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Married Out of the Church


I would like to know if a person married in civil rites to a non-Catholic 40 years ago, then separated after five years of marriage and with 3 children needs an absolution from the Pope even if the person after separating confessed her sin and received absolution from a priest?


It may be that you are confusing “absolution” with “annulment” but in either instance the Pope would not normally enter the picture. Given that the person who married a non-Catholic is a Catholic, the civil marriage ceremony would have no standing in the Church. A simple declaration of nullity would be all that is required should that person want to marry in the Church. The amount of time that has passed since the attempted marriage and separation, even the instance and number of children, would be inconsequential to the ecclesiastical grounds against it being licit. Church law requires that Catholics have their marriages witnessed by a deacon or priest unless the appropriate dispensations have been granted. The absolution of a priest after a divorce or separation is a separate matter; however, if a Catholic should cohabitate with a civil law spouse, absolution could not be given.

If the person who married a non-Catholic were also a non-Catholic at the time of the civil ceremony, then the Church would consider that marriage as lawful and binding. If there were a divorce and either party wanted to marry in the Catholic Church, a formal annulment case would have to be entered and adjudicated by a Church Tribunal to determine the true validity of the prior bond. If the first marriage is shown to be binding and genuine, no second marriage could be permitted until the death of one of the spouses.


Further to my question, since you said that the Catholic/non-Catholic couple who entered into marriage through civil rites and have separated, only requires nullification, who will perform this then? The Catholic woman has no intentions of getting married but is guilty of the mortal sin she committed against God so wants to have an absolution from the Pope if possible.


A declaration of nullity comes from the Tribunal and the Bishop. The application and supporting documentation is sent to the Chancery. A copy of the civil license, divorce decree and the baptismal certificate is part of the package. There is little other documentation because a civil union of a Catholic outside the Church is NO MARRIAGE. The declaration of nullity is NOT an annulment strictly speaking. A formal case ANNULMENT regards a bond that fulfills the external norms of the law: two witnesses, before a priest and deacon, proper dispensations, and jurisdiction. If a Catholic marries in the Church then the presumption is that the marriage is genuine. A formal case requires testimony by people who saw problems early on and an essay by the petitioner.

If the person you are talking about does not intend to get married (again), she should simply see a priest and receive absolution. The Pope has nothing to do with her case. There is nothing more to be done. As for the previous marriage, if it were out of the Church, then forget about it. As far as the Church is concerned, it never happened… sacramentally, that is.


Indeed Father Joe is correct, making a good confession and receiving absolution is all that is required. Sure, it would be great to see the Holy Father, but make that trip after you have seen your parish priest. Make it a joyous trip rather than an act of penance. See a priest, make a good confession and allow the joy and peace of Christ to return to your heart. Know too that my prayers are with you.


Father Joe, thanks for your insights.

I am dealing with a marriage related situation, too, but not of me.

My sister is being married at 54 for the first time. She has cohabitated with the gentleman she is marrying (whom I know) for about 15 years. They even bought a house together about 7 years ago. The man is divorced. No decree of nullity is being sought. They are being married at a facility which has set ups for both a wedding ceremony and a reception. A minister (not sure who or the denomination or if they are of a mainline denomination or one of the more flexible type) is presiding. To top it all off the whole matter is happening on Holy Saturday. They consider themselves proud to be Catholic but not in agreement with all parts of the Church’s law. For example, they are as outraged as are the majority of us re: the President’s ongoing smackdown on religious freedoms. I love my sister, but am really torn. There are so many situations here where I feel I will be witnessing to illegality if I go to the ceremony or the reception. “Keeping the peace” is not my main concern, as there are many young nieces and nephews whom I feel are subtly “taught” in this situation (that one just does what one wants). Do you have thoughts on this matter? Ugh, to put it colloquially!


I have sometimes urged participation for family peace. But there are way too many elements that are wrong in this situation. She is not proud enough to be a Catholic given that she spurns basic Catholic values and practice. Marriages are NOT permitted on Holy Saturday. Of course, her attempted marriage will not be in the Church. Let us call the situation what it really is: after years of fornication, cohabitation and adultery, she now wants a piece of worthless paper to say they are married. Tell her you love her but let her know that you are exercising your RELIGIOUS LIBERTY in not participating in such a farce.

