What does the church teach about divorce and annulments?

Categories: Around the Diocese

What does the church teach about divorce and annulments?

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

As Catholics await Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families in September, much preparation is under way, including here in central Minnesota. In February, three focus groups were held around the diocese asking people to answer questions on the topics of divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, how the church can engage newly married couples and the education of children.

heartDivorce and remarriage ranked highest in the amount of feedback and discussion and also had the most misconceptions about what the church’s teachings are on the topic.

The Visitor asked Chris Codden, director of the diocesan Office of Marriage and Family, and Father Virgil Helmin, judicial vicar at the diocesan Tribunal — the office that assists in the annulment process — to answer some of the questions people raised at the focus group sessions. Their answers follow.

Q: What is the church’s stance on divorce?

Codden: In their 2009 pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the U.S. bishops state: “By its very nature, marriage is meant to be a lifelong covenantal union. Fidelity until death is what couples aspire to and what they promise to each other. Divorce, therefore, claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Moreover, Jesus himself teaches that divorce does not accord with the binding nature of marriage as intended by the Creator (see Matthew 19:3-9).”

They also understand that, “in some cases, divorce may be the only solution to a morally unacceptable situation … [and] understand the pain of those for whom divorce seemed the only recourse.” Persons in these situations are encouraged to seek comfort from the sacraments, especially holy Eucharist and reconciliation, and to take part in programs offered by the church, staying closely connected with the parish community.

Q: What is a declaration of nullity (a.k.a. annulment)?

Father Helmin: A declaration of nullity states that, according to church law, a given marriage was not valid (and therefore not binding) at the time a couple spoke their marriage vows.

A person asks the Tribunal Office to look at a marriage that has ended in divorce, and, if possible, to issue a declaration that this previous marriage no longer binds either party to the union. In no way should this process be thought of as a type of “Catholic divorce.”

A declaration of nullity states that a marriage was invalid from the beginning. A civil divorce, on the other hand, asserts that a marriage is dissolved. The Catholic Church does not grant divorces.

Neither is an annulment a statement that a marriage never existed civilly or in the church. Rather, it is a determination that certain conditions were present at the time the marriage was entered that made it an invalid union according to Catholic Church teaching. The civil effects and recognition of that marriage remain intact and unchanged.

An annulment is not a statement that the marriage was entered into in bad faith by either of the parties. It is not a statement of who caused the marriage to fail or who was most guilty for its failure. Those are certainly important questions for a person to ask. But they are not the questions a Tribunal must answer. The annulment process, in its most simple form, involves any person coming to the church and asking to be heard. Information is gathered by us and, in the end, we answer that person’s request: the marriage was invalid or valid according to the laws of the church.

Q: Why is it important to have a marriage annulled before remarriage?

Father Helmin: All marriages recognized by the state that end in divorce need to go through an annulment process. A marriage that ends in civil divorce means that according to the state the couple is no longer married. However, the church does not recognize a civil divorce as the end of a marriage. Therefore, if a person marries a second time without a declaration of nullity it is considered an adulterous relationship.

Also, the annulment process is a healing process. When a marriage ends in civil divorce, there is a grieving process that occurs most times. The annulment process, which states that a valid/sacramental marriage did not exist, allows the person to enter a new relationship.

Q: Who needs an annulment?

Father Helmin: Any person (Catholic or non-Catholic) who is civilly divorced and now wants to enter into a marriage relationship in the Catholic Church needs an annulment.

Q: How long is the annulment procedure?

Father Helmin: The annulment procedure is a two-part process. The Tribunal of the Diocese of St. Cloud is a “court of first instance” and will make the initial decisions on the validity/invalidity of a marriage. Once the decision is rendered, it is then sent to a “court of second instance,” namely the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Because of the two-step process, the annulment procedure can take up to 20 months.

Q: How much does the annulment procedure cost?

