From a reader:
I (think) I have a tough question (“hagan lío”?):
Can a man and a woman, who validly embraced the Sacrament of Marriage 10 years ago and who STILL WANT to carry on living as husband and wife their indissoluble Catholic Marriage (which has already been blessed with three children) – can this couple get a civil divorce (excuse the pleonasm)?
“Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.”
Is not the Sacrament of Marriage a (indissoluble) “thing of God”. And is not civil marriage a (dissoluble) thing of Caesar?
If husband and wife have become unhappy, uncomfortable with their country’s civil law consequences for their civil marriage (namely the laws of succession ‘mortis causa’), can the couple get a civil divorce (while still remaining commited to a happy and indissoluble Catholic Marriage)? Would obtaining a civil divorce be – in any case – a grave sin?
GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE: by Fr. Tim Ferguson
Interesting question. The Church expects us to be good, law-abiding citizens. Matthew 22:21 (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”) is often cited as Our Lord’s command to be obedient to the legitimate civil authority in those areas where civil authority exercises legitimate authority. Even in the early Church, operating within the Roman Empire, which was hardly operating under Christian principles, the Fathers of the Church urged the faithful to be obedient to civil laws, as long as those laws did not violate the moral law or the demands of the Gospel.
Ideally, the Church and the State work together for the good of citizens, and there are clear lines between the Church’s realm and the State’s realm. Our history shows that, in reality, those lines often get blurred, often to the detriment of the Church (see, for example, Henry VIII of England, Joseph II of Austria, Otto von Bismarck of Germany)
The Church, which has been given authority over marriage, recognizes that the civil authorities have legitimate interest in marriage. Marriage is good for society. Stable commitments between one man and one woman provide many benefits to the civil order, not the least of which is the procreation and upbringing of adorable future taxpayers. Without surrendering her authority over marriage, the Church prefers to cooperate with the civil authority, and leaves to the civil government the regulation of certain aspects of marriage. Thus, in most countries around the world, a marriage in Church requires the possession of a civil marriage license. Some countries (for example France and Mexico) do not recognize the Church’s role in marriage. In these places, lamentably, couples are forced to go through two ceremonies – a civil one, and then an ecclesiastical one. This is not ideal, and we should never rest comfortably with situations like this – the Church should strive as much as possible to keep a good relationship with the State for many reasons.
When it comes to divorce, the Church does not recognize the right of the State to “end” marriage. Only the death of one of the spouses or, in certain extreme circumstances, the intervention of the Holy Father (exercising his authority as Vicar of Christ) can end marriage. That said, the Church is not naive, and recognizes divorce as a reality. While it does not end marriage, it does have certain effects on the lives of the faithful, and the Church leaves to the civil courts such matters as the division of assets, the custody of children, and so forth. Divorce is a bad thing. Choosing divorce when there are other options is a sinful thing – gravely sinful, considering the gravity of marriage. There are circumstances, such as spousal abuse (which no one should be forced to endure), that make choosing divorce a legitimate, and non-sinful option. Ideally, this is done after consultation with one’s pastor. The Church has a canonical process for seeking the bishop’s permission to separate and pursue a civil divorce. While some try to claim that this canonical process is mandatory, and filing for divorce without the bishop’s permission is wrong and sinful, this is not the teaching of the Church.
In recognizing the State’s legitimate interests in marriage, the Church also knows that sometimes, the State errs. In times past, some civil authorities had laws that restricted the real freedom that people have in choosing marital partners. In some places, persons of different “races” were not allowed to marry each other. In some places, slaves and free men were not allowed to marry. In some places, nobility were not allowed to marry common folk, or were required to obtain permission to marry. The Church has rejected those prohibitions and has authorized secret marriages not recognized by the civil authority because of the illegitimacy of these civil restrictions.
Yet, the Church recognizes that some restrictions the State puts on marriage are legitimate, and is reluctant to intervene. Only the bishop can permit secret marriages, and usually, the bishop is reluctant to do so if the restrictions put on by the State are legitimate. For example, an older couple, both widowed, wants to get married, but does not want to do so civilly because doing so would lessen or eliminate their respective pensions. The Church would be reluctant to grant permission for a secret marriage because pension law is something that the State has legitimate authority over. If the civil law is unduly harsh, the solution is to work to change the law, not to try and get the Church involved in circumventing the law. Laws regarding pensions, property, taxes, inheritance – these are all things over which the State has legitimate authority, and the Church respects that authority. If the laws are unjust, the Church urges the faithful (especially the lay faithful, since this is their proper sphere of activity) to work to change the laws and be good, law-abiding citizens, only engaging in civil disobedience in extreme cases.
So, getting to the point – can a Catholic married couple seek a civil divorce while remaining in their hearts and minds (and bed and board) still married because the inheritance laws of the State seem onerous? No.
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