QUESTION: Does primacy of conscience override church teachings as it relates to taking holy communion for a Catholic who has divorced and remarried outside of church?
QUESTION: If he believes that it is better for the sake of his children to not seek an annulment, and he has truly had a conversion of heart through the grace of God, should he be denied from receiving holy communion at Mass if his conscience tells him it’s the right thing to do?
A few things to keep in mind:
- True marriages last until the death of a spouse.
- Jesus hates and forbids divorce.
- Marriages by Catholics outside the Church are null-and-void.
- Annulments are simply declarations that there was no true marriage.
- Attempted marriage without an annulment is adultery.
People often do what they want, despite what the Church teaches. However, the Church has the right to control and administer her own sacraments. Remember, there are seven sacraments or divine mysteries only because the Church, herself, is the Great Mystery. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Established by Christ, never in the history of the world had God given such authority to men as Jesus did to his apostles and priests. Priests can confect the Eucharist and offer the sacrifice of Calvary. They can also forgive sins. The Church is where we have our sacramental encounter with the living Christ.
The primacy of conscience does not mean that a priest must give holy communion to everyone who comes up to him. However, he must also avoid scandal and do nothing to violate professional secrecy and the seal of Confession. This means that despite his convictions, a priest might sometimes be compelled to give holy communion to people who should not receive.
Only Catholics properly disposed (in a state of grace) should make themselves available for holy communion. I regularly make an instruction about this during Masses. A person’s conscience should be properly informed and respectful of Church teaching. Freedom of conscience does not mean license.
Technically, if a couple were living as “brother and sister” (usually elderly) and recourse to an annulment had failed or was impossible, a couple married outside the Church might be permitted to receive communion. They would have to promise the pastor that they would not engage in any sexual activities or divulge to others in the parish their true relationship. After going to confession and receiving sacramental absolution, they could again receive holy communion. However, this type of “internal forum” with the pastor should be sparingly used. If there is any chance of scandal, it cannot be pursued.
Annulments do not have any impact upon the legitimacy of children. People need to know this. They are attempts by the Church to balance compassion to her people with the permanent character of marriage and the prohibition of divorce.
If a man has had a genuine conversion of heart then he would seek an annulment, not only for his own sake, but for the woman he is with now. Does he not want her to go to heaven? Indeed, I know of one case where a couple separated because they wanted to be in good standing with God and the Church. Love of God and the love for another human being sometimes means detachment, distance and heroic sacrifice. Pretending to be married and clinging to each other is something people do in their weakness and sinfulness, both in the cases of attempted second marriages and those who live together without recourse to sacrament or license. But it is a situation which one should try to quickly remedy. I am reminded of the old Perry Como song, IMPOSSIBLE. He has the line, “I would sell my very soul and not regret it, for to live without your love is just impossible, impossible.” In actuality, by God’s grace, sometimes such is made possible, not as a rejection of love, but as an acceptance of all its implications. The greatest love always casts its eyes upon eternity. How can you say, “I love you,” or “I would sacrifice anything for you,” when that bodily affection and relationship might forfeit the beloved’s acquisition of heaven and eternal life in Christ?
In the eyes of God and the Church, the second relationship noted in the question is not a marriage and is reckoned as adultery. People who are living in a state of mortal sin do not have the capacity to function as vessels of salvific grace. This is very serious. I would urge them both to see a priest about the possible regularization of the relationship.
As a priest, I would strongly urge them not to receive holy communion. However, I would ask them to regularly attend Sunday Mass and to attempt making a spiritual communion in their hearts. Because the relationship is deemed sinful, the reception of holy communion would constitute the further sin of sacrilege. The Eucharist is truly the sacrament of salvation for those abiding in a state of grace. However, that same holy communion convicts us and comes to the judgment of those persons not in right relationship with God.
It is not enough for such a man to follow his conscience, he should also follow the laws of the Church and God. His conscience must be formed by the Gospel and the teachings of faith.
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE, Feb 20
Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, said the conscience is not like a new car’s satellite navigator — a voice coming from inside the car’s dash telling the driver to turn here, continue or stop there. And it is not simply a gut feeling about the best way to act in a certain situation, he said.
“Too often in recent years those desperate for moral education or guidance have been fobbed off with ‘follow your conscience’ or ‘do whatever seems right to you'” without being helped to understand what a correct conscience is and how it is formed, Bishop Fisher said.
“The classical Christian conception of conscience is of the natural perception of basic moral principles, their application in particular circumstances and the final judgment about what is to be done,” he said.