Divorce, Remarriage, and Annulments


1. What do Catholics think of divorce and remarriage?

Catholics believe that divorce involves very grave sin, and a divorce between Christian spouses who are lawfully married is not valid in the sight of God. We base this on the witness of Scripture (Mark 10:1-12, 1 Cor. 7:10-11, 1 Cor. 7:39) and Sacred Tradition, for in the Catholic Church it has always been seen as a moral tragedy to get divorced from a lawful Christian union -- especially when remarriage follows afterward.

2. I know plenty of divorced Catholics.

And it is a tragedy that it happens, because divorce always involves grave sin. This can be manifested in many ways. Some couples get divorced because of marital infidelity, and so the divorce is preceded by a moral crime. Other couples get divorced just because they do not feel the same passion for each other anymore, and they neglect the surpassing value of the marital bond, which goes far above changing feelings, and which should spur couples to daily re-ignite their passion rather than leave their holy union. Some Catholics are divorced because their spouse left them, and they were given no chance to prevent it. For whatever the reason, these Catholics have experienced the harsh effects of sin, and need mercy which triumphs over judgment.

3. Matthew's Gospel says there can be a divorce in the case of unchastity.

There can be, but remarriage is impossible for them, because if the divorced person then goes out and gets married to someone else Matthew's Gospel says explicitly that they would be committing adultery. Matthew 5:32. In the Church the sin of divorce is not always the fault of both spouses. If one of them is unfaithful, and causes daily harm to the innocent spouse by his or her actions, then he or she may lawfully leave that person, but may not remarry, because their union was permanent and that can't change. Even Matthew's gospel says this, if you read the whole passage in question: "I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." Matthew 5:32. Notice that divorce is strictly limited to cases where grave sin is involved, e.g. the one partner is being unfaithful; and even then, if the person remarries, he or she "commits adultery." There is no divorce plus remarriage in this passage. It is explicitly forbidden, though the divorce part sometimes may be done if the partners do not remarry afterwards.

And, by the way, marital unfaithfulness is only one example of the type of harm that can justify leaving one's spouse. An abusive relationship or a forceful and tyrant-like situation are reasonable grounds for fleeing for freedom and safety. But as the Gospel says, even where a person has left for legitimate reasons, there can be no legitimate reason for remarrying. This is true for several reasons: one, because the vows made previously are holy and therefore not breakable. Later crimes do not change the fact that the vows were holy when made and were perpetual when enacted; for this reason, the marriage remains valid until death. Secondly, there always remains the possibility of repentance on the part of the guilty spouse, and reconciliation. If remarrying after leaving your spouse was okay, then that very holy and hopeful reality would be frustrated and made unworkable. For all these reasons, we know that divorce always involves grave sin on someone's part and sometimes both, and even when a person has a legitimate reason to leave their spouse, they must not marry another. And that is not only taught by St. Matthew, but by all the Gospel writers and St. Paul.

4. Never allowing divorce is hurtful to women. What if a woman is beaten?

Then she should leave the awful tyrant. No one is obligated to stay unsafe with a person who harms them, but a woman in that situation must not then remarry, for she is already married. Her husband is living in grave sin and has become dangerous, but if we were to throw out her marriage, then we would make reconcilation impossible and repentance less hopeful, and violate the sanctity of their previous vows in the process -- for their vows were made when he was no monster, and were perpetually made holy and binding. The very grace of that Sacrament is operating to bring about a better situation for them, and remarrying would undermine that reality.

5. St. Paul said a person may divorce and remarry if their unbelieving spouse abandons them.

That is true too, and the reason is because their marriage isn't a Christian one and therefore doesn't have the same character. The Christian character of marriage comes from Jesus' unique teaching on marriage, and from the version of marriage He uniquely gave for Christians. In Mark 10:1-12, this includes that these unions are made perpetual by the special action of God. Marriages that are *not* between two baptized people have a different character of bond, and the marital vows, being only human in character, can be dissolved by a divine authority (i.e. the Church). So in circumstances where a baptized person has married an unbaptized person, if the unbaptized person leaves, the Church has the power to loose the human bonds when there is good reason for doing so: "For I tell you, whatsoever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven." (Matthew 18:18) When that happens the baptized person can marry within the Church, and the perpetual bond they have cannot be broken, not even by the Church, because the character of a Christian marriage is divine instead of human.

6. What are Annulments?

Annulments are declarations that a marriage was not validly contracted. The only marriages that can be annuled are those that were improperly done, and were not in fact valid marriages to begin with. Catholics who have become divorced for innocent reasons sometimes seek to remarry, and of course they cannot do so if their previous marriage was valid. If they have reasons for thinking their marriage was not valid, however, they can ask for an investigation of its validity, and if something is found wanting, a declaration of nullity can be given, declaring that the previous marriage never validly happened in the first place, and thus they are free to marry.

7. Sounds like a Catholic divorce to me.

It's very different from a divorce, and in a certain way it is the opposite of a divorce. An annulment says that a marital bond never was validly made; a divorce says that it was validly made, and is now being undone. Only a marriage that wasn't valid in the first place can be annulled; a divorce can supposedly be given to any marriage.

8. Even so, the end results are the same: you get to stop living with your current spouse and remarry.

Yes, the end is the same, but the means are different. A divorce tears apart a bond that is divine; an annulment recognizes that no marital bond was ever made, and then simply allows the person to get married as any ordinary person is able to. With an annulment, a person can get his first true marriage, but with a divorce, a person can get a second marriage, but in falsehood. An annulment is based in truth and leads to good, but a divorce comes from sin and is an example of error. It is no wonder that the Catholic Church teaches that annulments are okay but divorces are bad, because when we examine their source, their fruits, and their meaning, that is exactly what we find.

9. Well if the Bible is against divorce and remarriage, then your Church is wrong to teach annulments.

Not so, because an annulment isn't a divorce, and there is no "re" marriage, because you've never been actually married before (because the marriage was invalid). So there is no true "re" marriage, and there is no divorce, with an annulment. It is therefore totally different, and perfectly compatible with the Bible.

10. Show me annulments in the Bible!

Alright, let me show you that in two ways. One is that the Bible gives certain rules for when a couple wants to get married. If one of those rules is violated, then their union is obviously not a Christian marriage -- otherwise rules would mean nothing. An annulment is simply a recognition of the Bible's rules about marriage and an observation that in some cases those rules haven't been followed. Secondly, we see an example of an annulment proposed for someone in the Bible, when St. John the Baptist opposed the marriage between King Herod and his own sister-in-law. That kind of union was incestuous, and St. John the Baptist, when speaking to him about it, did not tell him "You should get a divorce," but, "The union is unlawful." Mark 6:17-18. The marriage, therefore, was invalid from the start. That is an example of an annulment being proposed from the Bible itself, and it authorizes us to know that, when a marriage is invalid from the start, no true marriage exists, and so the couple is not bound by wedlock, but must separate.