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The statistic that around 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce in the United States may not come as a shock to many people. The divorce rate is even higher for second and third marriages. Although the percentage of Catholic marriages that end in divorce is thought to be lower than the national average, the Church’s attitude towards it has started to change in recent years.

No couple, regardless of religion, enters into a marriage with the intention of getting divorced, but for some it is inevitable. Not only do Catholic couples have to worry about getting a legal divorce settlement and making other practical arrangements, such as childcare, they also have to obtain a Decree of Nullity from the Catholic Church.

What’s more, dealing with some of the less favorable opinions of those more traditional Catholics may not be so easy either. If you’re considering a divorce and you’re worried about what to expect, read on to find out how attitudes and processes are changing for divorced couples in the Catholic community.

Catholicism and Divorce

The Catholic Church does not recognize divorce for valid sacramental marriages. The Church teaches that “God himself is the author of marriage” and a union between two people is also a union between themselves and God. In the bible, Jesus speaks of marriage;

“Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate,” (Mark 10:9)

A marriage can only end in the eyes of the Catholic Church when one partner dies or there are grounds for annulment. Even if a couple has obtained a legal divorce, they are still considered married ‘in the eyes of God’ unless they obtain an annulment from the Church.

Annulments can only be granted by the Church if it can be proven that the marriage was ‘not valid’. To make a marriage valid, a couple must:

  • Marry freely and without reservation
  • Love and honor each other for life
  • Accept children lovingly from God

If any of these conditions were not met, the marriage can be declared invalid and the couple can apply for a decree of nullity to be granted. Once this is granted, the couple are free to remarry in the Catholic Church.

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Is Divorce Classed as a ‘sin’ by the Catholic Church?

Divorce itself is not classed as a ‘sin’ by the Catholic Church. Couples who have divorced will continue to receive the sacraments and be welcomed within their Catholic community. In some dioceses, there are programs and support groups available for people in their community going through a divorce.

If, however, someone enters into a new relationship or remarries without getting an annulment from the Church they may not be allowed to receive Communion or attend Mass. The bible states that ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12)

Although divorce is not a sin, as we’ve seen, you are still married in the eyes of the Church. So, if you enter into a new relationship, then some believe you are, in fact, committing adultery, which is a sin.

Catholic Divorce in the Modern World

Attitudes to divorce are beginning to change and, in a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015, 62 percent of US Catholics believe that the Church should allow divorcees who remarry without an annulment to receive Holy Communion. Also, 49 percent of US Catholics believed that getting remarried without getting an annulment is not a sin.

When divorced couples who did not seek an annulment were asked why the most common answer was that they did not see it as ‘necessary’ or that they simply did not want to.

There still seems to be a distinction between the opinions of Catholics who attend Mass frequently and those who go less frequently. 48 percent of Catholics who attended Mass weekly believed that the Catholic Church should not allow cohabiting couples to receive Communion, compared to the 26 percent of Catholics who attended Mass less often. Also, 42 percent of weekly Mass attendees believed that divorced or remarried Catholics should not be allowed to receive Communion, compared to 24 percent of less frequent Mass attendees.

A myth perpetuates that when you receive your Decree of Nullity, it essentially erases your marriage like it never existed. This, in turn, makes any children of that marriage illegitimate. This, of course, is not true.

The Church is trying to modernize and is responding with support groups for divorced couples. There are also resources out there, such as The Catholic Divorced Ministry, The Beginning Experience, and Divorced Catholic.

They are also being more proactive by better preparing couples for married life with the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage. This aims to ‘connect authentic Catholic belief and teaching with the major issues present in marriage today’ and to ‘offer a specific Catholic witness to the meaning, value, and sanctity of marriage.’ More recently, Pope Francis made the process of obtaining an annulment more efficient.

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Pope Francis and the Annulment Reform

In 2015, Pope Francis made some changes to the annulment process, making it quicker and easier for couples to be granted a Decree of Nullity. In some countries, the process was long, costly, and complex and it could sometimes take years to get a ruling.

Therefore, on September 8th, 2015, Pope Francis issued two documents known as ‘motu proprio’. These are documents issued on the Pope’s initiative and personally signed by him and are often used to clarify legal matters.

The two documents detailed a new set of canons to replace the sections on annulments in the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. There are many changes to the annulment process, however, the main ones include:

Only a single judgment of nullity is required

Until these changes, most cases would have to be approved by two separate tribunals if the marriage was proved to be null. This meant that the process was often long and complicated. Now, the decision of the first tribunal is sufficient to grant the request, unless the case is contested in some way.

The bishop himself is a judge

Previously, the role of the bishop as a judge in marriage cases was not established in the canons on annulments. However, as the principal judge in his diocese, the bishop now has the responsibility, along with others he chooses.

New, quicker process involving the bishop has been created

Previously there were two processes for handling annulments:

  • A formal process which involved gathering evidence and hearing testimonies;
  • And an easier documentary process, which involved producing a certain document to clearly prove the marriage was null and void.

These processes have now been simplified. In cases where the evidence for nullity is clear, it can be presented directly to the bishop for a decision. However, if the case is contested or the evidence isn’t clear, then the case must be referred to the original formal process.

Appeals can be made against the judgement of the bishop to the metropolitan

If a couple does not agree with the decision made by the bishop, they can appeal to the metropolitan bishop (the head of the local ecclesiastical province which includes several dioceses). If the decision was made by the metropolitan bishop, then the decision can be appealed to the next bishop with the most seniority in the province.

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Find Your Support System

As we’ve seen, marriage is an important and sacred union in the Catholic Church. That said, a breakdown in a relationship can happen for a variety of reasons, so a divorce can’t always be helped.

It can be stressful and emotional enough to go through the process of obtaining a civil divorce. With the added stress of getting an annulment from the Church, particularly when the teachings of the Catholic Church are very pro-marriage and against divorce, it may be a lot to handle.

It’s important to remember that you are not alone and that there are others like you out there that you can turn to for support and guidance. Ultimately, though, if your beliefs support your decision, that is all that really matters.