That’s the question good Catholics often ask, usually because the years-long struggles have finally become unbearable or—God forbid—they have already met someone new. They want a quick and easy answer so they can move on. But as my husband’s old Polish grandmother used to say, “Iss not so ee-sy!”
The answer is found in slowing down and taking the time to clearly and logically think it through. Thoughtful processing seems something more and more people are loathe to do but it’s necessary to get to the truth. And the answer starts with another question:
Is it a sin to steal?
If you’re a little child wandering the streets of India, alone and starving, and not believing it is wrong to steal a loaf of bread, then NO. If you are an American child who does know stealing the bread is wrong, but you are also starving, then your culpabiltiy (guilt) is far reduced by your circumstances! Now, the Indian child can still sin (after the age of reason) by stealing something he doesn’t really need but simply desires. He knows it’s wrong but like all of us who sin, he just wants it. I remember an American child who snuck into her mother’s purse so she could buy a cute pair of shoes. It was me, many years ago, and even then I knew it was a sin I rationalized my need and justified my behavior, but my conscience—and Sister Immaculata—made sure I went to Father in confession later. Ugh.
Objectively, sin is sin, but as soon as a specific person and situation is involved, then the question changes from “what is a sin” to “was this a sin for that person at that time in that circumstance?”To answer the latter always requires considering more than just the act. This is not making excuses; it's a matter of truth.
So, in assessing if one can file for civil divorce and avoid grave sin, one must honestly identify the situation, motivation, and intended results.
What underlies a sin?
At the risk of oversimplifying: intentional selfishness. A refusal to obey God or his Church or the inner voice of a well-formed conscience. A placing of self above all else. An unwillingness to do the right thing because of the pain or discomfort it may cause. When someone has been in a troubled marriage and has “had it up to here!” they may feel like filing for divorce to end the pain. The quick and easy way out. But again, “Iss not so ee-sy!” Divorcing just because you feel like it, or without serious reason, will bring great harm to you, your spouse, the family, and the whole culture, and is a grave sin.
Can Catholics file for divorce?
Maybe. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states:
The separation of the spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense. – CCC 2383
To keep a spouse from gambling away the family’s finances, to stop a father from molesting his daughter, to escape forced illicit sexual acts, or other extreme cases such as ongoing emotional or physical violence, a spouse may seek protection through civil divorce—if it’s the only possible way. However . . . they are still married in the eyes of the Church until and unless they seek and receive a Decree of Nullity (commonly called annulment).
These cases used to be rare but sadly are happening more and more.
Are there other reasons that are okay?
No, but physical separation may be permitted. I know a couple who had a relatively normal marriage in the early years. But she had some deep emotional struggles and turned to alcohol to cope while he avoided her by staying at the office—which only made her become angrier and drink more. The pattern worsened as she turned her bitterness toward him and they both failed to get outside help for their problems. After the adult children left the home, their relationship grew so caustic that no one wanted to be around them. For peace of mind, they finally separated. Each lived in a small apartment and their children visited them when they could. He supported her financially and occasionally on holidays they would get together for short periods of time. Unable to work it out, this couple found separation a way to be kinder to and pray for each other...and to be fauthful to their vows.
But they never filed for divorce. The whole family considered them as still married—as did the Church who recognizes separation like this as an option (CCC 1649). Their sin was in the years of failing to love each other, to hold onto bitterness, to avoid the hard work, but the sin was not in the separation.
Again, these cases are the exception rather than the rule. More often after separation, one or both will seek another romance, abandon their wedding vows, and fall into self-directed and selfish pursuits. SIN.
Remember, though, that every marriage is difficult. Even titanic ups and downs can happen to anyone. And sinfulness is always present in marriage, because the tendency to sin (selfishness) is in every heart. Sin doesn’t invalidate a marriage bond. It submits it to great pressure but grace and a firm and faithful commitment to vows can push it past the breaking point. If that were not true, then God’s grace would be useless. He would be impotent and we know he is not.
The culture will tell you that marriage should make us happy. The Church—our Mother who loves us—knows that marriage should make us holy. And that peace of mind, true identity, real security, and lasting happiness—those things we all want—are fruits of holiness.
So how do I know if civil divorce is a sin for me?
It’s like going to a doctor to see if you have a disease. Most people can’t self-diagnose—they need expert help. A wise and holy person who understands the human heart and who fully embraces Church teachings should be your guide. This can be a priest or a lay person—and maybe a good Catholic therapist—who will help you “take your temperature, draw blood, review your x-rays”, and rightly assess the results.
These are some litmus test questions that need to be asked and discussed:
Have you been to marriage counseling? Do you need to find another counselor or try again? Have you talked to a wise and holy person to see what can be done to save the marriage? Have you given it enough time? Have you enlisted the appropriate help of family and friends? If you have an addiction, have you gotten help and joined a support group? Have you exhausted every practical measure available to you? Have you avoided or stopped being romantically involved with anyone else? Have you made a sincere effort to invite God into the situation? Have you adequately researched what the Church teaches on this and why? Have you considered how this will affect you, your spouse, and your children? If you do file for divorce, what is your motivation?
