ASK FATHER: Is divorce a sin? Should I confront priest who said it isn’t?

From a reader…

A local, newly Ordained, Priest has told my wife that it is NOT a sin to divorce me so long as she does not remarry. I believe that it is a sin to divorce since there is no abuse, physical or emotional, no addictions on my end, etc… Should I confront this priest or is he correct?

First, I don’t know what the priest said, and it sounds like you don’t either.  You should ask the priest what exactly he said.  Note: I said “ask” not “confront”.  The priest may respond that he is not free to say. So confronting the priest may not provide opportunity to clarify the matter.  More on that later.

Now to another point.

Is divorce a sin?

The Catholic Church certainly seems to think so.

“But Father!  But Father!”, ….

SHHH!  Be still for a moment.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2383 says:

“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.”

But wait! There’s more!

Par. 2384 says:

“Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death…Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society.”

Canon law has a little known 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.

There are certain times and situations that warrant drastic measures.

Divorce is always awful. It means that an attempt to build a bond of marriage failed. Yet, there are situations and circumstances that warrant a couple separating and even seeking a civil divorce.

Sometimes these circumstances are apparent to one spouse, and not at all apparent to the other.

What damage “no fault” divorced caused, back when!

It is impossible for me to diagnose from afar the situation mentioned by the questioner.  I can’t determine if there is a need for a divorce or if one party is committing sin either by seeking a divorce where none is warranted, or behaving in such a manner that the other spouse thinks divorce is the only recourse.

But please note well: The interlocutor brings up the notion of “confronting” the newly ordained priest about his advice to the young woman.

Instead of “confronting” the priest, who allegedly told your wife that it’s not sinful to divorce, perhaps the best thing to do would be to seek out some spiritual guidance for yourself. Seek some objective feedback about your situation.  Pray for your wife!  Pray for your whole family if you have children.  Ask the intervention of the Holy Family. Trust the Lord.


I see I have to turn on the moderation queue. I should have done that from the onset, I suppose.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Justalurkingfool says:

    From the context of this question the potential divorce involved is HIS marriage.

    Unless HE has placed his wife in credible danger, the priest should have asked him and inquired of his wife how to contact her husband BEFORE he dispensed such inflammatory and dangerous advice. The priest also should have advised the wife to contact her bishop to speak with him. The priest should have said nothing without both sides having been heard in the absence of credible danger.

    I would ask the priest what my wife told him AFTER I would inquire with my wife what she told him.

    The Catholic priest who advised my wife to divorce me, knew me reasonably well. He had been our parish priest. He knew we had little children. He advised my wife to divorce me because he thought she could get an annulment and had to divorce me to seek one. He never told me what my wife said to him. He would not intervene on behalf of our marriage when I asked him to, near tears, when I finally learned of his involvement. He sponsored my wife’s petition for nullity without seeking verification for what it said. He hung up on me as I pleaded with him to reconsider what he had done.


    This man needs to know what may be coming his way. It is injustice to leave him unprepared for what divorce does and means. This is not a game. If these people have children, they will likely be shredded before too long, as our children were and to a great extent, still are a quarter of a century later.


  2. lana says:

    if you have reason to think your marriage is null, and your spouse has left you for several years, is it ok to seek divorce?

  3. ConstantlyConverting says:

    The annulment process always assumes in favor of the marriage (since people said yes in front of witnesses) although obviously a marriage either is or is not, assumptions aside.

    Spiritual direction is the place to start. One can never change another person, only himself. “It is God who reconciles.” Card Sarah

    Pray for a soft heart. A soft heart for your spouse and God’s will.

    Divorce is sad :( I’m sorry. Prayers.

  4. We don’t know the question the priest was asked, to which he gave the alleged answer. And of course, we don’t know what the priest answered, only what the wife said he said.

    The husband and wife might profitably meet with the priest together.

  5. drohan says:

    Good Advice Fr. Fox.

    Of course if they are having difficulties in their marriage, she has everything to gain by saying what she said. Always consider what the person has to gain by their remarks.

    This couple needs our prayers. I pray for the intercession of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. Hopefully they will be guided by Our Lord who will lead them back to a healthy relationship.

