When we say “I do” at the altar, the Church out of respect for our ability to freely choose our vocation, takes us at our word. When we promise before family, friends, and God that we want to enter into marriage “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” we actually create a bond so strong that only death itself can dissolve it.
We believe that marriage is life-long and also that contraception has no place in the marital relationship. Without the possibility of “help” from contraception and divorce, marriage can appear to our modern eyes as an untenable reality. However, because of the grace available to us through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we have been given the strength to remain faithful to our promise to God and our spouse, come what may. Christ’s ultimate gift of himself to us in turn allows us to give ourselves to others. His sacrifice on Calvary has restored the original meaning of marriage.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning: permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. The matrimonial union of a man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it: “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. [In fact the disciples who heard this teaching were surprised and taken aback by it (Mt 19:10).] However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy—heavier than the Law of Moses. By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life (CCC 1614-15).
We also believe that at every Mass, the bread and wine are turned into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, to be consumed by us in order to strengthen our love for Him and others. Our reception of the Eucharist signifies our communion with God and His Church. Because we are uniting ourselves to Him in such a radical way, we need to be in a state of grace—free from mortal sin—in order to not “eat and drink judgment” upon ourselves (1 Cor 11).
The Catechism says:
As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins. By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and root ourselves in him:
Since Christ died for us out of love, when we celebrate the memorial of his death at the moment of sacrifice we ask that love may be granted to us by the coming of the Holy Spirit. We humbly pray that in the strength of this love by which Christ willed to die for us, we, by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, may be able to consider the world as crucified for us, and to be ourselves as crucified to the world…Having received the gift of love, let us die to sin and live for God.”
By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. The more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin. The Eucharist is not ordered to the forgiveness of mortal sins—that is proper to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church (CCC 1394-1395).
Last month Amoris Laetitia was released, in which the Holy Father suggests that the divorced and remarried can receive the help of the sacraments. In Chapter VIII, paragraph 305 the Holy Father writes:
“Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”
Because the Church’s teaching on marriage and the Eucharist cannot change as it was given to us by Christ himself and reiterated infallibly by the Council of Trent, we must read the Holy Father’s words in light of our faith and Tradition. But first, it is important to note that while divorce “introduces disorder into the family and into society” and often “brings grave harm to the deserted spouse [and]to children traumatized by the separation of their parents,” the Church recognizes that separation and even civil divorce might be necessary in some cases (CCC 2383-2385). However, the fact of divorce alone does not render one unable to receive Holy Communion—as some people mistakenly think. Rather, only when one enters into a manifestly invalid second marriage must they be refused Holy Communion (canon 915).
Therefore, returning to the words of Amoris Laetitia, someone who is in an ongoing and objectively sinful relationship (remarriage), could only receive the help of the sacraments if he or she is in a state of grace. This would be the case, for instance, if he or she has confessed the sin of adultery in the sacrament of Confession and is now living in a continent relationship with the second partner (abstaining from those acts proper to married couples) or if he or she is not morally culpable of individual sexual acts with a second spouse because of having been forced to engage in those acts. Those who have freely chosen to remarry and are freely choosing to engage in sexual acts with a second partner, however, are not free to pursue this pastoral solution to readmittance to the sacrament due to their continued intention to violate the sixth commandment.
In Familiaris Consortio, Saint John Paul II explains the eminently pastoral nature of this discipline of the Church:
However the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who … are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that … they take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples (FC 84).
Any Catholic can receive the Holy Eucharist today if he or she only makes a good confession and firmly resolves to sin no more. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that not only does he freely offer the gift of his forgiveness to those who repent, confess their sins, and intend to sin no more, but he also promises us the grace to live out this original meaning of marriage!
For an excellent commentary on Amoris Laetitia and the confusion it’s created, I strongly recommend to you this statement from Bishop Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Mary in Astana, Kazakhstan.
Copyright 2016 Meg Matenaer
Photo by Robson Freitas (2015) via Morguefile