The Church Cannot Change Her Doctrine on Marriage and Divorce. Concerns for the Upcoming Synod

Over the past several months there has been a lot of speculation on if and how the Church should change her teaching on marriage and divorce. Ross Douthat recently wrote a thoughtful column that sums up recent debates and concerns. (Here: More Catholic than the Pope?)

But those who seriously think that the Church can execute a fundamental change in our stance on divorce and remarriage will get a simple answer from me: “Impossible.” To the inevitable follow-up question, I can be equally brief in my response: “Divine Law.”

The Church’s teaching and concerns about divorce and remarriage do not have their origin in some sort of “uptight” Church with a bunch of “uptight rules,” (to use an unfair characterization).   The forbiddance of divorce and remarriage is Divine Law; that is, it comes from the very lips of Jesus.

Despite the widespread allowance of divorce in His own culture, and even some allowance of it in the Mosaic Law, Jesus, when asked if divorce and remarriage were permissible, simply says, “No” (Mat 5:32; Mat 19:9; Mark 10:11Lk 16:18;).   He goes even further and says that those who do so commit ongoing adultery in their second marriages.  This teaching is repeated several times in Jesus’ ministry.

This is Divine Law, sovereignly stated by Jesus. No Pope, no Council, no Synod, no priest in any confessional—no one has any right or capacity to set aside Divine Law.  Those who argue that the Church should change her teaching on this matter are asking the Church to do something she cannot do. They are asking her to overrule Jesus. Appeals to culture, pointing out what certain Protestant denominations do or don’t do, even the practice of the Orthodox churches—none of these can or should overrule the stance of the Roman Catholic Church. We have held, properly, that Jesus’ teaching on the matter cannot be set aside by formulas, human rituals, human judges, human clerics, or any number of euphemisms.

Jesus is clear: to be validly married and then to divorce and marry someone else is to be an ongoing state of adultery. If this does not seem “nice” or “pastoral,” let the complainant  talk to the chief Shepherd, Jesus, because He is the one who said it.  Whatever pastoral stance the Church adopts, whatever language she employs, she cannot adopt any sort of stance that overrules this clear teaching of Jesus’.

But of course this brings forth the next question: What about annulments? Are they not a breaking of Jesus’ teaching? No, at least not according to the very words of Jesus himself. Let’s consider the matter a little further.

The Biblical Root of Annulments. The Lord says this in regard to marriage: “What God has joined together, let no one divide (Mat 19:6). On the face of it, divorce or any sort of annulment would seem forbidden by this. But actually the text serves as a basis for the Church’s allowance of annulment under certain circumstances.

The text says “What GOD has joined together” cannot be divided. Now just because two people stand before a Justice of the Peace, or a minister, or even a priest and swear vows, it does not mean that what they do is a work of God. There have to be some standards that the Church insists on in order for us to acknowledge that what they do is “of God.”

There are a number of impediments that can render what they do ipso facto invalid. Things such as prior bond (married before), consanguinity (related by blood too closely), minor status (under legal age), incapacity for the marital act (i.e., cannot have sexual intercourse), and the use of crime or deceit to obtain consent—any of these things can render a “marriage” invalid. Further, it is widely held that if one or both parties were compelled to enter the marriage (e.g., by social or financial pressure), or if they display(ed) a grave lack of due discretion on account of immaturity or poor formation, such marriages are nullified on these grounds.

All these are ways that the Church, based on evidence, can come to a determination that what appeared to be a marriage externally was not in fact so. Put more biblically, the putative marriage was not “what God has joined together.”

One may ask, “Who is the Church to make such a determination?” She is in fact the one to whom the Lord entrusted, through the ministry of Peter and the Bishops, the power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18) and to speak in His name (Lk 10:16).

Thus, Annulments are not Divorces. A decree of nullity from the Church is a recognition, based on the evidence provided, that a marriage in the Catholic and biblical sense of the word never existed. Hence, since a person has not in fact been joined by God to another, he or she is free to marry in the future. In such a case a person does not violate our Lord’s declaration that one who divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf Matt 19:9).

Hence the Church does not set aside the Lord’s teaching by her teaching on annulment. Rather she has reflected on His teaching and seeks to apply the Lord’s premise for a valid marriage, namely, that it is “what God has joined together.”

But here then comes the basis for the great debate: are we giving too many annulments? While it is clear that the Church has some pretty precise canonical norms regarding marriage, like any norms, they have to be interpreted and applied. Certain American practices and norms have evolved over the last thirty years that many think are too permissive and thus no longer respectful of the binding nature of marital vows.

Many troubling statistics could be presented to show that there has been a true explosion in the number of annulments granted. In the early 1960s, there were about 300 annulments granted per year in the United States. Today that number is over 60,000!

When it comes to annulments, I as a Catholic pastor am somewhat torn. Permit me two thoughts on both sides of the question.

Issue # 1 – Somewhere we have lost our way. As a Church that forbids divorce and remarriage, historically we have insisted on the fact that marriage is an unbreakable bond. Our straightforward insistence on this actually led Henry VIII to found his own “church” when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce and remarry.

In recent decades I fear we have become an “uncertain trumpet” on this topic. We still say “no divorce and remarriage,” but we don’t really seem to mean it, at least not in the minds of most people, who do not have command of the finder points of canon law. If one does go the route of divorce and remarriage, routinely we seem to “work it all out for them.”

That so few annulment requests are refused makes it seem a bit of a charade to say that we teach against divorce and remarriage. Now I said it makes it SEEM this way; I did not say that we in fact DO teach that divorce and remarriage is OK. But our teaching forbidding it surely seems an abstraction to many; for in the end and there appear to be no real consequences for anyone who divorces, other than having to go through a tedious and legalistic process that almost always ends in the granting of the annulment.

Hence our pastoral practice does not seem to reflect our faith and doctrine vigorously. Pastorally, this is troubling, and it has grave effects on marriage in the Church and on how people regard it. Are we really serious about upholding the Lord’s strict doctrine on marriage? Though doctrinally I think we are, pastorally I think most Catholics don’t think we are all that serious about it in the end. What we do speaks more loudly than what we say. And this is a big problem.

Issue # 2- Many pastors struggle with Annulment, not as an abstract debate about policy, but rather as a problem that affects real people who come to them with needs. Often it isn’t as crass as somebody coming in and saying, “Well I got rid of my first wife and have got me another I want to marry; let’s get the paperwork going, Father.” It is usually far more poignant than that. Perhaps someone married early, before he or she was really very serious about the faith, and married someone abusive. Now, years after the divorce, he or she has found someone supportive in the faith. Perhaps they even met right in the parish. Should a marriage that was entered into in the young and foolish years, and lasted all of six months, preclude entering into a supportive union that looks very promising? Maybe so, some still say.

Another common scenario is a person showing up at RCIA who has recently found the Catholic faith and wants to enter it. However, he or she was married 15 years ago in a Protestant Church to someone who had been married before. Now, mind you, the current marriage is strong and they have both been drawn to the Catholic faith. They have four children as well. What is a priest to do? Well, I can tell you that this priest will help the one who needs an annulment to get it.

And I can tell you, a lot of cases come to the Church this way. It’s hard and perhaps even unjust to say to someone like this that there is nothing the Church can do—he or she will never qualify for the Sacraments. No, we just don’t do that; we take such individuals through the process for annulment.

Perhaps too, another person shows up at the door: a long lost Catholic who has been away for 30 years. During that time he or she did some pretty stupid stuff, including getting married and divorced—sometimes more than once. Now he or she shows up at my door in a current marriage that seems strong and helpful, and which includes children. The person is in desperate need of Confession and Holy Communion. What is a pastor to do? He takes him or her through the process of annulment to get access to those Sacraments.

So there it is. There are very grave pastoral issues on both sides. On the one side, we lack coherence for many when we say we are against divorce and remarriage, but then grant so many annulments. On the other side are tens of thousands of people whom we seek to reintegrate into the life of the Church and her Sacraments.

Frankly, some of the reports (and they are only reports) of the upcoming Synod have been a bit discouraging. Many influential leaders, Bishops among them, have suggested a further watering down (my assessment) of the teaching of Jesus (who himself refused to water it down when pressured to do so) on divorce and remarriage. My own prayer is that we would move more in the direction of internal clarity regarding valid grounds for annulment. Right now the lack of clarity over what is meant by “grave lack of due discretion” (a.k.a. “immaturity”) sows confusion and even cynicism among the faithful.

