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3 ways the Vatican could allow divorced Catholics back to Communion

(RNS4-MAY18) Deacon Joe Krysiak, is shown here during Holy Communion at one of two parishes he runs, of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Baltimore. The Mass was celebrated by visiting priest the Rev. Roman Korzacheson. Deacons have a growing role in the Roman Catholic Church as there are less priests to go around. For use with RNS-CATHOLIC-DEACONS, transmitted May 18, 2010. Religion News Service photo by Dennis Drenner.
(RNS4-MAY18) Deacon Joe Krysiak, is shown here during Holy Communion at one of two parishes he runs, of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Baltimore. The Mass was celebrated by visiting priest the Rev. Roman Korzacheson. Deacons have a growing role in the Roman Catholic Church as there are less priests to go around. For use with RNS-CATHOLIC-DEACONS, transmitted May 18, 2010. Religion News Service photo by Dennis Drenner.

Deacon Joe Krysiak, left, is shown here during Holy Communion at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Baltimore. Religion News Service file photo by Dennis Drenner

(RNS) While the first months of Pope Francis’ pontificate have been marked by his attention to the poor and his “Who am I to judge” attitude on homosexuality, his pledge to tackle the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics could have the biggest impact for Catholics in the pews, especially in the U.S.

The current policy has caused what some call a “silent schism,” and bishops around the world concede that the ban has alienated untold numbers of Catholics and their families.

“I think this is the moment for mercy,” Francis told reporters when asked about remarried Catholics during a wide-ranging news conference on the plane back to Rome from Brazil in July.

Like the gay issue, Francis seems to favor a more pastoral approach to the equally perplexing  question of “invalid” marriages — couples who remarry outside the church without getting an annulment, or those who do not get married in church in the first place.

In both cases, those Catholics are ineligible to receive Communion, which is the central sacrament of Catholic practice. For years, efforts have tried to convince Rome to try something new — appeals that the new pope seems ready to heed.

“We are on the way towards a deeper matrimonial pastoral care,” Francis said. “This is a problem for many people.”

"Catholics and marriage in the United States" graphic by T.J. Thomson

“Catholics and marriage in the United States” graphic by T.J. Thomson

In the U.S. alone, out of a total of nearly 30 million married Catholics, some 4.5 million are divorced and remarried without an annulment, according to Mark Gray at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Moreover, the number of Catholics marrying in the church and the number of annulments are steadily declining, which means that a growing number of Catholics are in “irregular” marriages and are technically barred from receiving Communion.

In North America and Europe, in particular, bishops have pushed the Vatican to at least discuss some reforms, but they have always been rebuffed. Some dioceses have initiated their own reforms. In the latest effort, the German Archdiocese of Freiburg recently announced policies aimed at allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion after prayer and consultation with a priest.

"Catholic marriages and annulments in the U.S." graphic by T.J. Thomson

“Catholic marriages and annulments in the U.S.” graphic by T.J. Thomson

But when the Vatican announced in early October that Francis was calling hundreds of bishops to Rome next fall to discuss this issue and others related to the family, it also asked that individual dioceses not freelance their own solutions in order to avoid “generating confusion.”

So can this knotty problem finally be resolved? And how? Here are three possibilities that have emerged:

One: The “Orthodox Option”

Francis himself cited the practice in Eastern Orthodox churches of allowing, for various reasons, a second or even third marriage — and thus access to Communion — while still considering the first marriage sacramentally valid. Adopting that practice would require a change in Catholic practice but it could help avoid what is now a pastoral roadblock.

“There would be a sympathetic view among most laity, clergy and bishops for something like that,” Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton told The Times of London.

Two: Let your conscience be your guide

Catholics have always had recourse to what is called the “internal forum,” that is, following their conscience on whether they are eligible to receive Communion even if they’re in an “irregular” marriage.

This is not intended as a “get out of jail free” card and should involve “a moral judgment of conscience that calls for serious personal reflection over a period of time,” as the Rev. James A. Coriden, a canon lawyer at the Washington Theological Union, put it in a detailed analysis in Commonweal magazine last year.

