Every Wednesday I drive downtown to our diocesan offices and work in our Tribunal. The Tribunal is the office that handles matters of canon law, and in particular most of our time is spent on petitions for declarations of nullity of marriage, or annulments, as most people call them. My particular job there as an auditor is to listen – auditor as in auditory. To date I have conducted 81 interviews… 81 times that I have sat with a divorced person and heard their story, asked them questions, helped them to walk through the details and the emotions of a failed marriage. And that’s after reading the ten, twenty, thirty, or more pages of writing that they submitted with their petition in the beginning. Divorce is painful and the people who have lived through a divorce deserve our compassionate understanding of the pain they experienced, a pain which no one was ever meant to experience. And these people are our family and friends, our children and our coworkers, and perhaps you yourself. So with those hearts of compassion, let me explain some of what the Church teaches about marriage and divorce, a teaching that comes directly from what Jesus Christ said in today’s Gospel.
In the Catholic understanding we do not believe that divorce exists. Divorce means that a marriage has ended but in our world marriage last literally until death do they part, for better or for worse. Jesus Christ told us that the man shall be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. No longer two, but one flesh, and no human being must ever separate it. Now sometimes, sadly, because of the brokenness of this world and of us as individuals, living apart from each other is the best thing for spouses and sometimes even for the children. For example, no one should remain in a situation of abuse and be harmed, or allow their children to witness abuse and think that it is normal. So for grave reasons separation may happen, perhaps permanently or perhaps until there is honest change and reconciliation. But they are still bonded as husband and wife even living apart. They have physically separated, but they are still one flesh.
Annulment is not divorce. When someone petitions for an annulment they are claiming that the marriage was never validly entered into from the very moment of consent when the vows were spoken. The couple lived a married life and we all naturally presumed that it was a valid marriage. But in asking for an annulment they are saying that the marriage never began. Maybe someone didn’t fully understand the consent they were making in a very significant way, or maybe they rejected something very important to what marriage is, like being open to the possibility of having children, or maybe there was an emotional or mental something that prevented them from making a clear decision. But it’s all about the beginning… not that a valid marriage ended, but that a valid marriage didn’t start. Many people have told me that asking the Church for an annulment has actually been healing for them, because it has forced them to examine how things happened instead of saying that it just ended.
Now if someone civilly divorces and then remarries outside of the Church without an annulment… we have a problem. Remember, civil divorce is not real to us and has no power. So without an annulment that person would be bonded to one person but living with someone else. At this point we must hold to what Jesus Christ said, that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. People in this situation cannot receive communion or go to confession, not unless they are resolved to abstain from sexual relations until they can prove that the first marriage was invalid and receive an annulment. Sometimes people hear that and think that it is unfair, and that the Church hates them and is attacking them. I’ve even heard people think that not being able to receive communion is the same as excommunication! But this is not so. Saint Pope John Paul II, even as he reaffirmed that the divorced and remarried must refrain from the sacraments, said, “however, let these men and women know that the Church loves them, that she is not far from them and suffers because of their situation. The divorced and remarried are and remain her members, because they have received Baptism and retain their Christian faith” (Pope John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Council on the Family, 24 January 1997). No divorced person should ever feel that the Church rejects them, even if they have remarried without an annulment. Yes, they need to listen to the Church trying to show them the importance and seriousness of what Jesus said in this Gospel, but they are not cast out.
Marriage is harder than anyone realizes on their wedding day. I hope if you are blessed with that vocation that you always turn to the Lord in both hardship and joy, and have found wonder in a love that symbolizes Christ’s love for His Church. If your marriage has failed, I hope you know that the Church itself loves you, and that you feel safe and protected in these walls and this community. And if you have married outside of the Church, then please talk with us. Listen to this Gospel with patience and humility, and let the Church walk with you on the path forward.
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Homilies are meant to be heard, not read… and part of the Eucharistic liturgy, not words that stand alone. Please remember that no homily is written with this blog in mind.