ASK FATHER: Assistant priest wonders what to do if pastor won’t speak to adulterous couples who receive Communion.

17_06_27_AAS_AmorisFrom a priest…


Here is a question which perhaps you could answer for those of us who are parochial vicars.

What should we do if people regularly present themselves for communion who are married outside the Church?  Ordinarily, we have the very clear teaching of Canon 915.  But what should we do if they are married outside the Church, the pastor knows they are married outside the Church, and yet he still gives them communion anyway?  My pastor’s attitude is that they should just know that they shouldn’t present themselves for communion.  He refuses to confront them.  He won’t let them be sponsors but he also won’t turn them away from receiving communion either.  The Diocese tells me to follow the pastor’s lead.  What is one to do?

GUEST PRIEST ANSWER: Msgr. ___  [This priest has a lot of experience in diocesan administration and priestly personnel issues.]

This is difficult and almost insolvable on a practical level given the admixture of the obedience issue with the pastor and the diocese.

Can the pastor be convinced, through Amoris Laetitia, to “encounter, accompany, and dialogue” with these couples to convince them not to present themselves for Holy Communion under canon 916 (if my memory is correct on the canon number)?  Would the pastor allow the parochial vicar to do this, and maybe start a small ministry to those in adulterous second unions?

It seems these couples need catechesis and formation so they voluntarily do not present themselves for Holy Communion (or alternatively seek to live together as brother-sister, etc…).

Ultimately, I think the pastor should confront the couples on the issue and ask them to be witnesses by not receiving Holy Communion in the current state.  If they don’t comply, canon 915 would come into play, although I think the pastor should have a confidential discussion with each couple so they can avoid the embarrassment of being denied Holy Communion and make sure they’re “obstinately persisting”.

The couples should also know that they can’t receive sacramental absolution in the confessional without the requisite sorrow for sin/firm purpose of amendment in regards to the adulterous second union.

It is very difficult for the parochial vicar in conscience.

However, I suppose if the pastor really doesn’t address the issue in a serious and full way with each couple, then is the couple really “obstinately persisting” in manifest grave sin?  I really appreciate the situation of the parochial vicar, since the pastor is somewhat holding them in a “strategic ignorance” to afford them the reception of the sacraments.

Fr. Z adds:

Yes, the “parochial vicar” (aka assistant) is in a tough spot.  He isn’t the pastor, so he doesn’t get to make the call.  On the other hand, he is a priest and he is concerned for souls but also about profanation of the Blessed Sacrament in sacrilegious Communions as well as the potential of scandal.

The pastor has the care of souls and is responsible for these couples before God.  If he is willfully keeping them ignorant of their spiritual peril – because do we really think that they don’t know that they should go to Communion? – then I tremble for the pastor who will answer for this before the Just Judge, the King of Fearful Majesty.

Sadly, I suspect these situations will multiply and worsen as the controversies over Amoris laetitia are allowed to go on and confuse people.  As the controversies first erupted, I opined that sound priests would interpret Amoris in the best possible, faithful light and that less than faithful priests would use the document as cover to continue to do what they have been doing all along.

To the parochial vicar: Bide your time, Father.  You are not the pastor.  However, you might take on some penances in reparation for the sacrilegious Communions and you might pray also to the Guardian Angels of the couples.  Perhaps you might also choose occasionally to preach about what it means to be “properly disposed” to receive, including also the physical disposition caused by fasting (since we are both body and soul).

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Andrew1054 says:

    I really feel for this priest. It’s just so hard now because many cardinals, bishops and priests are teaching the opposite are teaching the opposite of what the Church has traditionally taught. In the meantime, the Pope says nothing (or gives tacit approval to the bishops of Malta and Argentinia). It’s hard to take a stand when the hierarchy itself is teaching the opposite. What to do?

  2. aliceinstpaul says:

    –because do we really think that they don’t know that they should go to Communion? – then I tremble for the pastor who will answer for this before the Just Judge, the King of Fearful Majesty.

