ASK FATHER: Salvation for divorced and remarried?

From a reader:

If a person is remarried with children and cannot get an annulment on their first marriage do they have to divorce before they can receive communion? Does not receiving communion mean a persons eternal life is in jeopardy? Is it better for the new family to divorce even though God hates divorce?

Such a person should sit down and talk with their trusted parish priest.

A couple possible solutions may be available in this situation.

If the couple have children, and are serious, the pastor might permit them to utilize what has been called the “brother – sister” solution.  That is, if they agree to refrain from sexual activity and live together chastely and with continence, keep quiet about their situation so as not to cause scandal among their parishioners, and remain together to provide something of a normal family life for their children, then they might be able to receive Holy Communion.

NOTA BENE: Couples in this situation should not apply the “brother-sister” solution themselves!  They should take the advice of their pastor.  It is not a right.  There may be reasons why, in a particular situation, this solution might not apply.

Even so, if the couple is in a situation where they may not receive Holy Communion, they should not despair of salvation. They should – actually they must – continue to attend Mass.  They should participate in the activities of the parish as much as possible.  They can participate, as everyone can, in Holy Hours, Stations of the Cross, etc.

They may make Spiritual Communions.  

They should pray privately, acknowledging their situation and asking God for a solution. They should raise their children in the faith.

Even if no solution is possible, they may eventually be able to receive the sacraments in danger of death. Thus, St. Joseph should be their powerful patron and intercessor.

Sometimes suffering is part of the path we must walk.

Not every situation we can get ourselves into has a painless solution.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Not every situation we can get ourselves into has a painless solution.”

    Cut THAT out of felt letters and paste them to a burlap sack banner.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  2. OrthodoxChick says:

    I feel terribly for people in such situations. This came up in conversation yesterday, actually. I was talking to a couple who have been friends with my parents for over 40 years. I knew one of them had been married previously before I was born. I knew she had been divorced from her first husband, but I never knew any of the details and never asked. For whatever reason, the details came up yesterday after all of this time. It turns out that both people in this couple were each married to a previous spouse, and both were married in the Catholic Church. Both were left by the first spouse and divorce followed, and neither of them obtained a declaration of nullity prior to remarrying one another. They married one another in a civil service. They are both weekly Mass goers and the wife is extremely active in parish ministries such as weekly rosary group and a women’s club. Neither member of this couple had children with their prior spouse, nor do they have children together. I asked them if they had ever considered getting their first marriages annulled, even now, and they both said they looked into it before they married civilly but were discouraged by the cost and the idea that they would each need to get their former spouse’s consent, as well as the length of time it would take to annul 2 prior marriages. I explained to them that the cost could be waived upon request if it is still an issue (both people in this couple are now retired) and I tried to point out that since so much time has passed since they each divorced their first spouse (one of them was divorced in the early 1970’s) that their x’s probably wouldn’t object to giving consent anymore, if it would even be needed at this point. I knew I needed to tread lightly with this topic, but I was trying to get them to consider straightening this mess out while they still have time. Both of these folks are now in their 70’s. The husband didn’t want to hear it. He said he has friends and even a cousin who, just because they stuck with their first marriage, and in the case of one person he knows, divorced but did not remarry, these people only go to Mass for weddings and funerals, and they’re still in good standing with the Church to receive Communion. All they have to do is go to confession. He resented the fact that he’s living his faith by attending Mass weekly and honoring his vows to his second wife, even still helps his ex mother-in-law and sister-in-law from time-to-time, and neither he, nor his wife are considered to be Catholics in good standing. Then he went on to tell me the worst part in all of this. He didn’t mention his current pastor, but he told me point blank that all of his previous pastors knew about this couple’s situation (because they told the pastor) and all of the previous pastors told them they could continue to receive Communion. In other words, the last two or three pastors told this couple they would look the other way.

    The moral of this story is that I had a very tough sell yesterday trying to talk this couple into regularizing their marriage when their pastors through the years have felt it was no big deal. As a result (and I’m praying I’m wrong about this) I fear I said little to convince them that it is a very big deal indeed.

  3. anilwang says:

    One thing to add is that people that can’t receive communion because of irregular marriages also can’t go to confession, so they are without the usual means of removing the stain of mortal sins. So without extraordinary Grace they will go to Hell if they are unable to receive Last Rites. They’re only hope is to make an act of perfect contrition, which unfortunately most people don’t have the capacity to do, especially if one is not in a brother-sister relationship.