What is the intended result?
Current Canon Law (written when divorce was not so prevalent) requires one to get the Bishop's permission before filing for civil divorce if it is not an emergency situation (Cn 1153.1). However, even bishops understand this is impractical if not impossible to implement in most places. In my own diocese this year there are over 400 petitions for nullity; giving each party enough time and attention to hear their cause could be at least 6 hours (if not much more!), or 50+ hours per week just on hearing divorce pleas. And this is only a fraction of all divorced Catholics who don't bother with annulments. Clearly the Church needs and wants to help but she is not equipped to handle the deluge of divorce. We need a better system to handle the crisis, but that's for another post!
If you've done everything you can, believe there is no possible solution left, and the marriage has been either extremely unbearable, gravely sinful, or dangerous to you or the children, then you may decide on your own authority (Canon 1153.1) to separate; after consulting with your pastor or a wise and holy priest you have three right choices:
( 1 ) Separate for peace, remaining civilly married and true to your vows—and to your spouse—until their death. This may seem impossible but it’s not. Many people have chosen this path and have full and happy lives. The suffering you endure in this choice can be lovingly offered up as a gift to God for the healing and salvation of both of you.
( 2 ) Separate for safety and file for civil divorce, but only after careful counsel and understanding you’re still married in the eyes of the Church. That means living faithfully to your marriage vows even if apart, until the death of your spouse.
( 3 ) Consult with the Church about the possibility of a Decree of Nullity for your attempt at marriage. Improperly but commonly called annulment, this is an investigation by the Church of the time you married to see if a valid marriage bond formed when you both said “I do”. It’s like civil court proceedings but it’s not the spouses who are on trial; it’s the truth of the marriage bond that’s being examined. Many times people marry under grave pressure (pregnancy) or as an escape (from childhood home abuse). While the Church (in her justice) vows to uphold a valid marriage bond, she also recognizes (in her mercy and justice) that some people attempt marriage wrongly. There were hopes, dreams, and a wedding, but no true marriage bond. Then they have children and stay for several decades struggling against all odds. When the marriage finally fails, and it can be pointed back to the time of consent that there was some grave defect of consent, the marriage bond can be declared invalid.
The civil marriage, the good times, the years together, and the children are not “invalid”, but no true marriage bond—as the Church understands from Christ—was ever formed. This is a complex topic because we are complex persons, and almost nothing sets off more angry discussion than this among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. So seek the fullness of truth.
It’s necessary to consult reliable sources and understand why you are making your choice. Divorce is a grave offense (sin) against persons, the family and the whole culture (CCC 2384-85) , and even if civil divorce is justified, the wounds reach far and wide. Don’t blindly follow the parish priest or someone who thinks they have the answers for you without being personally responsible for your actions. If you want a simple way to understand Church teachings on marriage and annulment—and perhaps begin to assess your own situation—get my book How to Understand and Petition for Your Decree of Nullity (Saint Benedict Press 2012).
So take these steps:
Go to Our Lord in prayer, ask his help, and then take the time to ask the tough questions. Get good counsel from wise and holy persons. Anyone who advises you don’t have to follow Church teachings is to be avoided. Learn more about what the Church really teaches and why. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Submit your marriage to expert Church scrutiny to see if you have recourse to civil divorce and/ or church annulment. If there has been sin in your marriage--and there is in every marriage--make a thorough examination of conscience and go to Our Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Seek forgiveness from those you have failed and make amends where possible. You really won’t know the answer to “Is (civil) divorce a sin?” for YOU until you do.
Can I still receive Communion?
Divorced and not remarried? Yes, you may receive (if you are not in a state of serious sin; if so, get to Confession first). While divorce can be the fruit of sin, it is not something that in itself prohibits you from receiving the Eucharist.
If, however, you have remarried outside the church without a Decree of Nullity (annulment) you are required to refrain from presenting yourself for Eucharist (no matter who tells you otherwise). Why not? By reason of your baptism, you'll always be a Catholic and expected to live by the standards she received from Jesus himself. For your best and that of the rest of the community. Even though you’re still a member of the Body of Christ, still part of the family, when you attempt(ed) marriage outside the Church (whether you are aware or understand it or not) you stepped outside the family. Until the situation can be corrected you’re not yet in FULL communion.
Receiving the Eucharist is an act that has significant private and public dimensions. It is a living witness to the fact that you believe all that the Church teaches and you humbly submit yourself to Christ through the Sacrament. If in fact you have not submitted, then it would be a "lie" to RECEIVE Communion if you are not yet back IN full communion with His Church. Anyone who has removed himself from “communion” with the Church is expected to refrain from the sacrament until the situation can be cleared up.
Is this a punishment? No, it’s a respect for the sanctity of marriage. Imagine you're driving a car without the pink slip. The “law” would not permit you to possess or drive that car until the ownership issues are cleared up. That is not a punishment, but an upholding of a sometimes complex law that protects everyone concerned as well as the general public. Most people understand this and go immediately to the DMV and work to resolve the problem.