    My husband and I were married civilly. I had been baptized Catholic but had been
    an atheist for decades. He had never been baptized at all. No prior entanglements in this case. Within a couple years, I wanted to return to the Church, and over a few months worked up the courage to go to confession. It was a few more months of attending weekly mass before I spoke to a priest about having my marriage validated and being confirmed. By then I was expecting our first.

    It was only after I was in marriage prep conversations for a couple months with the priest that it occurred to me to ask the priest if I should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. He said yes, and I did so until the validation, but only because by some grace, I thought to ask. He did not suggest it.

    There are plenty of situations where couples really do not know unless priests tell them. So many younger Catholics are poorly catechized enough to lack the intention necessary for it to be a mortal sin, but nonetheless, are failing to follow the doctrine. This in turn causes confusion and error to others.

    Priests should say the truth. They should not assume couples know. They can say quietly or privately, but we come to them, asking for their help to become faithful. Priests, help us by telling us the Truth! You do us no favors assuming we know the Truth and ignore it, or that we are not able to understand it!

  3. Christ_opher says:

    Follow the narrow road because you know of the situation it may fall into your domain to say something to them. You could ask them if they are interested in having their union blessed by the church if this option is open to them. At least then you can rest easy in knowing that you are not ashamed of the Gospel. Frequently people aren’t aware of their situations until somebody speaks up.

  4. EC says:

    Will the pastor not “accompany” the PV?

    I’m not a canonist, so get your grains of salt ready, but it seems that the issue of “obstinacy” is evident prima facie – they attempted *vows* which normally would give licit access to carnal relations, and the reasonable presumption is such vows were made with an eye to such access. Furthermore, it is reasonable to suspect that they actually operate under this habitual and formally solemn pretext (thus relegating even continent couples to private reception in most cases). This is unlike the case of, say, a local politician who voted to keep the town Planned Parenthood open because of his support of abortion. In that case, it seems it is the pastor’s duty to warn, and those under the ministerial auspices of the pastor (PV’s and EMHC’s) do not have the duty or right to refuse Communion.

    It might very well be a hill that one ought to die on. Distribution in such a case perpetuates the scandal and does not seem to be morally permissible, no matter the cost. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His faithful.”

    I hope Dr. Peters swings by…

  5. TonyO says:

    Might we also suggest that in the position God has put the parochial vicar, he ALSO has an obligation to witness… to the pastor? Not in an obnoxious, paternalistic manner, but in some way lead the pastor to recognize he has a duty toward those couples that he is not yet meeting. (Or, at least, to give witness to the fact, even if the pastor won’t recognize it.) The suggestion of the parochial vicar offering to make a kind of a special ministry to such couples could be part of that.

    In any case, both priests have a duty to the rest of the parish, to witness to the reality of the presence of Jesus, to not cause scandal by ignoring canon 915. It’s a terrible burden on a parochial vicar whose pastor won’t support him.

  6. Justalurkingfool says:

    Pray for their victims, abandoned struggling, faithful spouses who are losing their faith.

    And for our children….


  7. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    I am not sure how we square the “strategic ignorance” (as though this were really a source of “invincible ignorance” for thr couples in question) with the command of Jesus to “go forth…and teach them to obey all that I have commanded” or the works of mercy to “instruct the ignorant” and “admonish the sinner”…

  8. LarryW2LJ says:

    You have to wonder at this point, just how many Catholics keep themselves really informed on what’s going on in the Church today, i.e not just what they’re spoon-fed by the media. If the pastor were to attempt to guide them in the proper dirtection, would they come back with something like, “Well, this seems to be OK in Malta and Argentina!”? I wonder if the average Catholic in the pew even bothers to keep up with what’s going on besides “Pope Francis = good, Cardinal Burke = bad”

    When the topic among friends at Church turns to Pope Francis, and I admit that I’m kind of dismayed with some of the pronouncements coming out of Rome – I get that “You have three heads” look. Then when I explain why (if I’m not just shut out of the conversation), I may not get tacit agreement; but I’m not thought of as so weird, after all. Or maybe they’re just humoring me.

