Divorce and Catholicism

Printer Paper Cut With Orange ScissorI’ve been toying with drafts of a post about divorce for a while now, but I didn’t feel like I had the material to really back up the opinion I was trying to express. Then the other day I saw this video from Adam Ruins Everything about why divorce is actually not a terrible thing. I definitely recommend checking this video out. It gets to the heart of why it’s important to have legal divorce be accessible. One fact from the video that I’d never heard before is that by some estimates, the availability of divorce reduced the female suicide rate by 20%. Considering the fact that domestic violence didn’t used to be considered grounds for divorce in many places, and that marital rape wasn’t even legally considered rape until more recently than you’d think depending on the state, the availability of divorce was definitely a source of hope for many people, especially women.

In Catholicism, however, there is simply no such thing as divorce. Marriage, in Catholicism, is permanent. This means if a Catholic couple gets a legal divorce, they are still considered married in the eyes of the church. That can be OK at first. As this Catholic website explains, legally divorced Catholics are still considered full members of the church as long as they’re in good standing (basically if they go to mass and participate in the sacraments, especially communion and confession, and generally follow church rules). They don’t begin to run into trouble until they meet someone else, and decide they’d like to get married again.

Keep in mind that to the Catholic church, a divorced person is still in their first marriage. So to the church, this is a married person asking to also marry someone else. That’s definitely not allowed! The horror! But there is an option to proceed, and it’s called annulment.

Annulment is a process by which Catholics who are legally divorced (or who would like to be) can appeal to a church tribunal (basically a church court) to get a declaration of nullity, stating that one of the major requirements for  valid marriage wasn’t present on the day of the ceremony. These are the requirements for a valid Catholic marriage that would be examined for an annulment:

For a Catholic marriage to be valid, it is required that: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they are capable of giving their consent to marry; (3) they freely exchange their consent; (4) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (5) they intend the good of each other; and (6) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by Church authority.

This list comes from an FAQ page on this website about annulments. Feel free to check it out for more information.

The thing that strikes me the most about this list is that if these are the criteria that the tribunal looks at to determine if the marriage can be annulled, why don’t they include any details from the actual marriage itself? The relationship after the wedding. A wedding is just a big party with some vows and a contract. That’s not the meat of the relationship. What if it’s an abusive marriage? What if even though both partners genuinely mean to be faithful when they say their vows, there is cheating down the road? What if they just grow apart? Find themselves coming to incompatible conclusions about life and the world around them that put a painful strain on their relationship? It can and does happen. I think those are all valid reasons for couple to consider divorce. But according to the church, only the events of the wedding itself and the intentions of the couple on that date are supposed to be examined.

I have been assured by my Catholic parents that of course the church would never force a couple to stay in an abusive marriage, and would gladly grant an annulment. I would like to believe them, and I imagine that in most cases the tribunal would take that into account. But if that is the case, why doesn’t this site say the tribunal will look into anything about the relationship after the wedding day? In that vein, one particular frequently asked question on the same web page about annulment makes me uneasy:

How can a couple married for many years present a case?

The tribunal process examines the events leading up to, and at the time of, the wedding ceremony, in an effort to determine whether what was required for a valid marriage was ever brought about. The length of common life is not proof of validity but a long marriage does provide evidence that a couple had some capacity for a life-long commitment. It does not prove or disprove the existence of a valid marriage bond. [Italics mine]

I’m concerned about how they will define a long marriage. Is two years long? Twenty?  Long isn’t a very specific word. Also, it’s not uncommon for people to stay in abusive relationships for a pretty long time, even though they know it’s dangerous. The psychology of abuse is complicated, and abusers are often very sweet and loving in between spurts of hurtful language or violence, making victims question whether their abusers are really that bad, only for the cycle to occur again.

I’d like to see the church change its position on divorce. I’d like to see the long annulment process completely eliminated. If the church wants to do a divorce ceremony that’s up to them, but the current legality of divorce is an important right that may be saving the lives of some women. The antiquated view the church has on divorce only creates social stigma, which can erode the support system a struggling person might need to get back on their feet after such  split. The Catholic church is very good at creating stigma, at making certain things taboo. I’d like to see that change.

