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‘Why is the Church so hard-hearted as to refuse Holy Communion to remarried divorcees?’

The BBC asked me this twice in one morning. And the reason is simple: it’s a matter of obedience. Nobody said being a Catholic was easy

By on Monday, 6 September 2010

Last Friday, I was asked by BBC Radio Oxford to appear at 7.20am on Sunday to be interviewed about why the Catholic Church doesn’t allow remarried divorcees, or those married to a divorcee, to receive Holy Communion. This was part of a series about the Catholic Church in preparation for the Pope’s visit. What that meant, of course, was a series of programmes on why the Catholic Church is so reactionary. Next week: homosexuality.

My response to this request was, would you phone me back in 10 minutes. I always say this now, because I had caught myself on a previous occasion replying sorry, I was going to be busy, or abroad, or some other excuse, when it was my clear duty to accept: I hate these interviews so much that I now give myself 10 minutes to reconcile myself to saying “yes”. Later in the day I had the same request from Radio Coventry: an interview on the same subject, at 9.20am, also on Sunday.

The Radio Oxford interview began with a recorded interview of Bishop Kieran Conry by an ex-nun who had married a divorcee. After a few cursory defensive remarks, Bishop Conry said that the bishops had asked Rome to reconsider its policy (I can’t remember if that’s the word he used, but it’s what was meant: a policy that could be changed at any time if only Rome was as sensitive to pastoral need as Bishop Conry). I was then asked to respond.

When the Radio Coventry interview took place, lo and behold, there was the same interviewer and the same ex-nun, this time appearing in person. I made it clear that I had considerable sympathy with those in her situation (though my sympathy rapidly ebbed in her case when she made it clear that she received Holy Communion anyway, and that she had travelled throughout the country talking to Catholics, all of whom agreed with her – in other words, I thought – possibly unjustly – stirring it up. She had even, she said brightly, been allowed to play her guitar at Mass).

My sympathy with Catholic remarried divorcees and Catholics who marry divorcees is absolutely genuine; I have good friends in this situation. But the Church’s reasons are simple. This isn’t a matter of “policy”, which might be negotiated away. This is a dominical command.

The relevant Gospel passage is Mt 19:3ff., cf. also Mk 10:2ff. (For Pope John Paul on this passage, go here): “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking: ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’ He answered: ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’” Jesus then makes it plain that divorce is not a permissible option, whatever Jewish tradition may allow.

So it’s a matter of obedience. There is also the question of what would happen if we opened the floodgates. Every stage towards the liberalisation of divorce in civil society has led firstly to the further destabilisation of marriage and then to the consequent destabilisation of society. If that were to be reproduced within the Church, it would be a catastrophe.

The Church is between a rock and a hard place on this, as on many other issues. Its pastoral instincts are with its people. But it cannot be pastoral to be disobedient: we need to be in the habit, far more than we are, of regarding these difficult questions sub specie aeternitatis, in the context of eternity.

The Church rightly encourages divorcees to be part of the life of the Church: our duty, after all, is to be present at the Eucharistic assembly on days of obligation, not necessarily to receive Holy Communion (which we arguably do too often these days, anyway: but that’s another subject). Their situation is a difficult one. But we all have problems of one kind or another. Whoever said that being a Catholic is easy? 

  • Hoka

    Keeping the commandments of Jesus isn't easy. I agree wholeheartedly with William Oddie and admire him for taking on this difficult question. In my parish it seems that anything goes, not only with divorced and remarried Catholics, but with liturgical abuses such as intinction [definitely not allowed, see Redemptionis Sacramentum paragraphy 104] and people attending Mass and receiving Communion once a month or less. When I became a Catholic one of the things that attracted me was the certainty of the teaching. The Anglican Church has just been too wishy washy. Why couldn't this ex- nun and her husband have become Anglican?

  • Prophet Jorge Ernesto Babb

    Prophet Jorge Ernesto Babb Prophet Jorge Ernesto Babb I ME JORGE ERNESTO PROPHET BABB WONDERS AT TIME; WHY GOD JESUS IN REALITY AND TRUTH CONQUERED SATAN/THE BEAST SEED AND OLD SERPENT SEED OF THE DEVIL THE FLESH; BECAUSE THE ALMIGHTY FLESH OF CREATION IS SO STUBBORN…; LOST; CONFUSED AND EVIL; TODAY 2010! IMAGIN THIS QUESTION *WHEN WILL JESUS COME BACK? WHERE GOD JESUS SOW…N TO RETURN LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT AND NOT AS A FLESH; IDOL; IMAGE OR FIRE! FOR YOU; ME; I JORGE ERNESTO PROPHET BABB SOWN IT ALL AS ONLY BLESSED TEMPLE OF GOD JESUS 13TH JANUARY 1997-2010; IN BELIZE CA; TO EXPLAIN ON MY WEB SITE*www creolesalvationforbelize.com; SOWN IT ALL ON MY FACE BOOK; prophetjorgeernestobabb; it is also on Barack Obama Author facebook; **THAT GOD JESUS CAME LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT 13TH JANUARY 2007-3000; GOD JESUS CAME AS A SPIRITUAL; ****SPIRITUAL COMFORTER** ON 13TH JANUARY 2007-3000 AS THE THIRD DAY; OF ONE THOUSAND YEARS; AND PEOPLE STILL AWAITING GOD JESUS; BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL SPIRITUAL FOOLS AS THE FLESH OF THE OLD SERPENT LOST; CONFUSE; EVIL AND IGNORANT AWAITING A PHYSICAL DEAD IDOL; IMAGE; MAN AND FIRE! WHEN GOD JESUS IS OPPOSITE *THE ALMIGHTY GOD THE DRAGON/SATAN AS THE FLESH; WHEN SHALL THE WORLD GET CIVILIZE; FOR GOD JESUS DID NOT COME TO CHANGE THE FLESH BUT TO SAVE THE ALMIGHTY FLESH FROM ALL EVIL AND LIES; DECEITFULNESS; STILL GIVING THE FLESH A FREE WILL TO CHOOSE ME OR DEATH HE/FLESH! FOR BECOMING A CATHOLIC IS VERY HARD; BECAUSE OF THE FACT; EVIDENCE SOWN BY GOD JESUS 2013 YEARS AGO; THOU SHALL *NOT; NOT; NEVER WORSHIP; OBEY; ANY OTHER DEAD GODS; IMAGES; IDOLS FIRE BEFORE ****ME; ME; YOU EVERLASTING IN GOD JESUS NAME WE PRAY AMEN! SO WHEN A PERSON BECOMES A CATHOLIC NATURALLY HAVING A FREE WILL GIVEN UNTO HIM/HER BY GOD JEHOVAH; HE/SHE BETRAY; BLASPHEME; DECEIVE GOD CHRIST JESUS OUR LORD WAY AND TRUTH; AND HIS/HER EVERLASTING SPIRITUAL SALVATION OF EVERLASTING LIFE IN HEAVEN; WITH THOSE WOE; WOE RELIGIOUS LEADERS AS ROMAN CATHOLICS ALMIGHTY GODS/THE FLESH EVERLASTING IN GOD JESUS NAME AMEN!

  • Hmctighe101

    Sympathy or pity?
    Lets not forget that remarried divorcees (doing so against Church law) are obstinant adulterers. We should have sympathy for them as we do any person in obvious mortal sin. But we should remember that those who proceed to live lifestyles embracing mortal sin have broken communion with us. They have affirmed their allegiance to the Father of Lies and have alligned themselves to join him for all eternity. Yes, we pray abundantly for their conversion, but allowing them to fall in graver sin of sacriledge through unworthy reception of our Lord in the Eucharist is not the way to bring about this conversion.

  • julia grimer

    But William there's also the fact that being divorced and remarried is a mortal sin and that you have to be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion. I can understand you not wanting to “go there” on a radio interview but this is the truth and needs to be stated. It is positively harmful to those concerned (Our Lord says so Himself in the New Testament) to receive Holy Communion when, knowingly, not in a state of grace.

  • gffm

    What I am really utterly tired of is the emotionalism of such a word choice as “hard-hearted.” The other day one of the Herald's writers felt so sorry for homosexual persons struggling with their homosexual tendencies. Well here is the deal: being a repentant sinner isn't easy, but the teaching is very clear, and its not a priest's or a bishop's personal view whether we are talking about who can receive the sacraments or homosexual behavior or tendency. Church teaching is clear on divorced Catholics and reception of the sacraments. Did the journalist who asked the question about the Church's “hard hearted” stance toward divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion really expect that the Church would suddenly change the teaching or that it is free to change it? Did the “ex-nun” really expect redress? As if the teaching on who can receive the sacraments is somehow gotten out of thin air, and is simply willy nilly. William Oddie might also talk about how free we all are to make choices. The ex nun made a number of free choices when she left the convent, married her first husband, divorced and remarried. No one made her do these things; she was free and now must live with the consequences. There is no way to sugar coat it or to diminish her responsibility. And there is simply not enough “compassion” to satisfy her sense of entitlement to receive the Eucharist.

