Cardinal Woelki on Communion for the Remarried

Die Zeit spoke with Cardinal Woelki of Berline, at 55 the world’s youngest cardinal, about several current issues. When asked about Communion for the divorced and remarried, he answered as follows. 

ZEIT: Do you give Holy Communion to remarried people?

Woelki: (hesitates) As a rule, as bishop I don’t know the real-life situation of the individual standing before me.

ZEIT: But do you give Communion to the remarried?

Woelki: As priest, my starting point for anyone who asks Communion of me is that they do so with a pure heart. I don’t want to lose sight of those who strive to live by the Church’s teachings, and in recognition of the breakdown of their marriage do no receive Communion. In this way they gave a strong witness to their faith.


  1. Mild and reasonable, and evangelical. Bishops like this might do something to stanch the alientation of Polish Catholics documented in Der Spiegel, July 9th.

  2. There is now a translation of the interview

    Including this shortly before the exchange given in our post.

    ZEIT: Horst Seehofer, the Prime Minister of Bavaria, lives in a second marriage. When he visited the Pope for his 85th Birthday with a visiting delegation from Bavaria, Pope Benedict gave him Communion.

    Woelki: This is a good example of what I’m saying, Who am I that I rate the “Catholic” living conditions of Horst Seehofer? I am not informed about it, it’s nothing to me. I’m not his confessor, and not the competent canonical lawyer, but all the world looks to me for a morally and canonically impeccable judgment. The Pope has certainly acted as probably does every pastor who wants to turn away nobody.

  3. A wise bishop told me once, “Jesus doesn’t need us to protect him from sacrilege.” How true this is. I wish more of our over-scrupulous clergy would realize that.

  4. We have painted ourselves into a corner on this issue. Jesus dealt with this matter by saying, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” while our contemporary response to the same situation requires months of costly legal proceedings, canon lawyers, etc., none of which guarantee any resolution. We need a simpler process to wipe the slate clean for those who show a clear desire to return to the Church.

  5. The question was tendentious and baiting the Cardinal. What priest knows the spiritual condition or their relationship with God of any Catholic presenting themselves for the Eucharist. We presume the person is sincere and prepared unless we are told otherwise and even then there is an opportunity for pastoral care such as the internal forum. The ultimate decision to receive the Eucharist belongs to the faithful not to the priest.

  6. “Strong witness to their Faith, or strong witness to authority?”

    I would argue both; it isn’t an either/or situation. Jesus instructs us to heed the words of the leaders, and at that same time instructs us not to do what they do. Why? Because of their office, i.e., they sat in the chair of Moses. So the Cardinal recognizes the basic authority of the Church teaching, but also recognizes the difficulty of him personally enforcing it. Rather than condemning those he suspects of violating the teaching he praises those who he knows honor it.

    This isn’t simply a ‘remarried’ problem. Take the question of contraception. How many otherwise good Catholics receive Communion but also practice contraception at home? How could priests and bishops enforce that rule if they got a bee under their bonnet and decided to so?

    I suppose we mostly like our clergy to be shepherds (leading, guiding, nurturing), rather than judges and police. But the people who like the idea of a police clergy have an enforcement problem, and would be better off letting go of that stance.

  7. My cousin is a diocesan priest. Five years ago he told me that there was no such thing as an “internal forum” or “good conscience” approach to receiving Communion for a person in a 2nd marriage.
    He also grumbled that some priests were arguing that such a person should be reported to the diocesan bishop for disciplinary action because they were receiving Communion in a state of obstinate, persevering, manifest sin.

    I live in an a region of the USA where the population is small and spread out. That means, everybody knows what you did before you did it and people 100 miles away know it as well. That would make it very easy for a pastor to take the kind of action my cousin mentioned although this hasn’t happened yet. Interesting that Benedict XVI didn’t try that with the Bavarian Prime Minister. Maybe the defenders of orthodoxy in my region should take note.