What are your thoughts on divorce, annulment, and Catholicism? Do you have any experience with the Catholic annulment process? I’d love to hear your story. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

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23 thoughts on “Divorce and Catholicism

  1. I have been through the process and am very familiar with it. I’d like to clear up one point: the idea that the Church “grants” an annulment. This isn’t quite right. It’s important to understand this point since other things will make sense. The reason the Church focuses its attention on the courtship and wedding, rather than post-wedding, is that she is trying to determine if a marriage actually happened. The existence of a marriage certificate is evidence for a marriage, but is not the only evidence. I hope this makes sense. The Church, upon request (and only upon request) gathers evidence and testimony. If there is enough evidence that a marriage did not exist, then the Church declares this to be the case by issuing a declaration of nullity. It is a finding of fact, not an ecclesiastical unbinding of vows. This is important, because the Church takes the verses in Matthew 19 literally. Jesus really meant ONE marriage while spouses live. I hope this makes sense and would be happy to answer questions if needed.

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  2. I’ve had several catholic friends over the years try for annulment. Some of them were in abusive marriages and you’re correct, the church didn’t take that into consideration; those kinds of things are civil matters for the courts and lawyers to decide. The church’s concern is only whether it was a god-sanctioned marriage. A “long marriage” is considered to be over 10 years….this is the same as what’s considered a “long” marriage in the courts. In the case of my friends it took them each about 3-5 years to get the decision on annulment: only 1 out of the 5 was granted it, on the grounds that she got married by a judge in a court (instead of in a church with a priest officiating).

    These friends were long divorced and had found other partners by the time the annulment decision was made. They all went on to marry again, but four of them couldn’t marry in the catholic church. These four continued to go to a church and accept communion like a catholic in good standing, and I never saw my church shun any divorced/remarried people in my generation (gen X). I know when my grandma got divorced after been severely abused in her marriage, she was excommunicated. It broke her heart. She simply switched parishes and kept her divorce and remarriage a secret.

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    • Wow, thanks for sharing this Violet! My primary experience with annulment has been listening to my parents advise people going through RCIA who need one in order to get married in the church. It’s fascinating to me that in your friend’s case the court marriage wasn’t considered valid, even though the sources I checked insisted that Catholicism recognizes all marriages as valid unless an annulment finds them otherwise regardless of under what tradition they were performed. Then again, the way a religion works in practice in my experience varies a fair bit from the official rule book. I’d never heard of excommunication from divorce though! That’s terrible! Especially after an abusive relationship. It takes enough courage to leave one without having to also leave your faith community.

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      • I am continually amazed at the discrepancies in our catholic experiences, and I don’t quite know what to make of it. That you’ve never heard of excommunication after divorce absolutely floors me! My grandma experienced her excommunication after divorce in the late 60’s…but I don’t believe this happens in the modern church anymore.

        As for not being married in the church being grounds for annulment, I know this tidbit because of my own first-hand experience. After I had my son I wanted to get him baptized, but the priest wouldn’t do it because my marriage wasn’t “authorized by god” (I was married by a court commissioner instead of a priest). While my marriage was indeed civilly recognized it was not considered religiously valid. To have my son baptized my husband and I had to say our vows again in front of a priest to “legitimize” our marriage in the eyes of god and the church, and then he baptized our son.

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      • It could be that my age really limited things to an extent. I wasn’t really exposed to the more strict practices that previous generations were. I heard stories about my great grandmother being forced to write with her right hand in Catholic school even though she was a lefty, which is a pretty common story as I hear it, but that was one of the harshest stories I knew. On the current topic, it’s possible that the divorce/annulment rules have loosened a lot. That’s definitely the case with other sacraments. I know only Catholic baptisms used to be considered valid, but now baptisms in other branches of christianity are accepted as enough, so a Christian joining Catholicism doesn’t have to be baptised again.

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      • One more fun tidbit for you before I get some sleep:

        I was civilly married by a judge at the age of 30, and sacramentally married by a priest at age 38. At age 33 my sister-in law asked me to be the godmother to her baby. Since I couldn’t fly to her home in San Francisco from my home in Minnesota (I’m disabled), we had to do it “by proxy,” meaning my parish would approve me to be godmother and then they’d have someone stand in for me at the actual ceremony. My church refused to approve me because I didn’t have a sacramental marriage and was “not a good example of a proper catholic.” I couldn’t lie about it either because the priest requested my catholic marriage certificate before he’d ok me to be godmother, and when I couldn’t produce it, that’s when it came out I was married in court.

        More fun details: Sis-in-law lives in liberal San Francisco and the churches out there are much more lax than here in the midwest. When I couldn’t be a godparent for her baby she had an openly homosexual man be the godparent…nowhere but in San Fran would that happen!

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      • OK, I found some info. See here: http://www.stmarys-waco.org/documents/Grounds%20for%20Marriage%20Annulment%20in%20the%20Catholic%20Church.pdf

        Excerpt: Annulment for an invalid marriage
        Catholic annulment means that a couple was never married in the sacramental sense. God did not
        create that unbreakable bond between them because the sacrament of marriage was not actually fulfilled.