  • justanotherparishioner

    This is very weird for me, more than a few remarried divorcees on our pews, in communion…not one has burst into flames recently, or indeed, been turned away.

  • Mephistophiles

    Why anyone would want to take part in a cannibalistic ritual is beyond me. What a terribly distorting lense you people look through when you view the world, when everything around you appears bathed in “mortal sin”.

  • Plants Life

    The world over, has taken its first step to blame and condemn the church on may issues at hand, well, all are happening but can we log our heads in blood!!, well the church's human nature, ought not to be disregarded as idle, but the divine spectrum of it all, hovers the most big part of he church's corpus!

    that is why, the catholic church respects its doctrines and teachings pertaining its vast enterprises in line of faith and salvation, with marriage disciplines concerned.
    Pope Paul II, once said,”I would like to exhort you, above all, to live your married life in a climate of faith. Christian life is not only the fruit of one's own will or one's own feeling, but it is also and above all an effect of the life of grace which is at work in the life of the couple…” so both the parties involved have to know and understand the teachings of the church upon that challenge.

    we ought not to react at some issues, with illogical attacks and conclusions, with disconnected premises.
    “Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatised by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society”(CCC 2385)
    so the church is not hard-hearted but its legacy on the teachings towards divorce and remarry is the undernearth pillar of all. Sem. Noah

  • Anthony_murphy

    how dare you?…marriage is forever.
    You knew the rules when you joined, so now you will play the game.
    Your conscience will convict you the second you make a mis-step.
    Catholicism is Humanism.

  • louella

    A nation is only as strong as its families (Pope John Paul II). Divorce undermines family – and thereby in the long run weakens and destroys nations. This is so evident in the dying days of the West!

  • Mephistophiles

    I agree – we should be more like the Middle East where they take marriage VERY seriously. I've lost count of the number of nations destroyed by divorce.

  • Mephistophiles

    A Dictionary definition:

    humanism – a system of thought which rejects the supernatural, any belief in a god, etc, but holds that human interests and the human mind are paramount, that humans are capable of solving the problems of the world and deciding what is or is not correct moral behaviour.

  • Mollybenton5

    What does that mean?

  • GFFM

    Well actually there are a number of very good secular social science studies which do in fact talk about the divorce rate as an indicator of cultural and family decline. This is rarely talked about with any seriousness amongst the “illuminati” within the culture. Such studies do not correspond to the relativist narratives which pervade media and academic discourse.

  • GFFM

    This definition is a very narrow and completely contemporary definition. Thomas More, Erasmus, Luis Vives and many more were humanists. There is a much broader, richer and vital vision of humanism which apparently you have not studied?

  • Ratbag

    Yeah, it happens in my parish too… and it really gets on my wick!!!

  • Wleo1111

    It is not remarriage in itself that is a grave sin, but sexual relations with a person other than one's spouse in the eyes of the Church. However, should the remarried couple live together without sex, there is no grave sin. The last several popes have made this distinction very clear. If a catholic remarries but lives as brother and sister with a spouse, he/she can still receive the sacraments.That fine point of church law is often overlooked.

  • catholic woman

    >>Well here is the deal: being a repentant sinner isn't easy,

    no it isn't is it? keep trying GFFM, don't give up/in!! I'll be praying to Jesus for you

  • Alex Campbell Phd

    As a separated Catholic I know the Church's stance on remarriage. I would never give up communion with my Lord and Saviour for a relationship with a man. Why do so many? I will be a consecrated, celibate divorcee and continue to receive the greatest sacrament on the face of the earth, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Himself. No new relationship with a man could touch the experience of receiving my Lord. If my husband should die before me, then I would be free to consider remarriage, if that was where the Lord were leading me. More divorced Catholics should spread the word about how wonderful it is to have the Lord as their only spouse….

  • Navynurseprac

    I agree with the above comments but one thing is forgotten. Communion is not given because one condemns oneself when receiving communion in a state of sin. Instead of Communion bringing grace, it brings condemnation. St. Paul was very clear on this in his writings.

  • Savonarola

    Many remarried divorcees are simply unlucky – people who chose the wrong person to marry and have tried to salvage some happiness for themselves in a second marriage. If they are honest and truthful and cannot connive at the deceitful fraud of “annulment,” the Catholic Church will penalise them by barring from the Eucharist. Very Christlike! To call them obstinate adulterers adds insult to injury. That kind of inhuman judgmentalism is a good reason why many decent people want nothing to do with the Catholic Church.

