For quite some time, I have noticed a man at my parish who faithfully attends Mass yet seems to never receive Communion. Out of curiosity, I recently approached him and asked him why. He related to me that many years ago he was married in the Catholic Church, and later civilly divorced.
After that, he married another woman in a civil ceremony, without annulling the first marriage. Later his second wife died. He claims that a priest told him that he may not receive Communion until his first marriage is annulled by the Church. It has been fifteen years since his second wife died, and this man is still under the assumption that he may not receive Communion. Is this right? May he, or may he not receive Communion under these circumstances?
Grace answers: It is amazing how the wrong information (or understanding) about Church teaching can affect so seriously a person’s life. To answer your question, no, this situation is not right. The man you write about is most definitely able to receive Holy Communion if he desires it and is willing to take the proper steps. Obviously there has been a grave misunderstanding or mistake made if he claims that a priest told him he could not presently receive Communion until his first marriage is annulled. If the priest told him that when he was still married to his second wife, then the information would have been correct, but it is not correct now.
It was when the man married the second wife without having the Church declare the first marriage invalid that he placed himself in a situation in which he could no longer receive Communion. And that lasted for the whole time that he remained married to her under those circumstances. But that changed the day that his second wife died.
Let us first explain why he was not able to receive Communion while he was married civilly to his second wife. The Holy Eucharist is the sacrament by which Catholics most clearly express their unity as the Body of Christ and one Church. Therefore, when this man, being in a valid sacramental marriage, got a civil divorce and married another woman, he stepped outside the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Church that marriage is indissoluble (Mt 19:1-12). By doing this, he broke the bond of unity with the Church and could not receive eucharistic Communion. (CCC #1650)
Many mistakenly believe that a Catholic may not receive Communion if he or she is divorced. This is not true. It is being in the state of grave sin that prevents a Catholic from receiving Holy Communion. So it was when he entered the second marriage civilly, even though he was still married in the eyes of the Church to his first wife, that he committed grave sin.
According to the Church’s canon law, a person who is held to the bond of a prior marriage may not validly attempt marriage. Even if the prior marriage is invalid or dissolved for any reason whatsoever, it is not permitted to contract another marriage before the nullity or dissolution of the prior marriage has been legitimately and certainly established (canon 1085).
When the man’s second wife died, however, the circumstances became quite different. Jesus taught that marriage is only for this world when He said that in heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but that we will be as angels (Mk 12: 24-25). Marriage ends at death. We hear this in the wedding vows “until death do us part.”
Thus, when the second wife died, the man was no longer married outside the Church. He was still, however, in a state of grave sin for having married outside the Church. If he had desired to receive Holy Communion again, it would have been necessary for him to go to confession and express sincere sorrow for breaking fidelity to the teaching of Christ and His Church, and other sins.
How sad that fifteen years have passed with this man erroneously believing that he could not return to the sacraments. You are a good Christian in expressing your concern for him. Now, you need to go to him and tell him to talk to a priest as soon as possible in order to have this matter straightened out.
© Copyright 2005 Grace D. MacKinnon
For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at grace@DearGraceMinistries.org .
Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: grace@DearGraceMinistries.org . You may also visit her online at www.DearGraceMinistries.org .