Untangling one of Pope Francis’ public statements often resembles taking a final exam. “How many inaccurate implications can be drawn from Pope Francis’ statement? Explain why they are inaccurate, referencing canon law, Church history, and prevailing cultural trends.” For example, take his recent statement that divorced persons who remarry outside the Church are “by no means excommunicated.” This statement probably doesn’t mean what you think it means.
What Excommunication Means
Excommunication is “widely misunderstood,” according to the excellent manual Catholicism for Dummies . Excommunication is different from not being permitted to receive Holy Communion. It’s true that a person who is excommunicated can’t receive communion. But excommunication means more than that.
According to Canon 1331 , an excommunicated person is also “forbidden to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist … [or] to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions.” Practically speaking, this means that an excommunicated layperson cannot function as a lector or Eucharistic Minister, explains canonist Edward Peters in his book Excommunication and the Catholic Church. 
What Excommunication Doesn’t Mean
Excommunication does not mean that the person is shunned. At some points in Church history, excommunicants were shunned, according to canonist Ed Peters. But that is no longer true today.
Excommunication does not mean that the person loses their Catholicism. Excommunication is a medicinal or remedial penalty meant to encourage the person to change their behavior and become restored to full communion. It can be reversed. Meanwhile, the person remains a baptized Catholic.
Excommunication does not mean that the person is barred from attending Mass. All Catholics, even the excommunicated , are required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. They can listen to the readings and the homily even if they can’t receive communion or exercise ministerial roles.
Who is Prohibited from Receiving Holy Communion
Excommunicants are not the only people prohibited from receiving Holy Communion. Non-Catholics cannot receive communion in a Catholic church, even if they’re discerning a call to conversion. This is why many parishes have special processions at the mid-point of the Mass, when adults seeking baptism or confirmation are led out of the sanctuary while the rest of the assembly remains for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Someone who has not fasted from food or drink for an hour is not supposed to receive communion either. Christopher West tells a sweet story about asking his pastor for special permission at daily Mass for West’s son to receive communion even though he just ate. The pastor refused, but then went on to give a fifteen or twenty minute homily. By the time the Eucharist was offered, an hour had passed since West’s son had eaten and he was able to receive. That’s a pastoral solution!
Anyone conscious of a mortal sin (even one as common as deliberately skipping Sunday Mass) should refrain from partaking of the Eucharist until that person has gone to confession and been absolved. In other countries, like Spain, it is far more common to see people remaining in the pew when it’s time to join the communion line.
Why does everyone in the United States walk up to receive communion? This is probably a product of a Protestant culture, where the host is viewed as a symbol rather than the Real Body and Blood of Christ. But St. Paul cautioned: “whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
These are strong words, so strong that a Protestant friend of mine stopped receiving communion in his own church because he couldn’t reconcile his personal belief about the Eucharist with what he was reading in the Bible. These words ought to have even deeper impact on Catholics who believe in the Real Presence.
Pope Francis Hasn’t Said Anything New
In interpreting Pope Francis’ words, it’s always good to remember that the Pope is Catholic. Blogger Jen Fitz provided an excellent key  to understanding the Pope’s statements. He’s a high-context speaker, she explained, meaning that he takes a lot for granted, including the audience’s knowledge and acceptance of Catholic doctrine. In U.S. Catholic thought, there are so many dizzying trends that people who accept every word in the Catechism have to define themselves by code words like “we are faithful to the Magisterium.” Pope Francis doesn’t need to use code words to prove that he will abide by the Catechism.
When we parse Pope Francis’ recent words on the divorced, remarried, and excommunication, we can see that he hasn’t actually said anything new. Here are the accurate implications that can be drawn from his words.
Under canon law, divorced people who remarry outside the Church aren’t formally excommunicated. Historically speaking, divorced and remarried American Catholics were formally excommunicated. This penalty was imposed by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 . The penalty was removed in 1977. So Pope Francis’ statement was canonically correct.
Divorced and remarried people are welcome in the Church community and at Mass. This is what Pope Francis signaled when he said, “they may live and develop their adherence to Christ and the Church with prayer, listening to God’s word, frequenting the liturgy, the Christian education of their children, charity, service to the poor and a commitment to justice and peace.” Divorce ministries  have focused on integrating divorced and remarried people into the parish in this way for years.
Divorced and remarried people still cannot receive Holy Communion. This is what Pope Francis signaled when he said: “The Church is fully aware that such a situation is contrary to the Christian Sacrament.” As the Catechism plainly states: “They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion” (CCC 1665 ). This prohibition does not apply to the divorced and remarried who have heroically chosen to live as brother and sister — under these circumstances they can receive Holy Communion (CCC 1650 ).
We can thank Pope Francis for extending a warm welcome to a class of people who often feel rejected by the Church. But we can’t jump to conclusions about what doctrine or policy he might or might not change in the future.
*This article originally appeared at Can We Cana