ASK FATHER: Is it OK to get a divorce if you do not intend to get remarried?

From a reader…


Is it OK to get a divorce if you do not intend to get remarried? Although I admit to all my faults and know I am far from perfect, my wife has been an alcoholic for many years and the marriage is very painful. Prayers and daily rosaries (not at all, believe me, do I mention this in pride) for over two years has made no impact whatsoever. I do not even want a divorce, but my life with hers is dysfunctional.

This is a scenario in which the Church’s procedure for separation while the bond remains can be useful.  Sadly, it’s not well-implemented in many dioceses.  Not all canonists are familiar with it.

While the canons themselves indicated that it is not obligatory, the process allows a Catholic to approach the local bishop and ask for permission to separate “from bed and board”, for the sake of health and safety.

Some might wonder about why the Church has these canons at all.  Isn’t this the business of that couple and no one else?  Who does the Church think she is, telling people they should seek permission to separate.  As it turns out, it’s a little more flexible than that.

The family is the cornerstone of society, including the society of the Church.  Just as all institutions of the Church need regulation, the Church provides gentle and commonsense regulation for the foundational need for a family: stay together, be stable.  She doesn’t tell us who has to mow the law or change the diapers.  But, in her long years of experience, she knows that spouses, who have the duty to help each other get to heaven, generally do that better by being together.  So, the Church offers laws which can at times and in certain cases strengthen people’s resolve to make changes for the sake of the greater good.

Back to it.

Canon Law obliges spouses to live together unless there is a grave enough reason not to.

Can. 104 Spouses are to have a common domicile or quasi-domicile. By reason of lawful separation or for some other just reason, each may have his or her own domicile or quasi-domicile.

Can. 1151 Spouses have the duty and right to preserve conjugal living unless a legitimate cause excuses them.

Again, if there is a grave reason, there can be a separation:

1153 §1. If either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too diYcult, that spouse gives the other a legitimate cause for leaving, either by decree of the local ordinary or even on his or her own authority if there is danger in delay.

§2. In all cases, when the cause for the separation ceases, conjugal living must be restored unless ecclesiastical authority has established otherwise.

So, even without the bishop’s permission, if there is danger  – the canon doesn’t specify what sort or how severe that danger must be – one of the spouses can initiate a separation on his or her own.

There are undeniably times when living with another person causes significant emotional and mental damage and a separation is warranted.

You, questioner, should have a good conversation with a trusted priest. Share with him your concerns, your fears, and the realities with which you are dealing.  Perhaps counseling might be warranted.  Separation might be the bucket of cold water your wife needs to wake her up to the severity of the situation. Or, on the other hand – I have to add this because I really don’t know your situation in full – perhaps staying together and seeking counseling together would be better.

Either way, I am sorry for your troubles.  Life is messy.  For some, it seems their lot in life to have many challenges.   Remember that the first duty of a person in a marriage is to love God above any creature, even your spouse.  After that, your duty is to help your spouse get to Heaven.  That might mean dramatic sacrifices, putting aside your own will for the sake of the TRUE GOOD of the other.   This is what Christ modelled on the Cross for His spouse the Church.

For the sake of completeness, let’s see the other canons on “Separation with the Bond Remaining: 1151- 1155.

1154 After the separation of the spouses has taken place, the adequate support and education of the children must always be suitably provided.

1155 The innocent spouse laudably can readmit the other spouse to conjugal life; in this case the innocent spouse renounces the right to separate.

So, just because there is a separation of “bed and board”, you can’t be a dead beat.  Also, if the main problems are resolved, get back together.  That might mean embracing true humility and a lot of self-sacrifice.  This is why a) you have to love God more than your spouse and b) the Church makes you publicly make vows.  Vows, not meandering fancies.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Pingback: ASK FATHER: Is it OK to get a divorce if you do not intend to get remarried? | Fr. Z’s Blog – The Old Roman

  2. Bthompson says:

    This may be a bit left field, but issues like these strengthen my opinion (though, admittedly, its not going to happen) that one thing that could greatly help the Church at all levels is to have more, much smaller, dioceses.

    Aside from the usual reasons (less money to waste at the chancery, making the episcopacy less prestigious in terms of church politics and worldly influence, bishops knowing their priests better, etc.), this sort of pastoral issue is not something I could imagine a corporate-model diocesan bureaucracy to care much about, or want to entangle itself in (especially given the fear many dioceses have of civil law complaints or bad PR).

    If one’s bishop were overseeing a few dozen rather than scores or hundreds of priests, and souls in the realm of thousands than hundreds of thousands, It would be easier to present, judge, and grant (if appropriate) permissions like this.