Father Helmin: An ordinary annulment is $500 with $100 being due at the time the case is submitted. The remainder can be paid in monthly payments. The Diocese of St. Cloud subsidizes the Tribunal. There are many expenses involved in the process, and to help defray these expenses a person is asked to pay part of the actual costs involved. The Tribunal will not impose financial hardship on anyone. If a person cannot pay the full amount, he or she should let the Tribunal know. No case will be turned down due to a person’s inability to pay the fee.

Q: How can a divorced Catholic participate in the life of the church?

Codden: The U.S. bishops have said: “We urge them to make frequent use of the sacraments, especially the sacraments of holy Eucharist and reconciliation.”

Divorce alone does not affect or impede participation in the Catholic Church. A divorced Catholic is free to receive the sacraments. A problem arises, however, when a person is divorced and remarries without a declaration of nullity (and his or her former spouse is still living). If that is the case, the person may not receive the sacraments, including Communion.

If you or your current spouse are divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church, please consider seeking the healing that an annulment can bring to you and, once granted, it will enable you to return to a full participation in the sacramental life of the church.

Q: What can other Catholics do to support divorced persons?

Codden: When someone comes to us to share a crisis such as divorce, we may have a tendency to try to make them feel better, like saying, he or she “was a jerk anyway.” That is probably not the best approach. William Doherty, professor of family social science and director of the Citizen Professional Center at the University of Minnesota, offers a few good tips:

  • Be a good friend, not a therapist.
  • Don’t offer false hope or criticize.
  • Don’t interrupt or jump in too soon — remember that you are hearing only one side of the story.
  • Nonverbal communication goes a long way — offering a soft look or touch can help.
  • Offer the perspective that when a person is in crisis, they may feel their problems are insurmountable or unique, when this many times is not the case.
  • Don’t accept addiction, affairs or abuse as normal; they are not.
  • Be careful not to equate your feelings with the person’s feelings.
  • If lack of communication is a problem, encourage them to share feelings.
  • Most important, encourage them to seek advice from a trusted pastor or deacon. Jesus always offers comfort and healing, so staying close to him in the sacraments can provide tremendous peace and wisdom.

Q: What pastoral care does the church offer for divorced persons and their children?

Codden: Many parishes are offering support groups or retreats for divorced persons. Check with your local parish.

One upcoming retreat is scheduled for July 24-26 at Christ the King Retreat Center in Buffalo. For separated or divorced Catholics, Rose Sweet, author of “The Catholic Divorce Survival Guide,” will lead the weekend. For more information, call 763-682-1394 or 763-682-3453.

Another opportunity is through Beginning Experience of Central Minnesota. Their next retreat is scheduled for Oct. 2-4 at Luthercrest in Alexandria. A peer ministry, the weekend is for people who are widowed, separated or divorced and is non-denominational. For more information, call 1-888-565-0178 or visit www.beginningexperiencecentralmn.org/Home.php.

Some materials are available through the Office of Marriage and Family. “The Divorce Survival Guide” and “Smart StepFamilies” are two recommended DVD programs available for check out. Call 320-252-4721.

Q: What did you learn from the focus groups that might assist the diocese and parishes in doing a better job in improving their pastoral outreach on these topics?

Codden: Those attending the focus groups expressed their care and concern for all those suffering from the pain of divorce. They asked for consistent teaching on what constitutes a sacramental marriage and that it should be taught early, in high school. They asked that we address the misunderstandings people have about annulments and why they are so important before someone seeks a new relationship after a divorce.

For parishes, the advice included having a charitable and welcoming outreach, if possible on a one-to-one basis, to share paths toward reconciliation. For those parishes or areas that do not currently offer support groups or retreats, it was recommended that they begin. One idea included beginning the outreach with a liturgy focused on healing, sending letters and emails and including announcements in weekly bulletins explaining how a divorced Catholic can be connected or reconnected with the church, and inviting them to the service.
And for individuals, they recommended each one of us reach out to our divorced loved ones who are not at Mass and invite them back, for out of that care and concern, Christ will show his love.