Teaching on divorce: A quick primer

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 - Updated: 12:56 pm

QUESTION: I was with my adult grandchildren over the holidays, all of whom continue to say they are Catholic and yet they had no idea about what the Catholic Church teaches regarding divorce. They also have no clear idea of what annulments are. What’s the short answer?


ANSWER: There are really two questions given above. One is about why young Catholics don’t know more about their Catholic faith. That is a good question, but deserves an entire article. The other is about what the Catholic Church teaches about divorce.

In Luke’s Gospel we find these words: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The man who marries a woman divorced from her husband likewise commits adultery” (Luke 16:18; see also Matthew 5:32 and 19:9).

The church, therefore, feels bound to uphold these words of Christ. It is important, however, to have a clear understanding of what that teaching entails. Fundamental to any discussion of this topic is the distinction between a civil marriage and a sacramental marriage. In many countries, a couple marries in a civil ceremony and then goes to the church for the sacramental marriage.

In our country, every state has its own laws and statutes dealing with marriage. Therefore, couples may approach a civil official who has the right to witness marriages and “get married.” These civil marriages are recognized by the state, but they are not recognized by the Catholic Church as sacramental marriages. A sacramental marriage is one that takes place before a priest or deacon and two witnesses (which, with a marriage license, also becomes a valid civil marriage).

When couples seek a divorce, there is usually a civil process of some kind. The church acknowledges that divorce ends the civil marriage, but the church does not consider the divorce decree as ending the sacramental aspect of that marriage. Nor does it permit those who have civilly divorced to marry in the church unless the spouse dies or an annulment of that sacramental marriage is granted. The distinction between the civil and the sacramental is important.

A divorce is a civil decree that a marriage, once contracted, is now ended. An annulment is a church decree declaring that a sacramental marriage, thought to have existed, in fact, never did. A judgment regarding the annulment of a sacramental marriage is based upon various factors: for example, the knowledge and freedom of each of the parties, their intentions at the time of the marriage and their capacity to bring about what they intended.

Divorce declares an existing marriage ended; an annulment declares that a true sacramental marriage never existed. It is important to also note that the church understands that couples may seek a civil divorce to separate from one another and deal with possessions and property. However, in view of the sacrament, the church would consider those people still married and living separately.

Obtaining a civil divorce (without remarrying) neither excommunicates a person nor prevents a Catholic from receiving the Eucharist or being active in the life of his or her parish. Unfortunately, some have not clearly understood this teaching and have been told or felt that obtaining a divorce excluded them from the church’s sacraments. This is not true.


Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.

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