    I believe one’s only hope in this case is to live a penitential life, until either the Church recognizes the brother-sister relationship (and then you can go to confession) or the situation is officially resolved in some other way that is consistent with Catholic teaching (and then you can go to confession).

  4. Pnkn says:

    Yesterday in Zenit’s daily email came this gem:
    “”No one ought to consider himself a true servant of God who is not tried by many temptations and trials.”

    – St. Francis of Assisi

  5. Bosco says:

    My understanding is that before applying/petitioning for a Declaration of Nullity the Church requires that one be divorced. Therefore, if a Catholic wishes to file for an annulment is it not the Church Herself who (indirectly) insists on divorce?

    So get your divorce, apply for your Declaration of Nullity and after which have either your burlap sack or your bouquet ready?

    Confusing at best.

  6. Wiktor says:

    Yes, this “divorce first” rule is weird.
    Today, nullities are almost taken for granted. First get a divorce, then nullify your marriage, all is right, now you officially became never married.

    Now imagine it were the other way. A couple wants their marriage nullified first, but is DENIED. (let’s assume we live in better times and it’s not as easy as today). And because of that they might stop pursuing divorce, to avoid an irregular situation.

    Today it is like this: first irregularize yourselves, and only then try to get out of this mess.

    That said, please pray for me and my wife, and our struggling marriage.

  7. Ben Kenobi says:

    Orthodox Chick – in a similar situation myself. It’s a difficult row to hoe. I am very pleased that Father Z is addressing things in this matter. In my case, there’s nothing I personally have done, but there are still consequences for me and my life that have came up because of decisions other people made a long time ago. If men and women took their commitments seriously and thought to consider what they meant back then they would have many fewer difficulties later on down the road. In any case, we wait and hope and wait and hope and that is all we can do. Will there be a light at the end of the tunnel? We don’t know. But until now, we do as we ought.

  8. Ben Kenobi says:

    Why would they be deprived of confession? That makes little sense to me. Communion – yes, but confession, no.

  9. Bosco says:


    You said: “…nullities are almost taken for granted…now you officially became never married.” I agree with you that that is the perception generally.

    However, and I don’t believe I am mistaken, a Declaration of Nullity is not an infallible. Yes, it is the procedure required by the Church but it can be granted mistakenly.

    Where does that leave any subsequent union? Is this fallible Declaration, if erroneously granted, a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card come Judgement Day?

    Pity the poor souls trapped in this moral spider-web. It ain’t so terribly black and white as those who ‘frame the issue’ would have us imagine.


  10. OrthodoxChick says:


    Good point. However, if a couple needed to get nullified first, got denied, and then gave it a second try at making it work, where do they go to give it a second try? To a secular, state-licensed marriage counselor who may/may not (likely not) even be well-versed in Catholic doctrine? If the matter of divorce and subsequent remarriage has been the growing issue that it has been for the last 4 or 5 decades, then why hasn’t the Church, through the bishops’ conferences or some other means, established a marital counseling ministry at the parish level; one that provides training for the minsters of the program in some basic counseling techniques and doctrine regarding the Sacrament of Matrimony? In my area, sometimes such counseling can be found through Catholic Charities, but it isn’t always available on a consistent basis in all areas. There’s also a marriage encounter weekend retreat, but unless you are a weekly Mass goer and spot it in the bulletin, you won’t know about it. Shouldn’t the bishops be trying to reach both practicing Catholics as well as the non-practicing who might want to come home? Maybe before bishops and cardinals start talking about ignoring doctrine and tolerating irregular situations, they ought to try initiating a widespread ministry to educate people about the doctrine and then guide them through the process of regularizing their marital situation. Putting it all on the pastor hasn’t seemed to work out too well because everyone in this situation that you talk to seems to have been told something different.

  11. Mercer says:

    Ben Kenobi, you ask why a divorced/remarried couple can’t go to confession. It’s because if they have no intention of leaving each other or at least living as brother and sister, then they’re not sorry for their sin of adultery. If you confess a sin without being sorry for it or deliberately conceal a mortal sin for whatever reason, then your confession is invalid. As a result, NONE of your sins get forgiven, AND you commit the added sin of sacrilege. So in a nutshell, divorced/remarried people are denied confession for the same reason they’re denied Communion — to prevent them from committing sacrilege.

  12. Jerry says:

    re: Ben Kenobi – “Why would they be deprived of confession?”

    Recall that a valid confession requires contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. Confessions made without both of these elements are sacrilegious and invalid.

