ASK FATHER: Is divorce never an option?

From a reader…


I hope you are doing well! First, I want to thank you for your blog. Your writings have been very educational and inspirational. I’m hoping you might share your thoughts on an example that came up during a discussion with fellow Catholics on irregular marriages.

(Please forgive my errors in grammar. I have a disability and my errors were “excused” and never corrected in school. I’m working through some textbooks trying to improve.)

Several Catholics insisted divorce was not a “real” option for a
couple, with children, in an invalid marriage. If both adults do not agree to live as brother and sister, it would be preferable for them to continue to have relations and stay together rather than raise their children in divorced homes.

They insisted it was better to not partake in Confession and
Communion. They insisted the Church would never be in the business of breaking up families. They really weren’t open to discussion on this.

I was taught trying to keep sin at bay without the sacraments is a fool’s errand. While divorce is less than ideal, it is not necessarily sinful. Once sin takes root, it grows. Alcoholism, drug addiction, anger issues, and abusive attitudes do not spring up out of nothing. Children are vulnerable targets.

This idea seems terrifying to me. It seems somewhat arrogant. The idea that “good” Catholics cannot fall. That we can limit and conquer sin without obeying God’s law. I will confess it angers me this idea is promoted for the sake of the children who will be the ones who pay the price if this all goes south.

It is possible my opinion is being colored far too much by my own experiences, but would the Church really insist it is better to stay in sin and away from the sacraments rather than put children through a divorce?

Discussing situations like these in the abstract is fraught with difficulties, because people want to go from the particular situation to the general principles, and then back to another particular, which may be entirely dissimilar to the original situation discussed.

Divorce is bad.

The effects of divorce upon society are bad. The effects of divorce upon the couple are bad. The effects of divorce upon children, other family members, neighbors, friends and coworkers are bad.

Worse than divorces are invalid marriages.

A couple who remain in a marriage which they know to be invalid, and continue to live as husband and wife, to engage in all that activity that should be exclusively shared by a husband and wife, are act perilously.

By the way… “knowing” that one is in an invalid marriage is a delicate proposition. The people involved are not the judges of these things. The Church reserves to Herself, to Her tribunal system, the right to determine whether a marriage has been proven to be invalid. The opinions of the parties are not wholly probative (can. 1536, 2).

If one has doubts about the validity of one’s marriage, that person should immediately seek the counsel of a trusted priest.

There are situations and circumstances where I could envision advising someone to remain in the conjugal home, particularly if there are children involved who would be unduly harmed by their parents’ separation and divorce. I would not advise someone in such a situation to stay away from the sacraments. Hence, that means not engage in intimacies with his or her purported spouse.

The Church is definitely not in favor of breaking up families. But neither is the Church in favor of the pretense of marriage when it is clearly false.

In some cases, I could see myself advising the couple to separate, preferably by utilizing the Church’s process for separation while the bond remains (canon. 1151-1155 & 1692-1696, which allows the party to separate from bed and board on his or her own volition, can. 1153). Cases of abuse, situations where the children’s safety or well-being are in doubt, situations where the common life has deteriorated to such a degree that no one, least of all the children (who tend to be very perceptive) is fooled by the pretense of normalcy, … all these situations could warrant a legitimate separation and even permit the parties to turn to the civil courts and pursue a divorce.

Since this is delicate, comment moderation is ON and I may be slow to review the queue.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Your points are all well taken, Father. Holy Mother Church, and not individuals, of course has the right to make the determination. However, it is my understanding that one may not even approach a tribunal for an investigation as to validity without a decree of civil divorce. Am I wrong in assuming this is consistent throughout North America, Europe…and beyond? It does kind of have the strange effect of prioritizing the civil state’s determination, in practical terms I mean, or at least in terms of perception, and probably doesn’t lend much pastoral clarity given that is the accepted way of proceeding. I know that is not probative either, but it seems to me that certain cases might cry out for the annulment process even before, perhaps even way before, civil divorce. It could in fact offset a lot of misery, depending on the circumstances of course.