  8. Your cousin has a prior belief that “internal forum” or “good conscience” solutions for Catholics in a second (or third) marriage are forbidden and therefore aren’t taking place. He couldn’t be more mistaken despite the certitude he claims. When a pastor has an encounter with a Catholic who is participating regularly in the life of the church and wants to know what needs to be done to resume receiving communion, he must show the face of Christ himself. It is not sufficient to just rehearse what the canonical requirements are since the most important of all the canons is that “all law if for the good of souls”. He first listen to the story about the prior marriage. If it appears there are clear grounds for an annulment and no mitigating circumstances that would preclude that option, then the procedure for an annulment is begun. But there are often circumstances in which a formal annulment procedure is not possible (lack of witnesses because of the passage of time being just one of many), at which time the question is “what do we do now”. The Holy Father and some other bishops advocate that pastors point out that receiving Communion is not necessary for pursuing a life of faith in the church and so they can be active members of the church by just participating in Mass and in making a “spiritual communion”. But there are many others (including bishops) who find this a very unsatisfactory solution. So the question arises: Is divorcing and remarrying an unforgivable sin? If it is not, what stands in the way of a good confession followed by penance and absolution? Often, the person will state openly that they have a firm belief that God played an important role in bringing them to this new marriage. All I know is that I have to show the face of Christ to those who are seeking reconciliation.

    1. @Jack Feehily – comment #9:

      Yes, “salus animarum suprema lex” trumps all else but how, praytell, is letting people receive communion who are in (at least) a questionable moral state leading them to salvation? They do not have to receive communion, a Catholic is only obliged once a year (Easter Duty) and if they are in a situation they got themselves into and there is no “undoing” it, I do not see why they cannot just sit out. No one is consigned to the outer darkness irrevocably by the Pope’s concept of how to deal with this situation. The horror of thinking that the spiritual life isn’t a stroll through the daisies!

      People have “firm belief” in all sorts of odd things, their subjective opinion doesn’t trump the reality that the Church teaches about marriage being indisoluble and that She takes it seriously enough to actually require people to live self-sacrificially in regards to it. No one “needs” to be married either. Jesus didn’t tell the Samaritan woman at the well that her situation was fine and that we can handle this in the internal forum.

  9. In the conservative Lutheran Tradition we struggle with the issue of divorce and remarriage much as you, our Roman brothers and sisters do. Our “Canon Law” is nowhere near as all-encompassing as yours, so too often the individual parish Pastor makes decisions on reception of the Eucharist.

    As was stated above, it seems to me that the Roman Tradition does in fact make divorce the “unforgiveable sin”. When I was Ordained, I was convinced that my parish would be full of divorced and remarried Roman Catholics hungry for the Body and Blood of their Savior Jesus. It remains amazing to me that these folks will continue to profess the fact that they are Roman Catholics in spite of the ban on receiving the Holy Eucharist. It appears as though an even the lack of Holy Communion is not enough to drive them into the arms of an Evangelical Catholic parish for Confession, Absolution and admission to the Holy Eucharist.

  10. Its not so “unforgivable” at all. Civil divorce is sacramentally meaningless, and we allow for separation of bed and board for good reason. Attempting marriage a second time while in a valid marriage is the problem. This, I think, would not be such a problem if people would take the Sacrament more seriously. Yes, I am very well aware that sometimes things happen that are beyond our control, but it certainly doesn’t help that our culture barely blinks an eye over divorce anymore, our local tribunals were handing out Decrees of Nullity like candy before and now people do not even bother with that.

    Catholics do not go to “Evangelical Catholic” parishes (whatever that is) often because they either 1) know that even though its useless to kick against the goad, anywhere else just has nice words, bread, and damnation or 2) they don’t really care that much anyway and its just another reason to sleep in on Sunday.

  11. “Letting people receive communion” is one of the most important parts of my priestly ministry. The sacrament is not a reward for a sin free life. It is a remedy for that which we lack. Sacramental theology and canon law have a place, but not the biggest place. Christ’s faithful are not that interested in either of those. They are more interested in reaching out to connect with the life giving body and blood of Christ. God has tolerated great failures on my part, yet he does not take away from me the power to preach, teach, consecrate, heal, and forgive. I don’t want Christ to ever say “I was hungry and thirsty” and you told to go put my life in order first.”

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