Separated & Divorced Catholics

What You Should Know About Divorced Persons in the Church
What You May and May Not Do
When People of Faith Divorce
Questions and Answers About a ‘Decree of Invalidity’
How Can We Help?

“I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptized persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life.” --Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Familiaris Consortio (1981), #84.

What You Should Know About Divorced Persons in the Church

Many Catholics, including separated and divorced Catholics themselves, are confused or misinformed about the status of divorced persons in the Catholic Church. As a result of this confusion or misinformation, many divorced Catholics fail to participate as fully as they can in the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church, and many Catholic communities fail to welcome and embrace divorced Catholics as fully as they should.

If you are a separated or divorced Catholic, the first thing you should know is that divorced Catholics are not excommunicated from the Church.

  • A Catholic who is divorced and not remarried is a Catholic in good standing, and is entitled to participate fully in the spiritual and sacramental life of the Catholic faith community.
  • A Catholic who is divorced and remarried without a Declaration of Invalidity (an annulment) is still a member of the Church and is entitled to participate in a limited way in the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church.

Much of the confusion about the status of separated and divorced persons in the Church arises from the fact that the Catholic Church places a high value on sacramental marriage and interprets Jesus' injunction against divorce and remarriage very strictly (cf. Mark 10:6-12, Luke 16:18). According to Catholic teaching, marriage is an intimate, exclusive, and permanent partnership of a woman and a man, which exists both for the good of the spouses and for the procreation and upbringing of children.

The Church teaches that a sacramentally valid marriage cannot be terminated except by a spouse's death. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, divorce is, objectively, an offense against the natural law; it “introduces disorder into the family and into society” and “brings grave harm to the deserted spouse [and] to children traumatized by the separation of their parents” (cf.#1644; 2384-85).

Although at one time divorced Catholics were excommunicated, today the Church recognizes that, subjectively, in some cases a married couple may have no reasonable alternative to separation and divorce. According to the Church's Code of Canon Law, a couple may be forced to separate and seek a divorce when circumstances are such that they cause “serious danger of spirit or body to the spouse or the children, or otherwise render common life too hard” (cf. #1153.1).

According to the U.S. Catechism for Adults, “The Church's fidelity to Christ's teaching on marriage and against divorce does not imply insensitivity to the pain of the persons facing these unhappy situations. When divorce is the only possible recourse, the Church offers her support to those involved and encourages them to remain close to the Lord through frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. In the case of those who have divorced civilly and remarried, even though the Church considers the second marriage invalid, she does not want these Catholics to be alienated from her.” (# II.21).

In their Pastoral Message to Families, Follow the Way of Love, the U.S. bishops assured divorced persons that “relationships and circumstances within your family may have changed, but God's love for you is ever present and does not come to an end." "There is a home for you within our parishes and communities of faith,” the bishops wrote.

What You May and May Not Do As a

Divorced Person in the Catholic Church

The following guidelines apply as a general rule. If you are a divorced Catholic you should talk with a pastor or pastoral minister about your specific circumstances.

Catholics who are separated or divorced but not remarried are members in good standing of the Catholic church. They are free to participate fully in the life of the Catholic faith community.

For example, if you are divorced but not remarried, you may...

  • attend Mass and receive Holy Communion unless otherwise impaired by mortal sin.
  • celebrate the other sacraments (except Marriage or Holy Orders).
  • have a Catholic funeral and be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
  • serve as a baptism sponsor (Godparent), Confirmation sponsor or as an official witness to Christian marriage.
  • serve as a liturgical minister, such as lector, extraordinary communion minister, hospitality minister, musician or cantor.
  • hold leadership positions on the pastoral council or parish committees and boards.
  • have your children baptized and enroll them in a Catholic school or religious education program.
  • serve as a catechist in a religious education program or as a teacher in a Catholic school.

Catholics who are divorced and whose previous marriage has been annulled by a Declaration of Invalidity are free to celebrate the sacrament of Marriage or Holy Orders.

Catholics who are divorced and remarried, and whose previous marriage has not been annulled by a Decree of Invalidity(annulment – link to Ministry page: annulment), are considered members of the Church living in an irregular (or invalid) marriage. They are free to participate in some but not all aspects of the Catholic faith community.

  • For example, if you are divorced and remarried without a Decree of Invalidity (annulment), you may...

  • attend Mass, but not receive Holy Communion.
  • participate in communal celebrations of Reconciliation and, if you wish, visit privately with a priest in Confession about your spiritual life or your status in the Church.
  • celebrate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick when in danger of death.
  • have a Catholic funeral and be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
  • participate in the public spiritual and social life of the parish, but not serve in public ministries or leadership positions.
  • have your children baptized and enrolled in Catholic school or religious education program.
  • serve as an official witness at a Catholic marriage, but not as a catechist, teacher, baptism sponsor (Godparent) or Confirmation sponsor.

Non-Catholics who are divorced and remarried without a Decree of Invalidity (annulment – Link to Ministry page: annulment) may enroll in the Rites of Christian Initiation, but may not be baptized or make a profession of faith in the Catholic Church until their previous marriage has been annulled by a Declaration of Invalidity.

