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By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Marriage, Divorce and Annulments

Can I Still Receive the Sacraments?

Q: I am a Catholic. My wife and I divorced seven years ago. I attend church periodically but pray almost daily. In talking with other Catholics, if the subject of my divorce comes up, they cut the conversation short.

Am I prevented from receiving any sacraments in the Church? Is an annulment necessary for continuing my life as a Catholic? If so, would that render my son illegitimate?

A: If you have not remarried and are properly disposed, you can receive the sacraments of Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance or Anointing of the Sick.

A declaration of nullity, sometimes called an annulment, says that you are free to marry within the Church or that an existing marriage can be convalidated (regularized).

Declarations of nullity do not render children illegitimate because the Church presumes that the bride and groom married in good faith—even if that marriage is later declared null.

Are Annulments in Scripture?

Q: I have been divorced twice and recently inquired about getting an annulment. The interview was a very grueling process for me. Because of ex-husbands and certain people in my past who would not cooperate, I will not be able to complete this process.

Why does the Catholic Church judge people by their past and not allow them to receive the Eucharist? If the Church tells me that God forgives the repentant sinner, why can’t the Church do the same?

I go to church and read my Bible every day. I would like to receive Holy Communion, but I will respect the Church’s laws.

Why is there an annulment process, anyway? Is there anything in the Bible about this?

A: The Catholic Church believes that a valid, sacramental marriage (between a baptized man and a baptized woman) cannot be dissolved except through death. The biblical basis for this is Matthew 19:6: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”

What appears to be a valid, sacramental marriage, however, may not be that. There are many reasons why a union between a man and a woman might be declared null. For example, one person’s “I do” could mean “as long as I like how this relationship is going.” If such an intention could be proven by testimony from firsthand witnesses, then the marriage might be declared null because one partner was not making a permanent commitment.

A valid, non-sacramental marriage (where one or both parties are unbaptized) can be dissolved under certain conditions.

You wrote that you cannot complete the annulment process because of “certain people in my past who would not cooperate.” Did the person who interviewed you about a possible annulment agree with that assessment?

Your former spouse (one case at a time) has to be informed or a reasonable effort must be made to do so, but your case can proceed even if he does not cooperate. Depending on the baptismal status of each of your former husbands and where those weddings took place, your case might be rather simple to resolve.

The Catholic Church does not say that divorced people cannot receive the Eucharist. It says that those who are divorced and remarried cannot.

Why? Because of the Scripture passage quoted above. The Church feels that any other policy would fail to recognize the sacredness of marriage and would undermine family stability.

You asked if the Scriptures say anything about annulments (declarations of nullity). The Law of Moses includes regulations about which people are too closely related to allow them to marry each other (Leviticus 18:6-18).

Jesus said that the Law of Moses was too lenient on the subject of divorce and did not reflect God’s intention from the creation of the world (Matthew 19:4-8).

St. Paul addressed the situation of Christians married to unbaptized spouses who were no longer willing to live with them because of their Baptism (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).

The Catholic Church’s thinking about declarations of nullity comes from centuries of pastoral care with people whose marriages have broken up. In fact, some people have found the Church’s process to be a healing one.

The Catholic Church is placing more emphasis on preparing men and women well for marriage.

I encourage you to investigate whether an annulment is possible in your situation. Do not be afraid to get a second opinion from a Church minister trained in these matters.

Whatever you decide, I hope you keep going to church and keep reading the Bible. God still loves you very much.

What Is Its Origin?

Q: I was recently asked where the Sign of the Cross comes from, but I could not give an answer. We all bless ourselves without thinking how this tradition started.

A: The words are the second half of Matthew 28:19, part of Jesus’ final words to the apostles.

I am not sure when and where this gesture was first used. My guess is that it was not until Christianity had become a legal religion in the Roman Empire (313 A.D.).

Artistic depictions of the crucified Jesus come after that date. I suspect this gesture was used soon after Christianity became first a legal religion and later the empire’s state religion (fifth century).

In the Eastern Churches (both Orthodox and Catholic), people touch the right shoulder first and then the left—the opposite of the Western custom. There are different explanations for this variation.

The cross symbolizes Jesus’ generous love, which makes our salvation possible.

Can I Be Redeemed?

Q: I am a Catholic. My wife and I were married by a justice of the peace 35 years ago. I understand that means I am excommunicated. If so, what can I do to become redeemed?

A: Redemption is God’s responsibility, and only God knows a person’s heart well enough to make that awesome judgment.

Regarding marriages, the Catholic Church makes judgments on the basis of public facts. In this case, your Baptism, your marriage by a justice of the peace and your obligation to follow Catholic “form” (marriage by a priest or other previously authorized representative) are all public facts.

It sounds as if you did not follow Catholic “form.” Your baptismal certificate and your record of marriage by a justice of the peace may be enough for your pastor to determine that. Then a priest or deacon can “convalidate” (regularize) your marriage within the Catholic Church.

Even now, you can go to Mass whenever you like. The Church understands that you need to convalidate your marriage before receiving the Eucharist. I encourage you to speak with your pastor or another member of your parish staff.

Who Can Be Saved?

Q: According to news reports, a cardinal recently said that only Catholics can get to heaven.

Isn’t it true that, no matter the credentials of the person making a statement, if it is not consistent with Scripture, Christ and Church doctrine, then it is not valid?

A: You are probably referring to the document Dominus Iesus [The Lord Jesus]: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.

It was published on September 5, 2000, with the pope’s approval, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. You can find it at www.vatican.va.

This instruction is directed primarily to those involved in interreligious dialogues (that is, with non-Christians). It denounces any downplaying of the unique and saving role of Jesus, any seeing him as one savior among many possibilities.

The document also addresses how Jesus’ Church is related to other Churches or faith communities. As Vatican II taught, the Church which Jesus founded “subsists” in the Catholic Church (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, #8).

“Subsists” is not the same as “is.” The bishops at Vatican II chose this word very carefully.

Many news stories erroneously reported that, according to this document, only Catholics can go to heaven.

Nothing in this instruction contradicts the Church’s faith as expressed in one of its eucharistic prayers, “...and all the dead whose faith is known to you [God] alone.”


If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.



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