9 Responses

  1. Divorce can be a tumultuous time and if not managed properly, can be one of the most financially devastating life events. The process can be emotional and intense and the financial decisions you make during this time might be some of the most important economic decisions of your life. It is imperative to understand your complete financial situation. Knowledge and preparation will be crucial to your creating a sound financial agreement.

  2. Divorce is not always good. You should consistently work out first the problems in your marriage before settling into divorce. In asian countries, divorce is almost completely unheard of mainly because they have lots of patience on their marriage.

  3. Ah, I got it. We’re imperfect but we must still get it right, like a watch without an hour hand that has been obligated to tell time, everyone who looks upon us is at least privileged to scold us for being ignorant as to the hour. For It is charity as such to rejoice privately in this inequity, but not to sorrow in it, least we will be moved to act through pity, generosity or empathy, and any or all obligation forwarded to us.

    FATHER JOE: No, I am afraid that you have not got it— more the pity. Almost everything you write, both here and in what I deleted, is designed to deceive and confuse. We are all flawed but part of the spiritual life is to strive for perfection in grace and holiness. No one rejoices in another’s pain and ignorance. Indeed, my ministry is an effort to bring light to darkness and hope to those who do not know where to turn. However, I am not about preaching a counterfeit Gospel or a false charity that would place band aids on people’s hurts. Such is not really helping. It is not love to turn a blind eye to immorality and error that might lead poor souls into hell. Adultery, even when not acknowledged by our society, is still a grievous sin. Attempted marriages and fornication is similarly wrong. Marriage is a sacrament and the Church has the right to determine the parameters of her sacraments and rites. Marriage has a deeply personal element but as an institution, it is a public act and one that has been given a special spiritual significance by Christ and his Church. Non-Catholics would not ordinarly fall under ecclesial laws, but we all stand under the ordinances of Scripture and the natural law written into God’s creation. We can make mistakes and we can sin. We can know healing and forgiveness. But, sometimes, we have to live with the mess we make for ourselves. Marriage is a matter that plays for keeps. We should not approach this mystery in a frivolous or cavalier fashion. Broken relationships are not unlike broken bodies. Some wounds cannot be fixed in this world. Your argument on this score is not simply with me or the Church but with God. People can go through the pretence of marriage, indeed they may know a degree of happiness and comfort; however, divorce is a legal fiction (even if judged necessary) and such does not free a person to fashion a new bond. In the eyes of God, if the first marriage were valid, then it remains so— no matter what games men might play. Annulment procedures are efforts to protect the value of marriage while seeking to be compassionate to hurting people. We seek to assist others in rebuilding their lives, not upon selfishness and deception but with the truth.

    To have a mind that detracts from effort paid of the individual, that magnifies their fault, that detours reciprocity, a strict adherence to legality is the right minded action that God seeks.

    FATHER JOE: You mean, of course, in your mocking way, quite the opposite. You would suggest that no judgment can be made, unless it is your judgment. Your parody of my position and that of the Church falls short. To have a mind that applauds the works of sin in the individual; that excuses their fault; that misdirects culpability— as well as a lax appreciation of God’s law— is in no sense pleasing to God. Unfortunately, is the lie not your position, hidden behind confused rhetoric?

    It is through this unyielding, haughty, condemning, suspicious and scoffing spirit that ever a soul was lead out of darkness and into the light.

    FATHER JOE: You should look where you target your adjectives. What is unyielding and haughty? It is the person who says, “No one will tell me what to do, not you, not the Church, and not God!” I condemn no one, although many dissenters would pass judgment upon the Church and those who preach an uncompromised faith. One cannot be led from darkness to light by shutting out the light altogether.

    We must be on guard therefore, against making any sacrifice in feeling, regard or interest paid in the shortcomings of others, (i.e. charity) least we lose sight of our own pursuits, that being chiefly that we alone are qualified in seeing, getting and setting things right and no others.

    FATHER JOE: How does one parse such a run-on sentence? There is sacrifice and then there is sacrifice. I would take no particular delight in being a sign of contradiction. However, my feelings are already secondary to the great commission and the truth which is served by the Church. We need to join our sacrifices to the oblation of Jesus, doing the right thing, no matter how hard and high the price. You must think that priests and bishops are petty and shallow. Such is not the case. No joy is taken in the shortcomings of others. However, the Gospel proclamation is not suspended by sin and selfishness, or even by inconvenience. Repent and believe is the cry that echoes the Baptizer and Jesus. Clergy do not preach their own message, but the truth that is safeguarded by the Holy Spirit. We do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ. The Magisterium is indeed the authority that Christ instituted for purposes of teaching and guiding the Church, safeguarding the deposit of faith. The teachings of faith include our appreciation of the sacraments and the moral life.

