Sometime ago a dear friend of mine called me on the phone and I could hear her sobbing. She was crying because she and her husband were filing for divorce. She was not only mourning the death of her marriage but was also concerned that she would be “excommunicated” from the Church. She has been a faithful Catholic all her life and could not believe that this was happening to her. For years, she had worked hard to keep the marriage together but finally it completely broke down.
That was not the first time that I have had such a conversation with a grieving spouse. A handful of the couples whose weddings I have celebrated have become divorced. Even a couple of my closest friends find themselves in a similar situation. As a Church, we have pretended as if these deeply hurt Catholics do not exist. It is time that we took their plight seriously and did something to address their needs.
I told my friend that as a divorced person, she would not be automatically excommunicated. She would be excommunicated only if she got divorced and then re-married outside the Church. In that case she would be in an irregular situation vis a vis the laws of the Church. If she did not re-marry outside the Church, she would continue to be a full member of the Church, welcome to receive all the sacraments.
I would like to point out that the use of the term “excommunicated” is unfortunate. It does not mean that the re-married Catholic is literally thrown out of the Church, excluded from her faith life. It only means that because of his/her irregular situation, he/she would not be permitted to receive Communion, he/she could not “communicate.” Because of this ruling, many divorced Catholics feel unwelcome and many of them either abandon their faith altogether or join some other Christian Church.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, is deeply aware of this problem. He knows that we cannot continue to ignore the difficult situation of divorced Catholics. That is why he has convoked the Synod on the Family to be held in Rome this October. The Pope wants the Church to study the problems of the family – including the situation of divorced Catholics – and to find adequate solutions. In his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes:
The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children (#66).
The synod will investigate whether the annulment process can be made simpler and more compassionate. It will also study if divorced and re-married Catholics can be allowed to receive Holy Communion. In one of his public addresses, Pope Francis pointed out that when a divorced Catholic leaves the Church, faith is lost not only to that individual. The Catholic faith is lost to a family and to generations.
Theologically we can look at the Eucharist in two ways. For some, Communion is the reward for those who are “holy.” Such a view was prevalent in the Church a century ago when Jansenism prevailed and people considered themselves unworthy to approach the Sacrament. As a result, frequent Communion was a rarity. The other view of the Eucharist is that it is a remedy for the soul. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is ‘given up for us,’ and the blood we drink ‘shed for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (#1393). The Catechism goes on to quote St Ambrose who said:
For as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If we proclaim the Lord’s death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured out for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.
If it is a remedy, should divorced Catholics be deprived of it? I have ministered as a priest in this country for almost twenty-five years and I can say that divorced Catholics present a profound pastoral need. It is time that the Church addresses that need.
Let us pray for those cardinals and bishops who are criticizing the Holy Father and resisting him because he is compassionate. They are acting like the Pharisees in the gospel who took issue with the Master because he forgave sinners and sat with them at table. Let us pray for the success of the Synod on the Family. Let us make sure that our own marriages remain vibrant and strong. Let us build our families on the sure foundation of faith.
Born in India to deeply-committed Catholic parents, Fr Britto is one of seven children. He joined the Salesians of Don Bosco as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1981.
After he completed his priestly formation and his early education in India, he came to the US for his graduate degree in Journalism at...Read more...