Q: I am Catholic, and recently attended the First Holy Communion for the son of dear friends at the Catholic church they attend. The family is very active at the church and the parish school this boy attends.
After the ceremony, when everyone got up to receive the Holy Sacrament, I noticed my friends did not. When I asked them why, they said the boy's father (who was previously divorced) was not allowed to receive communion, as this was against the rules (for divorced people) and considered a sin. The mother did not partake in support of her husband, although she was never divorced.
I'm also divorced (and remarried to a Catholic), and I never heard of such a thing! However, it seems to mean that for the past 25 years I've been going to church and receiving communion, I've been "sinning"! Participating in church life has been a major part of my life.
I'm too embarrassed to ask the priest at my parish about this matter. This "rule" sounds outdated, and in a world filled with so much hate, you'd think church leaders would relax it. They should be happy that these parents are raising their son with religious beliefs and let them receive the Holy Sacrament together as a family. Any thoughts? — Florida "sinner"
A: You did notice that I'm a rabbi? My dear friend Father Tom Hartman and I have often talked about the agonizing theological and moral issue of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion, and I think I know the rules. You can know the rules, as well, by reading items 2382-6 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Basically, there are no obstacles for divorced and unmarried Catholics taking communion. However, divorced and remarried Catholics, in general, are indeed forbidden from Eucharistic Communion (although this rule does not apply among Orthodox Catholics).
The only way around this problem is through it. Couples must go to a marriage tribunal and if it's determined that there never was a true marriage in the first place, and if there is repentance, permission may be granted to receive communion again. This act is inaccurately called an annulment. While this is a hurdle, it's not impossible to surmount.
What cannot be officially sanctioned is letting each individual Catholic determine for himself or herself what the rules of the church should be. The communion rail can never be open to all. Now that you know canon law on this matter, you really need to overcome your reticence in talking to your parish priest and begin the process of coming back into full communion with your church.
What often happens is that when faced with a pastoral issue like this, priests can find ways to compassionately accommodate the realities of marriage and divorce in the bad weather of modern civilization.
Your question raises the broader issue of how adherents can cope with the sometimes uncomfortable rules of their chosen religion. These rules offer continuity, as well as the practical defense of moral and theological judgments that give religions their shape and point of view. Orthodox Judaism also has tough laws.
Traditional Judaism allows divorce, but a man may refuse to grant his ex-wife a religious divorce, called a Get. This hostile act effectively prevents her from ever marrying again. Some orthodox rabbis try to invalidate the original marriage document, called a Ketubah, and some put in a special "get clause" in the Ketubah to prevent this situation, but it is a tough situation.
I'm personally and theologically sympathetic to granting people the exceptions they need to divorce, but also to remarry and reconnect to the faith that gives them hope and comfort. However, I do understand and am deeply sympathetic to the other side of the argument. If we allow people to make up their own rules, the ancient integrity of our faiths may be diluted, imperiled and ultimately lost.
The perfect statement of the tenuous balance between compassion and continuity that's needed among all religious leaders, particularly those who are active pastors to their flocks, is found in the words of the great prophet Isaiah (54:2): "Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes."
May you find a priest who also believes in strong stakes but long ropes. I believe the new pope is just such a priest.
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