In continuity with my previous column in this catechetical series on marriage, we are now looking at the sensitive and challenging issues facing people today. We will continue in this installment to examine the issue of divorce and remarriage, and what that means for Catholics who find themselves affected by this reality in their lives. It would be extremely important to review my last column, “But from the beginning it was not so,” in preparation for what follows.

We have established that Jesus himself has taught us that a person who divorces his or her spouse and marries another outside the Church commits the grave sin of adultery. Because of the gravity of this sin, the person who knowingly and freely does this finds himself or herself in the state of mortal sin. This further means that the person is unable to approach the sacrament of Holy Communion, just as anyone else who commits a mortal sin for which he or she has not been absolved in the Sacrament of Penance.

It must be understood that this is not a Church “penalty” for the person who divorces and remarries without a declaration of nullity for the first marriage. It is not simply a man-made Church “rule” that could simply be changed. It is an issue touching on the very deepest things we believe about the permanence and indissolubility of marriage and what we believe about the Holy Eucharist. Again, please review my last column. It is a teaching rooted in the words of Jesus himself, in the witness of the New Testament and in the continuous teaching of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Part of the difficulty here is that, unlike most other mortal sins, the person who is divorced and remarried outside the Church cannot simply go to confession, be absolved and return to the sacrament of Holy Communion. Why not? Because the state of mortal sin persists if the person remains in the second marriage and continues a sexual relationship with his or her partner. Part of what is necessary to validly receive absolution in confession is the firm resolve and intent not to engage further in the sin. The divorced and civilly remarried person would go from confession right back into the sinful condition if he or she intends to continue the sexual relationship. We cannot forget that, until proven otherwise, the person’s first marriage remains valid.

Again, this is a very difficult and challenging teaching of our Christian faith to accept and live. But we must be faithful to the teaching of Jesus and his Bride the Church, remaining rooted in the truth of marriage as it has been given to us by the hand of God. We have no other choice, unless we abandon what Christ has handed on to us.

So what hope is there for the divorced Catholic? How can we as the Church (and that means all of us) respond to the painful and challenging situation that so many of our brothers and sisters find themselves in? We must respond with mercy, love and compassion in a way that also upholds and respects the dignity and indissolubility of marriage. We will all anxiously await the results of the Synod on Marriage this fall, and what pastoral advice will be forthcoming. In the meantime, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, we must be clear that it is not a civil divorce in and of itself that prevents one from participating in the sacramental life of the Church. I emphasize this because in my 25 years of priesthood, I have encountered countless people who are under this false impression. The issue is a second “marriage” outside the Church. If a person simply divorces his or her spouse in the civil courts (which the Church does not recognize as a dissolution of the bond), but does not attempt a second marriage, and does not cohabit with another person in a sexual relationship, then that person may receive the sacraments of the Church under the same conditions as all in the Church.

Second, we must find a way to welcome and even involve the divorced and civilly remarried in the life of the Church while they seek to rectify their situation. I realize it is hard for people to accept that not being able to receive Holy Communion does not bar, nor does it excuse one from being a part of the Church to whatever degree possible. We must show understanding, patience and support for those who struggle with this reality. We have to get away from the idea that everyone present at Mass must receive Holy Communion every time and under all circumstances. If we all took Holy Communion more seriously and truly examined ourselves, there are probably many more of us who on any given Sunday may find ourselves not properly disposed to receive Holy Communion. Again, see my last column.

We have to find a way to prevent the divorced and civilly remarried from feeling “stigmatized” and “outcast” in the Church. They are still our brothers and sisters and they need our love, understanding, support and help. I knew a person who, though civilly divorced and remarried, continued to participate as fully as possible in the life of the Church for decades. This person was faithful in Mass attendance, although unable to receive Holy Communion. He also offered his gifts and talents in many ways to the community of his parish and the wider Church. I was happy to reconcile him on his deathbed. Somehow in this, I find a model for pastorally helping these good people. Finally, we must help those who are civilly divorced and remarried to “regularize” (rectify) their marital situation. We must do everything we can to assist them in approaching the Church’s tribunal forum to examine the validity of their first marriage. If they petition the Church to examine their first marriage, and if the Church comes to moral certainty that their first marriage was not valid from the beginning, then they can be free to have their second union validated in the Church.

This can be a difficult and challenging process, but it can also bring great peace and healing. We must do everything we can to support and help them through this process. In the end, if their first marriage is determined to be valid, then they have the final option to live their lives in their second civil marriage as “brother and sister”, without the sexual union. I have known some very saintly and inspiring people who have chosen this path. The grace and mercy of God comes to their aid. If anyone has questions regarding their own situation or how to approach the marriage tribunal, please contact your local parish priest. He will be happy to help you in any way possible. At all times, know you are loved and never abandoned by the Lord or his Church.