But if next October’s Vatican synod highlighted the “internal forum” option, church experts say it could go a long way toward teaching Catholics how an appeal to conscience can work, and could help remarried Catholics take part in church life without feeling like second-class citizens.

Three: Streamline the annulments process

Annulling a marriage in a church court can be a tortuous and expensive process that varies so widely from country to country that it raises questions of basic fairness. Indeed, two-thirds of the nearly 55,000 annulments granted by church tribunals around the world each year are in the U.S., even though American Catholics account for just 6 percent of the world’s Catholic population.

As Francis himself said, the process for annulments must be reviewed “because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient.”

While the bishops who gather next fall could choose to adopt one or more of these three solutions, there are also powerful currents for maintaining the status quo.

For example, Roman officials have for years been trying to rein in annulments, not expand them, saying that tribunals — especially in the U.S. — are too quick to grant them.

Another warning sign: Amid rising speculation that change is coming, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, published a lengthy article in the Vatican newspaper on Oct. 22 that cast serious doubt on any prospects for reform.

Even an appeal to mercy for remarried Catholics — which Francis explicitly advocated — “misses the mark,” Mueller wrote in unusually direct language.

Given this pushback, said longtime Vatican watcher John Thavis, “it’s legitimate to wonder where the church is really headed: substantial change or another dead-end debate.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • Once I entered late middle age and sat at weddings were the couple were kids barely over 20, I came to realize that a lot of newlyweds have no idea what they are doing. I’ve come to believe that a rather permissive annulment policy is warrented. Instead the Church has moved the other way. I have been surprised of annulments being refused to divorced Protestants interested in marrying a Catholic.

    My view is that parish priests should have the authority to declare a marriage null.

  • US tribunals grant so many annulments not because they are easy, but because so many seek them, perhaps because there yet remains a respect for the law. But that might be eroding.

    We’ve trained a lot of canon lawyers the past few decades, so what happens to those cogs in the institution, lay and clergy, if they are no longer working on declarations of nullity?

  • Option 4 – akin to #§

    Marriage is a relationship. Death is the release from the marriage bond, When a relationship is dead, where is the marriage? Show me.

  • The only effect of a more “pastoral approach” is that official Church doctrine on marriage and divorce will get even more fossilized than it already is at present. Church doctrine and pastoral praxis will become two completely separate worlds, so much so that nobody who knew only the doctrine could ever deduce the praxis from it, or vice versa. A permissive pastoral approach never works. Once a certain item is covered by it, the next item, which isn’t yet covered, becomes the problem. The slippery slope of an endlessly adapting and shifting pastoral praxis will inevitably lead to the predictable end result of the acceptance of the entire liberal agenda of modern secular humanity by the Church. Once the ban on communion for divorced is lifted, the pressure will build on lifting the ban on those living together “in long term relationships” wholly outside matrimony. Then, next, the ban on “stable” homosexual relationships must be lifted also, since this type of relationship is a priori non-matrimonial. Next, bisexuals will complain about their exclusion and so the ban on non-monogamous relationships has to be lifted. So polygamy has to be permitted by the Church. And after all that there will still be persons who will feel discriminated and “treated harshly” by the Church and who will raise their voice because they feel unable to live in stable relationships at all. For, if the demand of marriage is no longer essential, for what reason should relationships be required to be “stable” or “long term”? Why can’t I just have a love affair for a couple of months? Why should the Church have any say in these matters anyway? The only logical end of this is the complete dissolution of Christian moral doctrine. It is the apostasy of the professing Christianity.

  • Kurt,

    I agree with you completely. The current process pushes many away from the Church. As a deacon, I see it all the time. We just have to address this issue much more pastorally.