  2. alnleash says:

    My husband (cradle catholic, married in the church to another woman without an annulment ) and I (attending RCIA) were in an irregular marriage with 3 boys. Once I learned that the reason he could not receive the Holy Eucharist was because of our adultery, we made the decision to live as brother and sister so that he could once again participate in the sacraments and be in the state of grace.

    It was difficult not to be selfish for so long. I look back on that time and see God’s great love for us both. It was only by His Grace that we could do it…6 long years as a matter of fact. But He fortified us and strengthened our faith…what married mortal being could abstain for 6 years on his or her own?

    We knew that Christ and His church could not be wrong about this. We gratefully have been enjoying our valid marriage and it’s right to intimacy for 3 years now. Thanks be to God.

  3. HealingRose says:

    When we stray from the path God has called us to take, we take the path scattered with rocks, ruts, and perils. We cannot undo the past, but we have to suffer the consequences and burden of our sins. Repentance, confession, and reconciliation can only be found if we are truly repentant and with a commitment to not engage in that sin again. For example, with murder the person is dead. You can be forgiven of the murder and never commit another murder, but that does not make the victim any less dead and does not eliminate the prison sentence one must serve for it.

    Same also with a marriage that is entered into during a state of sin. Even if there was a valid Sacrament, if the couple is not in good standing with God, how would we presume that He would bless the union long-term without many difficulties? Most Catholics have a watered down idea of what it really means to be Catholic. If you are not healthy spiritually as an individual, then how can you expect to enter a healthy, fruitful union?

    I think pride is the biggest killer of marriage. We need humility, repentance, submission to God, and reverence for the Holy Eucharist, (that includes not receiving Holy Communion if you are not living in a state of grace). A man and woman must seek these things, no matter what the state of marriage is in. “Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness.”

    So many lukewarm Christians looking for blessings! What an insult to God!

    Other difficulties stem from married couples who “church shop.” How often do you hear that a husband and wife attend different churches? Or one attends and the other does not? How do couples expect to get on the same page if they are not even in the same book?!

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    Part of the problem, it seems to me, stems from the confusion about public and private acts. Marriage is a public act, therefore, the dissolution or annulment must, likewise, be a public act. While one might be civilly divorced and morally certain (as for the sake of argument let us specify that anyone would, likewise, agree with that assessment, if they saw the evidence) that no valid marriage took place, nevertheless, one may not contract another marriage until the matter is publicly open for investigation. Until a public assessment (usually through a tribunal) can be made, the status of the original marriage will always be a matter of public speculation and where there is doubt the truth is in question. Such people must accept their situation as a cross to bear until the matter can be resolved.

    This lack of distinction between public and private acts is one of the things that bothers me about the, “conscience,” solution for Communion of the divorced and remarried. Yes, one’s personal conscience may be rightly convinced that an original marriage is invalid, but here’s the thing that Cardinal Kapar seems to not understand (which is ironic, given his leanings toward La Nouvelle Theologie): society (be it secular or the Church) has a communal conscience, as well. Each conscience is decided according to its mode – privately for the individual and publicly for the society. So, there are really two consciences at work: a private and a public one. It is the judgment of the public conscience that allows for public acts, not the private one.

    The other matter concerns reverence for the sacraments. It is inconsistent for a divorced and invalidly remarried couple to believe that they cannot approach Communion, but be in a valid marriage. If one knows one is in an invalid marriage, then reverence for the sacrament must take precedence over other concerns. Let me be clear – if the Church, as a ,”community,” which is the current buzzword, knows of a situation of hardship for a divorced, but unanulled spouse with children, one way to relieve the pressure to find a sacrilegious second spouse is to come to their aid as a community – take over child care so the person can work – help with emotional support, etc. Rather than contemplate marriage to an invalid second spouse, let the divorced person hug her heavenly Spouse tighter. To be honest, part of the temptation to remarriage lies on our end as Church. We can do better to help these people.

    The Chicken

  5. SanSan says:

    alnleash—God Bless your now Holy Union with your Husband. By the grace of God, His love for you and your husband, you proved that “self mastery” is obtainable with His help.

