Updated (2017) from 2014 posting
In the midst of a secular and relativistic society it is difficult for the teaching of the Church regarding marriage to be heard much less understood.
The Church's teaching is at the same time both very simple and complex in terms of the pastoral application of the law of love which is at the heart of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
As Catholics we are concerned with the application of the law of love in Christian marriage. The fact is that the teaching of Jesus was clear - Marriage is an indissoluble union as long as both man (husband) and woman (wife) are alive. The two become one in the sacrament of marital unity.
Marriage dissolves upon the death of one spouse. (Matthew 19: 3 - 12) Simply put, if a Catholic or someone seeking full communion with the Church divorces and remarries or chooses to live with someone in a sexual union outside of marriage (a lawyer friend tells me that the term "common law marriage" is no longer a valid term in Canadian law) then each act of sexual intimacy is considered an act of adultery.
One hastens to add that a divorced person living a single life is, of course, not banned in any way from full participation in the Catholic Church and the sacraments. This is commonly misunderstood in Catholic and other circles.
In summary: It is one's actions which determine whether a person is in communion with the Church or not. For example, an abandoned spouse who is the subject of a divorce is not excluded from the Church or from Holy Communion by the acts of another person or by those of the state.
Adultery or fornication, however, are acts of sin whether a person is married or single, separated or divorced, attracted to men or to women. The same discipline applies to all equally. The Church teaches that sexual relations are properly expressed only within the marriage bond: one man with one woman committed to each other for life. Period.
The working out of this teaching in the lives of individual Catholics is properly a matter for the confidentiality of the Confessional (the internal forum) unless one's actions become a scandal to the community of faith.
Someone confessing that they are in a state of sin e.g. living unmarried in a sexual union, with no intention of ending the relationship, cannot receive absolution from a mortal sin because there is no apparent contrition. Further, it is a mortal sin to receive Holy Communion when not in a state of grace i.e. having confessed all serious sin and received absolution from a priest.
Do we all struggle with sexuality? - - Of course. That is part of what makes the whole mystery of human life so wonderful and challenging. It is even at the root of the law of love which requires self-sacrifice, commitment and endurance whether a person is called to celibacy or to marriage.
The Church requires chastity of all, contrary to much popular opinion. This is another 'head-exploder' for our relativist neighbours. A chaste spouse and a chaste priest or nun are all part of the community which we know as Catholic in faith and morals.
The working out of this law of love for individuals is, as mentioned, to be within the internal forum unless one's actions become public. In cases of publicly known co-habitation outside of marriage, one's actions become subject to the external forum i.e. the public adjudication of the Church's law.
These are the plain laws of God meant to preserve the sanctity of the life-long bond as wall as to assist those not, or not yet, called to the bond of marriage. The Church maintains that what is true for sacramental marriages also applies to the
indissolubility of natural marriages whether contracted civilly or in a
The presumption is always in favour
of the marriage bond; that is, all properly contracted marriages between one
man and one woman are valid until proven otherwise, even if the bond is not
The debate rages in Canada, then, about whether the Catholic Church should simply cease acting for the civil authorities when celebrating marriage and adopt the practice of celebrating Holy Matrimony as a sacrament when the conditions for the sacrament are present and leave the matter of civil marriage and registration of marriages to the state. [See earlier posts]
This means that the validity of all properly contracted
marriages is assumed by the Church unless and until such time as the marriage is examined by
a Catholic Marriage Tribunal and a decree of nullity is issued i.e. because the conditions for a true marriage were not present at the time the marriage was contracted it was not a true marriage. Again, the role of the Tribunal is
to protect the bond of love and, failing that, to protect the innocent parties,
This brings up the question of the "legitimacy" of children born outside the bond of marriage. A decree of nullity changes nothing about the legitimacy of children nor should it affect the possibility of Holy Baptism for any party.
Of course, as they say, the devil is
in the details. A wise priest who has been in charge of the marriage tribunal
of a major archdiocese told me that in 30 years he had never seen two cases for
nullity which were exactly the same.