    Thus is true spirit of genuine benevolence and people receive much comfort in such good natured society as this.

    FATHER JOE: The Church is a society; indeed, it is the kingdom breaking into our world. As such, it is necessary to know the laws or rubrics of the kingdom. Ultimately, our confidence is not in ourselves but in the power of Christ. Sins are forgiven. Wounds are healed. The weak are made strong. The lonely find company with the Lord and his saints.

  4. I just pray that all civil marriages of Catholics could be put right. Have had a couple in the family and they are true blessings to all who know the couple. Marriage isn’t a feeling or a temporary thing, it’s for life and it should be taken very seriously with great thought to the MARRIAGE and not just the wedding.

  5. Ah, I’m glad you’re the one who said it…. good thing I’m not married and I’m not dating anyone… too much of a temptation for sin and be compromised. We’ve got to reduce the chances to 0% before loving someone equals the risk involved; we’re talking about children and families here, people who could potentially form the body of the Church.

    FATHER JOE: Scoffing does not detract from our obligation to act morally. The answer is not for people to avoid wholesome and loving marriages. There is nothing wrong with holding people to their promises and expecting them to be faithful.

    Could you imagine the responsibilities, requirements and burdens put on a person who married not just into one family but into the whole parish or the whole Church? If the whole Church was your wife! All that chance, neediness and trust poured toward one individual to tend to. Whew!

    FATHER JOE: Actually, priests view themselves as spiritually married to the Church. Because of all the needs of believers, priests literally burn themselves up caring for their flocks.

    You caught me in the nick of time, because of my built in desires and weakness, I was willing to risk my own neck there a few times and almost put myself into a compromising situation for a member of the opposite sex, I see now it is way too dangerous going in, to take the risks or I could make simple and stupid mistakes like I’m going to do inevitably.

    FATHER JOE: Mockery about the matter is no defense for infidelity and personal shallowness. Mistakes will be made, but we should always seek to be good and moral. It is an element of a positive and mature character.

    We’re just too dangerous to each other. Much better to play it safe or at least I must wait and get it perfect or I shouldn’t dare to try. Love, life, procreation and marriage is about smooth water and perfection, getting my ducks in a row, crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s, demanding my spouse and my children tend an eye towards my own respectability and definitely about earning the respect of my peers, never being compromised, etc. and above all not allotting for risk or failure.

    FATHER JOE: Maybe you are too dangerous? But such is not the case with everyone. I do not know you and so cannot speak to your situation. The trick is not perfection, but cooperation with divine grace and mercy when we fall short. Dating should be in terms of courtship. Marital love is defined as a sacrificial love that seeks the good of the beloved. It is a self-donation that is open to the generation of children and the mutual support of spouses.

    Time to go and bury my treasure, where it will be safe. Thanks for setting me strait on love and risk. I almost denied myself and picked up that cross. Think of the scolding I would of gotten had I done that.

    FATHER JOE: What is your treasure? Are you actually resistant to the points I made? Either that or I am missing some level of your lampooning.

  6. Thanks. I asked about the old code because her civil marriage took place 40 years ago. Many people are under the impression that they were excommunicated in those days for attempting marriage outside the Church. I don’t know whether that impression was correct, or, if it was, whether the faithful who incurred the penalty then would need to take any action to lift it.

  7. What if a man marries a woman because she is beautiful or a woman marries a man because he is prestigious, but then later in the marriage this is no longer so… does either party have a claim against the other in annulling the marriage or could either party withhold companionship, intimacy or partnership because of this?

    FATHER JOE: One cannot get an annulment simply because the spouse’s looks are gone or the money has run out. It has been my experience as a priest helping couples to get married that most men feel that their fiancés are beautiful. One might argue it is simply in the eye of the beholder, but that does not detract from the fact that boys are attracted to pretty girls. Physical beauty should not be the only reason for marriage but it is a component that God wired into the mating equation. External youth and beauty is passing; hopefully a couple also shares a love that will grow and is more than skin-deep. While you use the word “prestigious,” most women I have met seem more interested in character and the SECURITY of the home. An important question arises: what does the man bring to the table in a prospective marriage and partnership. I am of the mind that the Creator also intended this female concern given her needs and vulnerability as a possible future mother to children. I doubt anyone marries a person only for one reason. An annulment investigation looks at various factors in the failure of a marriage. Traditionally, things like immaturity and a faulty understanding of marriage and the sacrament would certainly play a part. In cases of adultery and abandonment the innocent party is not obliged to take back the renegade spouse. I suspect that today this would include situations where there is abuse and actual danger. This justification for separation does not in itself guarantee an annulment. I need to add that those who would withhold sexual intimacy in their marriages as a weapon of manipulation are sinning grievously.

