This week, as we continue our series of reader questions concerning the marriage laws of the Catholic Church, I'm combining three questions that may not, at first glance, seem related. The first reader writes:
Please clarify if a couple who are not married in a Catholic church can receive Holy Communion. How can they remedy the situation if the other party is separated from his previous wife?
While the second wants to know:
If a person is living an adulterous lifestyle and attends Mass, can he receive Communion?
And the third asks:
I am a Catholic widow. I have been living with a divorced Catholic gentleman for 16 years. We have not married as I would lose benefits from my first husband (pension, health insurance). My boyfriend's wife left him. Can I still receive Communion?
The usual caveats apply: I do not know all the details of any of these situation (and the first two may be hypothetical). Therefore, my answer will be based on assumptions I need to make to fill in the details, and those assumptions could be wrong.
That said, it seems to me that all three questions are concerned with the necessity of chastity. Presumably, the first reader means that the couple is not married, period, rather than married outside the Catholic Church, since she mentions that the man is "separated" (rather than divorced) from his previous wife.
In the case of the second question, it doesn't really matter whether the "adulterous lifestyle" is being lived by a spouse in a marriage or by an unmarried person engaged in adultery with a married man or woman. For our purposes, the situation is the same.
In all of these cases, the question has less to do with marriage per se than it does with chastity, which is the practice of the cardinal virtue of temperance in regard to sexual pleasure or appetites. In practical terms, chastity means refraining from sexual activity outside of marriage—celibacy before marriage; fidelity within it. (And, it should go without saying, "marriage" here means a valid marriage.)
In order to receive Holy Communion, we must be in a state of grace. Those who have sinned against chastity, and have not repented and gone to Confession, are not in a state of grace. Therefore, they need to refrain from receiving Communion, because receiving Communion while not in a state of grace is itself a mortal sin.
Assuming that the couple in the first question are neither married nor chaste, they cannot receive Communion without committing a mortal sin. There are two ways to remedy the situation: First, they should return to living chastely (which most likely will include living apart) and make a complete and contrite Confession. Second, if they wish to marry, they should speak to their parish priest to determine whether the man is likely to be able to obtain an annulment.
The case of the person "living an adulterous lifestyle" is similar. At any point, he can return to living chastely simply by refraining from unchaste behavior and making a complete and contrite Confession. Even if he falls into the same sin again, the solution is the same. However, Confession cannot be used as a "get out of jail free" card. If he does not have a firm resolution not to commit the same sin, he has not made a contrite confession.
In the final case, it is possible that the man and woman are living chastely, though their apparent desire to marry and the reference to the man as her "boyfriend" probably indicates otherwise. Assuming that they are not living chastely, the answer is the same as the one I offered for the first question: The man and woman need to return to living chastely and need to seek out the Sacrament of Confession. If the man's first marriage can be annulled, they could be married. While that may mean losing the woman's pension and health benefits, that is infinitely preferable to what both might lose if they continue to live an unchaste life.
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.