In a similar way the Church asks you to wait to receive Communion until you come back into full communion. One way to do this is to see if it can be proved through the “courts” (marriage tribunal) that your former marriage, for some valid reason, could never produce an authentic marital bond when you said “I do”. If so, you may get an annulment and may choose to have your current civil marriage convalidated (brought to the level of a sacrament). If it can’t be proved, however, the church must outwardly uphold the sanctity of your prior marriage as an unbreakable bond that images the union between Jesus and His Bride.
There’s so much more, of course, so begin to read and research this topic on your own. Talk to an informed and faithful priest. Read How to Understand and Petition for Your Decree of Nullity. There are ways the church brings warm mercy and tenderness to balance the necessary upholding of justice. And be careful . . . many Catholics think they know all about annulments and they mistakenly avoid or reject what can be a beautiful healing process.
Bible: This is a great mystery and I am speaking of Christ (the Bridegroom) and (His Bride) the Church. Eph 5
Catechism: The Eucharist is properly the sacrament of those who are in full communion with the Church. CCC 1395
What is an annulment?
The formal term is “Decree of Nullity’ and ‘annulment’ has become the common phrase. It’s not to be confused with a civil annulment.
It doesn’t make your children illegitimate. It doesn’t deny the love, affection, family ties and other goods between you and your ex spouse. It doesn't deny that you had a valid civil marriage.
According to the Catholic Church a valid, sacramental marriage can never be broken. If the marriage is authentic, it has been “caught up into” and become part of the unbreakable marriage bond between Christ with His Bride (all of us in His church). He never breaks His promise, He never leaves us. No divorce. Ever.
But (for serious reasons) some people just aren’t capable of entering into a valid or sacramental union. Like some people can't drive a car even though their feet reach the pedals and they really want to drive. And the church recognizes—with the same love of justice and desire for mercy as Jesus—that imperfect people enter into what are called “attempted marriages”. Despite good intent, something was seriously obstructive or missing that prevented the union from ever being able to rise to the level of a a true marriage. There was, as the Church says, a "defect of consent" and despite family, financial, social, sexual and even parental bonds, there was no true marriage bond (as the Church understands authentic marriage). It can seem a jarring concept, but it makes sense when you stay open to the mind of the Church and have someone help you understand.
Maybe one spouse was married before and not free to marry again. Or one was grossly immature, under age, under grave fear or pressure to marry (shotgun weddings), severely addicted, or permanently refused to remain open to the gift of children. These are areas that do not reflect the free, total, faithful, fruitful love of the Bridegroom for His Bride and therefore do not reflect a valid marriage bond. For those who are both baptized, the bond is assumed both valid and “sacramental” (pointing to and becoming caught up into the Mystical Marriage) until proved otherwise in a competent tribunal.
Some people think it is too easy to get an annulment. It is not. Some have said (including recent popes) there are "too many" annulments in our country. They are right! Not that annulments are easy to get, but that too many people marry for the wrong reasons and with the wrong intent. Grace can certainly help us all, but far too many today fail to have the capacity for marriage as God intends.
There is much more! This is a complex issue because marriage is a serious issue. Most Catholics—including some clergy—haven’t been well informed on the truth about marriage, much less about annulments, but we hope to help remedy that through our materials.
If you want to know more—and we hope you do—first ask God to give you an open mind and heart and check out our annulment section.
Bible: Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matt 16: 18- 20
Catechism: . . . the Church, after an examination of the situation by the competent ecclesiastical tribunal, can declare the nullity of a marriage. CCC 1629
How do I help my kids?
By helping yourself FIRST. It’s smart, not selfish. Imagine you all flew out of a car crash . . . you can’t crawl over and help the kids when you are rapidly losing blood yourself. You’ll last longer and be in a better position to help more family members if you first tie a tourniquet around your own gaping wound. Airline stewards always tell you that, in the event of an emergency, you must put the oxygen mask on yourself first, not your child. Why? If you pass out, you will be no help to your baby.
After divorce we want to help you learn to let go of many things, slow down, take rest, get help, pray more, talk things out, solve problems, find solutions, create a new life, and learn to forgive. These are invaluable life-lessons that you can pass along to your children only after you learn them first. The most important lesson you must learn and pass on is the priority of God in every area of your life, the continual surrender of your will to His, and the desire to seek Him ever more.
Keep listening to your kids; they will each experience divorce differently. Don’t over-indulge them or ease up in normal routine or discipline. Don’t over-schedule or over-stimulate them. Read good Catholic parenting books (try our expert and author, Dr. Ray Guarendi), get counseling, pray . . . and play!
Bible: Read the story of Eli, a godly man, who was a loving but weak parent who failed to teach his sons respect for their father or for the Lord. See what happened! 1 Sam 2:12 - 36
Catechism: Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.” Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. CCC 2221 - 2233