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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Marriage and Annulments But Were Afraid to Ask

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Diane Montagna - published on 04/06/16

Does divorce mean excommunication? Does annulment mean your kids are illegitimate?

VATICAN CITY — While anticipation is building for Pope Francis’ upcoming apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (or “The Joy of Love”), it seems an opportune moment to address uncertainties and misunderstandings many have about the Church’s actual teachings on marriage, annulments, divorce and access to Holy Communion.

What is a sacramental marriage in the Church’s eyes? What is an annulment, and what isn’t it? Are children whose parents have been granted an annulment illegitimate? Can someone who is divorced, but not in a second relationship, receive the Holy Eucharist? And why can’t divorced and civilly remarried Catholics just go to confession and then receive Holy Communion?

Msgr. John Kennedy
Msgr. John Kennedy

To provide clear answers to these questions, Aleteia spoke with Msgr. John Kennedy, a native of Ireland and the acting bureau chief of the Matrimonial Section of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


What is a sacramental marriage?

If you think of a coin that has two sides but still remains just one coin, this can help as an image to describe the intimate connection between a sacrament and Christian marriage.

A little background: Our faith tells us that sacraments were given to us by Jesus and have been observed by the Church as a means of or a visible sign of grace. Grace is God’s love in action toward humanity. … When God gives us grace, it is like the good shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep. Grace is that free gift God offers us out of his infinite goodness.

The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum, which means to make holy, or to consecrate. A sacramental marriage is therefore something that was given to us by Jesus and which sanctifies the spouses and helps them along the path to holiness and salvation.

When we think about marriage we understand it to be more than just a legal contract with rights and obligations. It is a sacred relationship which links the spouses both to each other and more importantly to God. This relationship is often referred to in biblical terms as a covenant. Usually a covenant is a sacred bond between God and his people.

In Christian marriage the matrimonial covenant is brought about by a man and a woman who, in God’s presence, establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life by the exchange of consent in front of a priest and two witnesses. The couple create something new and beautiful at that moment. This new state of life is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. Since the union is blessed by God, it becomes holy, not by any personal merits of the spouses but because of Christ. It is Christ who makes marriage sacred. In the Gospel we know that he blessed the spouses at the wedding in Cana and, through the sacrament of marriage, continues to do this today. For this reason, when both spouses are baptized, their marriage is marked by a special dignity.

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