    As a married couple for 48 years in the Church, those who would now try to “change” what Our Lord commanded would be “degrading” the prayers, sufferings, and sacrafices that we have endured in order to keep our vows. Only by the Grace of God are we making it to the finish line. Thank you Jesus! The attacks by the evil one throughout the years have been numerous and hard……but we’re still standing!

    We wish the same for all couples and their families.

  6. Nordic Breed says:

    I am happy to see alnleash’s comment above. Whenever this subject come up on blogs or in print, I noticed that most people either ignore or declare that living as brother and sister is pretty much impossible. That’s really selling God’s grace short. Why do we insist on tying God’s hands?

    Furthermore, if someone is in an irregular situation and needs to abstain from the conjugal privileges of marriage, one of the best things to do is to offer up the sacrifice to atone for all the sexual sins committed. The virtue of self-discipline is strengthened, the children are given stability, and one’s trust in God can also be strengthened. God always comes through for us when we repent of our mistakes. His mercy endureth forever!

  7. HealingRose says:

    I have found a solution!

    The Catholic Church needs to write a manual: Marriage, Divorce, & The Church- A “Choose Your Own Adventure” style book to walk the faithful through step by step.
    For example:
    Page 1- Where you married in a Catholic Church? If yes, skip to page 2. If no, skip to page 3.
    (Short descriptions and definitions on each page to clarify the meaning of words within a question. Example, “Marriage- the union between a man and a woman…”)
    Page 3- Has either partner been previously married? If yes, skip to page…and so on. You get the idea.

    I don’t think there are many mysteries when it comes to possible dysfunctions regarding marriage. Why not clear up any questions with a manual for any situation. At least we would have some consistently and clarity. Cannon Law and Church doctrine is clear, but the path to resolve conflicts might vary.

  8. Giuseppe says:

    Healing Rose,
    Some enterprising youngster might make a marriage app to help people understand their status and options.

  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    The Masked Chicken writes interestingly about “public and private acts”, “Marriage [as] a public act”, and there being “really two consciences at work: a private and a public one” and it being “the judgment of the public conscience that allows for public acts, not the private one.”

    Is there a historical or circumstantial dimension to this? I’m a great fan of Newman’s historical novel Callista, and in chapter 9 Roman pagan Uncle Jucundus very interestingly sets out legal marriage – and other legal (we might say, ‘(sexual) relational’) possibilities – to his Christian nephew, Agellius. (See the edition at for all the details). Well, as a Christian, Agellius could not in good Christian (“private”?) conscience ‘marry’ in any of the legal senses allowed by (ought we to call it?) ‘public conscience’. And Agellius could no more be publicly Christian-sacramentally married than he could be publicly Christian.

    Can ‘public conscience’ be so improperly formed as to be irrelevant?

    And what other ‘formal’ developments are proper and possible?

    For the first millennium-and-a-half of the Christian Era (in the west, at least) marriage could be validly contracted and solemnized by its two ministers, the eligible husband and wife – best described in what way? ‘Publicly or often privately with public effect, equally validly’? This had its problematical aspects, not least in terms of ease of abuse, if an ineligible person (already validly married) passed him- or herself off to an eligible ‘victim’ as eligible. These were addressed forcefully at the Council of Trent in terms of canonical form, such that (if I understand this correctly – please, anyone, pounce on the error(s), if not!) what was valid for some 1500 years was valid no more.

    But, some 450 years later, could changes equally well be made with respect to canonical form, such that what was valid prior to that would be valid again?

  10. Justalurkingfool says:

    While visiting some of our children, I went to 7:00am mass with one of them this morning. My wife and her lover were their also and both received the Eucharist.


  11. The Masked Chicken says:

    The idea of a public conscience is implied, I think in the Summa:

    “On the contrary, Isidore says (Etym. v, 21) that “laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of the citizens.”

