Dear Mary Beth,
I started dating a really great guy. I am a devout Catholic and love my faith. The guy that I am dating was raised Anglican, but not baptized. He was previously married to a Buddhist woman in a civil marriage. I think this guy is really special, and that there may be a future for us. If we decided to move our relationship forward, what would be the steps we would need to take so that we could be married in a Catholic Church? Would he need an annulment?
Dear Mary Beth,
I am divorced. My ex-wife was Lutheran. We had a Catholic priest just do the marriage ceremony and we did not have the full on wedding mass. If I want to remarry a Catholic woman do I have to get an annulment ?
These are just a few of the letters I have received lately from Catholics contemplating marriage after divorce, or marriage to someone who has been divorced.
I wrote extensively on this subject in a series published here on CatholicMatch several years ago. But, given the volume of mail I’ve been receiving on the subject lately, it seems like maybe it’s time to briefly revisit it.
There are really only two things I want to say:
1) If one of you was married before, and that ex-spouse is still living, you need an annulment to re-marry.
That’s the bottom line. Period, end of story.
Whether the ex was Lutheran, or Buddhist, or bright green with orange stripes, you need to schedule a appointment with whomever-coordinates-annulments at your local parish to start the process.
Now, the type of annulment you need may vary, based on the circumstances of the previous marriage, and whether the ex was Lutheran, or Buddhist, or atheist.
If one of the parties was Catholic and the marriage was performed outside of canonical form (ie, not by a Catholic priest or deacon) without dispensation, you may only need the relatively simple Lack of Form declaration.
If one of the parties in that marriage had been married before and that marriage hadn’t been annulled, you may likewise find a fairly simple process.
And, in rare cases involving marriages where one or both parties were unbaptized, the Pauline or Petrine privilege may be applicable. Or, most likely, you have a marriage with no obvious defect of form, which needs to be fully investigated to determine if it was valid.
The thing is, no matter which type of annulment you need, the first step is the same. Call your parish. Make an appointment. Whomever coordinates annulments will listen to the details of your particular case, and tell you what steps you need to take.
I can guarantee, if that ex-spouse is still living, it will involved applying to your local tribunal for some form of a declaration of nullity.
2) You need to deal with this sooner than later. I really hate hearing “We’re in love. We’re ready to get married. Oh darn, my first marriage! What am I going to do about that?”
If you have been married before, the time to find out if that marriage was valid is not when you’re in love and ready to get married again. It’s before you start dating.
Here’s the thing that people forget. Until a marriage has been formally declared null, it is presumed to be valid.
In other words, if you’ve been married before, it doesn’t matter if you’re divorced. The Church still considers you married until proven otherwise.
An annulment is not just a simple clerical adjustment, sort of a “Catholic ratification of divorce.”
It’s a full investigation into whether certain conditions existed at the time of that initial marriage. It can take a year, two years, or even more.
Unless you’re eligible for a simple “lack of form” declaration, the results are by no means guaranteed.
Just because you apply for an annulment doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get one. The Church believes that a validly contracted marriage is indissoluble.
If the tribunal finds that yours was validly contracted—then, you’re married in the eyes of the Church, and hence won’t be able to re-marry in the Church as long as your current spouse lives.
So, it’s dangerous to start seriously dating when the status of your previous marriage is still uncertain.
What will you do if the tribunal finds that your previous marriage was valid? Will you and your beloved agree to part as friends? Or will you, as many do, choose your beloved over your faith, marry outside the Church and cut yourselves off from the sacraments?
I realize this all gets trickier when it’s your beloved who was previously married. It may not be so complicated if he or she is Catholic. It’s easy enough to say: “You need to start the process of applying for an annulment before this relationship can go any further.”
But what if he or she isn’t Catholic? It’s a little trickier conversation, isn’t it? “So, in my religion I can’t marry you until my Church has established to her satisfaction that you weren’t REALLY married the first time. So you’re going to have to go down to this office here, ask to speak to this person, and start the process of letting my Church ask you, and your ex and all of your family and friends, highly personal and invasive questions about every aspect of your relationship. And you need to do it now. Okay?”
Honestly, I don’t know an easy solution to this. It is the reason that I don’t date divorced men of other faiths.
I’m not willing to let a relationship move forward without knowing that I am free to marry this person, and I can’t imagine having the above conversation with someone I’m just getting to know.
But if you are already seriously involved with someone who is divorced—of any faith —that is exactly the conversation you need to have. And you need to have it soon.
Because the best time to find out if you can actually marry each other is before you fall in love—not after.