  6. Toan says:

    I imagine the priest shouldn’t object to meeting both spouses here.

    I have seen cases where an upset woman would drastically warp truth in arguments against a spouse or other close family member. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case here.

  7. Justalurkingfool says:

    When relationships have deteriorated to the point where one or both spouses is considering divorce, often, reality has already been altered for one or both of them and recollections may mirror their perceptions and their desires as much as objective facts. It becomes essential that only experienced individuals with a history of commitment to an authentically Catholic understanding of marriage have anything to do with marriages at “critical mass”. Particularly, when there are children involved the damage is potentially catastrophic, for them and for a spouse who does not want to “give up” on their marriage.

    Much has to change in the way the Catholic Church addresses marriages in crisis whether the crisis is new or long standing, regardless of a divorce or no divorce. Without drastic changes all other talk is empty.


  8. Imrahil says:

    There are actions a Catholic (and any person) may never do, must die rather than commit, etc. By the classical terminology, these and only these are “intrinsically evil”. They are always bad regardless of circumstances. Remarriage would be an example, as clearly taught by St. Paul (though some question whether that applies to the particular “marriage”-act with such a remarriage itself repented-of).

    Then there are others which are in themselves right, but may be evil for the reason for which they are done. Say, purchasing a weapon. That’s clear too. They are generally good but may be rendered evil by circumstances.

    However, at least if we rest down-to-Earth and as we would usually talk about things, there is – I’d say – a somewhat overlooked third category of actions which are generally bad but may be excused by circumstances. They should be “legal, safe and rare”, but by no means done in the spirit “it’s allowed so why not do it”. And it is right here that we’d have to sort non-remarriage divorce. (Without particular knowledge of the matter, I might suspect that, e. g., spanking minors by their parents belongs here to. Or, say, saying really rude expletives which, however, have nothing to do with the 2nd commandment nor aim at offending people.)

  9. Amateur Scholastic says:

    It’s not just priests — see this disgraceful report about a very well-known and established Catholic online forum, which I used to think was excellent:

    And see other reports on the same blog.

  10. Gerard Plourde says:

    Fr. Z’s cautious approach is well warranted. We have insufficient facts to know what is going on in the marriage that form the basis of the priest’s counsel. It is quite possible that a defect in intention on the part of one or both parties indicates that no valid marriages exists and that the priest is aware of this situation. If this is the case, then civil divorce is a necessary preliminary step in the process of having the Church rule on the validity of the bond. No tribunal that I know of will consider a case before a civil decree of divorce has been obtained. The purpose of the annulment process is to determine whether a “contact, to which the spouses freely consented” described in Par. 2384 exists. Given that the wife is consulting with her parish priest before initiating any process speaks both to the seriousness with which she regards the matter and the level of doubt she has concerning her marriage’s validity. It also serves to highlight the difference between the legal institution of marriage as regualted by civil law and the Sacrament of Matrimony. If the marriage tribunal decrees that no vaild sacramental marriage existed, then dissolution of the civil bond through divorce would most likely not be a situation contemplated or governed by Par. 2383 or 2384.

    Sadly, while the idea of having both parties meet with the priest may not be possible. Again, we do not know the circumstances. Suppose, for example. there is domestic violence in the relationship. In such a case, any proposed meeting has the potential of danger to the participants and possibly to bystanders completely unrelated to the matter.

    For my part, I will pray for all concerned.

  11. Peregrinator says:

    Even separation is a sin if there isn’t a serious reason. Spouses have a right to the common life and to the conjugal life.

  12. JoAnna says:

    Since the Church teaches that civil divorce may sometimes be permitted, then it is not objectively sinful, right? That is, it may be sinful based on the circumstances involved, but it isn’t an objective sin (in the sense that it is always wrong regardless of the circumstances, like abortion or contraception). Perhaps that is what the priest meant?

  13. Imrahil says:

    Dear JoAnna,

    that’s why I, in my comment above (not yet moderated), spoke of a “third category”. You’re right, but to better grasp in popular language what “depending on the circumstances” means in such a case, I think we had better treat it as wrong generally and excusable exceptionally.

