Marriage of Mary and Joseph (Giotto)

John Kubasak

Can Catholics get Divorced?

Last year’s preparatory meetings for this fall’s synod of bishops garnered a large number of headlines.  The stories associated with those preparatory meetings landed all across the spectrum.  Some longed for a change in the Church’s teachings on marriage; others said such a change was impossible; still others wanted to approach it piecemeal.  I hope such conflicting views prompted all Catholics to investigate what the Catholic Church actually teaches.  Secular news media often doesn’t have a good theological understanding of Church teachings; sadly, some Catholic news outlets don’t, either. 

To have a well-informed Catholic understanding of marriage, we should go directly to the sources: the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law.  And, we also have one of the greatest theological bequests to the Church in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  It’s important to get a sense of where the Church gets her theological reasoning behind marriage and the legal requirements that go with it.

How The Church Views Marriage

First, let’s go to canon law.  In general, canon law governs how the Church operates.  It covers everything from sacramental requirements to the hierarchical organization of a diocese to regulation of religious orders.  The topic might seem dry or antiquated, but St. John Paul II laid out its true purpose when it was last revised in 1983: “to create such an order in the ecclesial society that, while assigning the primacy to love, grace, and charisms, it at the same time renders their organic development easier in the life of both the ecclesial society and the individual persons who belong to it." (1)  The Vatican website has the entire Code of Canon Law online here, and Book IV, Part I, Title VII covers marriage (canons 1055-1165). 

There are some things in those canons that might have been bigger problems in the past, or so we can hope—the man and woman need to be of a certain age (#1083), abduction can’t precede marriage (#1089), one who brought about the death of one spouse in order to marry another, can’t validly marry (2) (think “Dateline” or King Henry VIII, #1090), and blood lines must be respected (#1091).  For a bride and groom to even get to the door of the church, they must each be free to marry.  This is frequently where prior marriages are an obstacle.  During the rite of marriage, the couple must then declare their consent and intention.  The consent needs to be free from any pressure and the intention has to be more than the simple intent to get married.  The couple must intend marriage as the Church intends it: lifelong, monogamous, and with an openness to children. (3)

Once the vows are witnessed in the proper form by a deacon or priest, and the couple consummates their union, the Church sees that marriage as a permanent, ‘til-death-do-us-part union.  She presumes that the couple followed the rules, knew what they were doing, and exercised their will to go through with it.  Canon 1141 backs that up: a valid, consummated marriage “can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death” (4).  

This doesn’t come from the minds of men, nor even the experience of the Church over the centuries.  We have the words of Jesus Himself.  When the Pharisees posed the legality of divorce to Him—knowing full well that the Mosaic Law allowed it—Jesus pulled the discussion back to its roots.

“Have you not read that He Who made them from the beginning male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’?  So they are no longer two but one.  What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” (Matt 19:4-6)

Yes, divorce was allowed by the Mosaic Law; not for a good reason, however. 

“For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.” (Matt 19:8-9) 

Jesus’ double reference to the “beginning” recalls Genesis and the creation of the universe.  Man was designed in the image of God, and the union of man and woman was intended to mirror the love of the Holy Trinity. (5)  Throughout the Old Testament, references to the covenantal union between God and His people abound—marriage imagery is in Hosea, the Song of Songs, Isaiah (54:5-6 and 62:1-5), and Jeremiah (31:31-33).  The Bible begins with the marriage of Adam and Eve, and ends with the wedding of the Lamb of God to His Bride, the Church (cf. Revelation 19:7-9 and 21:2).

The Incarnation and Paschal Mystery of Jesus is an even more concrete, divine illustration of marriage.  Jesus the Bridegroom joined Himself to the flesh of His Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:31-33).  He freely entered into that union; totally and completely poured out His love for us throughout His life, but especially on the cross; stayed faithful to the will of the Father; that union has borne fruit for two millennia in souls reborn through water and the Spirit (cf. John 3:5).  Free, total, faithful, and fruitful.

Marriage is a beautiful sacrament that’s well-designed for humans.  It has the spiritual element of love, but also the physical element, too.  Men and women are a remarkable combination of soul and body!  The conjugal love shared by husband and wife:

“involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter–appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility (cf. Humanae vitae #9). In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values." (6)

What The Church Teaches About Divorce & Remarriage

The theology of marriage is meant to be held in tension with the concupiscence of humanity.  On one hand, these ideals are important to maintain; especially if they’re based on eternal Truth.  But without a grounding in reality, ideals become unwieldy.  After all, the disciples balked at Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce.  They remarked that it was better not to marry, if divorce isn’t an option!  (Matt 19:10) 

Dealing with divorce and remarriage is a huge issue for the Catholic Church—divorce rates are very high compared to the ideal rate (0%).  How does the Church remain faithful to the deposit of faith received from the apostles, and have a merciful, charitable response at the same time? 