When People of Faith Divorce

Divorce is a traumatic personal experience under any circumstances. It is all the more difficult when it is unexpected or unwanted, if children are involved, or if the partners are people of faith who took seriously their commitment to be faithful “for better or worse...until death do us part.”

Divorce shatters dreams and betrays expectations; in many cases it destroys in a seemingly short time what a couple has worked years to establish and maintain. The wrenching personal tragedy of divorce creates a wide variety of powerful and sometimes conflicting emotions, including relief, anger, fear, and guilt. In addition to the practical challenges which accompany a divorce, the apparent failure of a marriage often raises serious issues of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem.

For people of faith, a divorce may also raise serious questions of a spiritual nature: doubts about God’s faithfulness, the value of religious faith, the efficacy of prayer, or the sincerity of the church community. While some individuals find comfort and courage in their religious convictions following a divorce, others feel betrayed or embarrassed by their faith or the church and some are tempted to abandon active participation in a faith community.

If you are a person of faith confronting the devastating results of a current or past divorce, remember that faith is never a guarantee that bad things will not happen, even though we are sometimes taught to believe that it is. In fact, faith is the conviction that all will eventually be well, no matter what happens. Faith is what enables us to respond with determination and hope when we experience painful, inexplicable and unwelcome personal tragedies like divorce.

If you are a person of faith who is struggling spiritually because of a divorce, here are some general suggestions which you might find helpful:

  • Continue to pray, even if it means changing when, how or why you pray. In the immediate aftermath of a traumatic experience, many people lose the will or the ability to actually “say” prayers. This is a time for developing a new way to pray by sitting quietly and letting God speak to you. Be attentive to the various ways, occasions, and circumstances in which you might be hearing God's voice for the first time. Some people keep a journal during difficult times to record thoughts, feelings and impressions which might reveal God's presence and direction in their lives. Others discover the value of joining a prayer group or using a prescribed form of prayer such as the daily Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary or centering prayer.
  • Continue to participate as fully as possible in the spiritual and sacramental life of the faith community, even if it means finding a new parish where you are comfortable. In some cases, divorced persons find it difficult to remain actively involved in a parish community if they feel other Catholics are judging them for their marital "failure." In other cases, divorced persons find it difficult to feel at home in a faith community where people around them seem completely unaware or unconcerned about their personal suffering. It is helpful to remember in either case that most members of the faith community have (or eventually will) suffer painful disappointments, losses and failures in their own lives. They may be unsure of what to say or do to acknowledge your personal situation, but their continued presence in the faith community is a reminder that our shared faith helps all of us survive devastating traumas like divorce.
  • Continue to value your association with the Catholic Church, even if it means altering your perception of Church authority. At some level, most of us think of the institutional Church as a kind of "super parent." We expect Church authorities to enforce church rules and punish people who break them, but we resent authority when it seems unresponsive to our personal situation. Although divorced Catholics may feel that they are being unfairly penalized by Church authorities (or, on the other hand, that an ex-spouse is not being sufficiently punished), it may be helpful to remember that it is the Church's responsibility to hold out to us behavior which most fully reflects the ideals of the Gospel. At the same time, Church authorities realize that we are all human, and sinful, and we all fall short of Gospel ideals in many aspects of our life. As Pope John XXIII said, "Nowadays,...the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.... [T]he Catholic Church... desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness..." [Opening Address to the Second Vatican Council, 1962].
  • Continue to seek the support and advice of good friends, a trusted personal confidant, or a wise spiritual director, even if it means stepping outside your normal ‘comfort zone.’

No one knows the pain of divorce better than people who have experienced divorce, so individuals or support groups of divorce survivors are an important and valuable resource. So are good friends, although they may sometimes feel torn by conflicting loyalties and reluctant to help if they were friends of both spouses. If you are troubled about spiritual questions related to your marriage or divorce, it is important to find a spiritual director, pastor or pastoral staff person in whom you can confide and whose advice you trust.

Although divorce may change your understanding of faith, your relationship to God, or your relationship to the Church, it can become an opportunity for an even deeper, more enduring spiritual life. As in most matters related to faith, the real challenge is to learn to grow.

Questions and Answers about a ‘Decree of Invalidity’

What is a ‘Decree of Invalidity’?

A Decree of Invalidity is the official name for what many Catholics commonly call an “annulment.”

The Decree of Invalidity declares that in a particular marriage an element essential to sacramental marriage was missing at the time of consent (ie, at the time of marriage). Because of this defect the marriage in question was never actually a marriage as understood by Church law. As a result, the persons who were parties to the initial bond are free to marry in the Catholic Church.

A Decree of Invalidity does not claim that there never was a civil marriage. It does not assume ill will on the part of either party when they entered marriage and does not declare who is to blame or who is at fault for a defect which renders a marriage invalid. It does not in any way affect the status of children born during the marriage.

What Are Grounds for a Decree of Invalidity?

