ASK FATHER: A question about a marriage situation (not mine)

From a reader…


I have a question about a marriage situation (not mine). If a marriage was valid, is it enough to resolve the state of sin of the re-“married” party(s) to simply abstain from sex without leaving the “second spouse?” Especially if each party of the original marriage is responsible for the care of an old/sick “spouse?” The proposition seems dicey to me, but the element of the care of the second “spouse “ seems to be a wrinkle perhaps.


Difficult to say – I’m not sure the question is worded accurately, so I’m going to respond to what I think the interlocutor is trying to ask.

Second point first: I think the question is about a couple in a second marriage where the first marriage of one (or both) parties is presumed to be valid. Can the couple then simply abstain from sexual relations and then re-approach the sacraments? Answer – no, at least not on their own without consulting with a priest. A priest might deem that the conditions of the second, invalid marriage are such that requiring a separation would be an injustice to someone, e.g., if the second spouse requires care, or if there are children born in the second marriage whose rights to parenting would be unduly compromised by mandating that their parents separate. The priest might then employ what’s come to be known as the “brother-sister solution,” whereby the couple agrees to retain common life, but avoid sexual intimacy, until the situation is resolved (either the former spouse dies, the children are raised, or the care the other spouse needs has been sufficiently met).

First point second: be VERY, very careful about posing questions regarding someone else’s marital situation. To a large extent, even if you’re closely related or bound by affection, it’s none of your business. Also, there is a good chance that you don’t know the entirety of the story.

If you’re aware of, or suspect some irregularity in the marital situation of your good buddy Jiff, or your dear sister Edna, the thing to do is, over tea in the latter situation or scotch in the first, say, “Have you ever sat down and had a chat with Father Entwhistle about your situation?”
If he or she answers, “No,” you respond, “You really should consider doing that someday.” Then promptly change the topic.
If he or she answers, “Not yet,” you respond, “Let me know when you want to do it, we can watch the kids (feed the dog, water the houseplants, scrub the baseboards) some evening for you so you have time.” Then promptly change the topic.
If he or she answers, “Yes,” you respond, “How lovely! I hope it went well.” Then promptly change the topic.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Sawyer says:

    I question the universal applicability of the “promptly change the topic” and “it’s none of your business” part of the reply. I have a Catholic friend who will enter into an invalid civil (re)marriage this summer. Annulment of original Catholic sacramental marriage not granted, says to hell with it and is going to marry civilly and expects to continue being a practicing Catholic like nothing is different because her conscience gives her a pass and she’s “in love.” How am I supposed to just “promptly change the topic” or ignore the situation or act like nothing’s amiss because “it’s none of my business”? I feel like I can’t visit this woman and her new squeeze (soon to be “husband”) at their home (they already live together) because that would be validating their relationship. I don’t want to cut off ties, but how can I have the same friendship with her without appearing to approve of adultery? No way am I going to the wedding. It’s not my business to gossip about, which I won’t do, but isn’t it my business to make it clear I don’t approve by not doing anything that would suggest approval for as long as the invalid remarriage/relationship endures, even if it strains our friendship? I did suggest that she talk to a priest about it. She’s not interested in that because she knows what the answer will be since an annulment wasn’t granted. So, according to the advice, that’s it? I just give in and move on and accept it because “it’s none of my business” and go back to having polite coffee every week like nothing is wrong? I’m not for publicly shaming people, but the advice given comes quite close to implying that nobody should do anything about another’s wrong behavior because “it’s none of your business.” Isn’t that the attitude that fostered so much of the clergy sex abuse coverup scandals? There’s something to be said for social pressure, and pressure from relatives and friends to dissuade people from doing the wrong thing. If everyone just accepts what people do, where’s the virtue in that and how does that help people turn away from sin?

  2. Fr_Andrew says:

    I have had a few cases of such situations, and I think many priests will be presented with this more than a few times in their priesthood these days.

    I think the best thing that faithful can understand is that the universal answer is : “It depends”.

    One of the most important factors is whether the situation is publicly-known or not, or if it could become so. If real spouse lives halfway around the world and will never be interfering, but the adulterous couple is living chastely, there is a just reason for this and the priest has seen to it that chastity is sufficiently guarded, public Communion could be possible, as there is no risk of scandal. The Church has always seen this as a possible solution.

    If the situation is known or could become known, the risk of scandal is probably too great even if the adulterous couple are now the most saintly of people. Private reception of the sacraments might be possible, but also might not be.

    The Church in her traditional moral theology had the concern for all souls in view, and that is one of the most unjust things about the “new theology” of AL. It inherently denigrates the the traditional, and truly Charitible moral theology of the Church as “uncaring” and “unconcerned” with souls.

    Fr Ferguson is spot on, however. The faithful should not concern themselves with such matters, and gently send such situations to the priests. These are hard enough and we have enough mess to clean up without the faithful who have no business getting involved getting involved.

    The most important thing that the faithful can do when they find such a situation is pray and offer sacrifice for the help of these souls.

  3. s i says:

    It’s a tough situation, and happens far too often these days. But, to say it’s no one’s business, well, that’s just wrong. It becomes the business of every person whose faith is scandalized by it.

  4. I absolutely and emphatically associate myself with Fr. Ferguson’s advice that people should refrain from being go-betweens gathering information from the priest to take to family and friends. Yes, they mean well, but it often causes problems. And if someone tries to get you to contact the priest for them, again, it is a bad idea. A lot of times people get alienated from the Faith, not because of what the Church teaches or the priest actually said, but because some friend or relative mangled it.

  5. ppb says:

    Sawyer and s i, with respect, you seem to be reading a lot into Fr. Ferguson’s answer that I don’t think is there. I didn’t get the impression that Father was making a universal statement that in all cases one should (as Sawyer characterized it) “just give in and move on and accept it.” Also, the original question wasn’t about how to deal with a friendship when the person had already been gently approached and still refused to see a priest. That’s really another question and a different situation, although clearly related.

  6. ALL: Be careful and reticent to dig too deeply into other people’s marriages.

  7. Justalurkingfool says:

    As an abandoned husband and father, my experience is terrible related to both laity and, especially because of their, supposed, authority/expertise, to priests and canon lawyers.

    Much, much more must be done in circumstances like this, as unclear as this one was described, and those who have the most experience at this are abandoned spouses who have and still live under unending corruption among the clergy that the Catholic Church, openly and scandalously refuses to address, even as we remain faithful to our vows.


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