  • M Skarpa

    Sir, I do not like your reply. An emphasis on “obedience” makes of morality an act of submission to God's arbitrary choice, which if He changed His mind could have been different. No, by creating a man and the woman as they are, with the insoluble bond being constitutive of the marriage's very essence, He has – to put it in human terms – restricted Hid freedom; analogously to the creation of hills whereby he cannot make two without a valey between them, or creation of physical bodies the two of which cannot occupy the same space. Otherwise He would have to establish a “marriage”, “hills” and “bodies” the essence of which which would be so different that the words “marriage”, “hill”, and “body” would be misnomers.

    I don't like your consequentionalist argument either, because it implies that a divorce would be ok, if the consequences of it could be avoided in some way.

    Michael Skarpa

  • M Skarpa

    ” Communion is not given because one condemns oneself when receiving communion in a state of sin. Instead of Communion bringing grace, it brings condemnation”. Not clear, could you elaborate?

  • louella

    Sorry Savonarola – but if they break the clear laws of Christ then they must not recieve His Holy Body. It would be giving scandal. And don't forget the heartbreak that divorce causes to the innocent – especially children. Seems like you only have sympathy for the those who make choices that go against Christ's teachings – and cause distress to others more vulnerable. The Church as always takes into account their unchosen predicament! Thank God for that!

  • Alex Campbell Phd

    you speak as though the only way to “salvage some happiness for themselves” is in a second marriage! why do think that? second marriages have a high divorce rate….Happiness only really exists in being obedient to the commands and will of God and in the Catholic church this includes not remarrying. Much happiness is found in deepening one's spiritual life and becoming closer to Jesus. Marriage is not the be all and end all. I feel sorry for those who feel entitled to receive communion unworthily, since it is possible NOT to simply through obedience and putting Christ first..the mystical joy of a worthy communion is Priceless….and lasts forever

  • Mamasnookems
  • Lnewington

    The Church hard hearted and a matter of Obedience?

    In Australia all you need to do is find a sympathic priest and you can write your own cheque.

    Find a bishop and God knows, anything is possible; including for a priest, to prevent scandal that is and more often than not turns out to be to his own detriment.

    As far as the next programme on homosexuality goes, Richard Sipe a former Benedictine monk and priest trained to deal with the mental problems of priest's, has written a sensitive and respectfull artilcle on homosexuality within the clergy; Never another Pat; Clergy in Crisis.

    It needs to be read with the same sensitivity and respect.

  • Mamasnookems

    question, do you actually think that little host is the actual body and the wine, blood of Christ?

    just asking.

  • Gordon S

    The Gospel passages referred to in the article spoke to a different time a different culture. It was a time when women were cast out of a marriage at a whim.

    The statement that acceptance of the divorced in the church,'it would be a catastrophe,' is very weak to say the least. Most non-catholic faiths have accepted the remarried divorcees and have also married them for decades. They have accepted them with love understanding and the same compassion that Jesus himself would have given. There was no opening of flood gates, only the opening of hearts.

    The hypocrisy of the church on this issue is very real. Annulment is granted in the majority of cases and there is little question that most of it is divorce catholic style. The only difference here is that the good people are often charged thousands of dollars for something that should be left to their own judgement and conscience. God forbid that they should be happy and understood.

  • Wereallsinners

    But didn't Jesus enter the house of the tax collector? What is the basis for the church denying holy communion to the true believer?

  • Kristintwinmommy

    Wow that was pretty disheartening. I married when I just turned 18  years old, point blank I didn’t know what I was doing. It ended when he left me for another girl he met while in the Air Force. I was not catholic, neither was my family. I am now 30 and married to someone who converted 6 years ago but because he was in much the same situation I was (also left after his 19 year old wife found another) and we have had trouble and little guidence with annulments we can’t do anything other than show up to mass. The way you worded that post it was like an attack-like we knowingly and willingly set off to do something evil and as you said are not worth of receiveing the lord. Well we have been married 10 years with four children and I don’t think we are evil people, however listening to you we are aldulerers within our own “marriage.” Catholics are a harsh bunch at times, however I feel that once we – if we- can get this settled I want to help people with this problem feel welcome, unlike the way I am feeling now.

  • me

    I wonder if the people with such harsh judgements to make on others have been through a divorce….you know not all those who are divorced got that way because they wanted to. You can’t control anothers actions, and yes being single for a lifetime if you are not in the religious community can be a pretty sad lonely existance.

  • Harry

    I saw the Priest today, no hope of converting fom Anglican to Catholic. My first wife took a boyfriend, I lived with her for a year with this, then divorced her according to her wishes. I re-married much later in Life. Should I have refused to divorce my first wife ? You can’t win, can you.