It will be granted that some degree of maturity is required to enter into sacramental marriage. We don’t let 10-year-olds marry for good reasons. And when someone turns 18, he or she doesn’t magically reach the maturity required to enter into a valid Catholic marriage.  However, when does one reach maturity? What are the signs of or criteria for such maturity? Exactly how much maturity is required for one to enter into a valid marriage? On what grounds can a priest refuse to marry a couple he deems to be immature? As you can see, nailing down the concept of “maturity” may seem easy, but it is not.

This is significant because many, if not most annulments are rendered on the grounds of grave lack of due discretion (a.k.a. lack of full maturity).

If there could be any reform that might be helpful coming from the Synod, it would be to order further clarity and reflection over what we mean by “due discretion” and proper maturity. Sadly, I do not see such a proposal on the table. If reports are true, it sounds like many are looking for (hoping for) a solution that, to my mind, makes things far more murky, and may even set aside or weaken what Jesus taught without compromise.

Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit, who I am sure will prevent the Synod from teaching outright error. But protection from error is a “negative protection” in that it only prevents error. And thanks be to God for that! But is it too much for me to pray for greater clarity, for me to pray that the Spirit will lead us to become clearer and more prophetic in our teaching? Veni Sancte Spiritus!

99 Replies to “The Church Cannot Change Her Doctrine on Marriage and Divorce. Concerns for the Upcoming Synod”

  1. Hello Msgr. Pope.I don’t agree with the churches harsh stance on divorced and remarried.I was a cradle catholic that left the church as a teenager,and became protestant.After nearly 30 years,the Good Lord brought me back to His church,and I am THRILLED.During my time away,I was married once,got divorced and now remarried who like me,returned to the church.We love being reunited with Rome again,But we aren’t allowed to go to communion.This breaks my heart.I do believe in the authority that Jesus gave the apostles,and apostolic succession,otherwise,I would not have returned.
    Yes,the Lord did talk about divorce,as you stated.He also mentioned forgiveness.At the last supper,did He not say..”take this ALL of you”.
    Msgr,I may not agree with every canon law,but I do abide by them,mostly.One day,in the kingdom of God,perhaps I might dine at His table.

    1. Of course one Scripture does not cancel another. The same Lord who speaks of forgiveness also says no divorce. There is tension here, but we do not resolve tensions by picking one and discarding the other. Some tensions we have to live with. There are pastoral provisions, as the article discusses, but at the end of the day we cannot set aside the Lord’s “hard sayings”

      It is my hope that you have explored possibilities will you local pastor and you are simply presuming you cannot be restored to the Sacraments.

      1. Our Lord and His Church of course are all about forgiveness. Sometimes we say that this forgiveness is unconditional, which it is in the sense that it is unconditionally given, but that does not automatically mean the receiver is disposed to receive it. This is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation needs confession (“I sinned”), contrition, (“I’m sorry I sinned”), and (and here’s the sticky widget) resolution not to sin again. If I have no intention of avoiding the sin later, I have invalidated the Sacrament (and quite possibly have added sacrilege to my offenses.) To be divorced and remarried without an annulment is a continuing state of sin. I.e. there is no resolution to stop sinning.

      2. We are in pain that you cannot receive communion, knowing that you came back and love our LORD and the Church. Open your heart to your priest and go even to your Bishop, GOD will open a way for you. This must be the feeling of those in purgatory. They see GOD yet they cannot ‘taste and touch’ the goodness of the LORD yet. Know that the Mercy of GOD is there, the fact that you are in the Church is already a blessing. We cry with you and for you. GOD be with you and your family.

      3. If you sort out the scriptures correctly, it all becomes clear. In the beginning God gave a law of marriage to the whole human race, but he did not give a law of divorce. When he established Israel as a nation, he laid it down that a marriage could not subsist between an Israelite and a Gentile. He gave a law of divorce to Israel, but not to any other nation. In the mind of Christ, divorce was lawful only when mandatory, and it is mandatory where two Jews marry when the Law of Moses forbids them to each other for sexual relations. (“porneia”).

        St Paul affirmed that he had an instruction from the Lord concerning marriages between Christians: No divorce (1 Cor. 7).

    2. I admire and feel grateful for your obedience in respecting the teaching of the Church by refraining from receiving Holy Communion. You are probably experiencing a small measure of the longing God had for you while you were away from the Church. God cannot be outdone in generosity and will surely reward you for your faithfulness. And don’t forget to make a Spiritual Communion as St. Alphonsus (i think) taught.

    3. To be forgiven one must show contrition and a firm purpose of amendment. In order to fulfill this it is necessary to put right, to the best of one’s ability, the sin that requires forgiving. Jesus’ forgiveness is always in the context of ‘Go, and sin no more’. What you are suggesting is that sin should be tolerated, or that sin is not sin, something far worse.

      Perhaps the easiest way to understand is to realise that you’re a ‘religious person’, a Catholic. The fact that you’re not a cleric or religious does not lessen your responsibility to commit your live totally to the Lord. Many have given their very live, even today in Syria, rather than deny their faith. In this light trying to live according to the Gospel call is far less burdensome.

      The problem is the hierarchy. Instead of proclaiming the truth in this matter they seek ways, i.e., the upcoming extraordinary synod, in which to ‘get around the problem’. This is actually worrying. They should be proclaiming marriage as part of the Good News, something that makes us happy, in the real sense. When they go wrong they should be seen as a crucifying happiness, our share in the cross. Not something to be ‘worked around’.

  2. Thank you Father Charles for this clear exposition of the Church’s (indeed Our Lord’s) teaching on matrimony.

  3. Monseigneur Pope,
    I have enjoyed and learned a lot from your blog; thank you for taking the time to write!

    I have often wondered if part of the reason for the number of anullments is that so many in the US enter marriage with the idea of using artificial birth control, esp when one or both of the couple is/are Protestant?

    And I also thought that requests for examination of annullments were considered at the parish level and then passed on only if there seemed to be a good chance that there really was an impediment to the marriage? Which explain why there is a high rate of declarations to requests.

    And finally, I have also often wondered if perhaps we just didn’t have good marriage prep for a long period of time, resulting in a lot of Catholics marrying less carefully than they should have? I am old enough to recall how quickly and radically many things changed in the 1960s… to me, society in general was very supportive of stable marriages, etc. before that time, but that support disappeared and perhaps many married without either that background or a firm marriage prep pre-Cana program. This might also explain the higher rate here in the US, where cohabitation rates are generally lower than in Europe, and social support lower than in other parts of the world.

    I too fear a recurrence of what happened regarding birth control in the 1960s–we should pray for those involved in the decision-making!

    Thanks again!

  4. It is heartening to see you cover this, Msgr. It somewhat balances out the discouragement over the fact that Cardinal Kasper and others are giving the impression that the teaching COULD change. I think our Church is in very bad shape given that this is going on all the way to the top.

  5. Here we are down in the trenches trying to make sense of God’s will for our lives. One of my dearest friends is in a rough place in her marriage. She is strongly considering divorce. She is a cradle Catholic, and her parents are seriously old school Catholics. Personally, I think she should stick it out for many reasons, but she is absolutely miserable and so is her husband. Like you, I stand torn. If I think about heaven and their immortal souls, I think that they should stick together and figure out how to be married. On the other end, I think of God’s Divine Mercy, and He would not want them to be miserable. Like many parts of our life, we can not always control the circumstances, but we can control our reaction to it. In my church, in the older generation 70+, we have many great examples of long faithfully married couples. In the middle group 50 – 70, we have many divorced and remarried couples. Most of my best Catholic friends are divorced and re-married, some with and some without benefit of annulment. As a convert, I only recently realized that you were not supposed to receive communion if you were re-married without an annulment because divorce is so ubiquitous. So like many things from the baby boomer generation, I think that they are doing what they want to do, and they want our Church to now put its seal of approval on their behavior, especially as they get older and begin to think about last things. I do not want to go into a rant about popular culture and television, but I really think that we are allowing ourselves to be led astray by the world. We see couples who are always happy and who resolve conflict in 30 minutes. If you ask anyone, they will tell you that it is made up, but those brief snapshots into fantasy lives wear on our soul and our brain making us think that we aren’t happy enough or begin to niggle in the assumption that men are all bumbling fools or that any number of bizarre and unnatural living arrangements are “normal”. While television can be educational, the goal is to capture your attention so you will watch whatever commercial they are selling. To keep our attention, it has to get more prurient, more dramatic, and more shocking, at the same time, it moves our view of normal, slowly. Now our clergy is not immune to this impact, and especially dealing with these difficult situations, they want to show God’s mercy as much as I do, maybe even more. This is a danger point, it is where the serpent comes with reasonable assertions–isn’t this good to eat, and surely you will not die. But only holiness and goodness is pleasing to God, and while we must show mercy to our brothers and sisters who are suffering, we can not forget that this is more than an unpleasant situation, this is truly a battle for our souls. God made us to be as one, and the serpent does his best to break us apart, to drive a wedge between man and woman, because when we are together as God intended, we create life and joy and love, and the serpent hates these things. He is trying to make women take on the role of men to destroy our ability to create life and he is trying to make men to be like women to weaken their strength. It is easy to forget there is a battle going on for our very souls, and we must not soften. We must stand strong. Thank you for your post. It has clarified my thoughts about my friend.

