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Scott P. Richert

Reader Question: Divorce, Annulment, and Communion

By July 23, 2009

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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:

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.

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August 6, 2009 at 3:56 am
(1) Mark says:

I am puzzled as to why people still partake in communion, when is obvious to anyone who considers the practise that it is no more than a ritualized cannibal feast

August 6, 2009 at 5:26 am
(2) Scott P. Richert says:

I am puzzled as to why people who consider Communion “no more than a ritualized cannibal feast” still waste their time lecturing others about it.

October 16, 2009 at 4:02 pm
(3) eileen says:

My heart is broken… I was an abused child from a dysfunctional alcoholic family who married an abusive non relational man. After 25 yrs of every kind of fasting,prayer, councilng retreats etc. was divorced and subsequently got an annulment. I met and fell in love with a peaceful man who also got an annulment in the US. But his ex-wife who left the church years ago and had years of psyche issues in great part by her 10 year abuse/affair starting at 16 with her parish priest. Her pastor knew of this affair and wrote letters (which we have) of love and jealousy of their romance. The priest left her and the priesthood. She met her husband (now my husband) to be after she had an alleged rape of which she was to have flashback to for 20 yrs. The pastor who wrote love letters to her married them in 1976 Knowing all this. NONE of this was known to my know husband at the time of his marriage. He found out 20 yrs into the marriage after he had done all he could in blind ignorance. He endured 25 yrs of flashback, lies, withholding of friendship and affections and sex andprofound loneliness and much, much more that would make you blush. He did this with fidelity doing anything she wanted and trying everything he knew to fix the marriage. Her psychologist told him to save himself. He divorced her got an annulment in the US but she knowing in ins and outs of the C.Church appealed it to Rome. Our pastor told us to get married and when the annulment came through he would marry us in the church. After 7 yrs the decree came back from the rota against him. (97% of US annulments are denied in Rome). So I the Catholic, cantor, minister, daily communicant, music minister is denied the sacraments. Not even good enough to get the scraps that fall off the table!! Where is love? Where is Jesus. Their marriage was abuse and hell lies and stonewalling Where is Truth? We live in peace and joy..Where is the Fruit of the Spirit. Rome said that lies and abuse was truth. I am beyond pain…

February 27, 2010 at 9:50 pm
(4) laurie says:

Eilene, I AM SO SORRY for the situation you find yourself in. I am also a life-long Catholic married to a man whose ex-wife appealed their US granted annulment to Rome. This is my first marriage. Their marriage, however, was a mess. She is (inactive except Easter and Christmas) an Episcopalian and the one who applied for the divorce. Their marriage was full of lies and deceit, by both parties. We still wait on Rome.
Please, please, I only pray that you read this: ask your husband to check in to re-applying for the annulment on different grounds. I will pray that the Holy Spirit has healed the ex-wife so that she will to the right things. I know that it doesn’t help, but you are not alone. I am so sorry for the situation you find yourself in.

August 7, 2010 at 12:00 am
(5) Francis C. George says:

I definitely do not believe that Mr. Richert intends to intentionaly mislead people with his answer above, however, there are some very important points that could be of eternal consequence to someone reading it.

If I abandon my wife and close the door to reconciliation then I have certainly not truly repented of the grave sin of divorce. It would be like stealing $10 mil and moving to St. Lucia. I call my neighbor up and say, “I’m sorry.” I hang up and continue to sip margaritas on the beach every day for the rest of my life. True repentance would include a willingness to give the money back. True repentance from abandoning one’s spouse would include a willingness to reconcile.

Please consider (from MarysAdvocates.org)

“The Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that divorce, which goes against the indissolubility of marriage, is a grave sin opposed to the sacrament of Matrimony; and the physical separation of spouses is allowed when for serious reasons their living together becomes practically impossible (Sec, 347: Sec. 348). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, describes divorce as immoral and a grave offense against nature. It also makes a clear distinction between a spouse who has been faithful to one’s marriage and is unjustly abandoned compared to a spouse who “through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (par. 2384-2386). Canon 1060 in the Catholic Code of Canon Law requires that all marriages shall be presumed valid until proven otherwise. In Pope John Paul II’s 2004 address to the Roman Rota, he explained how sin can be the cause for family breakup and he cautioned that a marriage is not assumed to be invalid because one or both spouses failed to uphold their duty; “… in accordance with human experience marked by sin, a valid marriage can fail because of the spouses’ own misuse of freedom” (Sec. 5).

Catechism section 1649 teaches in some cases, living together becomes practically impossible and in these situations “the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation.”

To understand if a divorced Catholic is in the state of grace, it must be determined whether one has a legitimate reason to separate. When the Catechism describes cases in which living together is practically impossible; it reference sections 1151-1155 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law (CCC par 2383, Canon enclosed). The code specifies licit reason for separation: if an innocent spouse is betrayed by an adulterous partner; if an innocent spouse is in grave danger of soul or body caused by the other partner; if children need to be protected from a parent who puts the children in grave danger of soul or body; or if an abusive spouse makes the common life unduly difficult. The Exegetical Commentary of the Code of Canon Law, which is recommended by the President of the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts, defines the conditions in which “grave danger of soul or body” and “unduly difficult” situations provide licit reasons to separate:

For separation due to physical or moral cruelty to be lawful, the following conditions are necessary:
- it must be grave, such that it makes common life dangerous for the spouse or children;
- it must be repeated, because if it were merely occasional, it would not create the fear for future common life, which justifies the separation;
- and separation must constitute the only means of avoiding the danger involved in common life (canon 1153, p.1585).