Some marriages may be declared invalid because the marriage was not consummated, or because one or both partners did not follow Church law in attempting to marry. Such cases would include a Catholic who, without approval, enters a marriage that is not witnessed by a priest or deacon, or a person who enters marriage with a partner who was previously married and was not free to marry.

In other cases, a presumably valid marriage must be proven invalid due to the absence of certain necessary qualities in one or both partners. The “grounds” (or reasons) for invalidity include:

  • Lack of Discretion. One or both partners may have failed to exercise sufficient discretion, foresight or judgment due to inexperience, youth, immaturity or pressure at the time of marriage.
  • Inability to Assume the Obligations of Marriage. One or both partners may not have been able to assume the obligations and responsibilities of marriage due to psychological problems, chemical dependency, serious personality disorders or mental illness.
  • An Attempt to Deceive (“Simulation” ). One or both partners may have entered the marriage without honestly intending to honor the expectations of fidelity, permanence, right to children, or to marry as the church understands marriage.
  • Misunderstanding or Error. One or both partners may not have fully understood how the Catholic Church understands marriage, or may have misunderstood their own or their partner's ability to live that kind of marriage.
  • Lack of Freedom. One or both partners may have been unable to exercise the personal freedom necessary to enter into marriage due to conditions such as force, grave fear, or fraud at the time of marriage.
How Does One Obtain a Decree of Invalidity?

Step 1) The process leading up to a Decree of Invalidity begins when a Petitioner (the person who requests the Decree) visits with a parish minister and explains why he or she thinks there is reason for a declaration of invalidity. The parish minister will help the Petitioner complete the Petition, which contains background information and a brief description of the reasons for a declaration of invalidity. This Petition is submitted to the Tribunal, a church court at the diocesan level.

Step 2) If the Tribunal determines that it has judicial competence to hear the case, it notifies the Petitioner and the former spouse (the Respondent) that the petition has been accepted. (As a matter of justice, Church law provides that the Respondent has a right to be informed and to participate in each step of the process.)

Step 3) The parish minister helps the Petitioner prepare his/her Testimony, which is in the form of a questionnaire. The Respondent is asked to complete a similar questionnaire with the assistance of a parish minister in his/her geographical area. Each party is asked to name at least three Witnesses who knew them before or at the time the wedding took place. The Tribunal contacts these witnesses by mail when the case is ready for active consideration. The Tribunal may also request records of counseling or treatment for mental or emotional problems or chemical dependency.

Step 4) When all evidence is collected, the Defender of the Bond gives an opinion on whether there is enough evidence and whether the proper procedures have been followed; a Judge studies the evidence, makes a decision and writes a Sentence. A Decree of Invalidity granted by the First Instance Court must be reviewed by a Second Instance Court in another diocese before it takes effect.

Step 5) When the Decree of Invalidity is approved, the Petitioner and the Respondent are notified; so are the churches where the partners were baptized and the church where the marriage took place.

When Should You Petition for a Decree of Invalidity?

It is not possible to petition for a Decree of Invalidity until a civil divorce has been finalized. After that, it depends upon the individual(s) involved.

Some persons choose to petition for a Decree relatively soon after the divorce. This is helpful because witnesses are more readily available and because the process of obtaining a Decree can be part of the individual's healing process. In some cases, a Decree of Invalidity brings closure to the previous marriage and enables an individual to "move on."

Other persons prefer to wait until the pain of the divorce experience subsides and/or they are interested in the possibility of remarriage. There are two dangers to waiting too long: one is that witnesses to the first marriage may be more difficult to contact or may have more difficulty remembering information which would favor the Decree; the second is the possibility that re-marriage will have to be postponed until the Decree process is completed.

What Is the Cost of a Decree of Invalidity?

The present cost for a full formal case in the Diocese of Toledo is currently $250.00. This amount represents only a portion of the full costs ($800) of processing each case. The Petitioner is responsible for the fees involved in a Petition for a Decree of Invalidity. If a professional evaluation is required, an additional fee is assigned to the party for whom it is required. However, no person is ever denied the services of the Tribunal for lack of their ability to pay and ability to pay in no way affects the outcome of the case.

What Effect Does a Decree Have on Children?

The Decree of Invalidity addresses the sacramental nature of the marriage, not its status under civil law, so the legal status of children is not affected by a Decree of Invalidity. Church law specifically protects the rights and status of children.

How We Can Help

The Staff at Holy Angels parish are eager to encourage and support our sisters and brothers who are separated, divorced or remarried.

We offer a variety of opportunities for Catholics who are seeking spiritual and emotional healing following a divorce and for those interested in participating as fully as possible in the spiritual and sacramental life of the Catholic faith community. These include:

  • An opportunity to explore the possibility of seeking a Decree of Invalidity.
  • Private spiritual or personal counseling.
  • Continuing opportunities for adult faith formation, education and spiritual growth.

If you or someone you know is a divorced Catholic who is interested in discussing their relationship to, or participation in, the Catholic Church, contact the parish staff at (419) 625-3698.

For more information:

A special word of thanks to Dave Cushing at Waterloo Catholic Parishes