  3. TonyO says:

    I don’t know if this is true for other countries, but as I understand it, in the US, for a person to take advantage of either the annulment process, or the Petrine Privilege, it seems that they must first have obtained a civil divorce from the adverse spouse. (Possibly a civil “permanent separation” might do it for an annulment, but I think the divorce is required for the Petrine Privilege.) Or “spouse”. This seems to suggest situations where getting a civil divorce is at least minimally acceptable.

    Taking full account of the Church’s fundamental position that a consummated sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved: If conditions warrant an ecclesiastically approved separation, it seems to me that they may also warrant a CIVIL separation, and/or divorce. The purely civil divorce may be necessary for the innocent spouse to protect his or her physical, psychological, or financial needs, (e.g. property rights), especially if the other spouse won’t otherwise respect them under a “mere” a civil separation.

    It seems to me that if a purely civil divorce became necessary to civilly protect the innocent spouse, there could still remain some obligation, on that innocent spouse, to carefully and proactively alert his or her associates that “the civil divorce DOES NOT actually dissolve our marriage, we are still married, as the Church teaches. It was just necessary for me to obtain the civil divorce for protection, and I don’t think of it as ending our marriage.” So as to diminish the effect of potential scandal.

    How sad our world has become regarding family stability.

  4. Lurker 59 says:

    In abusive situations, it can often be the case that remaining under one roof exacerbates the abuse and/or leads to a degenerating relationship that further damages both parties. This is especially true if one is looking at a codependent abusive relationship that involves substance abuse. In such situations, the aggrieved party may end up (or may already be) engaging in their own forms of abuse of their partner if the dysfunction is not resolved. It can be the case that the dysfunction cannot be resolved while the parties are under one roof, but must be separated, their individual issues dealt with independently, and then, and only then, the task of resolving relationship issues can begin.

    It is worth stressing that the Church does not ask of one to submit to being a punching bag for their abusive spouse nor should one ever become complicit in the sins of their abusive spouse. Getting your spouse to heaven really can mean drawing the line and saying that as long as abusive behavior exists, that the spouse is not permitted to be in contact or under the same roof. That might be for all intents and purposes, permanent. Heaven is the goal, not earthly happiness.

  5. If a canon lawyer might add another comment again: as I mentioned in a recent post comment, it is a good idea never to accept canon law advice or a statement regarding canon law from anyone who is not a canon lawyer (unless, of course, it is Fr. Z.). That being said, it is also the case that if one is not a canon lawyer, one should think very carefully before commenting and if at all possible should refrain from offering advice or opinions about canonical matters or topics in canon law. I am not sure where the impulse comes from to offer an opinion or statement about canon law if one is not a canon lawyer — really, I don’t understand it — because even canon lawyers tread carefully when trying to explain what canon law does or does not say, in particular about marriage. So reader be warned and beware: unless you know for certain that in these comments it is a canon lawyer who is commenting about a particular canonical issue, my recommendation is to simply ignore the person’s comment entirely.


    Allow me to repeat that: unless the reader knows for certain that it is a canon lawyer who is commenting regarding any issues in canon law, it is wise to ignore the person’s comment entirely.

    [And thanks for the note of confidence.]

  6. sjoseph371 says:

    I would also add, while not part of Catholic teaching, that the non-alcoholic spouse gets the mental health support they need, too. In addition, I HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommend a support group like Al-Anon for that spouse. It is NOT a religious group, but all of the 12 Steps (hmmmm, that number seems kind of special) align with our faith, including admitting we are powerless alone, asking our Higher Power (God) for help, admitting our own wrongdoings, asking forgiveness for our sins, and helping others in need.

  7. KateD says:

    Is there a cannon NOLO self help center for one who has questions?

    If, one holds the opinion, non cannonists should not discus the topic, and cannonists WILL not, where is a person seeking help to go?

    Beyond the New Commentary

  8. mddelala says:

    Re TonyO:

    Canon Law requires that in case of separation (or annulment) care must be taken for the children (see Fr. Z’s post as he quoted that canon).

    When the Church declares that a marriage is null, it must also remind the parties of their moral and civilian obligations regarding the other party and their common children (C. 1691). A practical way to achieve this is to require the parties to have ther “civil matter” settled before initiating the annulment process (therefore, requiring them to have a civil agreement regarding alimonis and such, or to have a judicial sentence declaring those matters). I’ve seen this done in a few diocesees, precisely because of this reason.

    And, although this depends on jurisdiction, many times the simplest way to have a sentence or agreement regarding obligations of the parents regarding their childrens is a divorce.

  9. Mario Bird says:

    I am not a canon lawyer.

