Sharon was a stressed, never-married, single mom of three who decided to marry Bill because he could support her and the kids. After a rough six years, they finally divorced. Does the Catholic Church permit this? Does their case qualify for annulment? Can they remarry? The answer is twofold:
- No one can provide a competent answer without a thorough and honest investigation into their situation. Some too quickly say they must reconcile or be forever in mortal sin. Others too hastily relieve them of any marital responsibility. But Sharon and Bill are unique and unrepeatable persons with distinctive histories and often unknown mental and emotional beliefs that moved them to the altar and then to the divorce court. Until these things are considered, the wise person waits. Every case is different; there is no pat answer for everyone.
- One can’t properly consider what the Church teaches about divorce, annulment (properly called decree of nullity), or remarriage without first understanding what it teaches about marriage. So, let’s start there.
Marriage is a sign and a doorway
Marriage has a cosmic and divine meaning; it’s both a powerful sign and a doorway into the mystery of God himself—the communion of life and love shared by the Holy Trinity. God points to marriage between man and woman as an image of his passionate longing and permanent, life-giving love for us.
In the Old Testament he revealed himself as “husband” to his people, Israel, establishing an unbreakable covenant of love in which he would never leave or forsake them. Jesus also reveals himself as “Bridegroom,” and St. Paul tells the Ephesians about the great mystery of the marriage of Christ and the Church. Clearly, marriage has far greater meaning than a mortgage, a shared bank account, and a few kids.
Marriage is natural and supernatural
Did you know that one doesn’t even have to believe in God to validly contract marriage? God wrote the universal desire for and understanding of marriage directly into the hearts of mankind. Even atheists who freely desire to enter into a lifelong union of man and woman that is ordered to their mutual support, is exclusive, is permanent, and is open to children can contract what the Church calls a valid “natural” marriage.
Supernatural aid comes to a couple when both are validly baptized Christians; thus the two atheists have a valid marriage, and the baptized couple has a valid and sacramental marriage.
In any valid marriage, a couple mysteriously shares in the unbreakable bond of love between Jesus, the Bridegroom, with his Bride, the Church. Natural and supernatural graces can flow from God to spouses for their good and that of the whole family. Because God doesn’t divorce us, validly married spouses are not to divorce each other.
But too many people—some Catholics included—mistakenly believe that civil divorce and remarriage are reasonable options. Maybe the first time was short or there were miserable, even abusive, circumstances. However, marriage is not a mere “social construct” man invented to retain property, enjoy sex, perpetuate the species, or reinvent as he pleases. Thankfully, the Church gives us clear, common-sense instruction.
Some attempted marriages are missing a vital property
Both parties must have a reasonable understanding of what they are doing and who they are choosing, and they must be willing and able to commit to a permanent, exclusive relationship that is open to the gift of children. It sounds straightforward, and it is, but today the number of failed marriages points to two general causes of divorce.
- The first general cause is a lack of commitment, an unwillingness to suffer for a greater good, and a selfish predisposition. In these situations, it’s presumed that everything necessary was there for the marriage to succeed but someone chose otherwise. It’s not that anything vital was missing for a valid marriage bond; what was missing was authentic love.
- The second cause of divorce involves some serious misunderstandings, wrong intentions, or deep problems that were present from before the wedding prevented a valid marriage bond from ever forming.
In both cases, the parties find can recourse through the Church’s annulment process. Anyone who wishes to remarry in the Church—even if he or she not Catholic—must submit his or her prior marriage(s) to the scrutiny of the Church. It’s not a violation of privacy; it’s a confidential assessment much like the doctor’s scale, x-ray machine, or other medical tests. The goal is truth, clarity, healing, and freedom from pain and confusion.
Jesus taught that some marriages are “illicit” (Matt. 19:9) and that some people are “incapable of marriage” (Matt. 19:11-12). Some people who attempt marriage are not just physically incapable but seriously, psychically incapable: being far too young, under grave force or fear, having grave mental or emotional defects, and possibly much more.
