The Vatican prelate in charge of defending and promoting the faith of the Catholic Church has strongly affirmed the Church’s teaching that Catholics who are divorced and remarried may not receive communion.
Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) said in a statement Tuesday that the Church’s teaching is not subject to change.
According to Catholic World News (CWN), an earlier announcement by the Vatican of its decision to hold an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops in October of 2014 to discuss the “pastoral challenges of the family,” created considerable speculation that the Church might change its teaching regarding the reception of communion by Catholics who have been married in the Church, divorced, and then remarried. The Church teaches that only divorced Catholics who have obtained an annulment of the first marriage prior to remarriage may receive communion.
However, while enroute back to Rome from Rio de Janeiro in July, Pope Francis, in an impromptu interview with reporters on his plane, said that the next Synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the question of the eligibility of divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion.
The pope said at that time that Church law regarding marriage annulments also “has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this. It is complex, the problem of the pastoral care of marriage.”
Earlier in the month, a German diocese indicated that it would permit some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion and other sacraments. The Vatican, however warned bishops not to reform faster than Pope Francis, cautioning that local church reforms would create confusion.
Vatican news publication L’Osservatore Romano published an “extensive contribution” by Archbishop Müller on the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. The essay, entitled “The Power of Grace,” was published in its entirety, giving “unusual prominence to the statement,” according to CWN.
In his article, Müller acknowledged the widespread interest in the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics, and said that pastoral care for Catholics in this situation is a matter of urgent priority. Nevertheless, he provided the scriptural basis for the Church’s teaching:
Above all, it was his controversies with the Pharisees that gave Jesus occasion to address this theme. He distanced himself explicitly from the Old Testament practice of divorce, which Moses had permitted because men were “so hard of heart”, and he pointed to God’s original will: “from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and … the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder” (Mk 10:5-9; cf. Mt 19:4-9; Lk 16:18). The Catholic Church has always based its doctrine and practice upon these sayings of Jesus concerning the indissolubility of marriage. The inner bond that joins the spouses to one another was forged by God himself. It designates a reality that comes from God and is therefore no longer at man’s disposal.
The CDF prefect noted that both Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have called for new efforts to provide spiritual support and pastoral care for Catholics who are divorced and remarried.
However, he said, “The care of remarried divorcees must not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist.”
Remarking that such care “must be explored in a manner that is consistent with Catholic doctrine on marriage,” Müller firmly stated that the Church has been clear and consistent in its teaching that the bond of Christian marriage is indissoluble.
Müller explicitly rejected the notion that divorced and remarried Catholics can decide for themselves whether to receive communion based on their own conscience. He quoted Church teaching which warns that “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.”
Similarly, the archbishop rejected the policies of Orthodox churches that allow for divorce in some cases.
“This practice cannot be reconciled with God’s will, as expressed unambiguously in Jesus’ sayings about the indissolubility of marriage,” he wrote.
Emphasizing the sacramental nature of Christian marriage, Müller observed, “If marriage is secularized or regarded as a purely natural reality, its sacrament character is obscured.”
The archbishop also suggested that many Christians are not entering into valid sacramental marriages:
Today’s mentality is largely opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage, with regard to its indissolubility and its openness to children. Because many Christians are influenced by this, marriages nowadays are probably invalid more often than they were previously, because there is a lack of desire for marriage in accordance with Catholic teaching, and there is too little socialization within an environment of faith. Therefore assessment of the validity of marriage is important and can help to solve problems.
“Blessings of irregular unions are to be avoided, ‘lest confusion arise among the faithful concerning the value of marriage,'” Müller wrote. “A blessing (bene-dictio: divine sanctioning) of a relationship that contradicts the will of God is a contradiction in terms.”
Müller said that, despite the crisis of marriage in an increasingly secularized environment, “the ideal – built into the order of creation – of faithfulness between one man and one woman has lost none of its fascination.”