When a Catholic divorces and wishes to be free to marry in the eyes of the Church, a civil court case does not eliminate the need for an annulment.  Although that would be convenient, I hope it’s clear that civil law and canon law have drastically different starting principles.  In civil law, there’s an allowance for a no-fault divorce—where wrongdoing on either side doesn’t have to be present for dissolution. Canon law starts from the standpoint of the permanence of marriage, and looking at the elements of consent, form, etc. described above.  The two positions are incompatible.

Civil divorce is not inherently sinful; there are justified circumstances like abuse, and Jesus gave the example of unchastity.  Separation without divorce is not sinful, as long as husband and wife don’t enter into any new unions. (7)  And, if a Catholic divorces and lives a chaste single life, there’s nothing that impedes them from participating fully in the sacramental life of the Church.


For a divorced Catholic to remarry, there must be a decree of nullity for their previous marriage(s).  This is more commonly called an annulment, and it’s more than a “Catholic divorce.”  Here again, we have to view this “from the beginning” and in light of the words of Jesus.  Man and woman who were united into one flesh were never intended to be separated, just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are always to be One; just as it’s inconceivable to think of Christ being separated from His bride, the Church. 

In a practical sense, an annulment looks at the beginning of the marriage itself.  Was something off?  Did either spouse not give full consent, or have an intent differing from the Church’s view on marriage?  Was the form of the rite not followed?  Or the union never consummated?  If there was anything amiss in those essential elements, the Church can pronounce with an annulment that the marriage was not valid... and the spouses would be free to marry.  To get the annulment process started, Catholics should first talk to their priest.  He would then connect them with the diocesan Marriage Tribunal, whose staff would guide them through the process.

For those that have already civilly divorced and remarried without an annulment, the discipline of the Church is very clear.  It’s not logically consistent for the Church to declare a marriage canonically valid and then ignore canonical structures in declaring it invalid.  Neither is it logically consistent for a person to be in two valid marriages.  As long as someone is in that situation, they cannot receive the Eucharist or exercise certain public, ecclesial responsibilities. (8) 

Those in that situation are not separated from the Church, however, nor their obligations to attend Sunday Mass, continue to raise their children in the faith, and live a life of charity. (9) Their baptism and therefore their belonging to Christ is an indelible mark on their soul. 

Mercy and Love

Having laid some groundwork on the theology behind marriage, divorce, and annulments, one last note is needed.  Divorces are often terribly painful, especially in cases of adultery.  It happened to a friend of mine, and when he told me about it, the anguish he experienced was palpable.  Divorce affects the spouses, of course, but also the children, the in-laws, and very likely the community.  And, although it’s needed, having to go through a civil divorce as well as an annulment can reopen wounds and prolong suffering.  Any discussion of church teaching must be accompanied by kindness and compassion, after the example of our merciful Lord.  He loved all Whom He taught and did not shy away from speaking the truth.  He met people where they were at and called them to repentance and deeper lives of grace.  That is the true pastoral response we should be seeking to emulate.

Let us remember the great gift God has given the Church in marriage and be thankful for it!  He designed it to unite a man and woman to show them the love He has for us, give them a special sharing in His love, and thus unite humanity to Himself in a unique way.  All sacraments point to God and the eternal destiny of His Church:

“He wills and He communicates the indissolubility of marriage as a fruit, a sign and a requirement of the absolutely faithful love that God has for man and that the Lord Jesus has for the Church.” (10)


Works Cited
All Scripture quotes from The Holy Bible, RSV-CE.  Ignatius Press, 1966.
(1) On homepage of Dr. Edward Peters; quote from Sacrae disciplinae leges, the apostolic constitution by which Pope John Paul II established the current Code of Canon Law
(2) Christopher West, God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage, Instructor’s Edition.  Ascension Press, 2005
(3) ibid.
(4) Code of Canon Law 1983, §1141.  
(5) Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #1648
(6) St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, #13, quoted in the CCC #1643. 
(7) CCC #1650
(8) ibid.
(9) CCC #1651
(10) St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, #20.