Learn Your Faith: Matrimony and Annulment

Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to a group of Italian priests some years ago, encouraged parishes to continue to welcome divorced, civilly remarried Catholics to the celebration of Mass even though those Catholics may not receive Holy Communion.

The Pope’s address reminds us of the painful situation which exists for those Catholic parishioners who have been married “outside the Church”, or who have been married “in the Church” but have subsequently divorced and “remarried” “outside the Church”. Before we can begin to understand the issues involved we must clarify our terms. Being married “in the Church” does not mean being married in the building we call the church (although marriages ordinarily take place there). Rather, it refers to being married according to the law of the Church with the proper preparation, intention, vows, etc. All Catholics are obliged to follow the law of the Church regarding Matrimony if their marriage is to be considered valid in the eyes of the Church. Marriage “outside the Church” refers to any civil union apart from the law of the Church. The Church presumes that a marriage of two baptized Christians undertaken according to the law of the Church is sacramental, valid and permanent until proven otherwise.

Unfortunately, and all too often, marriages break down for any number of reasons. If an individual whose marriage has failed hopes to marry another person, the first marriage must be investigated to determine whether it was actually valid. The process of investigating a failed marriage in order to determine whether or not it was valid from
the beginning is called the annulment process. The annulment process does not terminate a marriage. It is not “Catholic divorce”. Rather, the process seeks to determine whether, in fact, all the conditions necessary for a valid marriage were present at the time of the wedding. If one or more conditions were not present, the marriage may be declared “null”, or invalid. In other words, while everything seemed to be in order, something actually was not. The annulment process declares that the Sacrament was never exchanged, not that is was somehow officially terminated. Some marriages may be declared “null” or invalid due to unseen circumstances at the time the marriage was attempted which made it impossible for the Sacrament of Matrimony to be exchanged. Other marriages submitted to the annulment process are determined to be valid even though they have broken down and there has been a civil divorce.

These marriages are permanently valid since “What God has joined man must not divide”. Because the Church presumes a marriage to be valid and permanent until proven otherwise, Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried without a declaration of nullity, i.e. who have married “outside the Church” may not receive Holy Communion because in essence they are living with someone who is not their spouse. This is the “particularly painful situation” to which the Pope referred in his address to the group of priests.

Furthermore, individuals in such an invalid marriage may not serve as godparents, nor may they receive the Sacrament of Confession unless they agree to live as brother and sister, i.e. to agree not to have sexual relations. The reason for this is that if a previous marriage is valid and the spouses are both still living, the Church considers that previous bond to be permanent until the death of one of the parties. In other words, the person who has entered a second union while a previous sacramental bond still exists is considered to be committing adultery.

The Pope went on to explain that two things must be kept in mind: Even if divorced, civilly remarried Catholics cannot receive the Eucharist, they are a part of the Church and are loved by Christ, and that suffering out of love for God and the Church is a “noble suffering”. While participating at Mass without receiving Communion is not optimal, it is “not the same as nothing”; it is involvement in the mystery of the cross and the resurrection of Christ.” Priests and parishioners must share the suffering of those excluded from the Eucharist, he said, but cannot act in a way that casts doubt on the unbreakable bond of marriage.

It is not possible to “bless” marriages contracted “outside the Church”. If a declaration of nullity has been granted, only then may an invalid marriage may be “convalidated”, i.e. undertaken according to the law of the Church.

(Source: Origins Aug. 10 and 18, vol. 35, numbers 10 and 11).

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