  14. Supertradmum says:

    Some of us have been through the horrible pain of divorce and the annulment process. I have. One of the things to remember is that the entire society has been anti-marriage for a long time, and there are few aids for the single mom and children in a parish. One is absolutely judged and marginalized except by the few who bother to see human beings and not statistics behind divorce and annulment. I have suffered much negativity, and much pandering from liberals as well.

    Sadly, not all people can or should be married now in our cultures. Too many people are wounded by the evil in their families and it may take heroic virtue to deal with marriage. One cannot be married to someone who does not want to be married as one thought, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

    Some women, and even some men, have been abandoned by their husbands or wives, and sometimes it is necessary to have legal recourse to getting help for the children.

    I was in a “separation agreement” legally for over nine years before beginning divorce and annulment proceedings. I agonized over these decisions and had no real spiritual or physical help as I had to go through all of this, basically on my own. My decision, finally, I placed in the hands of Holy Mother Church, trusting that the Holy Spirit would guide the annulment board in England to see what God wanted. Details were fairly clear. But, the liberal priests were not helpful in sorting out my situation, and I did not have the ability to meet with any trad ones, being thousands of miles, literally, from a trad priest. Ultimately, one must take these things to prayer and really search out one’s own sins, one’s own desires, and so on. My major concern was for the welfare of my son in all of these proceedings, as I am sure it is for most single moms.

    But, I caution priests from speaking to those who turn around and judge those of us who have had to endure such suffering. The trads are the worst for judging men and women who have had to go through the examination of a bond one honestly thought on the day of the wedding was for life.

    The Church is absolutely correct, of course, in Her holy stand on marriage. It is one of the great sadnesses in my life that I was not allowed to fulfill this vocation. But, God uses all events for His glory, even the tragedy of a failed, or non-marriage.

  15. catholictrad says:

    I’ve seen quite a bit of this issue. A friend of mine sinned against his wife, having fallen away from the Church in Afganistan. His wife took thier two small children into a civil marriage and continues receiving Eucharist as though no mortal sin exists. My friend, through the intervention of an SSPX chapel, came back to the Faith (since into our diocesan TLM community) and has waged a continuing fight to spend time with his children. There are no grounds for annulment and he considers himself married to a wayward wife, yet he cause his own celibacy and loneliness by his own conduct.

    I remain faithful to my marriage despite very unhappy times and years of celibacy because to do otherwise is to dishonor a vow to God (in good times and in bad, in sickness [possibly mental] and in health). The very weak morality proposed by so many in the modern church would have doomed our kids. Thankfully for my friend and I we have a very faithful priest who refuses to coddle hurt feeling while watching our souls pour into Hell. We draw our strength from the Mass and Faith of the ages knowing that love in this life requires suffering, is suffering, but in Heaven it will all be paid back many times over.

  16. Justalurkingfool says:

    Why do people suggest annulment? Why is the first thought not reconciliation?

    It is discusions such as this which make it very destructive to faith, hearing how readily divorced is excused or rendered harmless.

    My poor children and grandchildren. I am glad I at least grew up when marriage still had some meaning. What we are leaving for our loved ones is a shambles.


  17. WGS says:

    If there are valid grounds for an annulment, then they should be considered rather than allowing fornication or adultery to continue. An annulment does nothing to a marriage. It just confirms that there was not and had not been a marriage in a particular instance. (The civil situation is a different matter.)

  18. Gerard Plourde says:

    As I wrote earlier, we have no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the questioner’s marriage. I do, however, want to propose a hypothetical situation wherein annulment followed by permission to enter a vaild marriage would be allowed.

    A couple marries within the Church. Subsequently, one partner finds him or herself unable for a non-physical reason to engage in marital relations. For the argument, let’s say the spouse feels called to celibacy. The other spouse does not feel to be called to this. Both spouses are capable of having children. Given that the purpose of marriage is to be open to the gift of children, it would seem to me that if the spouse seeking celibacy persists in his/her practice, a defect of intention exists and that annulment with the freedom for the spouse not desiring celebacy to marry is fully licit.

  19. Father P says:

    I know there are some sems and young priests who read this blog and if I can offer some helpful advice from hard experience in just such as this.