    If one is in an irregular marital state and continues having conjugal relations with no intention of stopping, there is no firm purpose of amendment (and quite likely no contrition, though there may be some regret).

  13. colospgs says:

    While I do not deny that the whole divorced-and-remarried thing is difficult for those in that situation, please allow me to let them know that the situation they find themselves in is not the worst thing in the world. I always wanted, duh, expected to marry and raise a family. But as I am now 47 years old I realize this is never going to happen for me. I will never have a wife or family. I have now accepted that God’s plan for me is not what I want for me. So I’m sorry if I have little sympathy for those who have married and then divorced and then want to marry again. It may sound rough, but if you have married, and had children, please don’t complain about how bad your life is by saying things like “I want Communion!” Because you know what? I want a wife, and children, but I have neither.

    When I commit a mortal sin, I do not receive communion until I repent, resolve to stop that sin, and go to confession. Why does anyone else expect to live their life in any other way? Is the fact that certain sins are commonplace any reason for the Church to relax her rules? I think St. Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, would have a huge problem with that attitude.

  14. Magash says:

    Most of my experience with this subject comes through association with RCIA. These are a very large percentage of annulment cases. Likewise many cases seem to concern individuals who are no longer practicing Catholics. This is cases where the non-practicing spouse is the one who instigated the divorce. Remember in “no fault” divorce cases there does not need to be an agreement between the couple to seek divorce. Either spouse can go to the state to seek to have their marriage bond dissolved, without the cooperation or permission of the other.
    Individuals in both cases are not likely to be in a situation where any kind of intervention by the Church is going to save their marriage.
    Setting up straw men that pre-supposes that annulment issues are primarily a matter of practicing Catholics in sacramental marriages I think does not address the real issue, at least in the United States. I realize that Rome must be concerned with the wider world where perhaps the situation is much closer to the majority of annulments being concerned with sacramental marriage between Catholics. I do not think the majority of cases in the U.S. are of this type.
    Of course I don’t know that because actual numbers seem very hard to come by. How many annulments are for marriages that were not between Catholics? (Primarily Protestants seeking to convert, but some for Protestants seeking to remarry a Catholic?) How many are for lack of form? For that matter how many marriages were dissolved years or decades ago in divorce? If these types of marriages are the majority of the marriages being reviewed by the tribunals then any action to address failing marriages will not significantly impact the number of marriages saved. Which doesn’t mean the Church shouldn’t try to become more active in saving marriages. It does mean that those efforts won’t significantly effect the number of annulments requested.

  15. John says:

    I too appreciate this topic and input of those more knowledgeable than I.

    I am a cradle catholic and went to a catholic grade school and public high school, but that is an issue for anther day. I go to mass on Sunday and every holy day of obligation, abstain from meat every Friday, pray the LOTH, pray the rosary daily, read the bible, attend adult religious education, tithe, give to charity, and try to obey the ten commandments

    I was first married in a civil ceremony when I was 25 years old and my wife was 21 years old. We had three children in 5 years and she was tired of being a wife and mother. She left me and the children, we divorced and I had care and custody of the children. Less than two years later I married again and we have been together for the last 23 years. We were married by a minister and not in the catholic church. Part of the problem now is that my present wife was married at 18 years old in the catholic church and divorced her 1st husband due to abuse but the marriage was never annulled.

    I have been going to the same church for over 20 years and told my history to the priest that was assigned at the time. Some allowed me to go to communion and some didn’t. The priest now allows me to go to confession but at mass to get a blessing and do spiritual and not physical communion.

    I work out, eat right, sleep well and try to live a balanced life. My wife not so much. I was always more interested in physical marital relations than she was. We are now sleeping in the same bed but living a chaste marriage. I have struggled with my physical desires and lust for a while and it seems appropriate that this is a cross I should now bear.

    I am glad to see this topic is being more widely discussed. Any advice for me?

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, pray for me, a sinner.

  16. Sonshine135 says:

    This one issue alone is an example of why society is not compatible with the Catholic Faith. Being a Disciple is not easy, and sometimes it requires real sacrifice. My heart truly goes out to people who are in this situation. They remind me of the rich man who encountered Jesus. His face dropped when Jesus told him to go sell everything he had, give it to the poor, and follow Him. Kudos to those who have done all they can do with an open heart and an understanding of their grave situation.

