Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I appreciate your kind and well-considered answers to the many questions you receive about the Catholic faith. Yet still there are many times I simply cannot agree with the teachings of the church — such as when, recently, you advised divorced and remarried couples to see whether the church might be able to annul their previous marriage.

I was in a loving and committed marriage for more than 30 years, but we finally divorced because of irreconcilable differences; I would never think of invalidating that true marriage by having it annulled. My question, though, is broader than that: If individual Catholics, or groups of the faithful, disagree with Catholic teachings or rules, how do we make that known — and how can we actually have any influence at all? All decisions in the church seem to come from the top down. (Hudson, Wis.)

A. First, on the matter of annulments: The Catholic Church grants an annulment when it is able to show that, from the very beginning of a marriage, it lacked at least one of the elements necessary to make the relationship a true, genuine and binding sacramental marriage. Some common grounds are these: an intention from the start to exclude children, lack from the beginning of a permanent commitment or lack of an exclusive one; marriages marked by serious emotional, physical or substance abuse; fraud or deceit in eliciting consent to marriage; serious mental illness.

Since you indicate that yours was a loving and committed marriage for more than 30 years, it is unlikely that any of these impediments was present from the start — but there have been cases where the marriage endured for many years even though there was a fundamental flaw from the beginning.

It is important to note that an annulment does not deny that a real relationship did exist, nor does it assert that the marriage was entered into with ill will or moral fault. Church law specifically states that children born of a marriage declared sacramentally null are still considered legitimate.

An annulment leaves the parties free to enter a new marriage in the church (or to have their present marriage “blessed” by the church), as well as to participate fully in sacramental life. Sometimes an added benefit is that the annulment process, while it may revive some painful memories, can also ultimately heal wounds and bring closure.

As to your larger question — how to exert greater lay influence on the “teaching and rules” of the church — I would not discount the effect of personal pleas to bishops, letters to Catholic newspapers and the influence of diocesan lay councils. While the church cannot practice “magisterium by Gallup,” since much of its fundamental “teaching” is dictated by revealed truth, the “rules” can sometimes change. And even though the church’s policies and practices are indeed decided finally by ecclesiastics, it is hard for them to ignore what they are hearing “at home.”

Q. I recently attended a Catholic retreat. At the orientation session, one [participant] identified herself as an ordained Protestant minister. Yet she received holy Communion at each of the Masses. When I asked the presiding priest about it (since my husband is non-Catholic and this is an important point for us), I was told that the presiding priest and the retreat director did not see eye to eye on this and that I should speak with the retreat director. So, is it really up to an individual priest whether a non-Catholic can receive the body and blood of Christ at a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist? (Bright, Ind.)

A. Ordinarily, non-Catholic Christians are not expected to receive holy Communion at a Catholic Mass. This guideline is not intended as a proclamation of religious superiority on the church’s part. It simply recognizes the sad fact that Christian unity has not yet been fully achieved and differences in doctrine and practice still remain.

However, there are some exceptional circumstances that allow for intercommunion; one, which is detailed in the church’s Code of Canon Law (No. 844, section 4) and requires the permission of the diocesan bishop, would allow it when a non-Catholic Christian in a case of grave necessity, with no opportunity to approach a minister of his or her own communion, asks to receive, is properly disposed and manifests the same belief about the Eucharist as Catholics do.

In the case you describe, the decision seems to turn on the interpretation of “grave necessity,” and that is somewhat subjective. The retreat master, with the bishop’s permission, may have judged that, while on the retreat, the minister had no access to a Protestant service and so should have been allowed to receive. Part of the equation, too, may be the pastoral judgment as to what good might have been accomplished by denying the minister’s request, even with the most gentle explanation.


Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.