How Not to Minister to the Divorced and Remarried

On January 6, the traditional date for the celebration of the Epiphany, a celebration that includes the miracle at the wedding at Cana, Crux posted an article by Fr. Paul Keller presenting “A case study in communion for the divorced/remarried.” The case study gave a hypothetical example that Fr. Keller thought would justify admitting a divorced and remarried Catholic to the reception of Holy Communion, without requiring the man and woman involved to live as brother and sister. He presented a line of reasoning that he thought was faithfully applying the pastoral practice set forth in Chapter VIII of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia.

I think that Fr. Keller has done us all a service by providing such a realistic case study. Nevertheless, I disagree with his conclusion and think his case study merits a response.

I am not an academic, but a parish priest and even though I have been a priest for only a little more than six years, I have been a pastor now for a little more that four years and have found myself immersed in the trial by fire experience of pastoral work in the area of marriage. Indeed, I can say that I make every effort to follow a pastoral practice of “accompaniment”; I regard marriage preparation as so important that I attend personally to the preparation of every couple who gets married in my parish; I have also attended to the other end of the matter, the nullity process, shepherding individuals in their application to the marriage tribunal.

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My parish consists largely of Spanish speaking immigrants and that experience has made me sympathetic to Pope Francis’ desire for a pastoral practice of “accompaniment.” Because of my work with Hispanic immigrants I have often been able to understand Pope Francis in that context, rather than interpreting him in relation to the more typical Anglo-American experience of the Church and of faith.

Turning to Fr. Keller’s case study, his hypothetical but realistic case refers to a Salvadoran woman named Irma who at age 21 married her high school sweetheart, Francisco, in her hometown. After one year of marital bliss Francisco gets involved with a gang, with drugs. This leads to drinking, drug use, womanizing, physical and verbal abuse, and finally Francisco abandons Irma altogether. Irma divorces Francisco and moves to the United States (illegally) to join her family. She gets a job and meets and falls in love with a man, Tony. They get married civilly, Irma gets pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl, Araceli. This brings Irma back to Mass, which in turn leads to the reawakening of her faith and the desire to receive communion. Tony, however, refuses to accept living as brother and sister, the two of them want to have two or three more children, and Irma comes under such an emotional strain that she weeps all day after returning home from Sunday Mass. The priest is afraid that she will suffer a mental breakdown and tells Irma that if she thinks in conscience it is all right to receive communion she may do so. Irma chooses to receive communion and is filled with joy.

Problems With Fr. Keller’s Case Study
Now let us examine the particulars of the case that Fr. Keller gives us. It is realistic and in my brief experience I have encountered many of the elements that are found in this case.

Regarding the first marriage, Fr. Keller makes clear that there are no apparent grounds of invalidity. On the presumption of the validity of the bond, Irma is already married; the absent Francisco is her husband. That is not a new problem. In the past the Church has had to deal with situations such as the disappearance of a husband for otherwise innocent reasons (e.g., war or pilgrimage). In such cases the husband may even be dead, but the fact of his death cannot be established.

That means that the whole second part of the history, though heart-wrenching, is built upon Irma’s suffering a grave lack of guidance and support that leads her to live in a manner contrary to the truth of her state of life. One of the evils of civil divorce is that it leads people to the illusion of being single again, so they start acting as though they were single.

Before looking at where Irma’s life actually went, it would be good to consider how she should have conducted herself according to a standard of behavior that would have been the expectation in a saner era.

When she came to the United States Irma joined her family; that means that she was not alone or isolated. With proper guidance and support she would have been led to understand that she was still married and that it was possible to live the life of an abandoned wife, despite the immense suffering involved. She would have learned that fidelity is very pleasing to God; that, indeed, faithful love in the face of infidelity is most godlike; that is how God has loved us. Instead she was formed by a culture that teaches that people have a “right” to happiness in this life and that “happiness” is found in a “relationship,” in finding a “soul-mate.”

So, instead of conducting herself as an abandoned wife, instead of learning to endure the hardship, the suffering, the loneliness, and the misunderstanding, Irma regarded herself as a single woman, looking for a new partner. What was lacking was faith and guidance. Irma was not especially to blame for what she did not have. Nevertheless, I expect that were she to die and appear before the judgment seat of God, she would realize that despite having been just a “cultural” Catholic, God had given her many offers of grace that she had either rejected, or simply been blind to because of her worldly preoccupations.