Most divorces in the United States do not occur because of these moral reasons described in the canon law. According to a 1988 Gallup poll cited by Mike McManus’s work, Marriage Savers, 5% of divorce plaintiffs seek divorce because their spouse is physically abusive, 16% seek divorce because their spouse is a substance abuser, and 17% seek divorce because their spouse committed adultery (McManus 123). The remaining majority of divorces are sought for other reasons, and people seeking divorces for these other reasons have no moral grounds to be separating from their spouse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ‘Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent’” (par. 1857). Canon 915 teaches, “Those … who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy communion.” A spouse who chooses to separate with no licit reason is named a “malicious abandoner” in the Exegetical Commentary Code of Canon Law (1585).

The Catholic Code of Canon Law, Section 1692, limits the circumstances in which it is allowable to even approach the civil court. The canon describes an ecclesiastic process that considers the “particular” circumstances of every couple, and describes when one can approach a civil court for the “merely civil effects of marriage.” The Code of Canon Law Annotated, which is recommended by the President of the Pontifical Council of Legislative Texts, explains how canon 1692 specifies the ecclesiastic process that is a “necessary precaution, which prevents the fostering of [government] trials whose judgments violate precepts of divine law, to the detriment of the spouses and with the risk of scandal to others” (Instituto Martin 1324).

The civil divorce routine violates the precepts of divine law because it does not recognize adultery and abandonment as faults. Civil divorce does not acknowledge that an abandoner or abuser has a lifelong responsibility to uphold the “informing principles that constitute the general guidelines for spousal behavior.” [...] “Matrimonial life must not involve a detriment to the corporal or material good of the other spouse.” [...] “One spouse must not cause the other any detriment to his or her spiritual well being;” [...] “one must not cause any harm to [children's] material or spiritual wellbeing, immorally or culpably” (Instituto Martin 1572). The innocent party and the children should be protected.

With no-fault divorce, children are ordered to regularly leave the parent who wants to keep the family intact, regardless of the negative effect on children’s spiritual well being and the “due maintenance and upbringing of children” (canon 1154). Children in traditional families lose full time, stay-at-home parenting. Property is equally split between an innocent spouse and the one who destroys his or her marriage, regardless of the financial devastation this causes to the children or innocent spouse. The innocent spouse often has to pay support for the upbringing of children in a household in which they are not allowed to live. The Exegetical Commentary Code of Canon Law explains that separation should be “an institution for the prevention of future evils for the innocent spouse and children” (Instituto Martin 1570). According to the Church’s understanding of separation, when one has been unjustly abandoned, “with invocation of the concept of malicious abandonment, there is an attempt to declare guilty the spouse who has maliciously been absent and to obtain the legal declaration of separation for the one who has been abandoned” with the intent of “specifically protecting compliance with every conjugal and family duty, and penalizing their omission” (Institudo Martin, 1585-1586). Custody, alimony and support orders typically invoked by civil court violate the precepts of divine law, and civil divorce or separation decrees are licit for Catholics only in limited circumstances.

August 14, 2010 at 1:47 pm
(6) Scott P. Richert says:

Thank you, Francis, for acknowledging that I did not intend to mislead anyone with the answer I gave. You might go a step further, however, and acknowledge that I did not mislead.

Within the confines of the question that was posed, my answer said nothing that your much longer comment doesn’t also say. And, of course, I stressed that any divorced Catholic who wishes to receive Communion should consult his or her priest first, so that the circumstances of the divorce can be examined (and even noted that, if the situation is complicated, the priest can refer the matter to the diocesan marriage tribunal).

Your comment departed from the confines of the question that was posed and regarded divorce in general. Everything that you quote is entirely correct, as are the conclusions you draw from them. The one specific hypothetical that you give (a man who abandons his wife) departs radically from the situation under discussion. Had that been the question that was posed, my answer would have been the same as yours (though considerably shorter).

That said, there are many divorced Catholics, who have not received annulments, who can licitly receive Communion. But, as I stressed, they should not do so without consulting their priest and obtaining his assurance that their situation allows reception of Communion.

October 25, 2010 at 10:25 am
(7) Christine says:

You do not need the ex-husband to get an annulment. They prefer they can contact them, but will still give you an annulment without them if they find just cause. I recently had an “affirmed” annulment without the involvement of my ex-husband who also was a raging alcoholic at the time of my divorce 3 years ago.

January 8, 2012 at 10:48 pm
(8) Francis C. George says:

Mr. Richert,

Sorry, I am just now catching that you responded to this. Not sure if you will see this message but just wanted to say thank you and may God bless you.

Yea, looking back… my post could have been a bit… quite a bit… shorter! May God bless you sir.



May 9, 2012 at 5:06 am
(9) Albert says:

Divorce, Annulment, and Communion (July 23, 2009)

Since its no fault of yours that you have been mistreated you are alone go to Confession and receiving Holy Communion. No you are not wrong in what you are doing and whatever is done meaning having a new relationship as long itís the same person; any sin that you might have done it unto your husband fault you cannot stay lonely all your life you need love and comfort.


November 23, 2012 at 10:18 am
(10) Karen says:

I am a baptized Catholic having been through the RCIA programme in 1987. I was in a relationship with a guy , where we both lived in the same country. After 5 years of the relationship, he migrated to the United States of America. He subsequently returned to me and we got married. This marriage did not take place in a Catholic church, it took place at the Registrar General at the General Registers Office. When he returned to the U.S, our marriage broke down. I was still living with my parents. He hardly called me.

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