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Catholics Can Divorce. The Church Might Even Dissolve The Marriage For You

Last week’s column dealt with “legal separation”, which is the formal resolution of all the same issues that are addressed in a divorce, such as dividing the property, settling custody and support questions, and devising a parenting plan, without ending the marriage itself. And, as pointed out last week, a legal separation can be converted into a divorce, under specifically defined circumstances, upon application of one of the parties and even over the objection of the other spouse.


As I prepared that column, I wondered what the Roman Catholic Church thought about legal separations as well as the possibility that a Catholic could enter into a legal separation, to keep their marriage intact, only to find themselves divorced because their spouse took that next step to convert the separation into a divorce. Would a Catholic spouse be obligated to do anything they could to prevent that divorce?


I am not a Catholic, but was given to believe that faith prohibited its members from divorcing. As such, I thought that a legal separation and/or its conversion to a divorce could be problematic for faithful Catholics. For insight, I turned to Monsignor John Shamleffer, who as Judicial Vicar of the St. Louis Archdiocese, represents the bishop in church legal matters.


The Monsignor couldn’t have been more helpful in explaining his church’s point of view. He began by saying that a couple that separates and chooses to live apart is not doing anything morally wrong. “Hopefully, the purpose”, he said, “would be to try and work things out and to get back together.”  The Monsignor added that the couple would still be “bound by their marital commitment”.


Formalizing their separate status via a legal separation would also be acceptable, according to the vicar, and may be appropriate for someone who finds himself or herself in “an unhealthy situation”.


But, what about converting that separation into a divorce…must a Catholic object or resist in any way?


“Divorce is not, in itself, morally wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church, although some immoral acts may have contributed to the divorce” according to the Monsignor. “A Catholic is not required to object” to the conversion of a separation into a divorce by their spouse, although Vicar Shamleffer added that he hoped that the Catholic would be making efforts to “keep the marriage together”.


The vicar went on to say that a divorced Catholic can continue to receive the sacraments of the church and remains a member in good standing so as long as that person has not initiated any subsequent “marital or similar relationship with another partner” and as long as he/she is “according to one’s conscience in a state of grace”.


Once again, I have learned something new. Catholics can get divorced. As the Monsignor explained: A divorce “puts an end to the binding contractual relationship which exists between spouses relative to civil law.” It has “no capacity to alter the binding nature of the marital contract or covenant a couple creates by their exchanged consent”.


All that being said, a divorced person cannot remarry in the Catholic Church, while their spouse is still alive, until that first marriage is annulled by the Catholic Church, according to Monsignor Shamleffer. Although, under very limited circumstances, a Catholic married to a “non-baptized” person can have that prior marriage dissolved by the church for the purpose of allowing the Catholic to marry another Catholic or baptized person.


Now, that’s really news to me: The Catholic Church dissolving a marriage rather than annulling it. Alas, I am out of time and space, but next week I’ll talk more about dissolutions and annulments in the Catholic Church.