Catholic Teaching on Divorce

In the Gospel this Sunday we hear Christ’s unambiguous teachings on divorce and remarriage. His disciples are startled by the rigor of His teaching and so they ask Him to clarify and possibly soften his words, but He reasserts that the Divine plan is that the matrimonial bond endures until death.

Catholic teaching, which is Christ’s teaching, on divorce holds people to a higher standard than all Christian denominations and, most certainly, the secular world. This is because God wants us to be saints, and being a saint means clinging to what is true and just even when it is difficult. So, when Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mk. 10:11-12), we believe that He really means it. That said, there are important nuances to our understanding of marriage and divorce that need to be understood.

If you’re like me and you like to learn by listening, check out this short video by Rose Sweet, author of “The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide”: Divorce & Catholics.

First, there are circumstances when getting a civil divorce is prudent and right. If a spouse is physically, psychologically, or emotionally abusive and is unwilling to take the necessary steps to change his or her behaviour, then a separation or civil divorce is a good course of action. The Church does not condemn people to a life of abuse. Also, as the Catechism states,

“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” (Catechism, 2386).

In these circumstances a civil divorce may not be sinful for one of the parties while the other party has gravely sinned against his or her marriage vows.

Civil divorce, however, does not mean that the couple is no longer married in the eyes of God and His Church. Marriage vows are as follows: “I, ____, take you, ____, to be my lawfully wedded (husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” These vows aren’t merely for show. They are the form of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and as a true Sacrament they cause what they signify. The baptized man and woman who willingly and knowingly profess these vows and consummate their marriage are truly united until death (cf. Catechism, 2382).

This indissoluble union between a man and woman is foundational to a healthy society. It is for the sake of the couple and their children. Children are healthier (emotionally, physically, and psychologically) when they grow up in a home with a loving mother and father. Marriage is also meant to be an image of God’s love for His people, so divorce contradicts the sacramental sign of indissoluble love. For further reading on these two points please see Catechism, 2384-2385.

The indissolubility of marriage means that when a couple civilly divorce and then either person enters a new civil union with another person, he or she is committing adultery. Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mk. 10:11-12) Adultery is a gravely sinful act. Unpacking the Biblical teaching of the 6th Commandment, the teachings of the prophets (cf. Hos 2:7; Jer 5:7; 13:27), the teachings of Christ Jesus (cf. Mt 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Mk 10: 9-14; Lk 16:18) and St. Paul (1 Cor 7:10-ll) the Catechism gives a brief explanation of why adultery is gravely sinful:

“Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents' stable union” (Catechism, 2381).

For these reasons the Church teaches that those who are divorced (without an annulment) and are civilly remarried should not receive communion. Note that anyone who is aware of having committed a gravely sinful act should not receive communion. This isn’t just a rule singling out those who are divorced and remarried. St. Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Grave sin breaks our “communion” with Christ and our neighbour, and that is why we don’t receive “Communion” without going to confession if we have committed a grave sin (cf. Code of Canon Law, 916).

What is unique about those who are divorced and civilly remarried is that they have made a public declaration that they are living in contradiction to the teachings of Christ. Until that public contradiction is resolved they can’t even go to Confession because Confession requires a firm purpose to amend one’s life, which isn’t possible if he is still living with the person with whom he is committing adultery.

So, what does the Church propose for those who are divorced and civilly remarried? In his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio Pope St. John Paul II says,

“Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples (FC, 84).

That whole section is worth reading if you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the saint’s position on these difficult circumstances.

Next, if there is to be any hope of making the second civil union into a valid Sacramental Marriage, then the person must receive an annulment for the first marriage. An annulment is not a “Catholic Divorce”. An annulment or “declaration of nullity” is when the Church declares that there never was a valid marriage bond between the spouses. There are various reasons why a marriage may have been invalid. Some are straightforward while others are more complicated. For example, if a priest leaves the priesthood without receiving a proper dispensation from the Vatican and then tries to get married, his marriage is invalid. Or, if a Catholic person gets married outside the Catholic Church without receiving the proper dispensations and permissions, his marriage is invalid. An example of a less straightforward case would be regarding the consent of the spouses when they declared their marriage vows. If one of the spouses didn’t really intend to be faithful until “death do us part”, but rather was intending to be an adulterer from the very beginning, this could be grounds for an annulment. Once again, an annulment is a declaration by the Church that there never was a valid union between the husband and wife, thus they can “re-marry” because they weren’t sacramentally married before.

If you are currently divorced and civilly remarried or divorced and thinking about remarrying, this post and the teachings of Christ and His Church aren’t meant to demoralize or shame you. They are meant to be a prompt to remedy the situation and enter back into “Communion” with Christ and His Church. God calls each of us to holiness, but holiness requires sacrifice. If you want to go ahead with the annulment process (and you reside in the Diocese of Pembroke), then please call Fr. Ryan Holly at Our Lady of Fatima, Renfrew (613-432-8525), because he is our judicial vicar and he oversees the annulment process in our diocese. If you want to know more about what actions to take, please talk to me. Some situations are more easily resolved than others, but no matter what mistakes have been made, God provides the grace to heal the wounds of all who turn to Him.

Scott Murray