To Date Or Not To Date


So apparently you all like talking about annulment.

big surprise, really. Most single Catholics – at least those of us “of
a certain age” – deal with the subject either directly or indirectly in
our dating lives.

I have received more mail on this topic than I have any
other subject since I started writing for Catholic Match. And, as
fascinated as you may be with questions surrounding who gets an
annulment and why, there is one big question most of you want to hear
more about: dating and annulments. When is it okay to date? Is it okay
to date someone who doesn’t have an annulment? Someone who has applied
for an annulment? Do you have to wait until the annulment is granted?

So let’s take that question on today–Is it okay to date someone who is divorced but doesn’t have an annulment?

The way I see it, half of the answer is crystal clear, and the other half is kind of murky.

the crystal clear part: if someone is divorced and doesn’t yet have an
annulment, they are presumed in the eyes of the Church to still be
married. I say “presumed” because, until the investigation is over and
the tribunal has ruled, no one can say that for sure. The tribunal may
find that no sacramental marriage ever existed. But they may not. And,
unfortunately, you and I are not tribunals. (I don’t know – maybe
that’s fortunate. I really wouldn’t want that responsibility on my
head.) We can’t say “Well, look at the situation. Clearly there was no
marriage.” Maybe there wasn’t, but that’s not our call to make. We
haven’t seen all the evidence. We haven’t interviewed the witnesses.
That process is in place for a reason.

So, bottom line. This person is presumed to be married.
Respecting the Church and respecting the process means respecting that

That’s the clear part. The murky part comes in when we start to talk about “dating.”

of you wrote to ask me if it’s a sin to “date” someone who doesn’t have
an annulment. It’s a hard question to answer, because the concept of
“dating” isn’t particularly clear. The Church has never proclaimed on
the question of dating someone with no annulment, because the concept
of “dating” doesn’t exist in the Church’s realm. It’s a fairly recent
cultural construct, and exists mostly in the Western world. It’s
defined differently among different people at different times. And it’s
difficult for the Church to be clear about something that isn’t clearly

Some things are obviously clear. To engage in sexually
intimate behavior with someone who is presumed to be married would be
presumed to be adultery. But then again, to engage in sexually intimate
behavior with someone who isn’t presumed to be married would be
fornication. It’s a sin either way.

But does “dating” someone who is presumed to be married
constitute adultery? That’s a trickier question. What is dating? Is
going out to lunch with someone adulterous behavior? Is it adulterous
if it’s dinner? Obviously it’s not the meal, or the act of sharing that
meal, that’s adulterous. It’s the circumstances and the intentionality.
If these two people are sneaking around behind a spouse’s back, if
they’re being deceptive, if they’re violating the intimacy that spouse
has the right to expect, then they are behaving in an adulterous way.
It’s a sin against the spouse who is being deceived.

The situation changes slightly when a couple is publicly
separated and legally divorced. Yes, there may still be a sacramental
marriage present, and that’s a big deal. But I think that a certain
level of friendship with the opposite sex that would be highly
inappropriate for someone with a spouse waiting at home becomes more
appropriate when that couple has formally separated.

Notice I said “friendship.” I think this is the key. It
can be a very good friendship. It can be a close friendship. Share
lunch. Share dinner. Have fun. Be friends.

I think planning or moving toward marriage while one
partner remains “unannulled” is unwise. I don’t know if it’s
technically sinful, but I do know that it’s disrespectful of the
process, and it could be setting two people up for enormous
disappointment if the tribunal doesn’t grant the annulment.

I think engaging in dating-type romantic affection–kissing, “making out”, whatever you want to call it–is probably
inappropriate for the unannulled as well. If it goes far enough, that
kind of behavior can cross the line into being sinful even for those
who are free to marry. But even before that point, there is sort of an
understanding or an expectation that this is a prelude (or at least a
possible prelude) to marital-type behavior if the relationship
progresses toward a marital-type (i.e. married) relationship. While
someone is still presumed to be validly married, I would advise them to
steer clear of that.

People sometimes say to me “Well yeah, we’re keeping it at
a level of friendship. But our feelings are more than friendship. Is
that a sin?” Look, you can’t control your feelings. They just are. You
can control your thoughts, so just as you shouldn’t be fantasizing
sexually (about anybody you aren’t married to, really), you probably
shouldn’t be fantasizing about the big wonderful wedding you’re going
to have once that pesky annulment is out of the way. Again, it may or
may not be sinful, but it is definitely setting you up for a possible

I know that each individual situation is unique. Some
annulments are more clear-cut than others. Some applicants, over the
course of the process, can see that in their individual case the
annulment is extremely likely to be granted. That’s why individual
judgment and prayerful discernment become so important in these

I also know that a vast majority of Catholics who apply
for annulments, get them. And I know that can easily lead to a
mentality of “of course he’ll get his annulment, so what’s the big

We’ll talk about that next time.




  1. David-870960 September 10, 2013 Reply

    Good article, Mary Beth!

  2. Sandra-202758 December 13, 2007 Reply

    This article is so right on. It ain't over until it's over! Well done. Another fine article.

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