    But I practice civil law in the United States; until a short while ago, this included family law (i.e., divorce). Some of my clients wanted a divorce because they tried to get along with their spouse, or to manage the kids together, and just couldn’t after counseling and other attempts (e.g., clergy). Other clients (abuse of spouse, substance abuse, adultery) wanted the legal separation that divorce affords, but otherwise wanted no part morally in divorce. And I had some clients who were subject to a divorce proceeding, were willing to suffer through things, and yet had to defend themselves from the spouse who had filed the complaint.

    This last group became my exclusive clientele for the last years of my divorce practice. I couldn’t justify or stomach the other stuff anymore, and I believed that this latter group needed defense from an unjust civil proceeding — especially where kids were involved and otherwise would grow up without a parent. I still think this is true. And I talked with good, well-formed priests about this, and they thought that this was rational and moral.

    I know a Catholic attorney who ended his practice after two separate clients — one Catholic, one not — wanted a legal separation, not a divorce (his state has preserved this distinction in its civil code). Both clients saw and believed Our Lord’s injunction about the permanency of marriage, and both had kids. The attorney assisted. Both clients returned later with new spouses or intendeds. The Catholic client had obtained a declaration of nullity. The Catholic attorney was not called as a witness in the canonical process, and is not sure at what point he could, or should, have intervened. But after counseling and praying with, and for, these clients and their “first” marriages, he could no longer in good conscience practice “family law.”

    RE: TonyO’s comment on civil divorce as a predicate to declaration of nullity — I am not a canon lawyer, but – as a civil lawyer – my opinion is that this practice has undermined the sanctity of marriage. I have heard from canonist priests that this was a change from the 1917 Code, and that the U.S. diocesan procedures are not like the procedures in Italy and elsewhere, which require the declaration of nullity prior to the civil law. I’d be interested to hear confirmation on this point from a canon lawyer (or Fr. Z) on this blog.

    Whatever the case, my experience as a civil lawyer is that civil divorce encourages the fungibility of spouses, and discourages the gravity of vows. But I will admit that I have many friends who are living Catholic lives as best they can, and who have gone through the divorce-declaration of nullity procedure. And I have other family and friends who have done the same, but who have fallen away. None of this addresses the significant side issue of how justice and moral certitude is arrived at in diocesan tribunals.

    Like St. Thomas More, I pray that I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm. I ask for the prayers of the readers of this blog for myself and others who have suffered a moral injury from seeing this play out. St. Rita of Cascia, pray for us!

  10. MaterDeicolumbae says:

    I recommend attending Al-Anon Twelve Step meetings to learn that you can’t change the alcoholic. You are the one that needs to change- otherwise you’ll go crazy.
    Al-Anon is for anyone involved with an alcoholic spouse, relative, friend, etc.
    It all starts with Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
    Go to Al-Anon and keep praying…
    You will find that you aren’t alone.
    If there are kids in the family there is Alateen to learn they are not alone re having an alcoholic parent(s).

  11. Dear KateD, there isn’t.


    (And oh how I wish at times it could be “cannon” law, instead of canon law. )


    As I pointed out in a comment to a post recently (Fr. Z.’s post of August 28th, ‘Griping about canon lawyers and marriage “annulments”’), canon law is not rocket science or brain surgery, but it is very much one of the “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” disciplines. If you have a certain specific question about canon law, I regret to have to tell you that probably there is no other option than to ask a canon lawyer. That really is the only answer: asking a canon lawyer in order to obtain a specific answer to a specific question — something that needs to be done in the proper forum, and not on a blog, but instead in the same way you would speak with an attorney about certain civil/secular legal matters. (Allow me to add that canon lawyers are much like regular lawyers: it is often not much use to ask a real estate attorney about immigration law, nor is it appropriate to ask a probate lawyer about international criminal law. One should ask a canonical opinion of a canon lawyer who has experience and expertise in a certain area — many canon lawyers know marriage canon law, but not many know the canon law pertaining to religious institutes and religious life, issues of parish or diocesan property and patrimonial canon law, etc.). I do not think at all that it is the case that canonists WILL not answer — as you emphasize — but rather that most canon lawyers will not offer answers in certain forums like this one (or other online forums). You actually would need to contact a canon lawyer who can answer a specific question you might have — and not all can, as it depends on what kind of canonical issue it is about. But if you do that — somewhat in the same way that you would seek out or retain legal services in the civil/secular forum — I cannot imagine you would be refused an answer.


    I wish there could a more accessible way to have people’s questions answered (other than going to a canon lawyer), but there simply is no such thing. I have seen more than one person’s sacramental life derailed for a lifetime with just one wrong piece of canonical “advice” from the wrong source.

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