All of this means that the priest is faced with a woman who has got herself implicated in a situation of objective grave sin, from which there is no easy exit (given the child that has been born), and for which she is not altogether responsible.

Irma’s ‘marriage’ with Tony, even if it has many outward elements that should characterize a marital life, can’t be a true marriage because she is in fact married to Francisco. There is no more guarantee that her relationship with Tony will, in the long run, succeed any better than her relation with Francisco. During her first year with Francisco she never imagined the change that would take place; she can’t foresee what changes might take place in Tony, herself, or their relationship that would lead to it falling apart.

Fr. Keller is judging the outward quality of the relationship, but there are true marriages that outwardly are excellent relationships, but suffer from a hidden wound capable of destroying the relationship.

Too often the truth of marriage is judged by the outward here and now quality of the relationship. The truth of marriage, however, does not consist in the outward relationship, but in the bond that should express itself in the outward relationship.

An Alternative Pastoral Approach
So, how should a person like Irma be guided? Before she ever gets to the point of asking her parish priest if she could receive communion, before she begins going home from Mass and breaking down and crying, she needs to be led to an understanding of the gravity of her situation. She needs to be brought to a fuller understanding of what communion is all about. She needs to learn that communion is not just ‘me and Jesus,’ but is a sharing in the wedding feast of the Lamb, a reality that is objectively contradicted by her current relationship with Tony. She also needs to be shown what could be called the “Marian solution.” She should be taught to pray the Rosary, build a relationship with Mary, asking her to bring a resolution to her situation. She needs to learn to live in hope, trusting that even if her relation with Tony is never resolved in this life, in the end Mary will take care of her, lead her to salvation so that she will be able to partake in eternity of the reality that would be outwardly signified by receiving communion.

But she has gotten to that point of asking, “But Father, can’t I receive communion?” She is already going home after Mass and crying; she is already on the verge of a mental breakdown.

First, one of the painful things about being a parish priest is the discovery that you can’t solve every problem. Often the best you can do is give someone hope and encouragement in the midst of their suffering—if they are willing to receive it. That is once again one reason why the ‘Marian solution’ is so needed. We must teach people to hold fast to Mary, whatever their situation. That, however, requires faith and a true supernatural perspective. Too often we are looking to resolve problems on a purely human level, using purely human means, forgetful that the real bottom line is always eternal life.

Next, the very strain on Irma’s relationship with Tony is revealing. If she turns away from the Church to maintain her relationship with Tony, does she have any guarantee her relationship will succeed? No. If she continues as she is will she suffer a breakdown? Maybe, maybe not. If Tony gives up on her and leaves, well there is a tragic element, her hope for love has been lost, her baby has lost her father, but the integrity of her own situation will be restored. In other words, both the strain she is under and the strain on her relationship with Tony reveal the objective disorder of their situation.

Now, Fr. Keller’s answer is to give her communion, or let her make the decision to receive communion. Isn’t this really an emotion driven decision? The woman asks him point-blank, “but, Father, can’t I go to communion,” thereby putting him in an emotionally difficult situation. Doesn’t the permissive interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, and even the ambiguity, leave priests vulnerable in such situations?

In any case, Irma’s initial reaction is tears of joy, but is this joy founded in truth? Or is Fr. Keller not now building up an illusion? If the joy is based on an illusion can it be lasting? Can it be eternal?

The truth is that Irma is not married to Tony. The truth is that she is living in a situation that objectively separates her from the full life of the Church. The truth is that it will be nearly impossible for her to see the allowance to receive communion as anything other than the Church approving her relationship with Tony, as blessing her sexual intimacy with a man to whom she is not married. And if the whole thing falls apart in five years?

Finally, let us consider the supposition that the truth of her relation to Tony is not public knowledge. It might not be generally known in the parish; nevertheless, it is almost certainly known to her family and her family knows that she married Francisco in the Church. So her family will see the Church as blessing her adulterous union with Tony. As a result, even if they approve the union and are happy for her, they will be led into error regarding the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: is the marriage bond something real and, if it is real, is it indissoluble?


  • Fr. Joseph Levine

    Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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