Straight Answers for Divorced Catholics (Part 2)
Divorce: A Legal Fiction
Does the Church ever allow the faithful to seek a civil divorce?
Only for grave reasons, and only with the local bishop’s permission, may a Catholic do so. A civil divorce decree may be needed, for instance, after a justified separation in order for the innocent party to re-establish his or her property rights. Likewise, after obtaining a decree of nullity from the Church, the parties would need to procure a civil divorce in order to regain a legal status reflecting the fact that they are still free to marry. In truth, however, regardless of the court’s view of their history, such divorces are at best a sort of legal fiction. In the former case, the separated parties remain man and wife, and in the latter case (in which the supposed marriage was declared null) the two were never actually married to nor divorced from one another.
Every other Christian church allows its followers to divorce and remarry. Why does the Catholic Church refuse to accept this practice?
If any of those congregations were truly part of the one true Church established by Jesus Christ, they would teach and adhere to His plain command: “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matt. 19:6)
May a divorced person resume dating?
Yes, in the case of those whose prior “marriage” was found by a Church tribunal to be invalid. As their decree of nullity indicates, they are still free to marry, and therefore they are also free to keep company with prospective marriage partners.
But in the case of validly married divorced persons, it would be a mortal sin for them to keep company as if they were free to marry again. It would likewise be a mortal sin for a single person to keep company with a validly married divorced person.
Steady dating is licit only as a preparation for marriage. If the persons in question are not free to marry, dating would be for them not only a serious and unnecessary occasion of sin (and therefore a grave sin in itself), but also a scandal to the whole community (thus doubly sinful).
Doesn’t the innocent party in a failed marriage have a right to another chance at happiness in marriage?
Such persons are certainly in a difficult and unfortunate situation, but they should recall that they entered into an indissoluble union with their spouse — “for better, for worse, … until death” — solemnly promising never to think of another marriage while their true spouse was still alive.
They should consider also that this sacrifice is absolutely demanded of them by Our Lord, Who made the Sacrament of marriage to stand as a sign to the whole world of the unique and indissoluble union that He has established between Himself and His Mystical Body, the Church. (Cf. Eph. 5:22-32) He therefore demands of sacramental marriages that they be as unique and indissoluble as that divine alliance, for if Christian marriages could be terminated at will, they could not be held up as a symbol of the perfect union which exists between Christ and His Spouse, the Church.
How must validly married divorced Catholics behave toward persons who show a personal interest in them?
Most people in today’s society seem to consider divorced persons available for new relationships. Thus there will undoubtedly be individuals who are attracted to divorced Catholics, and who make known their desire to begin dating with them. These must be told at once that it is out of the question.
There may also be weak and unworthy Catholics who suggest to their divorced Catholic friends that they resume dating, and who even try to provide companions for them. These too must be reminded in no uncertain terms of Our Lord’s insistence that any attempted marriage after divorce from a valid, sacramental, consummated marriage is adultery. (They might add as well that any Catholic who suggests that they start keeping company is thereby guilty of a grave sin of scandal.)
Such a forthright line of conduct on the part of divorced persons will go far to repair any scandal that they themselves may have given through the failure of their marriage.
Sacramental Life of Divorced Catholics
Are all divorced Catholics necessarily excluded from receiving the Sacraments?
No. Certainly an innocent party in a divorce, who has accepted the ensuing burden of living celibately, should not allow himself to be troubled by an exaggerated sense of guilt. To separate (with the local bishop’s permission) from an unfaithful spouse; to secure one’s immediate safety, or the safety of one’s children, by separating (even before seeking the bishop’s permission); to have been abandoned or divorced by one’s legitimate spouse — these are hardships, not sins. In themselves, they present no reason for a person to consider himself excluded from the Church.
Any Catholic who has dutifully fulfilled the obligations of marriage, who has extended a willing offer to be reconciled with his or her true spouse (barring serious reasons against a reunion), and who has not taken up cohabiting with some new partner, should have no hesitation about continuing to receive the Sacraments, including Holy Communion, provided only that he first examine his conscience to ensure that he is in the state of grace.
Even in regard to the guilty party in a divorce, if he or she has made a good Confession of his sins, with true repentance and purpose of amendment, he should take care not to allow his feelings of guilt to go too far. Our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance as a means of assuring sinners of God’s forgiveness, and thereby bringing peace to our souls. After making a good Confession and embracing a celibate way of life in harmony with the Commandments, a divorced Catholic should cling to the certainty of God’s forgiveness. For such a person, the mere fact of being divorced is no barrier to the worthy reception of the Sacraments.
What is God’s will for validly married, but now separated or divorced Catholics?
Just as every marriage is unique, so are the circumstances of every failed marriage. In some cases, the sins of only one of the spouses led to the rupture, while in other cases both spouses share the blame.
Generally speaking, God wants the guilty person or persons to return to His grace by a good Confession. He or she should not be deterred by the past, thinking only of the irreparable damage caused by his failings, but rather should concentrate on rectifying his disposition at present and for the future, so as to receive God’s forgiveness. For this he need only be truly repentant and ready to make reparation for the offense given to his spouse and for the scandal given at large, and be willing to be reconciled with his spouse if that should become possible.
On what points should a validly married divorced Catholic concentrate in preparing to make a sacramental Confession?
First, since initiating divorce proceedings against one’s spouse without the permission of the bishop of the diocese is a gravely sinful matter, it is most often the case that one of the spouses needs to confess this sin. Other serious sins may have contributed to the breakup of the marriage, such as (as is often the case) a wife’s refusal, without a serious reason, to take part in the marriage act, or a husband’s negligence in providing for his family’s material support. One or both spouses will likely find some such failings in their conduct which contributed to their mutual alienation, for which they should seek God’s forgiveness through the absolution of a priest.
The penitent must also ensure that he or she approaches the Sacrament with a proper disposition toward his ongoing duties in the married state. A divorced Catholic whose lawful spouse is still living — who would be reaccepted by him or her, and for whom there is no danger in, or weighty reason against, resuming married life with that spouse — is bound to take whatever steps are necessary for a reconciliation. This is a matter of obligation on the part of both spouses, no matter who was responsible for their divorce.