  • I understand what you are saying but i am a divorced-remarried Catholic, when i got married at the ripe old age of 18 i planned to stay married to my husband for the rest of my life. I stayed married to this man for 20 years, i did everything in my power to keep my marriage together but realized when he hit my daughter i could no longer stay in the marriage and before you say anything about councling did that made him go did not work so now i am divorced and remarried. But when i go to church i can not go to communion i feel like i don’t belong anymore in the church that i grew up in is that fair to me. I don’t belive in people living together, i know that being gay goes against all of GOD’s laws does not mean that people who are doing these very things are not taking communion now. I on the other hand will not go to communion until i know that i am not breaking the laws of my church.

  • My first husband and I were married in the Catholic Church. We divorced. I then married a non-catholic who had previously been married, but not in a Catholic Church. My ex-husband died, but I have been told that my current husband must get an annulment in order for our marriage to be blessed so that I can then receive communion. I

  • Kevin, most scholars agree that the “exception” given in Matthew 19:9, if the original Greek is more correctly translated, does not refer to adultery, but rather to “marital illegitimacy,” probably a reference to gentile marriages that would not have been considered valid according to Christian standards, which derived from Jewish moral law (for example, marriage among close family members was not unusual among certain gentiles of the time. These would not have been considered valid marriages, and therefore could have been dissolved). This only makes sense. If the rule was simply that one partner committing adultery would make divorce legitimate, then a partner has an easy out. I’m a husband, I decide I’m in love with someone else, but, darn! I’m already married. So, all I have to do is sleep with my new paramour. Then I have committed adultery, the marriage can now be ended by divorce, and I get the woman I want. Kind of nullifies Jesus’ tough stance on marriage.

    The first two options given in the article have one HUGE problem: they would involve the Church simply negating the teaching of Jesus that has been passed down over the centuries. Remember that the Church declares its own mission to be the preservation of the teaching of Christ, only defining ideas to clarify and detail what has already been handed down through the apostles. While you may debate whether certain teachings are really the necessary implications of original apostolic teachings, that is the idea and the purpose, and so a direct contradiction of a teaching consistently held for 2 millenia becomes a problem. It is like the Church implicitly admitting, “Well, we’re just making it up as we go along. None of it REALLY came from God, it’s just our best understanding.” Jesus said that anyone who divorced his wife and married another committed adultery, and that has been interpreted consistently since the time of the apostles. We can even see this as early as the writings of the apostle Paul, who said that a divorced couple must either remain unmarried or reconcile.

    Please do not believe I am here preaching from an ivory tower. I am a Catholic man. My wife and I recently separated (thank the Lord we have been successfully working on co-parenting), and as she stated that there is no hope for reconciliation, we will be getting a legal divorce for tax purposes. And, as a result, I am staring at the reality of a lifetime of celibacy. I am doing it because I believe in the teaching of Jesus, no matter how tough it may be. I trust that my Lord would not have commanded something unless it was the best thing for me and for those others involved. I can’t always see why it’s necessary, but I believe He can, and therefore knows better than I do. I trust God as my loving Father, and the Son as my wise and caring older Brother. I’ll work to do what He says, knowing that, as bleak as things may seem now, in the end it will make for the happiest possible life.

  • My husband and I have been divorced for 31 years. We were married in the Catholic Church and very active in our church. We waited two years after being engaged to get married. This was a valid sacramental marriage. We had two lovely sons and divorce was never an option. After 17 years of marriage and a total of 21 years together, we did get a divorce and my husband subsequently married his pregnant secretary. I was heart broken and it damaged our family beyond measure. It took years of therapy and finally coming to a place that my relationship with God is stronger than ever and that relationship is private and personal. I am a much sought after spiritual counselor whose primary mission in life is to encourage people to live with devotion to God. My ex-husband recently asked me for an annulment because he was told he can no longer receive any sacraments due to our divorce. This has created even more pain and suffering and I will not cooperate in this spiritual hypocrisy. I cannot believe in my heart and soul that the Pope really knew the firestorm the Bishops conference would create. Now what do I do? I refuse to say my marriage was invalid because that is a lie. And I refuse to have my sex life discussed with a stranger. THIS HAS GOT TO STOP. Please do something that is humane, I feel like I am living in the dark ages or the Inquisition. THIS IS NOT HOLY AND CERTAINLY NOT SACRED.