  9. TomG says:

    The situation LarryW2LJ describes can be multiplied thousands and thousands of times in our land.

  10. Multinucleate says:

    Isn’t unworthy Communion considered a sacrilege and offense to God?

    If the answer is yes, what else is there to settle or dispute?

    It’s a 1) sin that will incur 2) punishment on the person.

    There doesn’t seem to be any positive value in this….except for pushing things under the rug to not cause a scene.

  11. Ave Crux says:

    I think that any priest who is aware of this situation and simply endures it dies slowly in his soul.

    A Priest is ordained to be a soldier defending the Body and Blood of Christ with his life, and now he should remain silent while he knows it’s profaned?

    To watch Our Lord being given week in and week out to souls who have not obeyed the most basic teachings of Divine Revelation in adultery, and not to find in oneself a compelling and cooresponding unwillingness to remain silent in the face of ongoing sacrilege is to die slowly and ignominiously, and to cooperate by a failure to act on one’s duty.

    For the sake of his own soul, he should approach the pastor and even offer to do the “dirty work” of contacting the couple and offering with great love and patience to properly catechize them.

    If the pastor refuses, he should escalate to the Bishop or…shake the dust from his sandals and either join the FSSP or leave the diocese to be incardinated under a Bishop who believes in upholding the Faith.

    IT IS TIME TO END COWARDICE and to begin a filial resistance and refusal to cooperate in the destruction of the Faith and of our own souls by complicity – death by a thousand failures to act.

    We have ONLY THIS LIFE to live heroically the love of God and defense of His laws. We have to be ready to take any risks and sustain any merely temporal loss necessary to do what is right in the sight of God.

    At our death we will be judged on whether we love God even unto the hatred of self. Not on whether we saved our skin on countless occasions when we should have taken the blows for the honor and glory of God.

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  13. SenexCalvus says:

    ‘This is difficult and almost insolvable on a practical level given the admixture of the obedience issue with the pastor and the diocese.”

    We owe obedience to our superiors only to the extent that what they command is lawful. If what they command is unlawful, we must refuse to obey them. In such matters, there are, of course, ambiguous cases. Is this one of them? If it is, perhaps the proportionalist reading of AL is correct. If it isn’t, what other motive could a priest have for obeying an unlawful command than careerism?

  14. Local SSPX chapel, in the days of Pope Benedict, pre-Amoris Laetitia: simple excommunication letter, stating that the woman may no longer attend Mass, or even cook or clean for the priest. In spite of a diocesan annulment.

    [If that happened, and I pray it didn’t, that was both ulta vires and stupid.]

  15. Ave Crux says:

    This is where the failure of our spiritual leaders to resist NOW is leading us…..beyond “mere” adultery to open support for depravity; this article on OnePeterFive is enough to make one weep:

    We NEED the witness of Bishops and Priests who finally say “Enough!”

    Here is a Priest who stepped out with courage:

    If our Priests and spiritual leaders don’t do it, why should they expect the lay people to do what they themselves are not willing to do?….put their comfort and security on the line.

    As a disclaimer, I do not attend SSPX Chapels and I understand the subjective nature of their juridical standing. However, Archbishop Lefebvre KNEW this is where the trajectory that was launched decisively at Vatican II would end up: the unthinkable defense of immorality in the bosom of the Church and of Protestant ideologies, with the concomitant condemnation of faithful Catholics….And he would have none of it.

    Would that more Bishops and priests had joined him then to stop the “auto-demolition of the Church” and would at least finally join him now in standing against the destruction being wrought by Modernism in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.

    Instead all we hear is silence from our leaders, while “normalists” even take steps to quell the stirrings of holy indignation amongst the laity – which Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us is a salutary anger necessary to fight against such destruction – telling us to calm our nerves and not be too upset, always trying to put the best face on things.

