QUAERITUR: Is filing for divorce always a mortal sin? Fr. Z reveals a little known option for struggling spouses.

From a reader:

I had a wonderful marriage for the first 21 years. Now, my wife filed for divorce and I am being forced, by threat of law, to cooperate with it.

The Catechism calls divorce a “grave sin”. Does that mean every person who files for a divorce is living in mortal sin? I realize that is a general question and there are many “what if” scenarios–but what about the majority?

If that is true, I need to pray even harder for my wife’s soul!

Divorce is a terrible thing. Jesus spoke about divorce on a couple of occasions, notably Matthew 19: 1-12, wherein he says that divorce was permitted under the Mosaic Law because of the hardness of the human heart, but He indicated that to divorce and marry another was to commit adultery. He then praises the life of celibacy, but says that not everyone is called to celibacy.

The next incident in the Gospel is Jesus with the children – “let the children come to me.” I think there’s a logic to the progression of stories here, since few are more deeply affected by divorce than the children of a marriage.

The Church accepts and proclaims Jesus’ teaching about the permanence of marriage, the evil of divorce, and the need to care for children.

Nevertheless, as horrible as divorce is, there are worse things.

Someone who is living in an abusive marriage, for example, has every right to protect himself or herself (and the children!) and seek a separation. Someone whose spouse has been unfaithful has the right to seek a separation (can. 1152).

Canon law has a procedure called “separation while the bond remains“. Canons
1151-1155 outline the reasons and the logic behind the process. Canons
1692-1696 outline the process.

The basic principle is that when Catholic spouses marry, their promises are not only made to each other, but to the whole Church. Part of the promise made is the promise to live together. If a Catholic wants to break that promise – even if he has a good reason for doing so – he should seek permission from the bishop. The bishop (through his tribunal or some duly appointed canonical judge) hears the story, attempts to broker some sort of reconciliation if that is possible, and if not, permits the separation and may permit the parties to seek a civil divorce (can. 1692, 2).

This process is not well-known, and is little used for a number of reasons.

Some attribute the lack of use of this procedure to ill-will on the part of bishops. There are even organizations that rail against their bishops for their failure to promote and provide for this process.

The reality is more complex.

In the 1970’s, when states began promoting laws permitting no-fault divorce, the Church was blindsided. The Church should have stood up strongly in opposition to this. Our failure to resist this major civil redefinition of marriage weakened the Church’s voice when it’s come to current attempts to redefine marriage.

The flood of divorces, including Catholic divorces, that happened in the 70’s overwhelmed the Catholic diocesan tribunal system, which was also grappling with a new Code of Canon Law, issued in 1983. From handling a few dozen cases a year in the 60’s, some tribunals were faced with hundreds of petitions a year. Some say that this led to a “rubber stamp” approach as tribunals tried to clear the cases quickly, without attending to the demands of the law and justice.

The reality is, again, more complex.

In any event, the procedure for canonical separation has been infrequently used in recent years. Many Catholics – many parish priests! – don’t even know about it.

Within the law itself, there is a provision (can. 1153) permitting a spouse who feels he or the children are in “grave danger of soul or body” to separate on his own authority, “if there is danger in delay.” There are no parameters established for deciding what would be considered “grave danger of soul or body,” or “danger in delay” – it entirely rests on the conscience of the spouse seeking to separate.

Since few Catholics are even aware of their ability to seek the assistance of the Church in determining whether they should separate or not.  I am informed that there are instances of Catholics attempting to follow the process who have been, sadly, rebuffed by their pastor or even by their diocesan tribunal.  You can hardly fault a Catholic who separates on his own authority if he doesn’t know that he really should seek permission from the bishop first.

Circling back, is divorce “grave matter”?  Without question. Are all those who seek a divorce committing mortal sin? No. There could be a good reason for doing so, even doing so without first seeking ecclesiastical permission.

Remember another point: one of your chief obligations as a married person is to help your spouse get to heaven.  Even where there is a divorce, one should maintain one’s obligation to pray for one’s spouse even when the spouse abandoned the common life.  Moreover, it can be spiritually dangerous to speculate about whether one’s former spouse has committed sin or not. Ultimately, that’s in his or her conscience. Obsessing about it can be a sin of the dangerous sin of pride. Such speculation can inhibit one’s ability to do the painful, but necessary work of one’s own examination of conscience.

Pray for your spouse, certainly, but make the prayer brief, simply entrusting her to the Lord. Don’t try and figure out if she’s committed sin or not.  That’s not your job.

If you have children, even if those children are adults, put your focus on them. They are surely the most wounded by the whole situation. DON’T put them in a position where they have to choose between mom or dad. Tell them you love them, encourage them to seek pastoral help (or even psychological help if that’s needed, and it often is), don’t say negative things about your spouse to them.

I will keep the combox open, but I switched on the moderation queue.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. cheezwiz says:

    Very, very helpful post!! As one who went thru a long separation after which a 25 year marriage was reconciled, I can really appreciate the clarity offered here. May I also suggest that anyone experiencing a sudden change in an otherwise good marriage consider an undiagnosed medical condition? My other half had, over the years, developed extremely severe sleep apnea that we were unaware of. It manifested itself first in an extreme personality change, which resulted in abusive behavior. We separated (actually with the encouragement of my rather conservative parish priest, who knew us well & feared for my safety) and after nearly a year I was ready to file.

    Around that time, my other half had developed a “benign” heart rhythm issue. Then, a fell down an entire flight of stairs, breaking hip, shoulder & hitting head, which caused a small brain hemorrhage. The sleep apnea, which was finally diagnosed during that two-month hospital stay, had affected the heart to the extent that it would stop from time to time and likely caused the fall.

    Now, 5 years later, with treatment for the sleep apnea, all is well in our home again. The only long lasting effects are some residual sadness for those months of separation and a lot of extra time at airport security while they deal with all the metal it took to fix those fractures!

  2. mamajen says:

    Our failure to resist this major civil redefinition of marriage weakened the Church’s voice when it’s come to current attempts to redefine marriage.


    There’s a joke among the same sex marriage crowd that goes like this: “I’m sorry that my gay marriage threatens the sanctity of your third marriage.” Ugh. And, sadly, they have a point.

    This was a great post. Prayers to the person who is struggling with this situation. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who try to do the best they can with the cards they are dealt.

  3. Mark of the Vine says:

    Fr. Z, in the case that someone is legally forced to divorce (but does not want to), can they continue to receive Holy Communion after the divorce?

    [Yes, provided that you are in the state of grace. That means that it would be necessary in a serious and deep examination of conscience to identify your own role in the divorce being forced on you.]

  4. Tim Ferguson says:

    Yes – divorce itself doesn’t prohibit a person from reception of Holy Communion. Even the person who files for divorce isn’t prohibited from receiving Holy Communion, for that reason alone (there certainly good be issues of sin, especially if the person files for divorce frivolously, or in order to pursue an extramarital relationship).
    There is a common misconception out there that divorce renders a person unable to receive Communion. That’s not the case. The issue, generally speaking, is divorce and remarriage – and more to the point, any marriage that takes place outside the Church (without a dispensation) – those in irregular marriages should not be receiving Holy Communion.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    Fr. Z said it better!

  6. Gregg the Obscure says:

    This is sadly timely for a couple that I know. I don’t know the details – and I don’t care to as they are absolutely none of my business – but I am confident this decision wasn’t taken lightly. Please pray for P family, the husband, wife and three children.

  7. Tantum Ergo says:

    I was told by the tribunal 27 yrs ago that I had to get a divorce before my petition for annulment could even be heard, because that would show irreconcilable differences. They said that civil divorce had to do with legal division of property, and was separate and distinct from anything sacramental.

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Reminder, the Church permits divorce for a number of situations including some that sound odd, like, protecting inheritance. See CCC 2383. What is not permitted is remarriage after simple divorce.

  9. Gail F says:

    I know two women whose husbands left them, and one woman who left her husband, via “no fault divorce” — and we don’t even have it in our state. However, (so I’m told) lawyers advise not to fight a divorce because it’s not worth it, as most judges act as if we have it anyway and supposedly the spouse who left will be more likely to be nice in the settlement. In CA, one of the women told me, the divorce papers can just come in the mail and there’s nothing at all you can do about it. People I’ve spoken to about this say, “if your spouse wanted to leave, why would you fight? Why would you want to force someone to stay with you if he/she wants to go?” Because it’s your whole LIFE, that’s why. Among other reasons.

  10. VexillaRegis says:

    cheezwiz: I was going to point out the same thing! :-) A friend of mine had been happily married for 30 years, when his wife wanted to divorce him. She was very angry and adamant. He didn’t understand what had happened until she told him, that she had stopped taking her thyroid medication…
    Very sad indeed.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    The Catholic Church being the deposit of wisdom as well as faith has recognized annulments for very good and dire reasons. One must be divorced to obtain an annulment. I think there is way too many judgmental attitudes among those who have the blessings of happy marriages, especially in the rad-trad groups. Sadly, in some countries and states, one must be divorced to get custody of a child. And, one must have custody papers to get hospital care or insurance for a child. Many states in America have these custody rules in order to even go into specialized clinics. Those who have not faced tragedies should not judge on such vague things as intention or lack of perseverance. Also, as mentioned above, if a spouse has experienced the abandonment of a husband or wife, that may indicate deeper problems which will result in a divorce and even an annulment. That was my case, as we were abandoned.

    I myself was in a separation agreement for over ten years and went through the diocesan offices of marriage counseling to have reconciliation. I also talked with a monsignor about the details more than once in the beginning, although not the bishop, who was aware of the case, as he had married us. However, it takes two to want such, not one. And, the other party did not want to take part in reconciliation talks. So, after many years, understanding finally that the reasons for separation were not changing and that reconciliation was not an option, I finally filed for divorce and finally received an annulment from the Church. God is merciful. Looking back after many years, this was the correct thing to do. I did have some input from the diocese, thank God, but not all things end the way one would want.

    The hardest thing to face is the fact of annulment, in which the Church decides that there was never a sacramental marriage. That is a huge step to take and one where a person must be very honest. Thankfully, again, one has support from the Church in these matters and is not left on one’s own to sort all things out.

    May I add that in some cases, a separation and even a divorce can be better for a child or children depending on the situation. With the culture in such a crisis, it does not surprise me that so many people have difficulties in living out the sacrament of marriage. Also, we were not being supported properly, which is why some women divorce, as separation agreements do not give rights to child-support. People forget that. Also, I did not get alimony, only the minimum of child support, even after going to court for this, as I could, ostensibly, make more money than the ex, as the court ruled. I chose no-fault divorce instead of putting a vulnerable person through details.

    As to praying for ex-spouses, yes, but not at length. Fr. Z, you are so right about the short prayers. Just holding someone up to God is enough. And, of course, one forgives and that may take more than one time in prayer. But, one does.

    Such a process is extremely painful. One must be willing to be painfully honest in details. I would never want anyone to go through what I did.

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for your excellent answer to this question. I hope that your discussion not only allows peace to come to some people, but causes others to reflect on how they may be judging single moms, as I was one for 15 years of child-raising the child all by myself as separated, but in reality, 22 years, as the ex could not handle children. Hence, the moniker, Supertradmum, as I worked and home schooled and ran an orthodox house. Without grace, nothing is possible, but with grace, all is possible.

    I share these things only to help others. And, to encourage those who have never experienced such pain as betrayal and abandonment to be a bit more understanding of the crosses many have to bear. One must remember that we are here on earth for a short time and all things lead to God’s glory both failures and successes.

  12. cwillia1 says:

    This raises an interesting question. Spouses have an obligation to maintain conjugal life but how does that relate to civil divorce? A couple could divorce and still live together as man and wife. Indeed, they seem to have an obligation to do so which civil divorce can’t abrogate. A couple who have separated and have been civilly divorced could resume conjugal life. Would they have any obligation to remarry civilly?

  13. OrthodoxChick says:

    Fr. Z. said, “Since few Catholics are even aware of their ability to seek the assistance of the Church in determining whether they should separate or not. ”

    On the flipside of divorce, there is another wonderful thing that marriage tribunals handle and many Catholics seem unaware of this as well. When a couple is preparing for marriage, if there are still several months to go before the wedding (because this takes a little time to do), the couple can contact their Diocesan tribunal to request an apostolic blessing on their marriage. There is no cost to receive the blessing from Rome. The only cost involved (at least this was the case in the Diocese of Providence 16 years ago when I was married) is to pay for the certificate that you would like in order to display the apostolic blessing proudly in your home. The D. of Prov. used to have several different certificates to choose from and they ranged in price from very simple and budget-friendly to very elaborate (and a bit less budget-friendly). All of the certificates are suitable for framing.

    It’s very beautiful and it really drives home the point of the sacredness of the Sacrament of Matrimony for both the couple and all of their guests, when the priest who marries you is able to present you and your spouse with an apostolic blessing of your sacred covenant on your wedding day (or for an anniversary, if you are having an anniversary Mass).

    Our marriage was Blessed by Pope John Paul II.

    And also another little known fact related to this is that the Chancery also has certificates that can be sent to Rome to request an apostolic blessing for a priest. I think this would make a beautiful gift for a priest celebrating his silver or golden jubilee. We gave one to our last pastor for his silver jubilee and after he passed away a few years later (and since he did not live long enough to celebrate his golden jubilee) his brother kept the apostolic blessing and still displays it in his own home to this day.

  14. AvantiBev says:

    “In the 1970?s, when states began promoting laws permitting no-fault divorce, the Church was blindsided. The Church should have stood up strongly in opposition to this. Our failure to resist this major civil redefinition of marriage weakened the Church’s voice when it’s come to current attempts to redefine marriage”
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Father Z!!

    I work for lawyers practicing what is euphemistically termed “family law”. In the past 18 years I have heard from several men and women clients that no-fault divorce felt like they were stood in the middle of the train tracks with a locomotive bearing down on them and nothing to do about it.

    The majority of my Catholic cousins are divorced and now the majority of their children, my second cousins, are divorcing. We pray quite rightly for children in danger of being aborted but seldom do I hear a priest preach on the BORN children who are having their family life aborted.

    I wish Malachi “I hate divorce, sayeth the Lord” were preached much more often. Our society can not endure much more out -of-wedlock births and divorces. A fatherless society or a father-as – visitor-with-support-check society cannot prosper.

    Thank you and keep posting on this subject whenever you can.

  15. AnnAsher says:

    I am relieved to read that the Church does indeed have this process available. I never understood how it made sense that Catholic couples would seek that annulment after the fact of a civil divorce considering the Sacramental bond. I thought the Church should have a means of discernment assistance and a manner of approaching separation. It just makes sense.
    It is profoundly correct that the victims of divorce are the children. I think that regardless of the best attempts on the parts of parents, children feel torn and are forced to grieve the loss of their family. It is good to bear that in mind and weigh it against even the provided “valid reasons” for separation.

  16. Cathy says:

    I agree with the determination that, at times, civil divorce is necessary for the good of the spouse and the children. That being said, civil law has moved quite a ways away from recognizing the good of children in a manner that reflects the vision of the Church, and civil law can be quite cruel in its determination of what is best for the child and may actually stand in opposition of good reason in its determination of custody and spousal support. In an age where so-called same-sex relationships have been granted not simply a status of “equal”, but a status deserving fiduciary reward in the face of opposition, the child runs the risk of being seen as a just reward as well. There is a particular risk factor in our society, where, your good reason for protecting your child, in the civil courts, may become their determinant reason for granting custody of said child to that spouse.

  17. Navigator says:

    I am very sorry to hear of your reader’s news, and his family can be assured of my prayers.

    I write with, sadly, personal experience of this process here in the United Kingdom. Here in England in place of seeking a civil divorce, one can seek, and be granted, a judicial separation rather than a divorce (on the same ‘no-fault’ basis). It is extremely rare, so much so that a Monsignor with whom my wife and I sought assistance had never heard of it. I do not know whether the Church (or God) treats those who seek a judicial separation differently from those who seek a divorce.

    Another writer also mentions that the Church does not permit remarriage after a ‘simple’ divorce – I presume on the basis of the public nature of the act. I regret to say that I have found that there are very different and divergent attitudes in England amongst the clergy and laity, with a majority seeming to have views that differ from the Catechism. Regrettably, there is an almost uniform unwillingness to act or to speak out against divorce itself, or other related grave matters – the Church seems to have lost its moral authority in this regard. In particular I have in mind the circumstance of married but separated (divorced) persons publicly carrying on a relationship with a third party, but short of remarrying or permanently cohabiting; and perhaps more importantly, the effect on the children of a marriage who may be witnessing this behaviour which is public to them, albeit in their own home or at Mass with a parents – in the former case in terms of their emotional development, and the latter in terms of their spiritual development. I am finding it very difficult to resolve the answers to some of these questions.

  18. Rynodog13 says:

    Thank you Father Z for taking on this issue that is so often ignored. One lie that we must shine a light on is that divorce equals merely civil divorce. Much as we are now allowing our secular culture to define marriage, we long ago allowed our secular culture to define divorce. Our Catechism, however, gives us the true definition of “divorce” in its Glossary. Divorce is “The claim that the indissoluble marriage bond validly entered into between a man and a woman is broken.” This “claim” can happen in the heart. Just as I can be an adulterer by lusting after someone I am not married to even though I haven’t actually committed the physical act of adultery. Just as I can be a murderer by hating someone so much that I want them dead even though I haven’t pulled the trigger. I can “divorce” my spouse by claiming in my heart that I am no longer married to them. This is ALWAYS a “grave offense against the natural law.” It is in effect saying, “Sure God joined us but I claim I am no longer joined!

    While divorce is ALWAYS a grave offense against the natural law, there are rare times when a civil divorce can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.
    “If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense. ” (CCC 2383)
    In times when a separation is morally licit a civil divorce may be tolerated if civil protections are needed and a civil divorce is the “ONLY POSSIBLE WAY” of ensuring these protections.

    Perhaps taking an example will help to clarify all of this. Let’s say that Mel is getting drunk every night and throwing beer bottles at his wife Sally and their childen. [Hang on. Isn’t it Sally who is getting drunk and throwing the bottles?] Sally may take the children and move into a safer place. Let’s say that Mel insists on following them and continuing to get drunk and throw beer bottles. Sally needs civil protections. If there is NO OTHER WAY of obtaining these civil protections then a civil divorce “can be tolerated” and does NOT “constitute a moral offense.”
    If, however, a civil divorce is NOT the “only possible way” of providing these protections then a civil divorce can NOT be tolerated and DOES constitute a moral offense.

    The vast majority of states in the United States (44 or 45) have a Legal Separation alternative to civil divorce that provides the exact same protections… except it does not claim to give freedom to the spouse to “marry” someone else.

    So… if Sally is in a state where there is a legal separation alternative that would provide the necessary protections… her civil divorce can NOT “be tolerated.”

    You may ask why, what is the big difference, why would the Church tolerate a legal separation without tolerating a civil divorce??? There is a huge difference. The one who is civilly divorced is surrounded by people (often times Protestant friends and family and even catholic friends and family) who will start to treat them as though they are no longer married. They will create a god who surely does not ask the civilly divorce spouse to carry such a heavy cross of remaining faithful to the sinful spouse. This god wants you to “move on” “recover and then find someone who will make you happy.” It is so much easier then for the devil to trap you in the next lie that you are no longer married. This is the “grave offense” of divorce, claiming that you are no longer married.

    This then allows the devil to trap you in the next lie that you can begin to date someone else.

    Anyway, Father Z, keep shining the light on the dark culture of death that these divorce lies are hiding in. God bless you!!

    Yours in the Precious Blood,

  19. BLB Oregon says:

    I have been told that there have been jurisdictions where civil filings had to precede any official Church action, due to laws on the books about alienation of affection. Is that true? I was taught in high school that filing for a divorce in the absence of grave reasons was a mortal sin, so that in that case a person would not receive Holy Communion, but that when the reason was grave it could sometime be morally permissible and in those cases not a sin at all. The counsel was to find out what one’s situation was before filing for divorce, as part of the normal moral discernment undertaken as a matter of course before doing anything so serious, rather than filing and then running the situation by a priest to see if it was a mortal sin or not! I had never heard of this other official process. I’ll have to ask one of the local monsignors what the situation is in our archdiocese. (I wish I had a dime for every time someone asked me this kind of question and did not want to go ask a priest, out of embarrassment–and we have such easy to approach pastors, too!)

  20. MarkJ5621 says:

    The church REQUIRES a divorce before it will even start the annulment process? Really?

    If so, does the person in charge at the diocese do anything to try to help the marriage or do they just say “go get a divorce and come back”? I know my wife talked to the annulment people a few weeks before she filed for divorce. Now I am wondering if she is filed for divorce because she wants an annulment! If all this is true then there is something REALLY, REALLY wrong with this policy!!!

    Fr. Z., can you help me understand WHY the church does this? In my case, I think this policy is encouraging my wife to divorce me!!! I am probably missing some important point here. What is it?

  21. MarkJ5621 says:

    Answering my own question . . .

    I’ve been doing some research and it turns out that . . .

    Yes, indeed, every diocese in the United States REQUIRES a civil divorce before accepting a petition for nullity. Not only that, there is no one who is “officially” responsible for helping marriages in the diocese. The parish priest is really the only source of help for someone trying to defend their marriage from a spouse who wants to “end” the marriage. We all know there are some very good priests and some very bad ones. In my case, he just said “I heard your wife is filing for divorce.”–that was it!!!

    It seems logical that the tribunals would be the place for the church to step in and say “Let’s do what we can to resolve your marital issues before you even talk about divorce or annulment”. They could discuss the statistics of second marriages failing, the economic impact to the spouses and, most importantly, the horrible effects on the children–and whatever else they think might help. It just seems like SOMEONE in the church should be trying to help the spouses!!!

    In my case, I am becoming convinced that this policy pushed my wife to file for divorce. She wants to marry her new “love interest” and wants the church to “sanction” the marriage so she needs an annulment. The church says “no annulment without a divorce” so she is just following the procedure. I suspect that my case is not so unique??? Has anyone else experienced this?

    Fr. Z–please respond and tell me what I am missing. This CAN’T really be what is going on, can it?

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