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Special Considerations for a Catholic Divorce or Annulment

Divorce is hard. It can be even harder if your religion teaches against divorce or attaches a negative stigma to it. If you’re a Catholic person in the midst of a divorce, you can probably relate. 

What is the Catholic Church’s view of divorce?

The Catholic Church does not formally recognize divorce. In the eyes of the church, the Sacrament of Marriage is a lifelong bond. Divorce, therefore, is considered a “grave offense” against the natural order. 

That said, The Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that separation of married couples may be necessary, especially if the well-being of spouses or children is threatened. The Catholic Church also recognizes that the moral “failing” of civil divorce varies according to individual circumstances. For example, the spouse who leaves their marriage because they engaged in an adulterous affair is more “at fault” in the given situation.

How many Catholic marriages end in divorce?

According to Pew Research Center, about 34% of American Catholics who have ever been married have divorced. Among Catholics who report attending religious services on a weekly basis, those numbers are lower. Compared to Americans of other religious affiliations, including evangelical Protestants and mainline Protestants, Catholics have lower divorce rates. Further, about a quarter of divorced Catholics (26%) or their former spouses have sought an annulment.

What is the difference between divorce and annulment?

For Your Marriage, a ministry of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), explains that a declaration of nullity, commonly referred to as an annulment, is somewhat of a misnomer. The marriage is not made null or voided by it. Many Catholics mistakenly assume that obtaining an annulment will declare that the marriage never existed or that children from the marriage would be considered illegitimate.

In reality, an annulment is granted by a Marriage Tribunal (Catholic Church court) when it is determined that one or more essential elements were missing at the time of the marriage. Therefore, an annulment essentially says the relationship in question was not a valid marriage.

For a Catholic marriage to be considered a valid marriage, it must have all the following characteristics:

  • Both spouses are free to marry.
  • Both are capable of giving their consent to marry.
  • Both freely exchange their consent.
  • Both spouses intend to marry for life, to be faithful to one another, and to be open to children.
  • Each respects the other and has the spouse’s best interest at heart.
  • Their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister.

Can a Catholic remarry after divorce?

American Catholics are subject to the parameters of their jurisdiction. Civil marriage after divorce is obviously a possibility. However, without first obtaining an annulment, a divorced Catholic cannot have a sacramental remarriage in a Catholic Church. 

For many divorced Catholics, the question of remarriage is not as pressing as the immediate concern about whether they can receive sacraments such as Holy Communion. Divorced Catholics who have not remarried or who received an annulment prior to remarrying are free to receive Holy Communion.

How to tell your church community you’re getting divorced

A major milestone in the divorce process is the sharing of your divorce news with your children, family, friends, and religious community. This Hello Divorce article offers some great tips on how to strategize your communication: who needs to know when, and how to share the news. 

Be gentle with yourself. Some conversations might be more emotionally draining than others. If you can, intersperse them with conversations with people you know will be supportive. Do not be afraid to seek Catholic resources or support programs through ministries like Divorced Catholic.

If you’re worried about your religious community’s reaction to your divorce, consider being frank with them about your own struggle with the tension between your decision to divorce and the Catholic Church’s teaching. Some divorced Catholics joke about feeling like they walk around with a “big D” on their chest for divorce. 

Overcoming divorce-related guilt

Many Catholics were raised with a keen sense of guilt or shame – but Christian divorce doesn’t have to be this way. Recognize that you will grieve the loss of your marriage whether you instigated it or not. And dealing with the effects of divorce, including any relational losses and the emotional stages of grief, can be overwhelming at times.

To cope, some divorcing Catholics put distance between themselves and their church or its traditions. Others use their divorce as an opportunity to lean into their faith and spiritual life. They might start attending Mass or praying more often, or they might attend other religious services or retreats. Ultimately, people who are grieving the loss of a marriage while also grappling with divorce guilt benefit from channeling their energy into their healing.

At Hello Divorce, we understand that your religious beliefs may add a layer of complexity to your divorce process. If you’re getting divorced or even thinking about it, we invite you to check out the many resources we offer for people in your position. And, if you’re interested in chatting with one of us to learn more about what we offer, you can schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation by viewing our calendar here.