A Novel Argument in favor of Communion for the Divorced

I’ve not seen this point in any of the discussions about Amoris Laetitia, specifically the section that allows, in some limited cases, reception of holy Communion by the divorced and remarried. It is a solid theological argument, based not only on the current guide for confessors issued by the Holy See, called the Vademecum [1], but also the writings of Saint Alphonsus Liguori on the Sacrament of Penance.

In some cases, when the penitent is guilty of an objective mortal sin (an act that is gravely immoral, but which lacks the full knowledge and full deliberation of actual mortal sin), but is unaware of the gravity or immorality of the act, the confessor is advised by the Church and by Saint Alphonsus (and many other authors following his opinion) NOT to make the penitent aware that his act is a grave sin. For then an act that is only material sin, might become formal sin (i.e. an objectively grave act might become actual mortal sin).

In such cases, the penitent is given valid absolution in the Sacrament of Penance and is permitted to receive holy Communion, even though his confessor knows that he is continuing to commit an objective mortal sin in his life!! And this theological position is at the very least the common opinion of moral theologians,

“The principle according to which it is preferable to let penitents remain in good faith in cases of error due to subjectively invincible ignorance, is certainly to be considered always valid, even in matters of conjugal chastity. And this applies whenever it is foreseen that the penitent, although oriented towards living within the bounds of a life of faith, would not be prepared to change his own conduct, but rather would begin formally to sin.” [2]

This passage is followed by a series of paragraphs which place this principle in its proper perspective. The document speaks of the “law of gradualness” and cautions the confessor not to deny absolution (and by implication Communion) even to persons who frequently relapse into the same sin.

The first point is that the Church has, for centuries, permitted persons who were guilty of objective mortal sin to receive Communion, as long as they were not guilty of actual mortal sin (as far as the penitent alone, or the penitent and confessor together might be able to judge this). This establishes the principle that a person guilty of objective mortal sin, but not actual mortal sin, may generally receive Communion.

Only actual mortal sin deprives the soul of the state of grace. And the state of grace is the main requirement for a Christian to receive holy Communion. Other requirements are established by the Church’s authority, and made stricter or looser as the Roman Pontiff and an Ecumenical Council might decide. But to be a Christian in the state of grace is the foundation of any larger set of criteria for reception.

The second point is that the Vademecum permits absolution even when a penitent repeatedly, even frequently, falls into the same grave sin. “Frequent relapse into sins of contraception does not in itself constitute a motive for denying absolution” [3]. And this repeated absolution implies a repeated worthiness to receive Communion.

The third point is that the Council of Trent permits a priest who is cognizant of actual mortal sin to receive Communion, prior to Confession, if he repents with perfect contrition and no other priest is available for Confession at the time [4]. Actual mortal sin with perfect contrition restores the state of grace. So again, the sinner is permitted to receive Communion because he is a Christian who is reasonably believed to be in the state of grace. (The whole moral law is open to reason. A baptized Christian cannot be certain he is in the state of grace, but he can make a reasonable determination as to the likelihood.)

Applying these three points to the divorced and remarried is not so complicated. If the spouse-penitent is striving to conform to Church teaching, but frequently falls into the sin of sex outside of a valid marriage, he or she may confess and receive Communion.

In other cases, the penitent might be guilty of unrepentant objective mortal sin, which is not an actual mortal sin due to a lack of full knowledge of the Church’s teaching on divorce and marriage. And knowledge here is not merely the reception of information on what the Church objectively teaches, but the subjective understanding and acceptance of the teaching by the conscience. So the spouse in this case is more like a penitent afflicted by “subjectively invincible ignorance”, and may not be guilty of actual mortal sin, despite knowing the Church teaching as a matter of fact.

On the third point, the divorced and remarried penitent is not a priest who must say Mass, so the teaching of Trent does not apply in and of itself. Rather, a theological argument can be made that if a priest who knows he has committed an actual mortal sin may receive Communion, after repenting with perfect contrition, this proves that the Church possesses the authority to give Communion to Christians in the state of grace, despite grave sin. If some of the divorced and remarried are in the state of grace, despite objectively grave sins, the Church has the authority to give them Communion.