    I answer that, As stated above (Article 1), the law belongs to that which is a principle of human acts, because it is their rule and measure. Now as reason is a principle of human acts, so in reason itself there is something which is the principle in respect of all the rest: wherefore to this principle chiefly and mainly law must needs be referred. Now the first principle in practical matters, which are the object of the practical reason, is the last end: and the last end of human life is bliss or happiness, as stated above (2, 7; 3, 1). Consequently the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness. Moreover, since every part is ordained to the whole, as imperfect to perfect; and since one man is a part of the perfect community, the law must needs regard properly the relationship to universal happiness. Wherefore the Philosopher, in the above definition of legal matters mentions both happiness and the body politic: for he says (Ethic. v, 1) that we call those legal matters “just, which are adapted to produce and preserve happiness and its parts for the body politic”: since the state is a perfect community, as he says in Polit. i, 1.

    Now in every genus, that which belongs to it chiefly is the principle of the others, and the others belong to that genus in subordination to that thing: thus fire, which is chief among hot things, is the cause of heat in mixed bodies, and these are said to be hot in so far as they have a share of fire. Consequently, since the law is chiefly ordained to the common good, any other precept in regard to some individual work, must needs be devoid of the nature of a law, save in so far as it regards the common good. Therefore every law is ordained to the common good.”

    The notion of a public conscience in political theory goes back to 1893 (from Wikipedia):

    “Collective conscious or collective conscience (French: conscience collective) is the set of shared beliefs, ideas and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society.[1] The term was introduced by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his Division of Labour in Society in 1893.”

    In a truly Catholic society, there are certain norms, which define a public conscience, which may apply only imperfectly to individuals. For example, driving the wrong way on a one-way street violates the public conscience as it endangers lives, but may be necessary in certain cases (driving a gunshot victim to the hospital).

    Marriage, being a public act, must have public permission, be it in civil or ecclesiastical law. Even in danger of death, two witnesses much be procured. The witnesses, in a sense, act as the public conscience, since, if they are well-formed in morality, they will refuse to witness to an invalid marriage.

    The Chicken

  12. Stipulating that…

    I hate divorce.
    Divorce is often a scandal.
    Divorce is often an occasion of sin for those involved, the children in particular. Jesus had pretty harsh words for those who would cause little ones to stumble.

    OK, now that my stipulations are clear…

    I really appreciate Fr. Z’s clarification when he said, “Worse than divorces are invalid marriages.” Yes. I was in one such marriage. On some level I knew it was invalid for many years, but lacked the proper framework to understand this before I became Catholic.

    An invalid marriage is akin to cohabitation but it has the veneer of a marriage license. Objectively this makes it like fornication (or adultery depending on the circumstance).

    So then, how to deal with this?

    First, we cannot even begin to entertain anything that would scandalize the children. I lived in the scandalous situation of “two homes” as a child, so I know what it’s like. It is a burden that no child should have to bear.

    Thus, if these couples have children, they should live as brother and sister in the same household (excepting cases of abuse, for example). We should not encourage them to separate, since this would force the children to live in two homes. “Two homes” is a burden and a scandal. The adults shouldn’t be dating anyway so there is no need for two homes. One home where they all live together until the youngest is grown.

    I am not the least bit interested in lessening this burden for the adults, since the only way to do that is to increase the burden for the children. Our culture scandalizes children so that adults can be comfortable and/or “free.” I won’t participate in that and I will encourage others to join me.

  13. P.S. The Masked Chicken is spot on!

  14. Gerard Plourde says:

    This truly is one of the thorniest problems. The Church does (and always has) recognized that not all marriages witnessed within the Church are actually valid. Defect of intent by one or both of the parties (for example, a mental reservation concerning consent or some psychological condition that hampers the ability to freely and fully make the marriage vow) makes the marriage void ab initio.

    It does not help matters regarding the formation of valid intent that humanity across cultures outside of the Catholic (and Orthodox) Church does not recognize the sacramental and indissoluble nature of true marriage.

    Under these circumstances, it is best to begin by discussing the matter with one’s parish priest and to prayerfully discern what is the best course. It may well be that civil divorce and a decree of nullity are warranted. (In the U.S. the annulment process cannot begin before a civil divorce has been obtained.)

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