Question: I’m a Catholic who is divorced and remarried. I never got an annulment from my first marriage. But I really love the Mass and want to receive the Eucharist. So several years ago, I asked a priest, who said my marital status didn’t matter and I could keep taking Communion. Then a friend told me a priest didn’t have authority to say that unless my new husband and I lived as brother and sister. My second marriage was rocky at that point, so I followed my friend’s advice. My new husband and I wound up separating. When I read in the papers that Pope Francis is allowing the divorced and remarried to take Communion, I got really confused and upset. I feel like my sacrifice was for nothing, and I’m pretty angry with my friend. Did the rules just change? I don’t understand! — Maria P.
Answer: First of all, don’t believe everything you read in the papers! Pope Francis did not just change the rules to allow all divorced and remarried to receive communion. The papers you read were probably reporting on the Pope’s recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia (or The Joy of Love), and in particular on Chapter 8, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”
In Chapter 8, Pope Francis stated that he is not providing “a new set of general rules … applicable to all cases” (AL 300). Instead, he is offering “a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.” (id.) This discernment can happen through conversations with priests. But it does not mean “that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions,’ or that some people can obtain sacramental privileges in exchange for favours.” (id.)
Pope Francis stressed that not all divorced and remarried are in a state of mortal sin, relying on the traditional definition of mortal sin as requiring three conditions: (1) grave matter, (2) full knowledge, and (3) deliberate consent (AL 301, CCC 1857). To remarry outside the Church without getting an annulment is definitely a grave matter. But whether a person had full knowledge and deliberate consent depends on the person.
According to the Catechism, a person’s degree of responsibility for their actions can be lessened by “ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments” or by “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors” (AL 302, CCC 1735, 2352).
In explaining what Pope Francis said in Amoris Laetitia, commentator Fr. Dwight Longenecker uses an analogy to drivers who break the law by speeding. If the speed limit is 60 miles per hour, anyone who drives over that limit has broken the law. But if one driver is drag racing on the highway and the other is rushing to get his injured daughter to the hospital, then the drag racer bears far more guilt for what he did. Fr. Longenecker continues:
Like the speeders, one divorced and remarried person may be far more guilty than another divorced and remarried person. Both have broken God’s law by being remarried after divorce, but the degree of their fault may vary. This doesn’t mean a divorced and remarried person who is only mildly guilty may automatically receive Communion. That person still needs to have his or her irregular relationship sorted out.
So what does all of this mean for your specific situation? First of all, it’s true that priests don’t have the authority to grant quick exceptions. The process of pastoral discernment isn’t a one-shot deal. It implies a relationship with a particular confessor who knows you and accepts the Church’s teachings, and who is willing to help you understand the right path by meeting with you frequently, over and over, until you can see your way through.
Second of all, don’t be angry with your friend. The advice to live as brother and sister comes straight out of Pope St. John Paul II’s words in Familiaris Consortio (no. 84):
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those [divorced and remarried] who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”
You did the right thing — the heroic thing. And you did it for love of the Eucharist. But if you’re troubled about it, the answer is to find a trustworthy confessor who can see you regularly, getting to know you and your specific situation, and helping you understand the great value of what you chose to do.
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Copyright 2016 Dr. Manny & Karee Santos