Thursday, June 14, 2007


Adieu, Adieu, parting is such sweet sorrow.

Unless it’s not.

Sometimes it is just a total pain.

Divorce today for practicing Catholics seems a lot like what pre-marital sex used to be. (Stick with me.) First, there is this vague notion that you are doing something really wrong. It is not talked about in any official manner. You get your information on the street and much of it can be completely false. After the deed is done you might feel guilty and wonder about the state of your soul which is accompanied by a certain uneasiness about approaching clergy concerning what happened for fear of what he might think or say.

At my last assignment I gave a one-night seminar on divorce, annulments, and remarriage in an effort to help people overcome the above anxieties. It was well attended although there was not one person there who needed an annulment. They all knew someone who did however. The following couple of months we were inundated with requests for decrees of nullity. In that vein, here are some basics about nullity cases to help set the record straight.

To begin, marriage by the state is largely a contractual union. That is two individuals are held together in a contract. As long as they both abide by the contract (or are willing to overlook discrepancies) the contract is valid and binding. If something goes wrong (and this is a gross oversimplification but helps with the point) then they can break the contract and, if they choose, engage in another contract with a third party.

This varies greatly from Christian marriage. Christian marriage is not contractual it is covenantal. Call to mind the Scripture passage, “. . .and the two shall become one. So they are no longer two, but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10; 8,9). This union is “a solemn agreement . . . involving mutual commitments and guarantees” (CCC glossary,) a public vow of laying down one’s life for another. This binding is not “unless and until part of a stipulation of a contract is violated” but until “death do us part,” (or for the more squeamish, “all the days of our lives.”) And in the end, what commodity do have that is more valuable than our good word?

This unity cannot be broken by anyone, not even the Church (let no man put asunder.) The Church does not recognize the state’s right to declare two people no longer married. You can say differently all you want, but the fact will remain that they are still one. It is not in the state’s competence to decree on the status of sacraments, as it is not in the Church’s competence to decree on what day trash pick will be. The only the thing that the Church recognizes about divorce is the legal separation of property. As far as the Church is concerned, you are still married and are even eligible for participating in the sacraments so long as you do not become involved with another person outside of the marriage for which a divorce was obtained.

That being said, you are probably more than aware of practicing Catholics who have divorced and have been remarried sacramentally within the Church. These are persons who have received a decree of nullity in their vows to their former spouse. A decree of nullity is quite a bit different from a divorce. A divorce brings a contractual marriage to an end (though there may be lingering obligations extending into the future) whereas a decree of nullity states that there was something essential to the basic Christian definition of marriage that was missing in the union from its inception rendering it a non-sacramental union.

What this doesn’t mean: This does not mean that children born of the union will be considered illegitimate. Canon law stipulates that individuals are never to be labeled as such. All persons are “legitimate” by virtue of their being. It does not mean that there were not loving or happy moments between the former spouses. It does not mean that they are failures or bad Catholics just for seeking a decree of nullity.

What it does mean: There was a tragic flaw in the relationship and we are simply recognizing the fact that there was something essential to marriage that was missing. It would be like having mass, for example, and everything seemed to be right on the mark, but instead of wine, there was grape juice and Necco wafers instead of hosts. Later investigation would say though the congregants were fed by the Word, the music was great, the preaching commendable, since the Eucharistic elements were missing, there was no sacrament. In like manner, the decree of nullity is simply recognizing what is there and what was not.

Having to go through the nullity process is not a punishment. In the end, it is about not only protecting the integrity of marriage and the sacraments, but the integrity of your word, and possibly protecting people in the future, which we will see later.

To be continued . . .


Odysseus said...

I'm a child of divorce so you can preach as hard as you want against it. I'm all for no-divorce-ever laws. Having gone through that hell as a little boy, I have no sympathy when people try to justify divorce or make me feel sympathetic. I told my wife as much when we married: This is it, baby. There's no going back. I marry once and that's all. My kids don't need two mommies.

Not quite on topic, I know, but I get all worked up when the topic is divorce.

Anonymous said...

Father, a couple questions if you can answer them? A friend of mine (protestant) is considering dating a lapsed catholic (now protestant) who is divorced. His first marriage was in the catholic church. Is it possible for him to seek an annullment even though he is not a practicing catholic, and neither is his ex-wife? If so, would he go to the diocese he lives in now (in the USA), or where the marriage took place (his ex-wife's country of citizenship)?

Fr. V said...


Intersting questions Jennifer. I had to refer to a priest who knows much more than I about such matters. He said that yes he may apply for a decree of nullity (but he might have a slightly difficult time finding a priest to understand why a non-Catholic who is marrying a non-Catholic would want one - but it can and has been done.

The tricky problem is where it can take place. The tribunal he uses will need jurisdiction (just like a civil court needs jurisdiction.) Your local diocese can petition for it. They would need to get permission from the ex-spouse and her local tribunal to do it here in the United States. If she refuses, he may need to apply through wherever she is. Your local tribunal will be able to assist you.

