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When Does the Church Tolerate Divorce?

We know that God “hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16); Our Lord and St. Paul explicitly forbid it (Matt. 19:6, 1 Cor. 7-10-11); and the Catechism condemns it as “immoral,” “a grave offense against the natural law” that “does injury to the covenant of salvation” and is “truly a plague on society” bringing “grave harm” to the “traumatized” deserted spouse and children (2384-5).

Yet, that same Catechism also says that under certain narrow circumstances, civil divorce may be “tolerated” and “does not constitute a moral offense.”

What gives?

How can something be a grave offense against the natural law (in other words, an intrinsic evil) and yet sometimes be morally licit? It seems a contradiction.

The answer lies in our language limitation. We are using (and confusing) the same word, “divorce,” for two different concepts, two different intents, and two different courses of action.

Divorce that “claims to break the marital contract” (CCC 2384) is never morally allowed. In fact, note that divorce only claims to break marriage but cannot achieve it. Marriage was instituted in the Garden of Eden, and whether a marriage is sacramental (entered into by two baptized Christians and indissoluble) or merely natural (entered into by one or two unbaptized persons and ordinarily indissoluble) it was designed by God for permanence until death. Even if physical separation of spouses may be necessary and licit (canons 1151-1155), the marriage bond is maintained (CCC 2383).

So, there is no such thing as a spouse “breaking” the marriage bond or contract. It is immoral to attempt, and a grave sin for the one who has that intent.

But what, then of “civil divorce,” which the Catechism says may be tolerated? This is where we let the language trip us up. Let’s look at the very specific words and conditions in the Catechism, noting that this is the only section addressing “civil divorce” and not simply “divorce”:

If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, [then] it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.

This is the first mention of civil law. Civil law is the recourse that citizens have from their government to secure certain legal protections. As we see from the Catechism, those protections can be accessed via civil divorce if they are the “only possible way” of ensuring very specific legal rights. It helps to think of civil divorce as a “protective legal maneuver” rather than an actual severing of marriage. Why? Because Catholics may never use civil divorce with the intent to end their marriage (which, as we’ve seen, is neither moral nor possible).

If a Catholic approaches a civil court for civil divorce with the intent of ending his marriage, then he commits a grave offense. To claim to break the marital contract, either in civil court or otherwise, is precisely what Christ forbade. Again, to use the words of the Catechism, it is immoral, it is gravely harmful, and it is traumatizing to the abandoned spouse and children. It is the very thing that “introduces disorder into the family and into society.”

We must remember that those who complete a civil divorce—whether for licit or illicit reasons—are still very much, in reality, married.

Here’s an example of how this distinction plays out in real life:

A dear friend of mine saw no other possible option but to file for civil divorce from her husband of many years, specifically to get physical and financial protection for herself and her children in a dire situation. There was simply no other mechanism in the civil law that could be used to secure those protections. My friend, whom I accompanied to court, would be the first to tell you that she was in no way claiming to break the marriage contract by approaching for a civil divorce.

Nor was she in any way thinking of “moving on” from her marriage, which in her mind (rightly) could never be “ended” by a civil court. She still prays for her husband’s redemption (matrimony is one of two sacraments ordered toward the salvation of the other [CCC 1534]) and the eventual restoration of her family.

Why is it necessary to be so clear about the distinction between divorce (a grave sin) and “civil divorce” (as a tolerable legal maneuver)? Because confusion surrounding this issue leads countless well-meaning but misguided Catholics to advise their hurting friends that it’s okay to civilly divorce when they are unhappy in their marriages—even absent the narrow conditions the Church requires for civil divorce to be tolerable, and quite often with the intent that the unhappy friend should “move on.”

But with even Catholic families shattering all around us, we must never be afraid to say that the act of approaching the civil court with the intent to break the marriage contract and “end the marriage” is always gravely immoral. Such civil divorces are not tolerable nor permissible, yet even otherwise faithful Catholics are routinely obtaining them. By contrast, accessing civil courts when there is no other possible way to get very specific legal protections is tolerable” and permitted — but with hope for the repentance and healing necessary for potential resumption of the conjugal life, even if that possibility seems remote.

This article is in no way an attempt to give pastoral instruction, but rather an encouragement to look closely at Scripture and the Catechism, noting carefully the words used and conditions described. That way, when a friend says he needs or wants a divorce, we can help ascertain if he needs legal rights or protections not available except through the courts, or if he means he wants out of his marriage. The former is tolerable, the latter is a grave sin.

If we can keep that distinction clear, and if priests, family, and friends can understand and explain this to those who are contemplating divorce, we will see fewer destroyed families, abandoned spouses, and shattered children.


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