  • Church Must Reform to Bring Back Lapsed Catholics

    Millions of Catholics have voted with their feet on the issues of divorce and remarriage as well as other social worries. According to a 2008 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, some 22.5 million Americans are now lapsed Catholics.

    At 10% of the adult American population, this number makes them the second largest denomination in the USA. They have quietly walked away from the church of their younger years. Even church apologists call it a “silent schism.” A recent poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University reports that 42.7 million Catholics, or two-thirds of the once faithful, are not consistently going to Mass.

    How could this be? When I was an altar boy in the late 1950s, the pews of St Catherine’s Church were always full at every Mass. Last fall, I attended Sunday Mass at my old parish and found the church about one-third full. That corresponds with statistics released by a group called Catholics Come Home, which estimates one-third of Catholics attend Mass regularly, one-third attend occasionally, and one-third never attend. A recent poll conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University found almost 43 million American Catholics, or two-thirds, are not going to church at all.

    Clearly something is terribly wrong with the leadership of the church in the last generation to produce this dismal evangelical record. Says one lapsed Catholic, Pat Denver of Denver, “I’ll come back when married men can be priests and all women are treated fairly. And when I believe bishops don’t lie to cover up for priests’ crimes.”

    Among the church’s hierarchy, Pope Francis seems to understand this reality—much better than his aging counselors–and is willing to ponder reform. This fall, he will convene a synod of bishops in Rome to deliberate on family challenges. At the top of the agenda is the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics. They form a group of 4.5 million Catholics in the US alone who are considered adulterers for life and banned from receiving Communion-the redemptive heart light of Catholicism.

    Last month, I joined a majority of Catholics and ex-Catholics calling for an end to discrimination against divorced and remarried people. The responses to my posting and other articles on the subject are running 95% in favor of lifting the ban. Their comments were direct, colorful, and often angry. More and more people perceive a great gulf between official Catholicism and the gentle doctrines of its founder, Jesus Christ.

    Please visit my blog to read a sampling of lay comments on this divisive issue.

  • I feel your pain. I have been trying to get an anullment for 12 years. The first time was totally messed up as I had no help whatsoever. I was given a second chance,this one was even worse.I feel no one on the churches side has any integrity whatsoever as they only used what they thought was usable in order to deny the anullment. In my opinion they did not follow the procedure I was told would be used.Example: None of my witnesses were used or even notified. The priest who helped me the second time,none of his detailed documents were used. They seemed to go back to the original botched anullment proceeding whenever it was convenient for them. they have no accountability , whatsoever.Some of these priests were not even born when I was married, yet they ,basically get to speculate on what went on during your marriage. My faith in god is still there, but my faith in the church is gone. What does one have to do to get a fair hearing? Where do you go to find a person with some integrity and understanding? You will never get me to believe that a priest even begins to understand what goes on in a marriage,or what happens inside the four walls we call home.By the way I was married 44 years ago,divorced 33 years ago, and can’t get a fair hearing. HELP!!!

  • “The current policy has caused what some call a “silent schism,” and bishops around the world concede that the ban has alienated untold numbers of Catholics and their families.”

    It is not the “policy” that has alienated these Catholics — it is their own choice to live a live of objective grave sin by attempting to marry after a divorce when not free to do so. Pride — the same sin that led to the fall of the angels and our first parents. Admitting those in this state to Holy Communion may make them feel better now, but how are they going to feel when they ultimately (unless they repent) face He whose Body and Blood they have been consuming unworthily,and have to account for those sacrileges in addition to their other sins? There is no charity in setting a soul up to take such a fall.

  • not true, unless, of course, your present husband — whether Catholic or not — were also previously divorced. Chances are: if he were previously divorced, the annulment process undertaken by the Church would be fairly simple. Please look into it.

  • My situation is similar to yours as my former marriage became intolerable after many years. I also have struggled with the same problem. I found out that there are many like us who receive communion. It’s a matter of conscience, (considering that many eligible communicants never go to confession) I would receive communion. Perhaps this would change but I not going to hold my breath. The prelates need to realize that we too are the Church, not just them. There is healing and forgiveness in the Eucharist. I would find it difficult to imagine that Jesus does not want you to receive him.

