Dear Fr. Leo: You are a canon lawyer. I have a sister who recently got divorced and is thinking of going through an annulment. I have a two-part question. What is the status of divorced Catholics? Specifically, can they receive Holy Communion? Regarding the annulment, what is that all about? Will this mean her kids are illegitimate? – M
Dear M: These are excellent questions and very poignant ones.
Sadly, many faithful Catholics, often through no fault of their own, experience the pain of divorce. In my experience, there are no good divorces. There may be necessary divorces, but no good ones. Someone always gets hurt.
The first part of your question bears special attention. For some reason, in years past it was taught erroneously by certain pastors that a divorced Catholic could not receive Holy Communion. This has never been the case. A Catholic who is simply divorced may certainly receive Communion just like any other member of the Church. If anything, during such a painful time, Catholics experiencing divorce need their Church more than ever. Our Holy Father has made it very clear that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a rest home for saints. He is inexhaustible in affirming that as Christians, we have an obligation to accompany people in their need and manifest for them the love of Christ. In short, we need to be the heart, the arms and the hands of Christ reaching out to them as their world seems to fall apart. This is always done best person to person. The Church has a face. Usually, that face looks surprisingly like yours and mine as we support anyone who is hurting, especially those experiencing a divorce. As St. Paul tells us, “When one part (of the body) suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” (1Cor. 12:26)
So, to sum up, a divorced Catholic is an integral member of the Body of Christ who is hurting and we have an obligation of compassion, literally “to suffer with” them and accompany them through a particularly painful part of life’s journey.The only thing that would keep a divorced Catholic from receiving Communion is if they enter into another marriage outside the Church, or another circumstance arises, such as serious sin, that would keep them, (or any other Catholic for that matter) from being properly disposed to receive.
Now on to the second part of your question. In due time, many divorced Catholics will once again enter a relationship and begin to contemplate marriage. When anyone comes to their parish inquiring about marriage preparation, one of the preparing minister’s first questions is whether each party is free to marry. Namely, are they obligated by any previous vows? If either party has been married before in a religious or civil ceremony, an investigation is necessary to determine if that person is free to marry. We do so by investigating whether or not the consent they gave in their previous marriage was “valid.”
“Validity” is a technical legal term, not dissimilar in reference to the validity of any contract. Basically, it means that all the necessary conditions and elements for the marriage to take place were present. If one of the necessary elements or conditions was missing, or if there was something present that should not have been, the marriage is “invalid.” Sometimes this is obvious on the surface and the process is brief. At other times it is not so obvious, and a more formal process is necessary.
Here’s an illustration I use that many have found helpful. Let’s say you are whipping up a batch of yummy chocolate chip cookies to give to your pastor.
Now, let’s say that either intentionally or even unintentionally, you left out the one ingredient that, by definition, makes it a chocolate chip cookie. You leave out the chocolate chips! What have you got? Well, it’s brown and tasty, but is it a valid chocolate chip cookie?
Nope. So it is with cases that are obvious on the surface, such as when a baptized Catholic gets married outside the Church.
But sometimes, it’s not so obvious. For example, have you ever inadvertently left out the sugar or even substituted salt for sugar in a recipe? On the surface, it looks great, but once you bite into it, yuck! Invalid chocolate chip cookie! So it is with weddings that looked fine on the surface, but underneath something was missing that should have been there, or something present that should not have been. Many such things could impede valid consent. For example, a person may not have sufficient use of reason, or they may have gotten married simply to obtain a green card, or never intended to be faithful, or never wanted children. The list goes on.
A final note: Once the process is complete and if the Tribunal finds that the attempted marriage was invalid, any children born of that marriage are not illegitimate. Unless they are in line to the Dutch throne, they are completely unaffected.
The process of petitioning for a declaration of nullity is compassionate, discreet and completely confidential. For more information, check out the Tribunal webpage at: https://aoaj.org/office-of-the-tribunal.