    Seems like only the body makes the promise in these modern times, not the soul.

    FATHER JOE: I know what you are trying to say, but I would hesitate to distinguish the two in the situation of marriage. Men and women do not marry either trees or intangible ghosts. The human being is an intricate spiritual-corporeal-composite. Angels are pure spirits and do not marry. You are a body. Bodies of the opposite sex are attracted to each other. These bodies get together and share intimacy. They bond and generate offspring. We communicate and know the world through our bodies. Men and women experience passion and joy through the bodily senses. We can also suffer sickness and pain. One day we will know death. There is no Gnosticism in the Church’s Christian anthropology. The whole reason for the institution of marriage revolves around the body and the propagation of the species.

    There should be a device available to spouses where they are able to say they care and then not deliver when the balance is due. What is the bare minimum that I can love someone and the maximum I can be selfish still get to heaven?

    FATHER JOE: This is not how God made us. Your question is similar to that of a child who asks, “Father, how bad can I be and still go to heaven?” Although the Church distinguishes between mortal and venial sin, the damage done by sin is still hard to quantify. It is a failure to love and such is always serious.

    Detailed answers would be appreciated, I just want to squeak into heaven by the very skin of my teeth and jump through any and every marriage loophole available, romantic or otherwise. Remember, I’m not really in it to grow up or to be open to understanding a deeper truth of God’s love or generosity. I just want to maximize my own profits and sort of fake it in a way the God or my spouse won’t notice the difference until after I’ve taken advantage of the situation.

    FATHER JOE: Because of the common life, it is hard for spouses to keep such sad secrets. Nothing is hidden to God. The person who wants to “fake” his way into heaven will find that his path actually leads to hell. Without sincerity in our discipleship, genuine contrition for sin and a life of charity— we are not disposed to grace.

    Do I have to love my wife if she is not pretty?

    FATHER JOE: Promises are made to be kept and real love is forever. When this question is asked, it is already too late. You stopped loving her when you first thought she was not pretty.

    What if a nicer, prettier girl is out there who is right for me?

    FATHER JOE: There is the false presumption that this other girl is “right” for you. God intends you to be faithful to your spouse. Nice or not, this other girl is WRONG for you. You cannot excuse adultery.

    Does my wife have to love me if I’m not strong or successful? What if there is a stronger more successful man who is right for her?

    FATHER JOE: There are a lot of men stronger and more successful than you. That changes nothing. Do you not remember the marriage vows: “for richer or poorer”? She is stuck with you, “until death” do you part.

  8. Perhaps you can address, thoroughly, what should be the proper course of action for a spouse who has abandoned his or her valid sacramental marriage for adultery and has had children from that adultery. There are children from the valid marriage who are minors.

    FATHER JOE: There are a number of presuppositions here and I will answer as if these matters are certain. The scenario you give notes that there are children both from the marriage and from the adulterous relationship. There is no answer that fails to entail pain, especially for the children. First, a parent has a responsibility to all of his or her children. Second, given that the marriage is valid and there are no extenuating circumstances like abuse, the adulterous partner should seek to reconcile with his or her spouse. Third, as much as possible, relations should be severed with the accomplice in adultery. This should be the case, even if the spouse refuses to take the unfaithful partner back.

    Presume that the abandoned spouse remained faithful. Presume also that no annulment was granted.

    FATHER JOE: If the first marriage were valid it would be impossible for any annulment to be lawfully granted. The matter of the other spouse remaining faithful is inconsequential. We cannot excuse adultery. It is a sin. Even if both spouses committed this sin, they would be morally obliged to seek reconciliation. If such is not possible, and again the marriage was valid, then they must remain chaste and celibate for as long as they both live.

    Then, I ask the same as above but with adultery and no children.

    FATHER JOE: The matter of children is inconsequential. As long as the first marriage was valid and the marital act consummated the union, they will remain husband and wife until one dies.