  • I wonder if its for the reason that the Catholics put their doctrine above the authority of Scripture. They will not admit it but it does exist.

  • I am relieved to read that others feel the same way I do. My son and I were abandoned by my first husband. We were both Catholic. I sought an annulment and received a negative decision. I left the Church. That was 25 years ago. Much water has gone under the bridge since then. He is not dead; he divorced his second wife, much in the same fashion, and now lives with another woman that he is not married to. I planned to stay married to him the rest of my life. I have had a rocky road since then, but I have been in the Protestant church with my current husband for 17 years. My son has remained Catholic. I want to return to the Church, but I am sure I would not be welcome. I am very disappointed in the situation.

  • Elaine,
    I am conflicted by this very issue. I am a cradle Catholic and have earlier in my life received an annulment. I then married again in the Catholic church but my ex-husband now is not Catholic. I am in a relationship with a Catholic and we have discussed our future but I am so conflicted on this issue. My second husband became a very abusive person. While he nor I were perfect when we married I can’t say there was not a marriage there. Actually, I would say that we grew in different directions in almost every way. This led to alot of anger and abuse. I love my catholic faith and have found a person that treats me correctly and cherishes me. All of the things that I thought I had before. Even if I try I may not be granted an annulment as we were married for 13 years and together for 21 yrs. I did not want this divorce I did everything in my power to save it…however it takes two. I knew my health was suffering and I want to be around for my grandchildren etc. If you find the answer please let me know. I feel that I would have to change from being Catholic if I want to pursue this new relationship. We live in different states and while we have seen each other our relationship has been based on communication by cell or computer. We have become great friends. We are both Catholic so he gets it, but goodness I am conflicted.

  • I would like to know why the catholic church needs my previous marriage information for my current husband to take communion?

  • Jerry and those like him feel oh so mighty in their self righteousness and condemnation of others who’s shoes he’s never had to walk in, all while defending a church that allowed pedophile priests to run rampant for centuries. A church that had unfold wealth while there are so many poor around.

    Maybe the decline of the RC is more due to God no longer giving it His Blessing…

    The RCC is the modern version of the Pharisees.

  • I married a Catholic man who had been married in the church and for many reasons which I do not feel I should mention here they were divorced. I was young and I did not think the Church was being fair about depriving my husband (and me when I married him) of receiving Communion, when there wasn’t anything he could have done to keep his marriage, it takes two willing people to stay married. So I continued going to church and not receiving Communion for many years until after so much prayer we received a letter from his ex-wife about getting an annulment, so we followed the instructions and pay $500.oo to the Tribunal and then we had our marriage convalidated. I thank God everyday for such miracle and I received Communion daily. Thanks be to God. So try to get an annulment. Do not give up. May God bless you.

  • I have been trying to find out when the Roman Catholic Church accepted divorced men in the priesthood, so far no one has given me the right information, was it approved by the Pope? Did I miss that somewhere? I have no problem accepting it, but I would like to see it in writing from somewhere with more authority that the American Bishops. After all the Catholic Church is universal so it affects everyone all over the world. Thanks.

  • I don’t see why the BIshop could not appoint so many priests within his diocease to take care of divorced and remarried through counseling and confession without going through the legal issues which they have already gone through.

  • How thankful I am today, 36 years after getting divorced and the Church not allowing me Communion. Having grown up in a staunch Italian Catholic home, attended 13 years at a Catholic Convent school. I was devastated at not being able to receive the body of Jesus, as I had always been taught the communion host was.So in desperation I knelt before God weeping that I had committed the unforgivable sin and now no longer able to receive Jesus in Holy Communion and I placed myself at His mercy. In loving kindness my God and my creator revealed that if I believe Jesus is the Son of God died for my sins rose from the dead by the Holy Spirit and lives for ever more with the Father Then I do have eternal life.
    I am a child of God and HIS SON Jesus Christ lives within me forever through His Holy Spirit..