    Thus the holy indignation inspired by the movement of Grace is quenched again and again until we are all thoroughly boiled like frogs in a pot.

  16. Ave Crux says:

    @RuralVirologist: I agree with Father Z’s censure. We are talking about souls to be saved. If they are in error, they ought to be led back with love and instruction, while yet upholding Church teaching; not treated as hopelessly reprobate.

  17. “Perhaps you might also choose occasionally to preach about what it means to be ‘properly disposed’ to receive, including also the physical disposition caused by fasting (since we are both body and soul).”

    So much this.

    We priests have opportunity to preach at every single Mass (and obligation to preach every single Sunday, deacons/con-celebration notwithstanding). When we’re not preaching on worthy reception of communion, we can preach on the necessity of confession. When we’re not preaching on the necessity of confession, we can preach on the sanctity of marriage & family. When we’re not preaching on the sanctity of marriage & family, we can preach on the horror of sin & eternal separation from God in hell. And if we’re really struggling to find a homily, we can even just read a relevant homily of a saint – there are plenty given to us in the Divine Office throughout the year.

    A buddy of mine in seminary loved to reference a saying about being a lion in the pulpit, but a lamb in the confessional (apparently from St. Alphonsus Liguori). And with a little creativity we can avoid even the implication of being one-note preachers, because there is always another tack to take in calling folks to holiness.

  18. SenexCalvus says:

    Ave Crux writes:

    “We NEED the witness of Bishops and Priests who finally say ‘Enough!’”

    That says it all. The bishops and priests of the Church need to forget about their rich dinners, retirement plans, annual campaigns, public honors, and mutually concealed hypocrisy for just long enough to answer this one question: “What is truth?”

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  20. EC says:

    @Multinucleate – The problem is that one canon defines the obligation of the minister (c. 915) and has different criteria than the canon which defines the obligation of the communicant (c. 916). The former has as its primary goal avoiding scandal, NOT avoiding sacrilegious communication. It is, thankfully, not the duty of the minister to try to read the soul of every communicant in public. In most cases, there will be a duty to administer Holy Communion in public even to one who is very likely in mortal sin. (Private administration is not the same… It may be refused under fewer criteria.) On the other hand, the minister may also be bound to withhold the Sacrament from one he has reasonable certainty IS in the state of grace but nonetheless is in a state which is sufficient to give grave scandal (such as continent D&R’s, or a naive but pious person who is tricked into wearing a rainbow sash). In any event, c. 915 is NOT about personal guilt, it is about the outward objective reality which is sufficiently scandalous.

  21. EC says:

    NB: By “fewer criteria” for private refusal, I mean there are fewer conditions which must be met. Public refusal is a “bigger deal” with a higher bar.

  22. hwriggles4 says:

    One point:

    The Catholic Church often has visitors. Some are checking out what a Mass is like. Others are coming with a friend, and some are Catholics who occasionally attend Mass. While the front of the Misalette has a page on proper reception of the Eucharist, most attendees (and that includes weekly Mass attendees – i know, i had a tour as a clock in clock out Catholic) are unaware that these guidelines are published. When it comes time for Eucharist, those present get up and follow the crowd. A non Catholic visiting may not know the guidelines, and a clock in clock out Catholic may not know that he should not receive if he is in the state of mortal sin (25 years ago, I didn’t know this either).

    By the way, do welcome those who visit, and welcome those Catholics who regularly bring their non Catholic spouse to Mass. Quite a few come, and some along with visitors may be thinking about crossing the Tiber.

    Sometimes a priest will say something about proper reception of Eucharist beforehand (this is common at Catholic weddings) and there are times today that if I am not properly disposed, I will refrain from receiving Eucharist. With the poor catechesis that has taken place, mostly in the 70s and 80s, many Catholics are unaware that there are guidelines for proper reception of the Eucharist.

  23. aiello01 says:

    What if a civilly married couple lost sexual interest in each other? Is the priest supposed to question them before giving them communion?

    [You need to offer a clearer, thought-through question. That’s impossible to answer.]

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