        So a marriage performed by the court (like mine) is civilly recognized by the church, but it is not “sacramental” because I wasn’t married by a priest in a catholic church…therefore it is invalid in the eyes of the catholic church. An annulment would have been obtainable.

        Had a catholic person been married to a protestant by a catholic priest in a catholic church, it would have been a “sacramental” marriage and no annulment would be granted. Had a catholic person been married to a protestant by a protestant minister, it would be recognized as civilly legal but not sacramental, and an annulment could be obtained.

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  3. I’m torn on this question. Of course, if the church loosened up on their divorce rules, it would make life easier for a lot of people. But on the other hand, If they cracked down and enforced their rules strictly, that would encourage more people to walk away from the catholic church altogether, and in the long run I think that would be a very positive thing. If the choice is between seeing the catholic church reform, or see it decline and fade into irrelevance, I’d prefer to see it decline.

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    • That’s a good point. I have mixed feelings as well. I don’t personally think religion in general will ever completely go away though. When one declines, another one seems to just spring up and become popular. The tricky part is getting the really devout people like my parents to loosen up a bit. If there was a global shift towards critical thinking and away from looking to religion for the answers to every major life question, that would do the world a lot of good, and it doesn’t matter what religion the people who do that follow as long as they learn to at a bare minimum compartmentalize and make their own decisions.

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  4. I enjoyed your post and thoughts. My husband is going through the RCIA this year, and both of us must seek annulments as we have both been previously married. At times I wish the Catholic Church would recognize divorce and remarriage—but I completely understand the reasoning behind the annulment, which is, as you have said, that there wasn’t ever a Sacramental marriage in the first place. Although I am certainly not a part of the Church Tribunal, I do believe my previous marriages were not Sacramental, as I had no intention of staying faithful to any of my spouses. I do not know about my husband’s marriages—we shall see. But have you researched what the Holy Father has said regarding divorce and remarriage? I don’t have any specific links, but basically the idea is that divorce and remarriage are private matters, and no reason to debar anyone from Communion. Of course, I don’t believe that is the “official” position, but definitely worth noting.

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    • Hey thanks for checking out my post! Best of luck with the annulment process. I appreciate hearing from someone who’s experiencing it. Pope Francis has definitely made progressive statements about divorce and remarriage, you’re right about that. Unfortunately the institution of the church is such that a change is unlikely, though Francis gives me some hope that church leaders will be willing to take a second look at a few things.

      As for the communion question, I believe from my research for this post, if I remember correctly, that the rule is that divorced people can receive communion, however they cannot remarry (and presumably consummate that marriage) and then receive communion without an annulment. The reason for that is, again, that their first marriage is still considered valid, and they’d be committing a mortal sin by participating in the new relationship, in which case the mortal sin makes them not allowed to receive communion. (Receiving communion with a mortal sin on your soul is considered an additional mortal sin, if I’m remembering my catechism correctly.)

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  5. I am a catholic and I will want to clear your misunderstanding, not only catholics reject divorce, even other chruches. It is said in the bible ‘If a man/woman divorces his spouse and remarries he has committed adultery’.
    So how can one divorce, why did you then take a vow that ends with ‘Till death do us path’ . this is why the church considers you know your spouse and pray before marrying him.
    My auntie had an abusive marriage but didn’t divorce she seperated (accepted by church) And today her relationship has improved.

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  6. Nancy,
    At the risk of sounding cynical…In my world, annulments cost $10,000.
    The hoops one must jump through are ludicrous. 50% of my Catholic pals are divorced. Most of us attended K-12 Catholic schools….many of us attended Cath. universities.
    Just try telling us we (many are Eucharistic Ministers) can’t take communion. We are the backbone and the volunteers who assist in running parishes…
    Bless you!

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  7. I was not familiar with this practice until reading this blog. But I’m concerned that this doesn’t have any support in the scriptures. It’s quite clear that Jehovah God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). God intended the man and woman to be together forever as “one flesh” and no man was to put it apart (Matthew 19:4-6). Jesus himself said, “I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9) so it’s also clear that you have to examine what took place during the marriage. Lastly, there’s no support for being allowed to divorce simply because you’re marriage or wedding wasn’t done in a church or followed sacramental guidelines. In God’s eyes when you say you are together and will be forever that is a vow (whether in front of a judge or a priest) and God expects us to adhere to those words.

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    • Thanks for your comment! I find it particularly interesting that one of those verses offers “sexual immorality” as an exception. It’s not very specific, but it could be taken to mean cheating is Biblically supported grounds for divorce. I would hope that spousal abuse would be accepted as a valid excuse too though.

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