Preparing for the Synod, Part 2: Reception of the Sacraments by Divorced and Remarried Persons

Upcoming Synod to Address Challenging Issues Pertaining to Marriage, Family, Sexual Morality

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One of the more complex issues expected to be addressed during the forthcoming Synod on the family is the question of reception of the Sacraments by those who are divorced and remarried and have not obtained an annulment.

This topic was included in a Preparatory Document questionnaire, sent out the end of last year, which assessed where Catholics stand on issues pertaining to family issues and sexual morality.

As part of the lead up to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family – which will focus on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization– the responses to the questionnaire have been summarized in an Instrumentum Laboris (working document), which was presented yesterday at the Vatican Press Office.

Persons Separated, Divorced and Divorced and Remarried

According to the responses received, the number of those “separated, divorced or divorced and remarried” is quite high in Europe and America, while the number is considerably lower in Africa and Asia.

Moreover, the responses indicate that the number of people cohabitating lessens the problem of divorce: “Fewer of these people are divorcing, because fewer tend to marry. In some places the situation is different; divorce does not exist because civil marriage does not exist, e.g., in Arab countries and some Asian countries.”

Situations of Canonical Irregularity

One of the observations made in the working document was that many of the questions surrounding the reception of the Sacraments by persons living in “irregular situations” arise from an unfulfilled need for catechesis and formation.

“Those living in such canonically irregular situations display various attitudes,” the document reads, “ranging from their being entirely unaware of their irregular situation to their consciously enduring the difficulties created by their irregular situation.”

It was noted that in North America, particularly, “people often think that the Church is no longer a reliable moral guide, primarily in issues related to the family, which they see as a private matter to be decided independently.”

According to the responses, many do not consider their situation to be irregular, and therefore do not request to receive Holy Communion or the Sacrament of Penance. It is not unless persons living in such situations request the Sacraments for their children, or are asked to be godparents, that they become aware of the irregularity of their situation.

One of the more complicated scenarios arises when a person has experienced a conversion, and then is faced with the prospect of leaving behind a second or third spouse. A suffering that is more basic than that of being unable to take part in the Sacraments, the document notes, is that which comes from the “breakdown in marriage and the difficulty of regularizing the situation.”

Those who have difficulty understanding why they are not permitted to receive the Sacraments while living in irregular situations, it is noted, “do not grasp the intrinsic relationship between marriage and the Sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Penance.” This lack of understanding is the result of an insufficient catechetical instruction on marriage which “does not sufficiently explain the connection” between marriage and the Sacraments.

Based on the responses, many who are unable to take part in the Sacraments “feel frustrated and marginalized, wondering “why other sins can be forgiven and not theirs.”

“Others cannot see how religious and priests can receive a dispensation from their vows and priestly obligations so they can marry, while divorced and remarried persons are unable to receive Holy Communion.”

These various questions that arise, it is observed in the working document, are the result of insufficient formation and information with regard to the Sacrament of marriage. Consequently, many who do not understand the reasons for their being denied reception to the Sacraments “believe that the Church is at fault in not permitting their irregular marriage situation.” Such a way of thinking “can lead to viewing withholding the sacraments as a punishment.”

It was recommended that those in irregular marriages ought to be counselled into not seeing themselves as being separate from the Church, and that “the Church needs to equip herself with pastoral means which provide the possibility of her more widely exercising mercy, clemency and indulgence towards new unions.”

Concerning the Reception of the Sacraments

With regard to the reception of the Sacraments by persons living in irregular situations, the responses varied. For instance, in Europe (and come countries in Latin America and Asia), “the prevailing tendency among some of the clergy is to resolve the issue by simply complying with the request for access to the sacraments.”

When access to the Sacraments is denied by the clergy, the faithful will sometimes “distance themselves from the Church or go to other Christian denominations.” However, in certain countries “this solution is not sufficient for many people; they wish to be publically readmitted to the Church.” This is because the problem is seen “not so much not being able to receive Communion but that the Church publically does not permit them to receive Communion.”

Nonetheless, there are those living in irregular situations who “express a desire to be received and guided by the Church, especially when they attempt to understand the rationale of the Church’s teaching.” Such persons “recognize the possibility of living in their situation, while relying on God’s mercy through the Church.” Others, meanwhile accept their “duty to live in continence.”

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Ann Schneible

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