Holy Communion and the Importance of Marriage

Holy Communion and the Importance of Marriage artwork

As is now widely known, there have been calls from some high-ranking prelates, chief among them Cardinal Walter Kasper, to reconsider the Catholic Church’s practice with regard to holy communion for Catholics who have validly married but have subsequently entered into second unions while their spouses are still alive—the “remarried,” as they are sometimes misleadingly called. As things now stand, Catholics who have thus entered into second unions, and who have not rectified their situations, are not to present themselves for communion, and in some circumstances they are to be denied communion. In this essay, I will offer reasons for thinking that this practice is correct—reasons grounded on the importance and sanctity of marriage itself.

In order to get clear on what is really at stake, some careful analysis is required. No one denies that someone who gets married, and then enters into another sexual union while his (or her) spouse is still alive, has violated his (or her) marriage vows: the vows clearly hold until death, and the vows clearly require sexual fidelity. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes those who have thus entered into second unions as living in “permanent and public adultery” (CCC 2384).

Another thing no one denies is that someone in a state of mortal sin should not be receiving communion. Canon 916 says (with certain qualifications irrelevant here) that someone who believes himself to have committed a mortal sin, but not yet been absolved of it, should not present himself for communion. Canon 915 goes even farther, saying that in certain circumstances, someone in such a situation should be denied communion by the minister.

Not in dispute, then, is the following pair of propositions: someone who is currently in a state of mortal sin should not go to communion, and someone who has entered into a second sexual union during the lifetime of his spouse has violated his marriage vows by committing adultery. Interestingly, however, that pair of propositions does not imply anything about the issue being debated, namely, whether unrepentant adulterers may go to communion. Whether they may or not depends on a third question, namely, whether committing adultery is a mortal sin. If someone who commits adultery has thereby committed a mortal sin, it follows that he may not receive communion until he has rectified his situation, thereby ceasing to be an adulterer. If, on the other hand, he may receive communion, this can only be because, in committing adultery, he has in fact not committed a mortal sin.

So the central question is whether committing adultery is a mortal sin. There are three criteria that determine whether a sin is mortal (CCC 1857-1859): the act itself must involve grave matter; the person performing the act must be aware of its wrongness; and finally, the person performing the act must freely consent to it. Let us consider these in reverse order.

CCC 1860 acknowledges that “the promptings of feelings and passions” can diminish the voluntariness of an act, but it is hard to see how this sort of consideration is relevant in the case of those in second unions. Passions can, perhaps, be blamed for a one-time act of unfaithfulness, but someone who has gone to the trouble of moving in with his lover has had plenty of time for rational reflection! Whatever the reason for thinking that those in second unions have not committed mortal sin, this cannot be it.

As for knowledge, perhaps it is true that many Catholics today are not sufficiently aware of the wrongness of adultery. Aquinas suggests (ST I-II, q. 94, art. 6) that individual elements of the natural law can, at certain times and places, be erased from the human heart. When one reflects on the toxic nature of Western culture today, and reflects, as well, on the near-total collapse of catechesis on sexual morality (and on so many other issues), the thought that the moral truths concerning sex and marriage have been blotted out in our society today is hardly far-fetched. On the other hand, CCC 1860 points out that “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man.” Even if, in some sense, it really is true that people nowadays do not understand the truth about sex and marriage, the solution is not to allow them to remain in ignorance, but instead for pastors to enlighten the consciences of the faithful. To leave people in ignorance is wrong for a number of reasons. It embodies a bizarre dualism according to which external actions are irrelevant as long as one’s heart is in the right place. It shows contempt for the adult status of the faithful, who are somehow assumed to be unable to handle the truth of the Gospel. And it leaves them prey to the objective disorders that will surely creep into their lives, despite their alleged ignorance of their objectively sinful behavior.

No matter what one concludes exactly about all this, it cannot be supposed that ignorance is the exculpating factor that advocates of the new proposal have in mind. Their idea seems to be that spouses in second unions could go through some sort of penance, at the end of which they could receive communion. Anyone interested in this process, and willing to go through it, would clearly be someone who knew that adultery was wrong: if he was ignorant of its wrongness, he could hardly be capable of going through a period of penance. So again, whatever the reason for thinking that those in second unions have not committed mortal sin, it cannot be their ignorance of the moral law.

By the process of elimination, we have arrived at grave matter. Perhaps those in favor of the new proposal are committed to the view that leaving one’s spouse, and entering into a sexual union with someone new, is not something that is, of its own nature, gravely wrong. One reason for thinking this way would be that the person doing this believed he/she was not in a serious violation of the marriage covenant. But that is completely implausible. Even a cursory look at the marriage vows makes it clear that entering a second union while one’s spouse is still alive is a serious, and even a maximal, violation of the covenant. If entering a second union is such a violation, then the only reason it wouldn’t be gravely wrong would be that the vows themselves are not of great importance. It’s a violation, to be sure, but not a violation of something serious, and hence not a serious violation.