    1. So like many things from the baby boomer generation, I think that they are doing what they want to do, and they want our Church to now put its seal of approval on their behavior, especially as they get older and begin to think about last things.

      I had never thought about the boomers’ behaviour in this way before — they want the Church to approve their actions before it’s too late. That’s quite enlightening. To my generation (under 30), the idea that you would stay in the Church if you didn’t want to abide by its teachings is bizarre. Why not just leave?

      The sad thing is, they themselves would be so much happier if they did as the Church teaches. But pride is extremely powerful.

      1. I am somewhat older than you are, and while I am technically not a baby boomer, my parents were old enough to have baby boomer children. I love that younger people are returning to more conservative church teaching.

    2. Please tell your friend to look into the closest Retrouvaille program to help save their marriage. Its a great Catholic program and it helped me.

    3. Fantastic post, R. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I agree with everything you say.

    4. As someone who is currently recovering from a thoroughly miserable time in marriage I can say that unless violence is apprehended, your friends should stick it out. That’s it. Eventually, God will heal the marriage.

  6. The Lord is my shepherd. Since I am just one among the flock and He ‘walks ahead of them’, all I have to do is ‘follow him because I recognize his voice’…echoed through you, my pastor, my elders, the Magisterium, and all those to whom I look up to. Thank you Monsignor Pope!

  7. Just a few points. First, Maybe there are more annulments, because our culture has so radically changed that far more marriages are entered into by immature people–we have even raised the age by which we expect young people to be responsible for many things–like their own health insurance–now little Johnny can nag mommy and daddy to put him on their insurance( until age 26 I believe). Pretty soon our young people will be immature until age 36.
    Second, Maybe priests, deacons, etc. are doing their job at the parish level. As I understand it a request for an annulment is not supposed to go above the parish level unless a good case for granting an annulment can be made. Consequently that high percentage of annulments granted at higher levels is to be expected since the “bad” or “weak” annulment cases have been properly weeded out at the parish level.

  8. From Mr. Douthat’s article: “The United States…has 6 percent of the world’s Catholics and about 60 percent of the world’s annulments.”

    Ha! Yet, some in the Church still wonder why American Catholic men are reluctant to marry!

    1. Funny..ha ha, so why are women not afraid of marriage?

      1. One reason why Women are not afraid of marriage is because of the pro-female bias that is in the No-Fault Divorce Industry.
        Conduct some reasearch on no-fault divorce (80% filed by the wife, 40% of the husbands being “blindsided” and against the action according to surveys). Since it’s advent in the ’70s, No-Fault Divorce has been the ruination of of innumerable marriages and is inherently unjust in most (not all) instances.
        May God have mercy on us all.

        1. Not in all jurisdictions. I would have been left hung out to dry if my husband had gone through with the divorce he threatened.

          1. Yes, thanks Louise. David, you are wrong….atleast in my case too.
            I too was divorced by my husband, who left me
            with nothing but the mattress. When we got married he said he
            would provide; however, when he left he took all the furniture saying
            he had paid for all of it. How convenient, and it was a no fault marriage.

            But I’m not afraid to love. And I would marry the right man, if God
            willed it.

      2. Thanks Anna.

        I think some women are afraid of marriage, but many women simply “follow their heart” and hope and pray that things will work out for the best with the man they chose. Women have a strong natural drive to want to have children. Although men have a strong natural sex drive, the male desire to have and raise children is not as strong as it is in women. Therefore, there have to be strong cultural incentives to persuade men to marry and have children. In traditional cultures, this was accomplished in part by dowries. Nowadays, such incentives no longer exist.

        What is so tragic is that there are so many barriers that modern society places on marriage. These include loose divorce laws [and annulment rules in the Church], both sexes competing with each other for the same degrees and jobs, the lengthy period required for education, the high cost of living, etc.

        Msgr. Pope is right. The Church should be doing more to encourage solid, stable marriages. The Church should not be conforming, if only slightly, to the modern concept of disposable marriages. Modern attitudes towards marriage have done incalculable damage to our families and society as a whole.

        1. I can’t have children anymore, but that hasn’t stopped me from wanting to be
          married. But that’s in God’s hands. I trust He knows what’s best for me.

          I do agree that this culture of death needs to be redirected to life and love. And
          I do think the Church is doing a lot to help troubled marriages.

        2. “I think some women are afraid of marriage, but many women simply “follow their heart” and hope and pray that things will work out for the best with the man they chose.”

          But sometimes really good men (and women) just go off the rails. Nobody can predict that and it does happen. That’s why it’s such a shock when it does. We’re not talking about people who have always been bad characters or just unreliable.

  9. Msgr,

    Thanks for your article. One element of the “increase” in annulments is the growing sense that, while one has no right to an annulment, one does have a right to ask. Also, many years ago, when I was trained as a lay “field advocate,” it was stressed very much that, although anyone can petition, only someone who had at least a plausible claim should do so. Plus, the dioceses have devoted more resources to the tribunals. And, most importantly, perhaps, “lack of discretion” “invalid consent” “coercion” don’t necessarily mean someone must have acted in bad faith.

  10. Msgr Pope,

    Thank you for this article. It did help clarify some questions I have had regarding annulment, but did miss one big one…

    You speak of annulling protestant or JOP marriages. Why does the church claim authority to annul these non-sacramental marriages, when in fact they were performed outside the Catholic church? If performed this way, wouldn’t they be “non-existent” in the eyes of the church anyway? How does the church define the validity of these marriages?

    Could the recognition of non-catholic marriages lend credibility to gay marriages? I have always thought gays could not be truly married as God would not recognize such a union. Any state “marriage” would be just a pointless piece of paper, yet the church seems to recognize more than I thought.

    Your clarification is greatly appreciated in this area. Thank you.

  11. Hello all. I agree with Annie. If there are a lot of annulments granted due to immaturity, then the process of determining who is mature enough to be allowed to marry in our Church is not working out as well as it should. In Catholic school we were taught that marriage is a vocation, that we are not all destined for marriage, that there are many ways to serve the Lord. And that once the priest said those words, our souls were bound forever, and divorcing would be like cutting off a body part. In the general culture marriage is just milestone that should happen by a certain age, and if it doesn’t work out at first, try and try again, because you might have to search a bit for your “soulmate”–funny how as soon as a celebrity declares someone their soulmate, divorce is not far behind.

    I don’t know how marriage prep is done here today, but in the early 1993 (in Puerto Rico) my wife an I were evaluated one-on-one, and as a couple, over several months and we also had to fill out several compatibility questionnaires. Our “sponsor” couple had been married a long time and pointed to us where we were bound to have issues and how to resolve it. I’m pretty sure they would have also told us to break it off if they had thought it would not work out.

    I guess culturally we also had a lot of support to stay in the marriage (both our parent-sets were in long term marriages, and so were most relatives of the previous generation). And there was stigma attached to divorce. When we got into trouble there were others on whom we could lean for support and advice. There was a vested interest in our marriage working out. When we moved to the mainland, we noticed that everyone is from somewhere else, and the support structures are a lot thinner.

  12. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    I have a simple and scary question: what if the Synod determines that invalidly married people can receive the Communion? This seems to be what Pope Francis has determined individually.

    Does this mean the gates of Hell have prevailed? Should we become Protestants? Or maybe atheists? My wife and I recently joined the church and this is a very very serious concern for us. Please advise.

    1. Douthat in his article articulates your concern that there might actually be schism if the scenario you describe played out. However, lets not forget the Holy Spirit. The Pope will not teach error. I believe in all my heart that whatever forces are swirling about for a change, the Pope’s charism of infallibility will prevail. cf. Paul VI in 1968.

