(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

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.”



  1. 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.

    • 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 am one of those people who has remarried and am unable to receive the Eucharist. My present wife was told she had to get an annulment in order for me to receive. Her first husband committed adultery an offense Jesus clearly gives an exception for In Matthew 19:9, This verse is never quoted about a reason for divorce in the Church, it’s seems to always be over looked.

        I hope there will be changes:)

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. Ronald Sevenster

    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.

    • 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.

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