marriages have failed and have since gone on to remarry and quite possibly have children.

If a sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved but a Catholic has obtained a civil divorce and remarried, then that person strictly speaking is in an adulterous relationship.

State of sin

Those in a serious state of sin are not supposed to present themselves for Communion. If the Church suddenly says that Catholics in a second marriage, where their previous spouse (their spouse still in the eyes of the Church) is still alive, then is the Church now saying those Catholics are not in a state of sin after all?

This would seem to indicate that the Church approves of divorce and remarriage in certain circumstances after all. This is the quandary the Church faces on this issue.

Of course, the Gospels themselves are actually contradictory on this point.

In Matthew 19 we have Jesus telling the Pharisees: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The exception

But in Mark 10 the exception for adultery is not there. Instead Jesus says: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Some Churches follow Matthew 19 and allow divorce and remarriage where one spouse has committed adultery. The Catholic Church follows Mark 10. (Did Mark simply neglect to mention the exception that Matthew included in his Gospel?)

The Orthodox Churches are among those who follow Matthew 19. They allow the party whose spouse has committed adultery to divorce and remarry. On his way home from World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis told journalists that he was interested in examining the Orthodox practice.

Is this a way forward – if that’s the word – for the Catholic Church? Certainly no-one could ever accuse the Orthodox Churches of being ‘liberal’ or of following modern fads.

Divorce and remarriage is now relatively common among Catholics. In America, according to a new study, something like 28pc of marriages between Catholics end in divorce. This is considerably less than the national average, but it still accounts for a lot of people.

It must be borne in mind that divorce has multiple causes. Sometimes couples divorce simply because they are unhappy. Pope Francis recently branded this as ‘selfish’.


Other marriages end in divorce or separation because they are very high conflict and may even involve violence.

Some people are divorced against their will in a court of civil law. A Catholic who finds themselves in this situation can hardly be blamed. They may have been willing to try and salvage the marriage but their spouse unilaterally decided to pull the plug anyway.

Then there are the many marriages that end because of adultery on the part of one or both spouses. This is a very common cause of divorce and separation.

If a Catholic finds themselves divorced against their will that person can, of course, continue to receive Communion. It is only when they remarry that a problem occurs.

Is it fair to treat this person in the same way as a Catholic who has been unfaithful in their marriage, has divorced and then married the person they were unfaithful with?

Both of these Catholics are barred from Communion, but in the first example the person did nothing to break up their marriage, and in the second example the person did everything to break it up. Their situations are simply not the same but they are equally barred from Communion at present.

Ultimately this is a theological question of course, and a great deal of theological discussion will have to take place before next year’s synod. If the current blanket ban on remarried Catholics receiving Communion is lifted, it will have to be done in a way that is true to the teaching of Jesus.

It will also have to be done in a way that allows for clear and understandable rules. If we follow the Orthodox path (as it is explained in an article in the Italian publication, Vatican Insider) then the only Catholics who will be allowed to remarry and receive Communion will be those who are victims of adultery.


This alone will be something of a revolutionary change of course, because it will mean that the Catholic Church for the first time is effectively condoning divorce and remarriage under certain circumstances.

If it does that, what signal will it be sending to a culture already saturated in divorce? Will it be a signal of mercy, or a signal that effectively authorises even more divorce? These are the questions that must be decided.