Hey, Father! Explain why I can or cannot receive holy Communion if I am divorced and remarried

My husband and I were both raised as Catholics. He divorced long before I met him and subsequently married him. My question is, have I been excommunicated because of this marriage and if not, can I still receive Communion? This is my first and only marriage as we were both in our 50’s when we met and married.

– Mary in Springfield

Dear Mary,

The Code of Canon Law lists excommunication under “Penalties and Other Punishments,” the purpose of which is to help one who has broken communion with the Church to restore communion with the Church. The gravity of excommunication is meant to lead a person to recognize the seriousness of what he or she has done.

The penalty of excommunication may be given to a member of the Church who completely repudiates the faith, commits heresy, rejects the authority of the Church, who desecrates the Eucharist, physically attacks the Pope, attempts to absolve an accomplice, ordains a Bishop without a mandate from the Pope, or who violates the seal of the confessional. Marrying a divorced person is nowhere listed as a reason for which one might be excommunicated. Unless you have received a decree of excommunication, it is safe to say you have not been excommunicated.

The question of whether or not you may receive Holy Communion is difficult to answer, given the information you have provided.

The Church presumes the validity of every marriage – until proven otherwise – and upholds what Jesus says about marriage: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). The opposite, of course, holds true for a woman who divorces her husband or who marries a man who divorced his wife. Divorce itself does not end a marriage; it is death that ends a marriage.

The answer to the question of whether you can receive the Eucharist or not largely depends on whether he entered a valid marriage with the woman he civilly divorced. Catholics are required by the Church to marry a Catholic in the presence of a bishop, priest, or deacon using the Church’s ritual for marriage. Permission may be obtained to marry a non-Catholic and dispensations may be received to marry outside the Church, but a person must request such a permission of dispensation.

If the woman from whom your husband is divorced was not – or had not been – a Catholic at the time of the wedding and he did not receive permission to marry her, or if the marriage took place outside the Church without the necessary dispensation, that marriage would be invalid, and he would have been free to marry you. This can be proved with a couple of documents, and he can easily receive a Declaration of Nullity of Marriage.

If he did marry according to the Church’s laws regarding marriage, that marriage is presumed to be valid, and he could not have validly married you. In such case, he would have needed a Declaration of Nullity of Marriage, commonly – and incorrectly – called an “annulment” before attempting another marriage. If he obtained a Declaration of Nullity of Marriage and you married in the Church, I see no reason why you cannot receive Holy Communion.

If he has not received a Declaration of Nullity of Marriage, your marriage to him would not be valid, and therefore, you are not able to receive Holy Communion at the present time. If this is the case, you should encourage him to speak with your pastor about petitioning for a Declaration of Nullity of Marriage. If one is granted, your civil marriage to him can be validated, and you could receive the Eucharist.

If you have further questions about this, I encourage you to visit dio.org/tribunal.

Father Daren Zehnle, J.C.L., K.C.H.S., is pastor at St. Augustine in Ashland and is the director for the Office of Divine Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois.