ASK FATHER: I still wonder if my first marriage was “real”.

Life is messy, my dear readers.  We make mistakes.  We get get up.  We go forward, living with the consequences as best we may.  God sees clearly the whole truth and cannot be fooled about anything.  We, on the other hand, have to struggle along, working things through as best we can in the tangle of our minds – and hearts – with the help of the authority of the Church which God graciously gave us.

From a reader:

I was married at age 22 – I was not Catholic but my husband was and we were married in the Catholic church by a priest. The marriage lasted 5 years. I went to counseling when we started having problems, but he refused to go.

The one time he did go, he just sat there and refused to participate. It felt like a one-sided marriage and so we divorced relatively amicably. I tried for several years afterward to reconcile with him, but he was not interested. When he started dating again, I rushed into a marriage to someone else out of frustration and retaliation. It was doomed from the start and when he started sleeping around on me in the first 4 months, I divorced him. Several years later I was living with a man that was Catholic and we wanted to get married and so I converted to Catholicism and started the process to get married in the Church by having my first two marriages annulled.

It took over a year for the annulments to be granted, and in the meantime we broke up. In order to finalize the annulments, I had to pay a large sum of money which I did not have, so I didn’t do anything about it. I lost faith in the Catholic church for many years and started going to a non-denominational mega church where I met and married a wonderful Protestant man. After 6 years of marriage, I came back to the Catholic church. I paid the fee to have my annulments finalized and my husband and I had our marriage convalidated by my priest. So technically I am in full communion with the church. But I still somehow think that my first marriage is still my “real” marriage and that I am still living in sin. What is your opinion?

First things first. Don’t be unduly troubled in your conscience. You followed the prescriptions of the Church’s law.  It took a while, but you eventually followed them.  Your current marriage is now recognized by the Church as a valid and binding sacramental marriage. Hopefully, there is evidence of grace active in your marriage.  You and your spouse are growing closer to each other and closer to Christ.  I hope you pray together.  Keep constantly before your mind’s eye, your sacred obligation to do everything you can to get each other into heaven.

In life we often are beset by regrets and “what ifs” about our pasts.  For the most part, these are temptations put in our way by Satan to confuse, to befuddle, to lead us away from our lives in the hic et nunc, the here and now.  Make a regular confession and receive the Blessed Sacrament regularly.  That’s the best prescription for the “what ifs”.

That said, note carefully that “for the most part”, above.  Sometimes our regrets are legitimate. Deep down, only God and the individual know for certain.

Were you completely honest when providing your testimony for the marriage nullity cases?  What are the reasons you still think of your first attempt at marriage as “real”?  [Don’t answer that here, of course.]  The staff at a marriage tribunal can only judge a case based on the evidence provided.  If important evidence was withheld, some testimony unduly slanted, it is possible that an incorrect decision was made.  The Church does not invest its tribunals with infallibility.

So, if after all this, you still truly plagued by doubts, the best thing to do would be to sit down with a good, experienced priest, ideally a canonist (that is, trained in canon law), though that is not a deal breaker.  Say a prayer to the Holy Spirit before you meet with him.  Explain your concerns, your doubts, and your thoughts. Lay it all out before him.  Answer honestly the questions he may ask.  Then, trust what he has to say. If he says, “Don’t worry.  You’ve done everything correctly.  You can rest easy in the validity of your current marriage,” then, whenever those doubts come creeping back, you can banish them with a clear conscience.

(The combox moderation queue is on.)

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Priam1184 says:

    “More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I the Lord alone probe them mind and test the heart and judge each according to his deeds. (Jer. 17 9-10)”

    This item made me think of this reading that we heard at Mass this morning. Father gives really good advice here and I would advise the reader to follow it to the best of their ability and I wish her well. These are hard things.

  2. lana says:

    God bless that lady and her efforts to have a clear conscience before God!

  3. BLB Oregon says:

    Feelings of guilt are a great gift, they really are, but they have to be understood as a smoke alarm. Sometimes they “go off” when there is no fire, or keep going off after the fire has gone out. Sometimes there is a fire, and the smoke detector isn’t triggered. The thing to do when you have feelings of guilt or indications that you have engaged in wrong-doing that doesn’t cause you guilt is to examine your conscience. Where you find sin, repent, resolve to amend, confess, and accept absolution. Where you find something else, such as regret or doubt or sympathy for someone who is going through suffering or a sad situation out of your control, see it for what it is, and try to treat it accordingly. Otherwise, if you respond to guilt by simply beating yourself up, you’re acting as if you think a fire will go out faster if you allow the smoke alarm to keep blaring. Leave the batteries in, but it is OK to hit the button and stop the noise.

  4. LarryW2LJ says:

    Obviously, the lady who wrote this letter “cares” and has a conscience. Those that do, often find themselves in the position where they ask themselves, “Did I do enough?” We (I am guilty of doing this myself) tend to foist all the responsibility upon ourselves. Excellent, advice as always, Fr. Z.

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