    The attitudes of those who do not follow what the church would ask them to do here, assuming the couple even knows, have not been helped by the church itself. Let me explain. My wife and I were discussing the lack of availability of the Sacrament of Confession. Obviously, this leads to a lack of use of this vital sacrament. It is not illogical then for the uneducated or uninformed Catholic to believe that the sacrament is unimportant, and that the church doesn’t find the sacrament as necessary since Vatican II. Honestly, there was a long span of my life where I never went to confession, and not necessarily because I didn’t want to go, but because it wasn’t available.

    To tie this all together, I believe that an attitude of “Jesus loves me no matter what, thus He forgives me” is the prevailing attitude of the day. This is a dangerous attitude and devoid of sacrifice. Is there little wonder why people treat church as an entertainment venue where they need to “get something out of it” to go. Is there little wonder why Priests exist that look the other way when they know the grave sin of these couples?

    The best advice I can give to young Catholics about marriage is this: Before you marry the person, make sure you really love them- warts and all. Make sure they are Catholic or willing to convert. Finally, make sure that they practice the faith. If they really love you, they will do any thing for you. Please, spare your future children the heartache of never going to church, a divided home, or even worse, a dysfunctional, broken home. I did these things, and it has made all the difference. Spare yourself and your soul the sad situation noted above.

  17. Alice says:

    I have known more than one couple in this situation who did exactly what Father Z suggests. They remained involved in their parishes, raised their children Catholic, and abstained from Communion for decades until the marriage situation could be rectified. Dating and marrying someone who is not free to marry is gravely sinful, don’t get me wrong, but I really admire these people for keeping the faith through it all.

  18. Jerry says:

    re: Bosco – “Where does that leave any subsequent union? Is this fallible Declaration, if erroneously granted, a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card come Judgement Day?”

    As long as one went through the annulment process in good faith, is not aware of any irregularities (e.g., the other party falsifying evidence), and their conscience does not object, then I think it would fall under the power to bind and loosen. Butt his is speculation; I can’t provide a source of authority to back this up.

  19. Jerry says:

    re: John – if you are maintaining a celibate lifestyle, intend to continue doing so, and have made a valid confession of your past sins, it would seem as if you should be able to receive Holy Communion. If your priest hasn’t explained why he won’t permit you to do so, it might be worth asking.

  20. Ben Kenobi says:

    “Ben Kenobi, you ask why a divorced/remarried couple can’t go to confession. It’s because if they have no intention of leaving each other or at least living as brother and sister, then they’re not sorry for their sin of adultery. If you confess a sin without being sorry for it or deliberately conceal a mortal sin for whatever reason, then your confession is invalid.”

    We are talking in circles. They are not deprived of confession in the same way that they are deprived of communion. They are deprived of communion in order that they might be brought back into repentance with the Church through the sacrament of confession. The priest is not going to turn the husband or wife away if they come to him and tell him that they wish to make a good confession. They are not deprived of the sacrament.

    You are right in that yes, if they make a bad confession that it is not valid, but there is nothing stopping them from coming in and talking to Father and making a good confession! This is important. If they feel there is no way to fix things or get it right then they will not try. It is important that those in this situation understand that they have the exact same access to the sacrament of confession as everyone else in that parish. They are not barred from making a Good confession – the door is not closed.

  21. Ben Kenobi says:

    “If one is in an irregular marital state and continues having conjugal relations with no intention of stopping, there is no firm purpose of amendment (and quite likely no contrition, though there may be some regret).”

    That being said, Father is not going to turn either of them away from confession if either one of them comes to him, with the desire to make a good confession.

  22. Thank you Fr. Z for encouraging those living in sin to attend Mass anyway. This is true of any sinful circumstances, not just irregular marriages. Anyone who is leading a sinful life can always go to Mass and do other devotions such as the Rosary, Scapular, and Stations and stuff.

    Being the vile sinner I am, I can attest to the effectiveness of going to Mass, even when unable to receive any sacraments. For many years, I myself was very attached to sin and lived willfully blindly oblivious to its danger. Somehow I got the grace to which I miraculously responded and began going to daily Mass before work. [Somebody must have been praying a lot for me]. It took me a long time to correspond to the additional floods of grace God continually sent me and I finally went to confession and changed my life. Without the daily contact with God in His presence, I don’t think I would have fared as well. Somehow I never lost my Faith [that makes it worse actually because I knew how bad I was], nor have I ever lost the love of sitting in front of the Tabernacle, even in my degradation that was my favorite place to be. A grace, I know.

    Bottom line is, no matter how bad off you are, God can solve anything in a snap if He so chooses. God IS our creator, He made heaven and earth, y’know LOL. But we must make the first step and do what we can wherever we are. Stick with it. God comes to get us.

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