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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.

If a wedding does not occur within the context of a Mass, is it still sacramental?

There are two valid forms of the celebration of a wedding: the first usually takes place within the celebration of the Eucharist while the second takes place using solely the rite of marriage. It is important to underline that the Mass, even though it is the highest expression of our faith, does not make marriage sacramental. Rather, it is the fact that the spouses are baptized that renders the marriage sacramental.


Please tell us, what is an annulment? And what isn’t it?

To help us understand the concept of an annulment, it may be useful to draw a parallel with a principle from the legal world. In civil law, a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. In a similar way, when a man and a woman contract marriage in Church, a presumption is established by the law that states that the union is considered to be valid. Canon law says that “marriage enjoys the favor of law.” For this reason, should there ever be a doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.

An annulment is not a form of divorce but rather a solemn declaration following an investigation by the Church that the marriage, contrary to what might appear, did not come into existence. This may sound strange to some ears, so allow me to paint an image for you.

Think for a moment of a series of dots that, when joined, form a circle. Each dot in this circle represents an essential element comprising the celebration of a valid marriage. One dot represents the valid marriageable age of the spouses, another represents their genuine freedom to enter marriage, a third signifies their understanding that marriage is a permanent relationship that ends with the death of one of the spouses. Others stand for the fact that the spouses intend to be faithful and exclusive to each other and so on. If one of these elements is missing — if a person, for instance, declares that he or she intends to be faithful but has no intention of being exclusive to his or her spouse — we have a strange situation. In other words, we have something that has the appearance of marriage but which could never be described as such.

In a case like this, canon law describes the action of the spouse as simulation. A flight simulator, for instance, creates the effect of flying and landing an airplane, even though the pilot never actually flies. In a similar way, a person who effectively tells an untruth and promises something that he or she is not prepared to fulfill at the moment of expressing matrimonial consent, also simulates marriage. Had the other spouse known of this at the time, he or she would never have said, “I do.”

To return to our image of the dots for a moment we can say that, should this happen, the marriage can be examined by a panel of judges. They will make a determination on the question of whether or not the circle had been completed. So it is a not a question of nullifying anything, or ending a marriage as is done through divorce, but rather of declaring that what appeared to be a valid marriage was, in fact, not ever a marriage at all. After such a declaration, both spouses are usually free to enter a new marriage.

If I get an annulment, are my children illegitimate?

The children are never considered illegitimate. The legitimacy of children is determined by the laws of the country, not by the Church. Just as a divorce does not make children illegitimate, neither does an annulment granted by the Church. Canon law states that children born of a supposedly valid union are legitimate children. Therefore, if the marriage is later shown to have been invalid, the status of the children remains unchanged: they are legitimate.


Why can’t divorced and civilly “remarried” Catholics just go to confession and then receive Holy Communion? It’s been said that a Catholic who’s committed murder can go to confession, be absolved and receive Communion, but a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic cannot? What’s the difference?

There is a lot of discussion about this question at the present time. Essentially, what we are talking about here is trying to remain faithful to Christ’s teaching on marriage while at the same time attempting to reassure people who have experienced the pain of a failed marriage that they should still live their faith even though their new situation does put them at variance with the Gospel teaching.

When two people get married in Church, it is presumed, as we said earlier, that it is a valid marriage. Since both spouses are joined by God in the sacramental union, any other relationship that is marital in nature impacts on their sacramental marriage. If two Catholics subsequently divorce and remarry civilly, they freely enter a new union which, regretfully, cannot be recognized by the Church. They know this and the Church knows it too. Since the civil divorce does not bring about an annulment, and since the sacramental marriage remains intact, we are faced with a situation where the parties enter a relationship which is going to be characterized by the sin of adultery.

Catholic teaching holds that an act of adultery can be forgiven in confession provided the spouse is repentant, amends his or her life and wishes to return to the marriage. If the spouse has no intention of reassuming the marital life blessed by God but rather wishes to persist in the new irregular situation, then we are dealing with a different case.

Can confession solve the problem? Going to confession to seek forgiveness for committing the sin of adultery and then continuing to live in the second relationship raises a question over the sincerity of the desire to amend one’s life. We can perhaps recall the words of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery. He pardoned her offence but instructed her not to sin again.

This impacts too on the question of Holy Communion because the Church teaches that its sons and daughters are to be in the state of grace when receiving the Eucharist. If this is not the case, if a person is living in an ongoing relationship and without the intention to regularize the situation, then the Eucharist is received in an unworthy way.

What can often happen is that a person can feel as if he or she does not belong any more to the Church only because he or she may not approach Holy Communion. This is not true. On the contrary, the person should be encouraged to participate, to play a role in the community, to pray, attend the sacraments, do good for others, educate his or her children in the ways of faith and strive to conform his or her life to God’s will despite the irregular nature of the situation.

Finally, in relation to the marriage question, the person should make a serious enquiry into the possibility of the marriage being investigated with a view to a declaration of nullity. The local bishop will be helpful in this matter.

If a person is divorced but never enters a second relationship or civilly remarries, can he or she receive Holy Communion?

Yes, of course. To take an example, we all know spouses who sadly have been abandoned and whose marriages have ended through no fault of their own. Similarly, we have heard of cases where couples simply cannot live together any longer. Canon law, in fact, allows in certain circumstances for the separation of the spouses while the marriage bond continues. In this case there is nothing hindering the spouses receiving the sacraments. The difficulty only arises when a second union is entered.

Diane Montagnais Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.

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