My personal preference for Communion discipline is much stricter. I would like to see a general rule, with exceptions for grave circumstances, that prohibits Communion in cases of mere objective mortal sin, even without full knowledge or full deliberation. But Pope Francis is Peter, and Peter holds the keys. I support Pope Francis, just as I support Peter himself and all of his successors.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
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[1] Pontifical Council for the Family, “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life”
[2] Vademecum, 3, 8.
[3] Vademecum, 3, 5.
[4] Council of Trent, Decree on the Eucharist, Chap. VII

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7 Responses to A Novel Argument in favor of Communion for the Divorced

  1. dom64verona88chrysostomos says:

    O, mes chers amis,
    Je vous demande très humblement pardon, mais souvenez-vous des paroles de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ: “Ce que Dieu a uni, que l’homme ne le sépare pas! “

  2. dom64verona88chrysostomos says:

    “Ce que Dieu a uni, que l’homme ne le sépare pas!”

  3. Jeff says:

    How does a marriage annulment factor favorably into this? It probably doesnt from the sounds of it. Sorry, but as one who is divorced and never wanted or planned to be that way, the 12th century position that all of us who are divorced are going to hell couldnt be more antiquated. God knows exactly why the divorce occurred, when no one else does. Writings like this one, coupled with credible sexual accusations defrocking not 1 but 2 priests I knew just fuel the lack of desire pushing many of us away from church anymore. Hurt, anger, lack of healing, and loss of trust in pretty much anyone in church has destroyed the faith and drive some of us once had to go to mass. After all, why bother if we are all going to hell anyway?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Divorce is not necessarily a sin. There are now some papal critics on the far right who are speaking as if it were always a sin, but that is not what the Church teaches. Civil divorce is permissible in some cases; and one spouse may be the victim of an unwanted divorce. The question revolves around divorce and remarriage, when the prior marriage is a valid Sacrament. Those persons do not necessarily go to Hell, as you phrased it. Some on the far right are callous and narrow-minded. Listen to what Pope Francis is saying instead.

  4. Dennis says:

    A related point to your discussion above is that of the contribution divorce and remarriage has had to the falling away from the faith in the West and in the US in particular. I have read and heard on radio countless examples of divorced Catholics renouncing their faith upon remarriage (often to Non-Denominational or Protestant, former Catholics) in a non-Catholic setting, or worse still, joining the ‘faith community’ of their new ‘spouse’.

    I, as a divorced (but not annulled) Catholic, personally encountered this challenge when the AL frenzy was at its height! I found my beliefs being challenged by a (non-Denom former Catholic) significant other and when the clear meaning of Matthew 5:32 was denied outright (without further discussion) I made my decision to stay with the Gospel. Thousands, if not millions, of ‘former’ Catholics, when push comes to shove, have decided otherwise and remarried outside the Church.

    I recognize that AL is attempting to ‘meet these people where they are at’ however I would caution that, considering the state of the culture right now (gay/self/chandelier/dog ‘marriage’), excessive recognition of objectively (continuing) invalid second marriages may undermine Catholics’ valuing of marriage as an institution/Sacrament. Regardless of their conjugal circumstances, many of these people have placed themselves outside the Church for MANY years and thus may require extensive re-catechizing. Such formal re-catechizing, say as a separate structure along the lines of RCIA, could prove most fruitful for both the individual and their extended family & friends.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I believe God has a plan in leading the Pope to teach as he did in AL. It may be that He intends a time of mercy and leniency, so that sinners may more easily repent. I expect the next Pope to tighten the rules for Communion, so I don’t see the harm in a relatively brief time of leniency. But many of the critics of AL are in a state of formal heresy or formal schism, and so they ought to be denied Communion under their own preferred plan for Communion discipline.

      But I don’t think it is divorce and remarriage that is the root of the problem. Rather, many Catholics are greatly influenced by modern culture, and they have gradually fallen away. They would have fallen away without divorce. They would have fallen away without Vatican II. The flesh, the world, and the devil are the three influences on free will towards sin.

  5. Dennis says:

    Thanks Ron, insightful as usual. I would add that, as evidenced by the last half century, the divorced (non-annulled) Catholic faces not only sin but the very real possibility of beginning on a path directly away from the Church. His or her new ‘spouse’ is unlikely to be a faithful practicing Catholic, otherwise they wouldn’t agree to the ‘ceremony’. So you end up with two lapsed Catholics who may or may not possess invincible ignorance due in no small part to modern culture as you point out.

    A man can sin by partnering with a woman to rob a bank but that doesn’t mean she will be inviting him to her Bible Christian church the following Sunday or questioning why her Baptist minister can’t perform their marriage.

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