Be aware that tribunals in some foriegn countries are not as efficient as they are in the U.S.

If I can help in any other way, please let me know.

Rob - I hear you. And there seems to be this fallacy that there will be greener pastures in second marriages. The "Starter Marriage" syndrome. Next time they will pick more wisely and marry someone far better. Unfortuantely, although 50% of first marriages fail, according to Divorce 60% of remarriages fail. Hardly a greener pasture.

Having been at two praishes with Catholic schools I see the havoc that it rains down on children. It is rarely really for the "kids sake" and WAY too often the kids are pawns in a war. It is so sad. Especially when you can do nothing about it.

Anonymous said...

you opened the gates..look out for a squeeze on your time as you will probably be inundated with more questions than you got after your 'seminar'.

Deacon Bill Burns said...

Thanks for the refresher, Fr. V. I was legaly married during the time when I was wandering outside the Church. Two conditions made the first marriage invalid in the eyes of the Church:

- Although I was not currently practicing at the time, I was raised Catholic, had not renounced my faith, and had not sought a dispensation.

- My then-spouse had been married previously and had not sought an annulment prior to our marriage, nor would she seek one when I returned to the Church.

I still feel guilty for not having stuck around, for not waiting for God to change her heart, and for not being willing to live as brother and sister. One priest I spoke to indicated that I had been essentially living in a state of concubinage with a married woman, so leaving was the appropriate, moral thing to do barring her willingness to get an annulment.

The biggest factor in my remorse is because of the pain my daughter has experienced on this account. I still struggle with that part of my life and the decisions I made leading up to it.

Adoro said...

Thanks for this post. Since I began teaching RCIA, I have come to realize these questions will come up and eventually, I'll need to know some of the answers and the resources in our area, although of course they will all be referred to our Pastor!

My parents divorced when I was 8 and my brother, 10. Mom was a devout Catholic and has always been so, and Dad was Lutheran, perhaps marginally so. (He passed away early in 1995).

I do support the decision my parents made to get a divorce, and she did seek an annullment although neither remarried nor did either of the intend to do so. I still remember my brother telling me, "As soon as Mom gets an annullment, we're going to be "bastards"". Mom acted very quickly to quash THAT idea!

But through the divorce proceedings, I remember being used as a pawn...we both were, but especially me. And although I didn't know what was going on, and I tried to be obedient, I didn't understand what was happening, even as I did understand that the motives for what I was being asked to do were not right.

Kids should never be put in that place, but they are, every day. It's like what the Partner in "Liar Liar" says at the end of the movie, "I just love kids in a divorce proceeding...."

Parents who are otherwise moral people completely lose their minds when they are getting divorced, and it's the children who suffer the most.

And society lies and tells us we're all fine and normal and the "family" can redefined to mean whatever we want it to mean.

I remember making an argument to someone online as to how healthy I am as an adult, how the divorce did not affect me, etc etc., and half way through my reply, I realized that he was right, the research he was citing was right, and I was making his point for him.

I grew up in complete denial, and my parents were the first to be divorced among all my peers. By the time I was in Jr. High, most of my friends and everyone I knew had divorced and remarried parents. Very few were from solid homes.

Those I know now, my own peers, who are getting divorced, even those claiming to be good, church-going Christians first argue that they believe marriage is forever, too...but it's "his" or "her" fault that the proceedings are continuing. And before the body is even cold they are seeking "comfort" elsewhere.

Don't ever tell me divorce isn't of the biggest lies ever. It hurts everyone.

Maybe one of the reasons I'm not married; I'd prefer to be single for life than ever live out the idea of "marriage" in modern society.

As you said...marriage is a covenant. Mom still managed to instill that in my brother and I, and my Dad never disagreed. They often argued, even after the divorce, but they both wanted to see us married for life.

Neither my brother nor I are married. My brother has been seeing the same woman for over 10 years now, I think, and we love her to death. Ironically, he wants to get married, she's dragging her feet, and her parents are still married.

Even she has been affected by this culture and the lies it propogates.

I've literally be laughed at for sharing my belief that marriage is nto about shaking up, but is a covenant, and that it IS possible, and it DOES happen. I had one friend, claiming to be a practicing Catholic, who told me it was "refreshing" to meet someone with such outdated ideals, and she wished me luck, but told me if I ever wanted to find happiness I'd have to let go of them and shack up like everyone else. She'd given up..but the reality is that she wasn't really looking where she should have been.

Things went so wrong, so fast, and the repurcussions of the idiocy of our recent ancestry is going to be felt for generations.

Odysseus said...

-the repurcussions of the idiocy of our recent ancestry is going to be felt for generations-


Anonymous said...

Thank you Father for the answers, I will pass them on!

(The reasons for wanting an anullment are two: I observed that lapsed catholics sometimes revert, and that she absolutely did not want to end up with her husband unexpectedly returning to the church, only to discover his second marriage was invalid to boot. The other reason is that even protestants ought to care about complying with the biblical teaching on divorce and re-marriage, and so better to remove all doubt before proceeding.)