Many of us know of couples that have divorced. Some may be Catholic couples that divorced, remarried, and are able to receive the Sacraments with no problems because they received an annulment. Other Catholic couples we may know divorced but were told they could not remarry as they were not given an annulment. This may seem confusing and harsh of the Church, especially if the reason for separation is the infidelity of only one spouse. One of my students put the situation this way: it is as if the Church condemns some people to a lifetime of loneliness because their first marriage failed, even though it is not that spouse’s fault.
The Council of Trent states that there are “many reasons a separation may take place between husband and wife” and a couple ought not be condemned for such an act. An indeterminate separation of a married couple is a legitimate act and sometimes necessary as in the case of abuse. This article will concentrate specifically on divorce and remarriage and how it is handled in the Bible and the Church.
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Moses allowed an Israelite to write a certificate of divorce, send his wife away, and marry another. In the New Testament, Jesus teaches that this practice is no longer to be followed—divorce and remarriage are adultery (Matthew 5:32; 19:7-9). Today, the Roman Catholic Church has a process of issuing an annulment, properly called a decree of nullity. This process evaluates the validity or non-validity of a marriage. At first glance we seem to have three contradictory teachings on divorce and marriage: 1) Moses allows divorce, 2) Christ forbids it, and 3) the Roman Catholic Church decides whether they will recognize a marriage as valid or not based on a formal investigation.
The word “annulment” never appears in the English translation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The section handling annulments is titled “Cases to Declare the Nullity of Marriage.” Declaring a marriage null does not mean that it was valid and is no longer valid from a specific date going forward. Instead, it means that there never was a marriage. It asserts that a couple never married, ever. So it would be a grave error to state that it is a “Catholic divorce.”
A close friend of mine, a Catholic priest, gave me some very good points to remember about this topic. 1) The Church does not issue annulments; it issues decrees of nullity. 2) The choice of the tribunal cannot make a valid thing invalid; the decree simply declares that which is reality. 3) A marriage is either valid or invalid from its beginning. 4) The Church’s tribunal is primarily concerned about the moment of consent (the wedding day) when evaluating marriages. The course of one’s marriage may be considered for proofs of an invalid vow but are not the basis for declaring a marriage invalid.
According to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, if a man wanted to divorce his wife he could issue a bill of divorce that stated “You are free to marry again” and would send her away. There were two main schools of thought during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry that interpreted Deuteronomy and the possible grounds for divorce. The Shammai school believed that divorce was only appropriate in the case of an unchaste wife, while the Hillel school believed anything could be grounds for divorce—even a badly cooked dinner (The Mishnah: A New Translation, Gittin 9:10). Rabbi Aqiba went so far as to state that even a man’s desire for a prettier woman was sufficient grounds for divorce (Gittin 9:10).
When the Pharisees question Jesus in Matthew 19 about divorce, they were not asking him the question to find out if the practice itself was valid. Instead, they wanted to know under what circumstances one was able to divorce his wife; only in cases of infidelity or even when a wife burns dinner.
Jesus responded that Moses did not allow for divorce because he believed it to be moral in some circumstances. Moses allowed divorce because of how sinful the people had become—it was a concession to their extreme sinfulness (Matthew 19:3-9). In fact, St. Jerome wrote in his Commentary on Matthew that Moses was preventing murder by allowing divorce as men were killing their wives in order to marry another.
In Matthew 19:8, Jesus teaches that “from the beginning [divorce] was not so.” Christ calls us to remember the unveiling of Eve to Adam in Genesis before Original Sin. Upon seeing Eve, Adam cries out “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). The two become one flesh at that point, and there is an inseparable nature to their marital union. The Code of Canon Law teaches that the only event which is able to dissolve a valid marriage is death. What is exchanged in marriage between the couple is not merely a promise that must be fulfilled, but each gives themself entirely to their spouse.
The process of the Catholic Church in determining the validity of a marriage is based on the requirements for making a vow. The most important being consent; without it a marriage cannot exist. Consent is an “act of the will” where spouses mutually give and accept each other. A person must have knowledge of what they are doing and have reached psychic maturity in understanding what a marriage is; thus, a child is incapable of marriage. Lack of freedom leads to an invalid vow as well.
In summary, divorce was allowed by Moses in Deuteronomy due to the extreme sinfulness of the men. Jesus teaches that divorce and remarriage is adultery, plain and simple. From the beginning of creation, God designed marriage as a lifelong bond. The annulment process of the Catholic Church evaluates whether a marriage has properly occurred. If it is found that a person was incapable of contracting a marriage for some reason, be it a mental disorder, fear, or lack of freedom, then a marriage never existed and a Decree of Nullity is issued. Unfortunately, some people enter into valid marriages, but regret doing so or are unhappy with the way the marriage turns out. This does not invalidate a marriage. It may be no one’s fault that a marriage does not work out, but that does not mean that a true marriage does not exist.
Updated: July 29, 2014.
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