Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

A subtle Vatican hint on Communion for divorced/remarried Catholics

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 23, 2013

When Pope Francis announced that the Synod meeting of 2014 will be devoted to the family, dozens of analysts reported that the Pope was opening the door to the possibility that Catholics who are divorced and remarried might be allowed to receive Communion. Then when the prefect of the CDF strongly reaffirmed Church teaching on the issue, reporters announced that the door had been slammed shut.

Not quite.

Before we go any further, an important clarification: a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble, and Catholics who attempt a second marriage will not be allowed to receive the Eucharist. Archbishop Müller left no doubt on that point.

However, not all unions are sacramental marriages. Toward the end of his statement, Archbishop Müller included this important observation:

Today’s mentality is largely opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage, with regard to its indissolubility and its openness to children. Because many Christians are influenced by this, marriages nowadays are probably invalid more often than they were previously, because there is a lack of desire for marriage in accordance with Catholic teaching, and there is too little socialization within an environment of faith. Therefore assessment of the validity of marriage is important and can help to solve problems.

If the partners did not intend a Christian marriage, the union might be invalid, the couple might receive an annulment, and a later marriage would be possible. Catholics who are married, divorced, and remarried cannot receive Communion. But for those whose marriages are annulled—that is, those who weren’t really married the first time—they is no such problem.

So Archbishop Müller’s statement suggests that the 2014 Synod might explore the possibility that many more marriages should be declared null. Such a shift in policy might not have a dramatic effect in the US, where annulments are already handed out at a rate that shocks Catholics in other countries. But for other parts of the world—for instance, the German-speaking countries, where this issue is particularly controversial— it could be quite important.

By the way, if the Synod does take up that suggestion, don’t think of it as another innovation by Pope Francis. The idea that annulments should be granted more freely, allowing remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, was proposed in 1998 by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In fact the future Pope Benedict went further than Archbishop Müller is willing to go, suggesting that if tribunals lag behind in handling annulment cases, couples might consult their own consciences regarding the validity of their unions—a possibility that Müller explicitly rejects. So in this case the Pontiff known for stalwart orthodoxy may have offered the most persuasive argument for a new "pastoral solution."

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ramonantonio3455448 - Oct. 26, 2013 10:17 AM ET USA

    I think it is important to understand that this so called "shift in policy" is not that after all. In fact, it is a most needed acceptance of reality by the Church. There are not more marriages that will be recognized as null. There will be an understanding that the marriages that the Church "Forced" to be accepted as valid were in fact null and the only ones who insisted in the distorted view that they were valid were clerics who dwell outside this world. Thank God for two Popes to land them.

  • Posted by: WBSM - Oct. 26, 2013 2:15 AM ET USA

    How about looking for ways to make fewer invalid marriages? It is time to wake up to the reality that marriage is under attack. You can't solve the problem by giving it up. The enemy will just gather forces to take the next bastion.

  • Posted by: littleone - Oct. 23, 2013 9:16 PM ET USA

    I do really think we need to make distinctions between marriage as a societal structure that is unfortunately often not oriented at all towards Christ and the concept of Matrimony as a Sacrament. I have met too many couples of various Christian denominations who married without a marital orientation towards Christ/Christian marriage/ matrimony. I agree that our US rate of annulment is striking, but not necessarily out of order!!

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 23, 2013 4:33 PM ET USA

    I am glad someone else noticed this. It seems to be in line with the more charitable attitude recommended by Pope Francis recently. Surveying the marriages I have heard about recently, I think it is impossible to deny the thrust of Muller's statement. American tribunals may simply have been ahead of their time and may now have something to teach tribunals in other countries.