    Whatever the young priest said, he will learn quickly — through hard experiences such as this — that sometimes what seems like innocent questions have a hidden agenda. One of the reasons that Francis is right that we need to “smell like the sheep” because knowing where a person is coming from helps us to answer the question rightly. Two examples. (1) “Father, if someone commits suicide will they go to hell?” Pastorally we have to know where the question is coming from. There is one way to answer this if the person is contemplating suicide — and another way if a loved one of the person committed suicide. (2) In the case of divorce the situation I had was a person who I knew was contemplating divorce asked what I thought was a clarifying question. “Father, if we get divorced will I still be able to receive Holy Communion?” . I answered, that those who are divorced are not barred from the sacraments unless they are in mortal sin, such as marrying outside the church or involved in intimate relationships with a new partner. That answer was reported to the spouse as “Father said that the Church has no problem with divorce”

  20. Matt R says:

    Indeed. We do not adhere closely to 1st Corinthians. Paul specifically says to seek reconciliation, and because of the problems of attempting marriage in the civil forum (especially when children result), this ought to be attempted before divorce occurs. I also think one ought to do everything they can to avoid divorce if common bed and board are no longer possible. But if it is the best way to protect the other spouse and children, then divorce has to be the reluctant way to go.

  21. aviva meriam says:

    I will pray for this family. And for this priest.
    AS someone who has worked with women facing divorce (teaching necessary financial survival skills) I’ve witnessed a few abusive situations (yes, it is just as possible for a woman to be abusive as it is for a man). But the absolute worst is when the abusive person uses GOD or the CHURCH as a justification for achieving their goal (money, sex, control, or frequently the infliction of pain). One couple I knew for years had an emotionally, financially and spiritually abusive husband and who continued the abuse throughout the divorce proceedings: this man required a court order to allow his wife to enter the marital home to remove her personal belongings 2 years after he threw her out (before the civil divorce was finalized). He didn’t understand (and the judge had to instruct him) that his behavior was not acceptable. This individual was Protestant and hostile: he refused to cooperate with the Tribunal during it’s proceedings.
    What I like to tell individuals is that 1. I am so sorry they’re in such pain. 2. That despite the pain, and before they level accusations (which it is not appropriate for them to tell me: I’m not their lawyer, priest or therapist) it wouldn’t hurt to do an examination of their own behavior with the help of a trusted and objective outsider (IE, a priest…. don’t discuss the spouse discuss your own behavior) and 3. to Pray . I’ve said that to out of control women as well as men.
    In terms of negative reactions, I know a woman who suffered through an abusive (emotionally, financially, physically and sexually : documented including evidence of repeated traumatic brain injury inflicted by the husband) for over 40 years. She sought help (including counseling and spiritual guidance); after 3 years finally began divorce proceedings. She was accused (along with those of us who helped her) of failing in her christian responsibilities. She was told by laity (not priests!!!!) ” things would improve if she just submitted to her Husband’s needs.” I was personally accused of undermining Christian marriage and a whole lot more for offering her technical and financial advice/help.

  22. Justalurkingfool says:

    Gerard, where is the objective unquestionable proof of the antecedence of this “defect of intent”, you proffer? A “change of heart”, after the fact has no application with respect to earlier consent at the time of the vows; certainly not without hard proof that it preexisted or coexisted with those vows.


  23. Justalurkingfool says:

    I disagree.


  24. The Masked Chicken says:

    I would really like to see a scientific study done about what couples understand marriage to be all about before the wedding. I would bet that .0001% would even mention Christ. It is hard to understand sin of you don’t understand whom you are sinning against.

    Fewer people should get married, today, because fewer people are morally disposed. That is the sad fact. We could turn this around, but too many clergy do not put the fear of God into engaged couples. I mean that, literally. It used to be community standards that did this, but marriage, apparently, ceased to ne about community (even a community of two) a long time, ago.

    The Chicken

  25. Gerard Plourde says:


    My hypothetical (and it is a hypothetical, an exercise in reason) lays out the conditions. As to consent at the time of the marriage, I think it plausible, given the parameters of the hypotheical, that full, knowing and intentional consent to a necessessary condition of the marriage i.e., intent to accept children born of the marriage, was likely absent from the party called to celibacy at the time the Sacrament was administered. This would constitute a defect of intention ab initio, and meet the criteria to find nullity.