Sometimes one or both parties cannot properly consent to authentic marriage—even if they desire it or hope for it—due to some serious defect of consent. Some common problems today are:
- Marrying simply out of grave fear of being alone forever or never having children
- Marrying to escape an unbearable or abusive home life
- Marrying to try to overcome homosexual tendencies
- Marrying because you are pregnant and your dad really does have a shotgun!
Thus, with the help of an advocate and the tribunal staff, the couple can carefully and truthfully look at their wedding day—and the time immediately before and after—to see if such a grave defect was present.
With enough credible evidence, the Church can declare the marriage bond “null.” This does not negate the hope and dreams they had, the shared life together, the genuine affection, or the children. It frees the parties to properly prepare for and attempt marriage again—if they are able and so choose.
However, every marriage is presumed valid until proved otherwise in a competent tribunal (Code of Canon Law [CIC], 1060). The civilly divorced who have no grounds or who have not yet petitioned for and received an “annulment” are still married and must remain faithful to their vows. As difficult as this may be to accept, with no declaration of nullity, no new valid marriage is possible.
Remarriage is not marriage
No one likes the world “adultery.” But that’s what results when people decide on their own, or with wrong counsel, to remarry civilly with no annulment of their prior marriage(s). It may not feel like adultery, especially when the first marriage was difficult and this time it is not. But truth is not about our feelings. Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17)—and to help us desire to live within it.
Whether they realized it or not, those in this “irregular” situation have set themselves outside full communion with the Church. They are still beloved members of God’s family and welcome/required to attend Mass, but there has been a grave violation of marriage that must be addressed. Thus, they are required to refrain from receiving the sacraments until they can remedy their situation. And the Church needs to help them.
We all need Jesus, but not on our own terms
Some people who are divorced and remarried feel deeply rejected and even furious when they are told they cannot receive the Eucharist: “I need Jesus. Would he turn away the sinners?” But communion with the Lord is not to be grasped at; he is already present to everyone at any moment and denies his love to no one. The Church knows the spiritual danger of trying to make Christ exclusively ours on our own terms.
When we choose remarriage without annulment, we render ourselves temporarily unworthy to receive the sacrament, but it does not make us unloved. Jesus wants to be present and intimate with us first in the confessional, where we freely and obediently submit our wills and hearts to him for healing. That is the “holy communion” that must precede sacramental Communion.
Holy Communion is not simply a token of good standing in Church membership. It’s not merely a symbol of unity among people of goodwill. The Eucharist is literally the living “body, blood, soul, and divinity” of a Real Person. In this act that is both personal and public, we truly have an intimate encounter with Jesus Christ.
Holy Communion is the Bridegroom giving himself completely to the Bride. We—the Bride—are espoused to Christ through baptism and, just as a bride would never think of approaching him unwashed and “smelling” of serious sin, we recall and reject our sins prior to receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.
St. Paul warned those who received the Body of Christ unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27). Understandably, no one who is aware of unconfessed serious sin is to approach Our Lord in this most intimate act (CIC 915). But if we repent, confess, and sincerely commit to not sin again, Catholics are always free to enter into Holy Communion with him.
The four F’s of authentic marriage
If it’s authentic, it bears the mark of its maker. As such, a true marriage bond is distinguished by the same character of the way Jesus, the Bridegroom, loves us, his Bride. We look to the cross to see the fullness of this self-donating, life-giving love. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once explained that what was actually happening at Calvary was nuptials. Here are the four marks of authentic marriage:
Jesus’ love for his Bride is FREE.
“No one takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
Jesus bound himself to us for our greater good, not to get a green card or to share in our large inheritance. He didn’t lay his life down out of any grave fear of being alone, or of not having children, or of impending bankruptcy. A grave lack of emotional freedom may invalidate the wedding vows (CIC 1103).
Jesus’ love for his Bride is FULL.
“This is my body which will be given for you” (Luke 22:19).
Christ holds nothing back from the soul he woos and weds. He empties himself completely—even to death on a cross—for her eternal salvation. Today, far too many reserve the option for divorce if “things don’t work out” or if they “fall out of love.” Others put conditions on the marriage or draw up self-protective civil agreements that are barriers to a true one-flesh union. A partial commitment is not a commitment at all (CIC 1101, 1102).
Jesus’ love for his Bride is FAITHFUL.