  13. I’ve seen marriages wrecked by divorce. Everything is oriented toward helping people avoid the consequences of it because it seems cruel to limit someone to singlehood for the rest of his earthly life or to force him to choose between marriage or singlehood and the Sacraments. Divorce also isn’t considered as a very serious issue because both parties involved theoretically can remarry and be happy. Drawing a hard line and excluding people who don’t measure up would make the Church look bad for PR purposes but would probably lead to a stronger Church. And that would also in a lot of cases be compassionate toward those who are unjustly subjected to divorce by an immoral spouse instead of compassionate toward an immoral spouse who sinned in the distant past. Interesting, related:

    1. I think there is a lot of truth to what you say. Clarity and courage will go a long way. However, as I point out in the article, there are very poignant pastoral situations that often drive the soft approach (e.g. RCIA and people returning after years away from the Church).

      That said, I am concerned that we have allowed the “disease model” to eclipse proper and good pastoral care. IOW we have crafted our whole approach around taking care of the bad or difficult marital situations but to some degree have further poisoned or watered down the climate wherein we expect and teach normal, straight-forward teaching on Matrimony. And thus we see that the situation is not getting better, it is getting worse and more widespread. Abusus non tollit usus (Abuse does not take away (the proper) use). But I am afraid that we have allowed the abuse of the Sacrament to largely eclipse and take away respect for the proper use of the Sacrament. To degree we no longer expect most people to attain to the proper use of the sacrament and we have allowed the abuse or aberrant cases to become the expectation.

  14. If the priest/deacon performing the premarriage preparation explains to the couple the meaning of openness to life, sacrifice, following all of the teachings of the Church, getting souls to Heaven, and placing God above all-and then checks for comprehension and adherance to these musts, he can do no more (save fasting/praying for them).

    1. Agreed. That said, despite our much extolled six months of preparation where, theoretically couples are being prepared, declarations of nullity are no less frequently given because a couple went through “pre-cana” classes. I am very clear and insistent on Church teaching and quite blunt at times, frankly, in Marriage prep. I’d like to think that if one of “my couples” later applied for an annulment that the Tribunal might say, “Hey, Charlie Pope prepared this couple and so we can’t presume they were clueless on the Day of vows….” But, as far as I know such considerations are in no way done or even allowed.

      Of course there is more to a matrimony than the preparation received. The Extended family and cultural situations probably have more influence than the brief time I or any Catholic program spends with couples. Nevertheless, If we’re going to say that maturity is a key issue and lack of preparation as well, how vigorous are we really going to be in assessing maturity and knowledge? Even if a pries tries to prevent a couple from marrying, most Canonists advise that “people have a natural right to marry.” IOW the priest and the Church have to have VERY serious reasons to deny Catholics their right to approach the Church for matrimony.

      1. A major point which seems to be overlooked in these comments is that the tribunals are supposed to arrive at a high degree of certainty about things. A marriage is supposed to be assumed valid, not invalid, and thus, there is a great duty to be morally certain about the judgment of the tribunal. The problem is there is no much psychological fluff now admitted as “evidence” and so on.

  15. Thanks for this post, Monsignor. You make a strong point on the need for greater clarity on the due discretion issue.

    What about a case in which there was no reference to God at all in the marriage ceremony, say, a civil union between two atheists. One takes it that, in the eyes of the Church at least, no marriage in that case took place at all, is that correct?

    Also, what about the experience in the early centuries of the Church when the bishops had to adjudicate cases of prior pagan marriages or mixed pagan-Christian marriages? Did the early Church recognize pagan marriages as marriages?

    1. Here too, things are murky. If one party is Catholic in the “courthouse marriage” then the thing is invalid. But if neither party is Catholic it is presumed valid and must be adjudicated as a formal case. Then too there are Pauline and Petrine cases but they take forever so most Tribunals advise looking for other grounds. But there is a puzzling world where validity varies so much based on if one party is Catholic or not. Two Protestants can parachute out of a plane and exchange vows with a JP on the ay down and the thing is at least presumed valid. But if one party is Catholic, no matter the venue, a beach, a Prot. Church, midair, or a courthouse, it is ipso facto invalid. And so it seems we have two different stands. I can understand the different standards for liceity, but for validity it seems we should have something closer to one standard. But again, great canonical minds will have to ponder this, I am NO canonist, as any canonist will quickly tell you. I am just a pastor trying to make sense out of a very confusing landscape.

      1. Monsignor Pope,

        If a Roman Catholic Marries a Greek Orthodox in the Greek Church without a Dispensation from the Catholic Bishop, is the marriage considered Valid? Also, All the Orthodox insist that the Children be raised Orthodox but we also want the couple to raise the children Catholic. How would you handle that?

      2. This is why, without intending in any way to demean interfaith marriages, it is preferable to marry within the Catholic Faith. It causes far fewer complications in so many areas of life.

      3. This part of canon law came into being to stop clandestine marriages I think. It is possible the canon law may need to change on this point.

  16. Msgr:
    I am disappointed that perpetuate the myth about the number of annulments. Has the overall number increased? Certainly. Does this speak to a greater percentage of those who apply being granted annulments? NO! A close friend of mine who works on a Tribunal tells me of the great number of cases that never figure into the statistics because they are withdrawn before a verdict is reached. Very often in those cases where it is obvious that the decision is going to be negative (that is “no annulment”) people withdraw the case rather than get that decision. So I think it is unfair to simply cite a number and not present any context to explain it.

    1. Too many annulments are being applied for then because people are now faithless and fickle and even the church does not – in practice – encourage faithfulness in marriage. There’s your problem – too many marriage breaking down. and nobody caring about God’s law.

  17. “Hence our pastoral practice does not seem to reflect our faith and doctrine vigorously. ”

    Alas, this could be said of most Church teachings on moral issues. Contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and yes, many social teachings as well. The list goes on and on. There has always been, in every age, a real discrepancy between what the Church teaches and what its members sometimes do, but never before in our history has it been so vast and so public…so blatant, so defiant.

    There is no doubt that the annulment process has resulted in too many annulments granted too readily, and the result is grave scandal. That said, the process has begun being tightened up in many jurisdictions as a result of Roman prodding, and indeed, this entire section of the code of Canon Law is said to be in the process of being rewritten.

    Speaking as someone who has had an annulment, I will say that the process is not quick or pain-free, not by any means. Mine took most of three years, thanks in part to having to re-file in another diocese due to jurisdictional issues. I will also add that pastors do form a kind of screening process, one which, when it is working properly, heads off many filings by making it clear at the initial contact that the parties don’t have any real case for a declaration of nullity. And these rejections by the “gatekeepers” do not show up in the annulment statistics.

    All of which is why I do hope that this Synod bluntly and clearly reaffirms Church teaching on marriage. The stakes are too high.

  18. Was there a rider on Matthew 16:18 that was otherwise not recorded in the Gospels?

    1. Yes, the “porneia” clause. In effect Jesus sets aside the cases where, among the Gentiles laws of consanguinity were violated. He says in effect, “Due to incest, these are not really marriages at all and should be set aside.” Thus, in both Matt 5 and 19 Jesus says no divorce μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ (me epi porneia – except for porneia (e.g. incest, or some other illicit sexual union that the “marriage” causes).

  19. Perhaps the solution is to only grant sacramental marriages to those who can be shown to be mature in their faith. Just a suggestion…I am not sure what the way out of the mess is, but divorce is one of the main ways our culture (and the children of the divorced) are being destroyed.

  20. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    I have a simple and scary question: what if the Synod determines that invalidly married people can receive the Communion? This seems to be what Pope Francis has determined individually.

    Does this mean the gates of Hell have prevailed? Should we become Protestants? Or maybe atheists? My wife and I recently joined the church and this is a very very serious concern for us. Please advise.

  21. So, can a Catholic married to a Protestant in an non-Catholic wedding continue to receive communion?

    1. No, unless they had permission to marry outside the Church in a non-Catholic ritual with a non catholic clergy. To return to Communion they need to have their marriage validated (blessed) by the Church. This can be done without much delay, unless one or both of them have been married before. If that is the case, welcome to annulment-land and any prior marriage(s) must be declared null before the current marriage can be validated.

