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May 2004

Ministrations to a Divorced Man

More Answers to Today's Moral Problems
by Very Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., S.T.D., L.L.D., L.J.D.

Question: A Catholic man, who had obtained a divorce and then remarried civilly, is stricken with a deadly malady after living in this sinful union, publicly known, for several years. In this crisis he asks for a priest. Under what conditions may the priest give him the sacraments? What of the possibility of Christian burial?

Answer: Presumably the priest knows the public fact that the man is involved in a bad marriage. In that event, he should require (presuming that the man is conscious) some declaration from him as to what he will do about the marriage situation if and when he recovers. This should be sought before the priest begins to hear the sick person's confession, for it is possible that, though he called for a priest, he is not willing to renounce his evil way of life. If he will give no assurance that, in the event of recovery, he will be faithful to God's law and do whatever the Church demands regarding his marriage, the priest may not confer the sacraments. If the man persists in this evil disposition until death, Christian burial cannot be given, because the man is a public sinner who refused to give adequate signs of repentance before death.

If the sick man promises that, in the event of recovery, he will observe whatever the Church may require to remedy his marriage situation (whether convalidation or separation or brother-sister cohabitation), he should make a statement to this effect that can later be used in the event of his death as the sign of repentance necessary to justify Christian burial. This declaration should be one that can be presented publicly, so that the scandal likely to come form the granting of a church funeral to a public sinner can be removed. The best procedure would be to have the repentent sinner sign a document or make his declaration before two witnesses. Even in a case of emergency when the priest is the only person present, his testimony, if received before the dying person begins his confession (because the manifestation of contrition in the sacrament of Penance may not be revealed), could per se (of itself) suffice, but it is surely preferable to have the testimony given by some person or persons who have no part in the administration of the sacrament of Penance.

If the man is unconscious when the priest arrives, sacramental absolution and Anointing of the Sick may be given conditionally (Si capax es having the meaning “If you have the requirements for a valid reception”), with the hope that, before the man lost consciousness, he made an act of (at least imperfect) contrition. As to Christian burial, the fact that he called for the priest, if it can be attested to, would seem to be sufficient in the particular circumstances — although the procedure suggested above must be regarded as far more satisfactory, when it can be carried out.

Finally, if the sinner gave no indication of repentance or desire for the sacraments, but the priest was summoned or happened to be present after he had become unconscious, Penance and Anointing of the Sick could be given conditionally, but Christian burial must be refused, since there has been no sign of repentance for the public sin of living in an invalid marriage.

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