  26. Justalurkingfool says:


    The details matter.


  27. Chon says:

    Archbishop Sample has some recent columns about divorce in the Catholic Sentinel. Here’s a quote:
    “First, we must be clear that it is not a civil divorce in and of itself that prevents one from participating in the sacramental life of the Church. I emphasize this because in my 25 years of priesthood, I have encountered countless people who are under this false impression. The issue is a second “marriage” outside the Church. If a person simply divorces his or her spouse in the civil courts (which the Church does not recognize as a dissolution of the bond), but does not attempt a second marriage, and does not cohabit with another person in a sexual relationship, then that person may receive the sacraments of the Church under the same conditions as all in the Church.”
    catholic sentinel (dot) org then go to the faith/spirituality tab for his excellent columns.

  28. OlderCatholic says:

    One priest claimed, in my hearing, that very few marriages are truly valid now because most people enter into them with the reserved thought, somewhere in their heads, that if it doesn’t work out I can always get out of it.

  29. Justalurkingfool says:

    Archbishop Sample’s reply, as you present it, is scandalous! One cannot simply civilly abandon their public, ethical and moral obligations to their spouse. Without qualifiers this assertion is gravely harmful and shows, absolutely certain, disregard for marriage.

    Obligations are not merely negative. I am sickened by this, from an ARCHBISHOP!


  30. Magash says:

    I more or less agree with the priest’s premise. To conduct a successful sacramental marriage the ministers of the marriage must intend to marry in a way that is understood by the Church as a sacramental marriage. Because so many Catholics have had such bad catechetical formation and Pr-Cana instruction is little less than a formality, many people approaching the sacrament have not really made a willful act to enter into a valid marriage. They don’t really believe that the marriage is a permanent bond that can only be sundered by death. They don’t understand marriage as a sacramental act of self-denial. They don’t even see love as an act of will instead of an emotion.
    Hence an honest tribunal investigation will find that their (most) contemporary marriages are invalid, because they don’t meet the conditions of a valid marriage. Mostly they fail the meet the condition that they have the intention to marry for life, many don’t really intend to be faithful, and they are not open to children, as evident by the large number of contracepting couples.
    This being the case it is not a surprise that there are a large number of divorces among Catholic couples or that should most of these couples seek an annulment that grounds for one will be found.

  31. Marissa says:

    There are no grounds for annulment and he considers himself married to a wayward wife, yet he cause his own celibacy and loneliness by his own conduct.

    He didn’t cause his own celibacy because all of us are called to forgiveness. No spouse has the right to withhold sexual contact unless they are endangered by the other spouse. If the man had given up his adulterous ways and the two worked out the issues, the wife is no longer in danger (of STDs, emotional damage, etc.)

    I answered, that those who are divorced are not barred from the sacraments unless they are in mortal sin, such as marrying outside the church or involved in intimate relationships with a new partner.

    If you are civilly divorced or separated for no good reason (abuse, addiction, adultery) then you are probably committing a serious sin. Leaving your spouse and living outside the bonds of marriage is wrong. I’m amazed at the number of people here condoning this mischief.

  32. Supertradmum says:

    It takes two people to be married, not merely the excellent intentions of one person. Many divorces occur because one of the two refuse to go to marriage counseling, or talk to a priest, or forgive.

    One must remember the sacrament is between two people not one.

  33. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Supertradmum,

    Your point is vitally important. Unlike all of the other sacraments, matrimony is conferred by two ministers (the spouses), so that the intent (as evidenced by their actions) of both must be in accord for validity to be assured. Just as a person’s faith is manifested by his or her works, so the vailidity of a marriage must be discerened by the fidelity of the spouses to the words of the vows they uttered. For example, one must seriously question the validitiy of a marriage in which one spouse commmits adultery regularly for a period of years. Can it really be said that that person vowed validly? Cases like this must be evaluated impartially by the marriage tribunal and if they find the marriage invalid, their judgment, once confirmed, must be respected.

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