  22. I’ve always had several problems with our stance on divorce though I will follow it out of obedience. First off it’s true what Jesus said. But when asked why Moses allowed it he said: :Because of the hardness of your heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery.”
    I always thought that hardness of heart meant men who no longer cared for their wives for frivolous reasons or wanting to trade her in for someone younger and sexier.
    In many marriages today a man and woman my live in misery in for two decades trying to work it out. That is hardly hardness of heart. Any adult knows that a marriage sometimes does not work out. Does that mean couples are condemned to misery? Also, someone who cheats on his or her spouse, or attacks someone violently or even commits murder can be back in communion through confession. Is the breakup of a marriage really that more severe. Jesus also said not to kill and to turn the other cheek. Yet that is never really enforced. If the Church is going to be that strict on divorce should it not be as strict on someone who refuses to “give the other cheek” or also hand over his cloak to a thief? Jesus said it clearly, right?

    1. Your interpretation of “hardness of heart” is far too narrow. Further Jesus does not introduce the reason they want to divorce as an excuse, he denounces it as a disposition not fit for a Christian.

      Your notion of confession is flawed since absolution can only granted where there is a firm purpose of amendment. But the problem with 2nd marriages is that there is no purpose of amendment and, unless they intend to live like brother and sister, there is on-going adultery. These are Jesus words, not mine. How is a priest supposed to absolve something where there is no firm purpose of amendment? Your examples all pertain to some past event which can be repented of and one can firmly propose to amend. Not so in the marriage case. Hence the Church cannot follow your solution, for it is not a solution since it violates the doctrine of sin and the teaching of Christ.

      So its not about being strict, its is about being faithful to what we have been taught. Your view seems almost totally subjective wherein you rank the relative harm and then say there should only be rules about really mean stuff. This is not possible nor is it wise. To use your logic, since we can conceive that most things are lesser violations than murder of the innocent, lets not worry about lesser things even if they involve on-going sinful states. Or, put another way, habitual stealing may be wrong, but there are worse things a person could do, so lets not be hard or strict on stealing habitually.

      But even to use your subjectivist, “I think we should only punish things that cause more harm according to how I measure harm” approach…can you not see the vast harm that divorce has had on the family, children and our culture?

  23. I should add that the number of annulments in the U.S. is quite high but I believe in Canada, where I live, an annulment is far more difficult.

  24. Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for this article and the true teaching you have provided.

    I, for one, am not worried. I believe, as you have written (Humanæ Vitæ/Paul VI), that the Catholic Church is God-protected and will be protected in that hour when it becomes necessary for the Holy Spirit to act to safeguard the Faith. I am, however, frustrated that some people, in their ignorance or arrogance, think they can manipulate the Church, either as unrepentant individuals who have made bad choices and now expect the Church to change and conform to their sinful behaviour, or as prelates who seem to have forgotten that they must conserve and preach the teaching of Christ, i.e., the Catholic Faith. A clergyman who preaches a feel-good gospel will find out soon enough that his error has not gone unnoticed, for great and terrible will be that day when he stands before the throne of God and answers for his actions which caused the faithful to lose their faith and trust in the Church and Jesus Christ.

    Christ said: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.—Matthew 7:13-14. For those too wide to enter through the narrow gate (not excluding my own excessive girth at times; some much more than others), perhaps it’s time to get on a good spiritual diet (fasting, prayer, conformity to God’s Law taught by the Church, and regular confession) and lose the fat (sin) that is putting their immortal souls in danger.

  25. Regardless of whether there are too many annulments or not, it can be a very humbling experience. I was married in 1988 and my wife left in 1991. Since then I have continuously -and happily – honored my views and vigorously defended our Lord’s teaching on marriage. The humbling part of all this is that in a very mysterious and non coincidental way (nothing happens by chance) the Lord has allowed someone else of the same mindset and similar circumstances to come together in friendship to the point where we are now considering perhaps the Lord wishes us to marry. I can say that for me this has been very humbling in that where I “knew” I was right all these years about my marriage being valid, I now am close to the point of asking the Church to affirm or invalidate my thoughts all these years. Should she declare a nullity or confirm the validity, either way I’m OK. The main thing is that the Lord has allowed me to experience this period of humility and I’m better for it either way.

  26. Msgr. Pope, as always, thank you for your service to the Church especially in teaching clearly this difficult doctrine. People like to argue about whether the number of “annulments” (i.e., declarations of nullity) are too high or too low. However, I don’t think this is a very helpful discussion. May I humbly suggest that you follow up this blog with another which explains the Rotal jurisprudence–which all tribunals must follow–regarding the very misunderstood ground of nullity of a grave defect of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial obligations (c. 1095, 2). Given the fact that I write sentences, defender briefs, and advocate briefs on this ground on an almost daily basis, it would be very easy for me to write something up for you, on which you can then comment. In my opinion, a close look at the jurisprudence is the only way to move the discussion forward, and I would be honored to assist in this way. Please email me at your convenience, and thank you again.

    1. Thanks. I could not write the article you wish since Canon Law is a parallel universe of sorts, and its arcane deliberations almost never reach me. I don’t intend here to sound cynical, I am not, but you canon lawyers really do walk in a different realm than most of us parish priests and Canon Law is very arcane to most of us. I’ll email you.

  27. How sad that we are willing to cheapen and water down Christ’s very words in order to make the ones who in most cases not only abandon their families but Him in order to do as they please feel better about their sins. I went through a divorce when my ex-husband decided another woman suited him better. Because I was in my mid-30’s, everyone suggested I should get an annulment in case I’d want to remarry and so I did. I received an annulment and am now single. I decided I don’t want to remarry, even though I deeply believe in marriage.

    My aunt’s husband walked out on her after 25 years, with a woman who served as Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion in our parish, and was also married. He abandoned her after she’d devoted 25 years of her life to him and raised his sons. He and his now civilly married lover told someone that they knew what they were doing was wrong but were doing it anyway. Now all that’s talked about is how they are poor victims and that we have to walk with them, cater to them, and pat them on the back so they can feel good for abandoning their spouses and the Eucharist they profess to supposedly love. He immediately started an annulment process. This process is already looked at as a catholic divorce.

    We need to strengthen marriage, not weaken it further by accepting sin and selfishness as normal. My fear is that this is not about the divorced and remarried, it’s just a step to accepting anything now called a marriage or family as normal. Just because many can’t live up to something doesn’t mean it has to be changed. If this teaching is changed, St. Thomas More was martyred for nothing, and Henry VIII was right. Lord, help us! May God have mercy on all of us who would continue to yell out “crucify him” by cheapening his sacrifice of love.

    1. Pope Francis will do his usual thing: He will reaffirm doctrine, and then give his bishops, cardinals, priests tacit approval to give permission for this exception, oh, and for this exception, oh, wait, and for that exception for communion for the divorced remarried without annulment under “pastoral care” we hear so much about since Vatican II. Saw an article the other day where he says that he will not be swayed by public opinion, or something to that effect. That’s why he hired former fox news journalist as his public relations man.

      I say this with a very heavy heart-and believe me, I am a devout Catholic–the SSPX looks like the true Roman Catholic Church. If it was true before Vatican II, why not now? Vatican II fruits are very, very rotten.

      Wasn’t it Sister Lucia(Fatima), among saints, and especially Pius XII, who basically said that Rome would lose the faith, and the evil would come from the top ?

  28. I was married at 20yrs old throught justice of peace. I stayed married for 13yrs to a man a bore two children with. He was abusive is all aspects and ways and he was committing dultery too with many women. Among his faithfulness he also had addictions to porn and other things I may never know about. After countless attempts of trying to go for counseling and I would end up being only one attending because he felt he had no issues. The abuse and none stop lying had me almost to a nervohs break down and one physiologist that we saw for couceling told me I was in danger. I finally filed divorced, happly for 14yrs! I have finally met a nice guy with strong family ties, catholic belief and he was married twice! First marriage he married through catholic church, but she was abusive, a drunk and druggy and he divorced her and she has prevented him from seeing his child all this time. He married a second time but she was unfaithful too with izsues and that ended in divorce. I would very much like to get married if and when it comes to that. We both had similar experiences, we have similar beliefs, family values and traditions. It saddens me, that I could not marry in the church. I think all marriages that end are different in circumstances. No one should tolerate staying with someone who is abusive, addicted to porn, drugs, sex, unfaithful. This is a form of abuse I wish no one or child to be stuck in. Moses went aheaded and granted a divorce against Gods will, yet God did not stop him. Why? I do believe many do not see marriage as being “till death do us part” there are those who marry and divorce as often as the change there underpants. But I did pray before I met this guy, I told God what I wanted and even jokenly said what I wanted his name to be…and guess what? He sent him, same name to o Gabriel. .