It’s obvious that many feel this way today, but it is absurd to propose that the Church adopt such a mode of thought. In a way, it is more absurd than it ever has been. Since the 20th century, the Church’s official teaching has shown a new level of appreciation of the value of marriage (see for example Lumen Gentium 39-41 and Familiaris Consortio). Marriage is now seen more clearly than ever for what it truly is: a state of life that serves as a context in which the spouses are to grow in holiness in a “domestic Church.” It is not a mere practical arrangement for making sure someone is taking care of the kids, or for clarifying who is responsible for the bills. It is a “school of the Lord’s service,” to use the words that St. Benedict applied to the monastery. If marriage is all of this, then the total violation of it under discussion here can only be a grave sin.

Without speculating about the motives of those who back the new proposal, then, it needs to be said that as an objective matter, the proposal embodies a lack of respect for marriage. It is as if someone were to say, “You spouses may think you are involved in a project of the utmost importance—for yourselves, your children, society, and the Church—but you’re wrong. Marriage is fairly important, yes, but not ultimately important, as proved by the fact that you can violate your vows without doing anything gravely wrong.” This way of thinking needs to be rejected, firmly and unambiguously, not only at the highest levels, but also in practical ways by pastors who maintain the Church’s discipline in a loving but serious way. Marriage is too important for anything less.

To avoid going astray in all this, it is important to add some clarifications. First, the fact that it is sometimes too difficult to get a decree of nullity—a fact that the recent Mitis Judex is meant to address—has nothing to do with this issue. As Cardinal Kasper himself has made clear,1 we are not talking about cases in which the original couple were never married in the first place, but about situations in which they were truly and legitimately married.

Second, it needs to be pointed out that divorce is not, of itself, a bar to communion. In some cases, one spouse has no realistic choice but to separate from the other, and obtain a civil divorce; doing so might sometimes even be praiseworthy. The spouses in such a case are estranged, but being estranged is not the same thing as committing adultery—it’s a painful situation, but not in itself a sinful one.

Third, no one is saying that someone who has wrongly entered into a second union is forever barred from receiving communion, even if a decree of nullity is not an option, and the new partner is still living. Someone in this situation can repent, receive absolution, and, henceforth, live in accordance with the vow he made to his original spouse—i.e., his real spouse. This may involve completely severing the new relationship, or it may involve maintaining the relationship in a way that involves sexual abstinence. How to work this out in detail is, obviously, a question involving tact, discernment, and no little sacrifice. It would be inhuman and uncharitable not to be sympathetic to someone in this situation. But that doesn’t mean that what marriage requires is unclear. (This is the real meaning of “pastoral sensitivity”—not laxity, but kindness in supporting those for whom it is particularly difficult to meet the rigorous demands of the gospel. We will return to this point below.)

Fourth, it is irrelevant to say that there may be some elements of goodness in the second relationship. As Plato pointed out long ago, even the members of a criminal conspiracy observe a kind of justice among themselves. Talk of a “gradual” approach, then, must confront the following harsh reality: whereas a cohabitating couple can grow in awareness, and ultimately convert their improper sexual relationship into a proper (i.e., marital) one, a couple in a second union cannot convert their relationship into something holy without changing it into a non-sexual one. In this way, an adulterous relationship is more radically flawed than a cohabitating relationship is.

Fifth, it is also irrelevant to point out that, in many cases, the original relationship has wholly broken down. In some cases, of course, this will be true: things will have gone so badly that reconciliation is, at least humanly speaking, impossible. But this sad truth is not relevant. The deepest reason why adultery is wrong is not that it may hurt one’s spouse, but that one has pledged oneself not to commit adultery. One has pledged oneself to a life of faithfulness to one’s spouse, no matter how difficult it may be, and no matter how wrongly that spouse may act. A failed marriage is not a “dead” marriage, but only a marriage that is very, very sick. Dealing with illness is difficult, but that doesn’t justify pulling the plug. Spouses must be as true to their vows as they can, and in extreme cases, they must content themselves with the minimum: not entering into a sexual union with another. This may not seem like much, but, in fact, it is the difference between faithfulness and betrayal.

Finally, it is no objection to say that faithfulness in a failed marriage can be excruciatingly difficult. Christianity is about the cross. To suggest that ordinary Christians just can’t be held to the standards of their proper calling because “heroism is not for the average Christian”2 is clerical condescension of the worst sort.

Those of us who have committed ourselves to the married way of life, and taken on its burdens, should not want the option of moving on to another relationship. Marriage is the form of our lives. Our living out of this covenant—for better or for worse, for the whole of life—is the chief means of our sanctification. It’s good that Cardinal Kasper and his friends want to show us pastoral sensitivity. The best way for them to do this is to take us at our word—to take us at our vows. They should hold us to our commitments, and help us live them out. We aren’t second-class Christians, and we should not be treated as if we were.3

Michael Gorman About Michael Gorman

Michael Gorman, Ph.D., is an associate professor, in the School of Philosophy, at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was an assistant professor (1997-1999) in Catholic Studies, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, N.S., Canada. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, 1993. He received a Ph.D. in Theology from Boston College in 1997. He earned a Ph.L. in Philosophy, 1989 from Catholic University of America. He received his B.A. from University of Toronto, St. Michael’s College in 1987.
Areas of interest include Metaphysics, Human Nature, Analytic Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy.


  1. That we should even have this as a topic of discussion/analysis is a tribute to the confusion that Pope Frances has brought to the world on this subject.

  2. Thank you for this essay. We were just discussing these circumstances the other day. I actually think that the Holy Father is causing us to think rather than to take everything for granted.