As various conflicting opinions have come to the forefront in the discussions surrounding the divorced and remarried, it’s become clear that this is a teaching moment.
For example, some think divorce alone precludes a Catholic from receiving the Eucharist. Not true. The Church recognizes unfortunate circumstances where a spouse may have no choice but to separate, regardless of the validity of the marriage, and that civil proceedings, including divorce, might be necessary. But that separation or divorce does not preclude a Catholic from being able to receive the Eucharist.
The divorce becomes an obstacle in receiving Communion when a spouse engages in another marriage-like relationship, whether a civil marriage or cohabitation. In fact, the Church discourages individuals who are married and have not obtained a decree of nullity for their previous marriage from engaging in romantic relationships. After all, despite the individual’s own feelings toward the spouse, they are still married in the eyes of the Church until they receive the decree of nullity (or until the spouse dies). Similarly, the civil courts would not allow someone to marry who is married and has not received a civil divorce.
This brings us to a pastoral crisis. Many people do not know they have a right to have the Church examine their marriage if they think that there are serious reasons why it might not be valid in the first place. Consider, for example, a couple who thinks their marriage may not be valid but wants to rectify whatever is lacking so that they can be in a valid marriage with each other. Canon law provides for this with a two-fold process called the clarification and sanation of the bond. However, this can only be done if the Church determines there was no marriage in the first place.
I would further argue that allowing people who have serious concerns about their marriage to petition the Church for a decree of nullity might have a therapeutic and pastoral effect.
A couple in crisis could be faced with what seems only the choice of divorce. However, regardless of their own thoughts on the marriage, there is no guarantee that the Church would see things similarly. Going through the annulment process might actually help them to see that they are validly married and that they have work to do to heal their relationship with each other in order to fulfill that commitment. It would certainly erase any speculation that there would be a possibility of a second marriage that would be recognized by the Church.
Having known many people who have gone through divorce, I can understand why individuals might put off the annulment process. By the time most couples receive a civil divorce, they are exhausted. Assuming that they are aware of the annulment process, which they may not be, it’s understandable that they may be unprepared for the additional emotional and psychological toll, however therapeutic, of launching into yet another legal process with the spouse, all the more reason for allowing the annulment process before the civil proceedings are finalized. The Church recognizes that some marriages are not valid and that the presumed spouses have the right to be able to seek a sacramental marriage, either with the first presumed spouse or with someone else who is free to marry.
A short article can’t suffice to answer all the questions surrounding the situations of the divorced and remarried. But other resources are available, especially through the marriage tribunal of each diocese. Looking beyond the headlines and the sound bites, one might find the Church’s teachings to be incredibly pastoral in situations that require deep healing.
Who knows, the annulment discussion might even provoke a deeper, and much needed, conversation about marriage.
Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian and cultural analyst who writes from Washington.