“I am with you always, even until the end of time” (Matt. 28:20).
Today some are too sexually addicted to enter marriage. Parties must intend and be able to be faithful to one another in all ways. Emotional fidelity that belongs to a spouse may wrongly be given to another, including a parent or child. Fidelity is promising to never expose or encourage the spouse to any form of physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or spiritual harm. By refusing fidelity to the other, some parties have already abandoned the other on their wedding day (CIC 1101).
Jesus’ love for his Bride is FRUITFUL.
“I came so that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Marriage is uniquely ordered to the natural begetting of children, the fruit of spousal union. Since Christ withholds nothing from us, spouses must do likewise when they “express and exchange wedding vows with their bodies” in the marital act. Hence, this union must never be closed to life, even partially. If one or both parties are perpetually closed to children—either by permanent impotence or by obstinate rejection—they cannot validly contract marriage (CIC 1084).
Do spouses have to live these four marks perfectly for a marriage bond to be valid? No, since we all sin. But from the start they must intend and be able to bind themselves freely, fully, faithfully, and fruitfully. The subject is complex and nuanced, and each case is different; but often what looks like a marriage may not be a marriage at all.
There is always a remedy to each situation
Some divorced people will live as single for the rest of their lives but can still find a rich, satisfying, and holy life. Others may hope for marriage again and seek annulment or convalidation.
Convalidation is the process where, after getting the prior marriage(s) declared null, the civilly remarried couple freely contracts a valid new marriage. Some call this “getting the marriage blessed,” but it is much more than a blessing—the Church cannot legitimately accept, encourage, or ever bless unlawful unions. Convalidation is a marriage ceremony that makes their union valid and, if both are baptized, also a sacrament. If they have no prior marriages, it can be a quick and easy process.
Separated? The motive determines the sinfulness of separation. In grave situations it may be necessary. Confess your sins to a priest, stop sinful behavior or relationships, seek counseling and reconciliation (if possible), and go to Holy Communion often.
Give it time. You are still married and, unless and until the Church issues a decree of nullity, you must remain faithful to your vows until your spouse dies. This is not your death sentence; marriage can be a great good, but it is not a requirement for happiness.
Divorced? It’s the result of some failure by one or both parties, but—depending on the circumstances—it may not be a serious sin for both. If you are aware of your sinful behavior in the marriage or after, you must confess and end it prior to receiving Holy Communion.
But simply being divorced does not bar you from Jesus in the Eucharist. Seek wise counsel and, if possible, reconciliation.
Remarried outside the Church? Consult with a wise and holy expert in these matters. Ask for the grace of an open mind and heart to the truth and to God’s best for you. You may receive the sacraments of confession and Communion if you:
- Resolve to trust Jesus and the truth he has revealed through his Church—and then take the high path.
- Confess all your serious sins, including the sin of pride by ignoring the Church and trying to do things on your own—a common struggle for us all.
- Stop sinning and firmly commit to live “as brother and sister.” You can love each other in many healthy, holy ways that don’t include what belongs only in a valid marriage: marital intimacy.
- Seek understanding about obtaining annulment and “convalidating” the current civil marriage. Separate if possible, prudent, or necessary.
It’s not impossible. Many couples who choose this path find great freedom from fear and guilt, deeper trust and respect for the other, increased emotional and spiritual intimacy, and authentic, self-sacrificing love.
The Church on: DIVORCE
“Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. . . . Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery: if a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another’s husband to herself” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2382-2384).
“Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society” (CCC 2385).
“It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (CCC 2386).
The Church on: SEPARATION
“There are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. . . . The best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation” (CCC 1649)
“The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense” (CCC 2383).
The Church on: REMARRIAGE
“If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion if this situation persists. . . . Reconciliation through the sacrament of penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence” (CCC 1650).
“Toward Christians who live in this situation. . . . They should be encouraged to listen to the word of God, to attend the sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace” (CCC 1651).
The Church on: ANNULMENT
“The (marital) consent must be an act of the will of each of the contracting parties, free of coercion or grave external fear. If this freedom is lacking the marriage is invalid” (CCC 1628).
“For this reason . . . (or for other reasons that support a null bond) the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage” (CCC 1629).