    Then I ask the same with NO adultery, not only adultery.

    FATHER JOE: I would have to wonder why a spouse would leave a happy and valid marriage. It is wrong. The spouses have responsibilities and duties toward one another. This is why divorce (for the guilty party) is still regarded by the Church as a sin. The spouse has a right to companionship, partnership, and intimacy. It is wrong both to withhold it and especially to give it away to someone else. Adultery, in this sense, is a type of stealing. Simply depriving the spouse of marital satisfaction is a sin of selfishness and makes one a sexual and relational miser.

    Then, I ask: Can a priest absolve a spouse who abandoned their marriage, presume validity, as from the above, whose spouse remains faithful and whose marriage has not been found null, but who refuses to attempt to reconcile?

    FATHER JOE: A Church annulment would require grounds to show why a marriage was not valid. Failing in this regard, the priest cannot technically forgive a sin for which a person is neither contrite nor willing to recant. Trying to heal a marriage might be a wonder instance of restitution. However, I should add that priests are frequently unaware of many of the pertinent details and thus absolution might be given (if not for divorce then for other things). For instance, spouses often blame each other for their breakups. In the few minutes that a priest listens to a penitent, he hears only one side of the story, and given the seal, he cannot seek out additional details. The innocent party (meaning the one who wanted to make it work) may not have sinned at all and thus the question of absolution might not really come up. However, apart from the question of marital reunion, neither should engage in a sexual and/or intimate relationship with someone else of the opposite sex. This is one of the reasons why I have serious reservations about Catholic gatherings for the Divorced and Separated. While the intent for healing is good; are we not encouraging hurting people to find new liaisons and possible adultery? Attempted marriages would then mean formal estrangement from the Church.

    If so, how can there be repentance with no addressing the injustice?

    FATHER JOE: If a person makes a bad confession, absolution or no absolution, the bad disposition leads to sacrilege and mortal sin remains. No one can escape divine justice.

    I ask all of this because, literally, everywhere Catholics have declared divorce as neutral, regardless of the circumstances. It merely needs to be confessed and all is “right with God.” No restoration is required. No attempt to address any civil injustices is required. No addressing the failure to address the abandoned vows is required.

    FATHER JOE: Yes, I have to admit that I have heard other priests Catholic speakers talk in just such a careless and erroneous way as you describe. Of course, the state of catechesis is still struggling to recover from the foolishness and empty platitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s. Look at the fact that over half of our couples are cohabitating. Half of those who get married will separate. There are only a few virgins, women or men, who come to the marriage bed undefiled. The faith insists that promises are made to be kept. I know several good souls, men and women, who pine for their estranged and adulterous spouses. Even in cases where there are annulments, there is great suffering and I constantly worry about fraud and the quality of testimony. The state of marriage and divorce today is a terrible scandal.

    What is “out there” renders vows meaningless and I see these issues being seriously studied and addressed— NOWHERE.

    Good Luck, Father Joe. Thank you. Karl

    FATHER JOE: For what it is worth, we are discussing it here. The Pope has given strong admonitions to the American bishops about the situation and has told them not to be lenient or sloppy with the Tribunal work. The benefit of a doubt should be given to the validity of the union, not the other way around. Bai Macfarlane has suffered terrible injustice from divorce and has become a wonderful advocate for marriage. People like her are keeping the issue alive and are challenging the Church to authenticity and courage on this issue.

  9. Just to clarify Maria’s question: was there any canon-law penalty under the old pre-1983 Code of Canon Law for entering into an invalid marriage? If so, does she need to take any action to resolve it?


    As I read it, that is not her question. It was a matter of what might be the recourse today. While there are similarities in the codes, the current code would be binding on this issue (not the one under which the marriage originally took place).

    The current code is very clear about the required FORM OF MARRIAGE.

    Here is the link to what the code says about DISSOLUTION OF THE BOND.

    Related to Karl’s question here is link to what the code says about SEPARATION WITH THE BOND INTACT.

    The old code insisted (as in the new) that a defect in form makes a marriage null and it remains such unless there is a convalidation:

    [1137] Matrimonium nullum ob defectum formae, ut validum fiat, contrahi denuo debet legitima forma.

    The old code also says, returning to Karl’s remarks, that the innocent party in a case of abandonment and adultery need not morally take the spouse back, although they can. Indeed, if they are intimate with the offending spouse, then they are more obliged to do what they can to restore the fullness of their union.

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