    1. zi am sorry for your experience. However, your line Moses went aheaded and granted a divorce against Gods will, yet God did not stop him is not sound biblical theology. Whatever Moses did, it was not “against God’s will.” Jesus’ point is that whatever God permitted in the past due to the reign of sin, is now to be rescinded in the reign of grace.

    2. I love how your boyfriend’s wives were obviously the ones to blame! Seriously now, do you actually *believe* him?

      1. Yes I do believe him. As it has been confirmed. And I know the details of what happened in his previous marriages. He knows the details that lead to my divorce. And the ex of his admitted to her adulterated life style.

  29. There are those I have known who go into marriage saying that if it does not work out they will just ‘get an annulment’ and then later they do. One person has done this several times. There were over 30,000 annulments given to the US in 2009. Do not begin to tell me all these marriages were null. I bet I could get an annulment after decades –I was young, I did not know what marriage would be like in 30 years, etc.

    The crazy amount of annulments has made a mockery of the thing. Marriage is being assaulted on all sides and thousands of annulments makes it look like the Church winks art divorce. I also know people in invalid marriages and serve in some capacities at a parish with the pastor’s knowledge. They are not quiet about it at all.

    And now with Cardinal approving remarriages and speaking loudly about it and the Pope praising such speech–this is more scandal.

  30. I remember in the ’60s, the Church was full of people every sunday but quite a lot of them did not go to receive communion. I knew some kind and pious people who never seemed to receive communion and probably didn’t go to confession very often. Nobody gave them a nasty look. They (and we) went to mass anyway. We didn’t make it such a big deal not to receive communion. We new that to receive communion we should have a pure soul without mortal sin and that we had to confess our sins at least once a year preferably before Easter. So, if we were not in good disposition to confess our sins right away (no matter what was the nature of the sin), we just didn’t receive the eucharist, because we understood that we were not worthy to receive it at that moment.
    When I go to Church today, almost everybody goes to receive communion but hardly anyone ever goes to confession, why is that?
    I read the autobiography of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and although she attended mass very often, she received communion only a few times a year, on the advice of her trusted spiritual guide.

  31. I would add to what Claire L. said: this insistence on “receiving the sacraments” is more about being fashionable than about being a practicing Catholic. I know that many argue that exclusion from receiving the Eucharist is some kind of punishment, and it may well be. But what is wrong with spending the rest of your (very short) life on Earth in a state of penitence for seriously wronging God, yourself and, very likely, other people?
    I don’t think many of the people described in the above comments would go very far wrong by taking repeated advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as they work out their salvation in fear and trembling. Some of the choices we make in this life can never be fully corrected or atoned for here on Earth.

  32. What are your views on how the Orthodox Churches view divorce? Can our church ever reconcile with the Orthodox if they allow divorce to be a matter between an individual and an Orthodox priest?

    I think what seems very strange is that our church allows a Catholic who marries in a Protestant Church or a Civil ceremony to be restored to communion if he/she has the marriage blessed in the Catholic Church – i.e. no annulment. However, we require two Protestants who marry in a Protestant Church or in a Civil ceremony to get an annulment before they can marry in our church. I understand how this happens but it is very hard to swallow. A relative of mine (good Catholic) wanted to marry a Protestant who had a divorce (her first husband simply left her and her daughter). It took forever to get an annulment because the former husband refused to cooperate and it caused my relative’s wife to harbor deep resentment toward the Catholic Church. Surely we can envision a process that makes these situations more just and one that does not cost great sums of money and take a considerable amount of time.

    1. I am four-square against the Orthodox approach and do not see how it can be considered an authentic response to what Jesus teaches or to the nature of what is meant by contrition which must include some firm purpose of amendment.

      I also agree that our current system is clunky, too expensive and too lengthy. I am not sure how to fix it but there are a lot of inconsistencies and also a lot of unevenness from diocese to diocese. I have even seen petitioners “shop around” for the best jurisdiction based on their situation since there is a great difference from place to place in terms of efficiency and how strictly things are interpreted etc. There are many internal reforms that are necessary. I am just no expert in what to do, I can only describe the problem.

  33. I am so sad about the direction that this question of “divorced Catholics” seems to be taking in the Synod. Children are gravely harmed by divorce, even a “good divorce.” Children of divorce must pick up and carry the cross of a broken family. They carry this cross into adulthood and their subsequent marriage, or marriages. I have not heard mention of the trauma of divorce as The Church discusses this problem. Children are innocent and have not made willful choices like the adults in their lives. Yet, they have injustice forced upon them by adults who made adult choices and , very often, are not willingly to suffer and sacrifice in the choices that were made. Instead, the “resilient” children are forced to sacrifice and suffer so the adults can move on and no longer be impacted by their choices.
    I am a child of divorce and spent many years in a seemingly toxic marriage to a man that lacked “due discretion.” I prayed, fasted and lived my vocation as a wife, because marriage is a vocation, not a relationship where I will finally experience fulfillment and happiness. Unfortunately, during a long and lonely 5 year stretch I received encouragement to carry my cross and not break apart my family only on 3 occasions when I spoke to a priest. Countless priests and a Catholic counselor floated the divorce and annulment idea. I fought for my marriage and when I would reach out to The Church for support I found myself, too often, defending the teaching of marriage and sharing the statistics about the harm that divorce does to children.
    I hope and pray that this Synod, guided by The Holy Spirit, will serve not to further confuse and weaken the teaching on marriage, but that in the end this institution, establish by God, will be better understood by the clergy and then communicated to the faithful. I also hope that Pope Francis, who seems to shock and teach with off the cuff remarks, will be moved to tell a couple of generations to grow up, carry their cross, stick it out, forgive, show mercy, patience and understanding, stay married and stop living for yourself.
    I learned that in an unhappy marriage you can there are three choices: stay in misery, divorce, or live with Christ in peace and joy no matter what the circumstances (obviously if physical abuse is present, remove yourself physically from the abuse).
    God is good and faithful and I live today in a marriage that is Christ-centered with a husband that is now a Godly man.

    1. Yes, I agree, the direction thus far is extremely disappointing. We should be looking to prevent divorce and seek greater clarity on the nature and meaning of Matrimony. Sadly thus far, most of the oxygen is being used up by those who want to settle in with a divorce and remarriage scenario and make it all more comfortable.

  34. About 20 years ago, adult children of some friends in their early 20’s married in the Church – one Catholic, one not. After some months, the groom applied for an annulment on the basis that he wanted children, and SHE DID NOT. We can claim immaturity, but in effect she had rejected our understanding on one of the purposes of marriage. I wonder how many marriages are entered into w/o a serious discussion between the prospective partners about children?
    Anyway, the annulment was eventually granted and the “groom” remarried. He and his now wife now have four children, of whom the oldest two are adults. Would this be a case of “lack of informed consent”?
    The matter of failure to discuss children could be a result of the changes of the 1960s-1970s. Up to that time, it was taken for granted that a couple of reasonably young age marrying in the Catholic Church wanted and were willing to accept children resulting from their union.

  35. Hi there. When I was a protestant, I was scandalized by the seeming ease and proliferations of annulments by the Church. Since becoming catechized and studying Theology of the Body, I am no longer. You are right that it seems everyone who wants one gets one, and that there are way too many. But I don’t think that means the annulment process is too lax (though labyrinthine in need of pastoral streamlining and expedition and clarification and shepherding through the process perhaps, but that’s another post). I think it is a sign of the total breakdown of the family and loss of the sense of what true marriage is in our culture, leading right back to the sexual revolution and the contraceptive mentality taking over our society. Very few people are really taught, through their own parents’ example and reinforced by a healthy community, what sacramental marriage is. So it is no surprise that so many people who think they’re getting married really aren’t. They haven’t a clue as to what they’re entering into, and as such, they’re not really entering into it. I say this not to sow despair about the state of the culture, but actually encouragement that perhaps we needn’t worry so much about the proliferation of annulments. It is right and proper that people who live in a marriage-broken society would come to the hospital of the Church with respect to their own wounds from that brokenness. And good that the Church provides a way forward that doesn’t violate Jesus’ clear teaching. I hope that the upcoming Synod will help make the whole process easier to understand, more transparent as to status updates for applicants, expedited and what-not. We usually require couples preparing for marriage to go through a retreat or series of prep classes. Shouldn’t we put people seeking annulment through something similar – so that we can prepare them for what is to come, educate them about the process and its reasons, and help set their expectations as to how the process will be carried out and how they can facilitate it? Perhaps assign each one a volunteer or paid shepherd of some sort who will be their advocate who knows the process well? Just some ideas. Regardless, I welcome the fact that so many people want the blessing of the Church for their new marriages. In Europe, no one cares anymore, and annulments are much rarer as a result.

