Our series of reader questions concerning the marriage laws of the Catholic Church continues. Last week, we talked about one reason why the Church might not marry someone who had been married before, though not in the Catholic Church; this week, we address the question of divorce and the reception of Holy Communion.
A reader writes:
I was married in the Church in 1984. My husband became an alcoholic and became violent. I divorced him after he held a loaded gun to my head. I cannot locate him to get an annulment. I have been receiving Communion after Confession and I want to know if I am OK doing this. I have been divorced for over 20 years, and I love the Lord and now live alone since my only son is 29 and living in Dallas. Am I sinning because I do receive Communion and my marriage has not been annulled?
While the details of the reader's situation may not be common, the broad outlines unfortunately are. According to numerous surveys, self-identified Catholics are just as likely as others to get divorced today. What many people do not realize, however, is that divorce in itself may not exclude a Catholic from the reception of Holy Communion.
That's because, as far as the Church is concerned, divorce is a civil matter. The Church discusses marriage in terms of its validity (whether two people are indeed married); its licity (whether the marriage was conducted according to the marriage laws of the Church); and whether a marriage is a sacramental one (a marriage between two baptized Christians) or a natural one (a marriage between at least one unbaptized person and another person, baptized or unbaptized).
Divorce affects none of these. As far as the Church is concerned, if a couple is validly married and they get a civil divorce, they are still married. While the fact of a civil divorce might be used in an annulment proceeding as evidence to indicate that one or both of the spouses did not enter into the marriage with the proper intention, the civil divorce in itself does not change the status of the marriage.
Thus, broadly speaking, a divorced Catholic who lives a chaste life and has not received an annulment is usually not barred from receiving Communion. That would be true even if the divorced Catholic's spouse remarries—just as one spouse's adultery would not affect the other spouse's ability to receive Communion.
That may be true even when (as in the reader's case) the Catholic in question is the one who filed for the divorce. If the reader has been living a chaste life, it is quite likely that she has done nothing wrong in receiving Communion.
However—and I cannot stress this enough—any divorced Catholic should discuss his situation with his parish priest before deciding that he can continue receiving Communion. If for any reason the priest cannot determine whether the divorced Catholic might be barred from receiving Communion, he can refer the question to his diocese's marriage tribunal.
None of this, of course, applies to a divorced Catholic who has remarried without receiving an annulment or a divorced Catholic who is living an unchaste life. We'll take a look at those situations in next week's reader question.
Resources on Marriage and Annulment:
- The Sacrament of Marriage
- Can I Get Married in the Catholic Church?
- How To Obtain an Annulment Through the Catholic Church (from Cathy Meyer, the About.com Guide to Divorce Support)
If you have a question, please send me an e-mail. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.