Question by Nicholas Opoku:  My Lord, could you please help me with this problem: there is a married couple who before they contracted Holy Matrimony in the Catholic Church performed the traditional marriage rites. The couple has now divorced according to the traditional rites and is no longer living as husband and wife. However, in the eyes of the Church, their Sacrament of Matrimony still stands, as they have not sought for annulment. Can they continue to receive communion?

When we speak of divorced Catholics, we should note that the teaching of the Church is about those Catholics who have obtained a civil divorce. This is because the Catholic Church does not grant a divorce, and so any talk of divorce in the Code of Canon Law or in the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with civil divorce. However, in the question put by Nicholas, we are dealing with divorce according to Ghanaian traditional customs. For the purposes of this question and its answer, we shall put civil divorce and traditional divorce in the same category, since neither of them is sacramental.

In the question posed above, can the couple who are divorced traditionally go to Communion? The issue of who may, and who may not, receive Holy Communion lawfully is stated in the Code of Canon Law. The Code states that Catholics are not to be allowed to receive Holy Communion if they are under the penalty of ex-communication or interdict, or obstinately persist in manifest grave sin (c. 915). Canon 916 notes that, as a rule, anyone who is conscious of grave sin may not celebrate Mass (in the case of a priest) or receive Holy Communion without previously having been to sacramental confession. This is entirely in keeping with the teaching of the Catechism that “anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to Communion” (CCC1385).

As we have just seen, the Catholic Church teaches that we should not receive Holy Communion when we are in a state of grave sin. Does the fact that a Catholic is divorced, in and of itself, constitute a grave or mortal sin? The answer is no. Admittedly, the Catechism gives us a general theological norm about divorce, noting rightly that “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law … Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign” (2384). While Church teaching recognizes the seriousness of divorce, it also understands that:

1. There are situations in which civil divorce may be necessary: “If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense” (CCC 2383).
2. Divorce may occur due to no fault of an innocent spouse: it can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law or is the result of divorce according to traditional norms; this spouse, therefore, has not contravened the moral law. There is a big difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage (CCC 2386). In circumstances involving abuse and violence, for example, the Church certainly understands that a divorce may be legally necessary. A battered wife or a spouse seeking to protect children from an abusive situation by taking the means required under civil law to keep the abuser away can hardly be considered morally culpable for obtaining a divorce for reasons of physical safety. Similarly, a divorce may be civilly necessary if one spouse is bankrupting the family with compulsive gambling. In such a case, a Catholic might need to obtain a divorce in order to safeguard the financial wellbeing of the rest of the family.

In such cases, divorce is not sinful for that person and he or she may continue to receive Communion. It may be necessary for both parties in the event of a divorce, to go to confession and receive absolution for whatever may have been their own responsibility for the breakup. Thus, in the situation stated in the question, the couple can go to Communion as long as they do not marry again or are not involved in another sexual relationship with someone else.

So we can see that it is entirely possible for a good Catholic to be divorced! Since this is the case, why is it that we hear people saying that divorced Catholics cannot receive Holy Communion? The fact is, the Church does not teach that Catholics are forbidden to receive Holy Communion if they are divorced. Rather, it teaches that a Catholic divorcee who has remarried without having first obtained an annulment of the first marriage is not permitted to receive Holy Communion.

A Christian marriage lasts until the death of one of the spouses – unless a Catholic marriage tribunal has ruled that the marriage was null from the beginning. If a Catholic obtains a civil divorce or a divorce according to traditional customs but does not have a declaration from the Church that his marriage was null, he is still married in the eyes of the Church – even if civil law asserts that his marriage has ended. In like manner, if a Catholic obtains a traditional divorce but has not obtained annulment for the sacramental marriage, he or she is still married in the eyes of the Church. A person in this situation cannot remarry in the Catholic Church; he is impeded from doing so because he is already married to someone else (c. 1085).


3. Consequently, if a Catholic does remarry under these circumstances, he necessarily does so outside the Catholic Church, either in a non-Catholic religious ceremony or in a civil proceeding. The Catholic Church naturally does not accept that this second marriage is valid! Instead, the Catechism teaches that the remarried Catholic is living in a state of sin with the new spouse:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. Infidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”— the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists (CCC1650).

Consequently, the Church regards the relationship between a Catholic and a second spouse as adulterous, if the first spouse is still living. And since adultery constitutes a grave moral evil, a Catholic who is living in this situation is not permitted to receive Holy Communion. To quote the Catechism yet again, “The sexual act must take place exclusively within marriage. Outside of marriage it always constitutes a grave sin and excludes one from sacramental communion” (CCC2390).

If a divorced and remarried Catholic wishes to receive Holy Communion, he must first repent of his adultery, and receive sacramental absolution. But in order to be truly sorry for his sins, a Catholic must have the resolution to avoid them in the future. Thus the adultery has to end. This is why paragraph 1650 of the Catechism, noted above, concludes as follows: “Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence”. A remarried Catholic must resolve that he will no longer engage in sexual relations with his second spouse – ever. This means that he must either separate from the second spouse altogether, or they must henceforth live together as brother and sister, rather than as husband and wife, which in practical terms, may not be possible!


For further explanations or inquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).



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