  36. Msgr. Pope, you have written several articles about the many differences between men and women referenced in the Bible. From the differences in Adam and Eve’s sins to examining deeply “Ephesians 5” in our modern world, you have done a great job with these articles. I am surprised in this context that no one has examined Jesus’ statement about divorce based on gender and historical roles/modern roles in marriage. What I mean is that in Jesus’ statement “Because of the hardness of your heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery.”, he is clearly talking to men. I would like to say that men and women are equal as our society tries to convince us, but Biblically, historically and admittedly yourself have argued that this is not the case. Could Jesus have been referring to men’s responsibility vs. women’s. After all, if women carried the burden of raising the children, after having her husband leave her, could not she be justified in trying to find a suitable father for her children in order to prevent damaging yet another generation? Not that there have not been women at fault for divorces, but was Jesus clearly laying more responsibility on the head of men? Perhaps a deeper examination (future article) could examine this closer?

  37. The problems you have described, the anguish experienced by those in this state as well as the priests such as you have to face and respond to, are really, in the end, a complete abject failure of the Church, her priests, and most especially her bishops, of teaching the Truth over the last 50 years. I don’t mean you, Monsignor. But, the Church failed in its most fundamental mission, repeatedly and disastrously, in teaching the reality of marriage and divorce and the consequences. Perhaps, the solution does not lie in individuals applying for an annulment based upon their circumstances, but rather a blanket annulment for those who have come back, who have found themselves in a marriage that now works, in a marriage based upon a sacramental understanding, who now through their own efforts to catechize themselves understand the Faith, based upon an admission of the Bishops that they collectively failed to transmit the teachings of the Faith for the past 50 years. The problem started with them, continued because of them, caused many people to not understand what they were doing and allowed the situation to continue. The annulment process speaks about immaturity and a lack of full understanding. That exists in these situations, but those conditions are not caused by those individuals, but the bishops and priests who should have known better, and who are and were charged with teaching those Truths.

    The pain and hand-wringing over what to do can be easily ended with the public self-denunciation of the bishops and priests, as well as of their predecessors, for their nearly complete failure to catechize properly those entrusted to them.

    Now that would of course open up the whole can of worms about everything else that has led to the near compete collapse of the Faith for millions upon millions of souls, but maybe the Church needs to make the “mea culp, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” admission, declare a blanket amnesty and then start afresh with consistent, forceful, correct and never-ending catechesis of the Faith, in all of its facets in all clarity so that no one could find themselves in the intellectually deficient state so many do today, because of the failure of those charged with teaching the Faith.

    1. The clergy have not been teaching the faith as they should have. OTOH, quite regardless of that, people have been giving up on their marriages for the most flimsy of reasons for just as long. The amount of rationalising that goes on the minds of people who abandon their marriage vows is staggering and nauseating.

  38. The Church cannot change this teaching. So what, then, will we do if the Synod makes a mushy, vague recommendation of “mercy” (=change) and Francis writes a mushy, vague endorsement of “mercy” (=change)? That seems the most likely outcome and we know what will be done with such statements “on the ground.”

    If the Church is what she claims to be, she cannot do this. If she does do this, what will we then think?

    Ross is right. If the Church of Rome apostasizes, the premise for my being Catholic will have been falsified. The fact that she is even flirting with apostasy is scandalous and distressing enough! But if she actually does it, I will have to face the reality that the Catholic Church is not what I thought—what we all thought—she was. The Synod is unlikely to do anything cleanly and clearly, and this pope is incapable of it, so I think it unlikely that I will wake up one morning in fall to discover that I have been wrong all along; what comes out of the Synod will have to be weighed and disentangled. But I think we need to start having those conversations now. Everyone (except the neo-ultramontanes who have blinded and deafened themselves to ease the cognitive dissonance) sees where this is going, the direction we are being dragged, and there seems nothing we can do to stop it. So we have to start considering, as Ross wisely does, what the world looks like the day after the postsynodal exhortation endorsing the Kasper proposal is handed down.

    1. Lets not go there. Trust God, the Holy Spirit. Time for some faith! For a little evidence go back to 1968 and everyone expects the Pope to cave on contraception. The “majority report” of theologians urge him, priests and bishops are urging him. Everyone presume the change is imminent. To almost everyone’s surprise Paul the VI (who was not theological conservative) had to say “No.” Whatever Pope Francis’ personal practices of the past, when it comes time for him officially rule on the matter and write the synod exhortation, he will not, he cannot teach error in this regard. The Holy Spirit will protect him. I believe it with all my heart and will not even consider a “what if” scenario in this regard. If the Spirit protected us in 1968 (and the current storm is nothing compared to the storm and pressure for change at that time) the Holy Spirit will protect us now! Yes he will! Nevertheless pray, for when he does rule, the Pope will have much to suffer.

      1. I do think the parallel is apt, but I’m not sure that the Church’s scandalous dithering over contraception in the 1960s is entirely reassuring. Francis is heading for a “Humanæ vitæ moment,” I want to agree, and have said so (e.g., but that’s not reassuring. Humanæ vitæ was catastrophic. Not because it was wrong, but because its effects were magnified by the Church’s failure to squelch the idea that it would say something else. It was “met with ‘bitter contestation’ from entire groups of bishops and was disobeyed by ‘countless faithful'” because it came only after the Church’s failure to clearly say “no” in a time in which anticipations created a “‘driving crescendo of anticipations of change.'” (cf. When it came down, then, those who most wanted the change were not only wounded, they were able to convince themselves that disobedience was warranted because the decision was not only painful, it was illegitimate and wrong: EVERYONE KNEW that the Church was about to change, and that EVERYONE wanted the change, so what in God’s name was Pope Paul doing?

        On standard ecclesiastical assumptions, the Bishop of Rome will not teach error, and on those assumptions, it follows that after the Synod, Francis must issue a postsynodal exhortation that is analogous to Humanæ vitæ insofar as it will reaffirm the Church’s teaching in the face of massive expectation that it will apostasize. I truly want to agree with you that that will happen; I am less sure of it than you, but let’s say that that happens, as we all hope that it will. What happens when a freight train traveling at speed and hits an immovable object? In the 1960s, the Church allowed lay opinion to get up to a dangerous speed down a track that led toward an unacceptable result. Yes, as you note, God preserved her teaching from error, but it was too late. The fallible part of the Church had already done the damage; the train was already in motion, and when finally Paul awoke to the danger and installed some crash buffers, the result was a violent crash and derailment that scars the Church to this day.

        Now Francis is repeating the same mistake. There is nothing pastoral about letting people believe that an intimate and painful teaching is about to change when it isn’t. There is nothing merciful about all-but inviting people who are already hurting to go into schism. If our ecclesiastical assumptions are right, the expectations that Francis has raised, the hopes that he has raised or allowed to be raised, are going to hit the buffers and stop dead, just like the hopes that were raised before HV, and the derailment will be both epic and, for many people, unbearably painful. Francis will suffer for it, take the heat for it, but in the end, it’s the Church that will be worse for it, just as it was after Humanæ vitæ. (The pain caused by thwarted expectations left people too hurt to listen to what Paul eventually had to say, no matter that when he eventually spoke, it was the truth: I would venture that few of the ex-Catholics who left over Humanæ vitæ has ever read it.)

        What Pope Paul should have done was apply the brakes years sooner. He should never have let the train get moving, and if it was moving before his watch, he should have stopped it at the very first opportunity while there was still time to do so gently. It’s sterile to talk about what Francis should have done differently, but what he should do now, and the sooner the better, is to stop this train. Right now. Gently if possible, with force if not. Expressly and personally reaffirm the teaching, cancel the Synod, excommunicate Kasper, and depose the German prelates. Because with every passing day, it picks up more speed and the crash will be worse. The lesson of Humanæ vitæ, it seems to me, is not that the magisterium was preserved from teaching error, but that the Holy Spirit rescued the Church from allowing error and scandal only after every human element failed.