Fr. Franceschi, a professor of canon
law and matrimony at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross: reported from
Vatican City, Apr 25, 2014 noted that
pastoral care must respond to the particularities of any given situation,
adding that: "a shepherd can handle with discretion peculiar cases, even
while he can never go beyond doctrine."
It is, then, more than clear that a
person who is divorced and remarried is not excommunicated, and is not
sidelined from the life of the Church.
Fr. Franceschi has noted that in
Familiaris Consortio, the 1981 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the
Christian family’s role in the modern world, John Paul II similarly invited those who live in irregular situations to go to Holy Mass, to ask
"Prepare yourselves to choose with conviction the 'for
ever' which connotes love; indissolubility, before being a condition, is a gift
to be desired, asked for and lived out, over and above any other changeable
human situation. And do not imagine, in accordance with a widespread idea, that
coexistence is a guarantee for the future . . .
fidelity and continuity of your love for each other will also enable you to be
open to life, to be parents: the permanence of your union in the sacrament of
Matrimony will allow the children God bestows upon you to grow up trusting in
the goodness of life. Fidelity, indissolubility and the transmission of life
are the pillars of every family, the true common good, a precious patrimony of
society as a whole.
would like to go back over an essential point: the experience of love contains
the quest for God. True love promises the Infinite! Therefore make this period
of your preparation for marriage an itinerary of faith: rediscover for your
life as a couple the centrality of Jesus Christ and of walking with the
The complexity is in the details
which must support the absolute commitment established by the Sacrament of Holy
Matrimony. Simply put, the Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce as
ending the marriage bond.
An Anglican family member insists
that she was banned from receiving Holy Communion after she divorced and before
she contracted another civil marriage.
The banning of divorced persons has never officially been the policy of the Anglican Communion much less in the Catholic Church. However, the
application of the rules by some clergy and social attitudes often went beyond
the discipline of love which the Church has officially taught. This has extended, in some cases, to the delay or denial of Baptism for a child of an "irregular" union or in the case of unmarried parents.
It is the attempt to contract a
second marriage before the death of the spouse that affects an individual's
ability to receive Holy Communion. We will not deal with the Pauline privilege
here; it is a topic to be taken up later given the limited circumstances in
which it applies.
The secularist's head explodes when
this principle of love is stated and words like "impossible",
"unrealistic", "medieval" etc., etc, ad nauseam emanate
from those who read the Toronto Star or the New York Times as holy writ.
". . . the Church’s doctrine
cannot develop in contradiction to itself . . . " said Pope John Paul II
in a speech given to the Roman Rota. He told them on Jan. 21, 2000 that: "it is necessary to reaffirm that a
ratified and consummated sacramental marriage can never be dissolved, not even
by the power of the Roman Pontiff."
Fr. Franceschi went on quoting the
"The opposite assertion would
imply the thesis that there is no absolutely indissoluble marriage, which would
be contrary to what the Church has taught and still teaches about the
indissolubility of the marital bond . . . "
Pope Francis has asked for courageous
pastoral care in response to the divorced and remarried, yet to be courageous Fr. Franceschi goes on: “does not mean to change the doctrine of the Church . . . To be courageous
means to address the pain of the divorced and remarried, supporting them and
helping them to put into practice what has been said several times in recent
years. That is, do not exclude the divorced and remarried from the life of the
Church . . ."
We conclude, for now, with a
quotation from another source, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to engaged
"Love lives by giving freely, by
self-sacrifice, by forgiveness and by respect for the other. Dear friends, all human love is a sign of the
eternal Love that created us and whose grace sanctifies the decision made by a
man and a woman to give each other reciprocal life in marriage . . . .
From now on, found your journey
towards marriage on these pillars and witness to this among your peers, too:
such a service is precious! Be grateful to those who guide you in your
formation with commitment, competence and availability: they are a sign of the
Christian community’s attention and care for you. You are not alone: be the
first to seek and welcome the Church's company!"