        1. But, at the end of the day the doctrine is clear and infallibility was upheld. All the rest of the stuff you cite is disciplinary matter, troubling sure, but at the end of the day the doctrine held. I have my own ideas about how to keep Church discipline, so do you, but in the end, frankly that aspect has been a mess from the start. We’ve tried both the firm hand and the “wait it out” method, its hard to say which is most wise historically speaking. We live by the mercy of God!

  39. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    Thank you for this clear, thoughtful, bold, and beautiful post – one of your strongest, imo.

    For those who have divorced and remarried and have come back to the Church or whose faith has been recently reawakened, sometimes what’s needed is as simple as just encouraging them that living together chastely with their children in the same home (in different bedrooms!) is indeed possible with Christ and his grace. Isn’t this true for all of us? Whatever sin we’re struggling with, we can be liberated by Christ, his cross, love, power, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. With him we can stop (fill-in-the-vice) and start being (fill-in-the-contrary-virtue).

    Wouldn’t it be a good thing to consider forming parish support-groups for the divorced and remarried to help them live chastely? All of us, not just the divorced, need help to move away from our sins. There’s Courage, AA, etc. How uplifting would it be to see faithful Catholics loving and supporting each other as they go through this painful trial!

    God bless you and count on my prayers and please keep me and my family in yours as well.

    In Christ,

    1. In such cases, the adulterous second “marriage” should be dissolved and a reconciliation with the true spouse be attempted.

      1. Louise,

        I didn’t even think about this. In certain circumstances, you’re absolutely right – especially if there are no children from the adulterous relationship. If there are, however, then things get more difficult. Anyway, thanks for making this really important point. The fundamental duty is to fulfill the marriage vows of the real marriage.

  40. What you say here is so very true:

    “Hence our pastoral practice does not seem to reflect our faith and doctrine vigorously. Pastorally, this is troubling, and it has grave effects on marriage in the Church and on how people regard it. Are we really serious about upholding the Lord’s strict doctrine on marriage? Though doctrinally I think we are, pastorally I think most Catholics don’t think we are all that serious about it in the end. What we do speaks more loudly than what we say. And this is a big problem.”

    This is why I keep saying that the tribunals need to be faithful to canon law and doctrine (and to proper process) and why we generally need to stop thinking about marriage in such worldly ways.

  41. “Perhaps too, another person shows up at the door: a long lost Catholic who has been away for 30 years. During that time he or she did some pretty stupid stuff, including getting married and divorced—sometimes more than once. Now he or she shows up at my door in a current marriage that seems strong and helpful, and which includes children. The person is in desperate need of Confession and Holy Communion. What is a pastor to do? He takes him or her through the process of annulment to get access to those Sacraments.”

    And what about the poor children of the first marriage? The annulment is not and should not be seen to be automatic. What then? A “strong” marriage – with children – is still adultery if the first marriage was valid.

  42. True story: My grandfather was raised Catholic in Nebraska. He joined the Army Air Corps and was shipped to California in WWII. He met my grandmother, who was a divorced Protestant. She got pregnant with my dad. He wanted to do the right thing by her, so they got married by a justice of the peace. The War ended and they moved back to Nebraska. They had 3 more kids. But according to the Church they were living in an adulterous relationship. The result: my grandfather would sneak away to go to Mass sometimes, but my dad and his siblings were raised outside the Church. Indeed, with no faith at all, really. Among the kids, two ended up Baptist, one a very fallen-away non-practicing Catholic, and one strident atheist. Would this have been different if my grandparents had been able to achieve a solution to their predicament? I suppose they could have separated or lived as “brother and sister.” I suppose my grandma’s first marriage probably would not be the stumbling block today that it was in 1945. Would an annulment even be necessary today since she was not married in the Church? Oh, and one more thing. My grandpa died in December 1978. My grandma was baptized and confirmed 6 months later. You see, the impediment to her entering the Church was removed by his dying. She waited a long time: from 1945 to 1979.

  43. I question if Msgr. Pope’s understanding of annulments based on immaturity or poor formation are consistent with interpretations of canon law from the Holy See.

    Msgr. Pope wrote “There are a number of impediments that can render what they do ipso facto invalid. ” […] “If one or both parties […] display(ed) a grave lack of due discretion on account of immaturity or poor formation, such marriages are nullified on these grounds.”

    Bishop Antoni Stankiewicz, Dean of the Roman Rota, (the appeal tribunal for the whole world) cautioned against laxly misapplying canon law when using immaturity or poor formation as an alleged basis for granting an annulment.

    “One encounters the laxness in the application of the law. This is found in the accustomed reasoning of ecclesiastical sentences which not unfrequently identify a minimal preparation for sacramental marriage, insufficient human maturity understood in a general way or imprudence in behavior, with the lack of the necessary discretion of judgment or of the desired fitness for the essential obligations of marriage.”

    (From “Some Indication About Canon 1095 in the Instruction Dignitas Connubii” in “Studies on the instruction Dignitas conubii, Porceedings of the Study Day Held at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, January 19, 2006”. Montreal, Wilson & Lafleur Ltee, 2006)

  44. Msgr. Pope, Msgr. Edward Egan, when he was a member of the Rota explains that the maturity of the average 14-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy is what is required for validity. That’s not a lot of maturity. It is what Canon Law requires. We’re all somewhat immature when we marry, but that’s life after Original Sin.

    And St. Pope John Paul II said that only severe mental illness or retardation prevents due discretion. (Rotal Addresses of 1987 and 1988. Cardinal Leo Burke has assured Catholics that this canon, 1095, cannot be used for nullity in the vast majority of cases. Yet it has been used in tens of thousands of cases, declaring null perfectly valid marriages. In those cases, no amount of paperwork can tear asunder what God has joined together.

  45. Why is this such an important issue? It occurred to me that the Thief on the cross, did not receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the species of Bread and Wine, but he is, right now, in Heaven. The Thief received Jesus spiritually. And there are many saints in Heaven who did not receive Holy Communion for various lengths of times (due to circumstances like imprisonment, exile, etc).
    Why is it that in 2014 those with various impediments to receiving Holy Communion are not satisfied with “Spiritual Communion”? Why is a synod necessary in the first place for this issue? Or is the whole synod idea just another ploy to further liberalize Church teaches on Marriage and especially on Homosexuality?
    Catholics – clergy and lay – are well-advised to stay vigilant. “Be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves,” is how our Lord Jesus puts it.
    We live in “Murky Times”

  46. Msgr. Charles Pope

    Long story short. I received a negative response to my annulment in 12/13. I have contacted the Tribunal of an Appeal. The Judgment came from San Juan Puerto Rico. My Dioceses here in the USA says that if my ex-wife files for the Annulment we can change the jurisdiction and have it seen in the USA. “we will have a better chance here” that was their comment.
    Why is it different, the integrity of the Church needs to be the same in all Tribunals? In the meantime my current wife of 25 years is seeking to become Catholic and cant.
    Seeking clarity.
    Thank you

  47. Who ever divorces his wife EXCEPT for immorality (marital unfaithfulness) and marries another commits adultery.

    “You said well that you have no husband, for you have had 5 HUSBANDS and the man you live with now is not your husband”

    ” Not I but the lord, a wife should not leave her husband, but if she does she should remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband and the husband should not divorce his wife ” ( while she is gone the husband should wait for her ”

    ” but if the unbelieving one leaves ( and seeks a divorce ) let them leave a brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases god has called us to piece.

    ” to the unmarried and widows, if they cannot practice self control, LET THEM MARRY, it is better to marry than to burn ( with lusts of the flesh, fornication)

    Being a victim of divorce myself, I never wanted a divorce or the pain or suicidal torment that followed. I have no issue being alone and at piece but I would never beat down a person divorced with such a thing. I hate divorce I totally understand why our lord hates it. I have to believe that each circumstance is unique, its not 1 fits all that’s why our lord made exceptions.

    ” Lord if such is the case its better not to marry, ALL cannot except this saying but to each it has been given he who can except it let him except it !”

    The heart of the law is mercy, justice to condemn a divorced person who didn’t want it in the first place to a single celibate life is not merciful or just, especially when they don’t have the gift of singleness. I am Greek orthodox and have been over this with our priests. Greek is the unbroken line from the apostles till today this is what I was told. God loves us and understands our every thought and short Cummings, he judges our hearts, if your conscience to clear then mercy trumps judgement.

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