Sacramental vs unlawful marriage and what the Church teaches

When our weekly Bible study reviewed today‘s readings, the first question was about the Gospel. Someone asked, “Jesus, says ‘unless the marriage is unlawful.’ What would be an example of an unlawful marriage?”

It was a great question, of course, and it was followed by many more questions from the group about marriage, divorce and annulments. In Mt 5: 31-32, Jesus is teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. This means that a marriage in Christ cannot be dissolved. A sacramental, consummated Christian marriage can only be dissolved by death (―until death does us part). No one (not even the Pope) or thing (like a state-issued divorce) can separate what God has joined together. Our Lord is saying this here, in Mk 10, and in Lk 16. And, it’s what the Church has reaffirmed, most recently with Pope John Paul II.

As you probably knew before the reading of this Gospel, the Lord does not recognize divorce. Therefore, the Church does not recognize divorce. This is why Jesus says, “When a man divorces his wife and marries another – unless the marriage is unlawful – he commits adultery.” In the Lord’s eyes, the man is still married to his first wife. We all know that any relationship (even one date!) by a married person with someone other than his or her spouse is adulterous.

So, as was asked, what are examples of “unlawful” marriages? The Church refers to unlawful marriages as ―invalid marriages because of the presence of impediments or obstacles. Examples would be:

  • too young
  • previously married
  • related (directly)
  • infidelity
  • abuse
  • lack of form (e.g., Catholics marrying outside of the Church without permission)

There are more examples, but these are some of the main ones that the Church looks at in determining whether a marriage is valid. If it is proven that an impediment is present, then the declaration of nullity (annulment) is given. This would be the Church stating the marriage was invalid, and the spouses are free to marry.

An annulment is not the Catholic form of divorce. It is the declaration by the Church – often confirming what a Catholic spouse knew for a while – that the marriage never truly took place. It doesn’t mean that the couple didn’t love each other. It means that they didn’t enter into a valid, marital bond. Basically, they weren‘t married in the first place.

While the annulment process can be very difficult and painful for those who apply, it can also bring healing and closure. To have the Lord state through the Church the truth about the relationship brings a strong sense of confirmation. And freedom, “The truth will set you free.”  An annulment is necessary for divorced Catholics who wish to date and marry again. It’s not necessary for them if they don’t want to be with someone new. But, for reasons of healing, closure, and freedom, it is recommended.

Closely related to all this, it‘s important to point out that divorced Catholics can receive the sacraments; it’s not a sin to be divorced. But, it is a sin to be divorced and in a relationship with another, as Jesus says in the Gospel. On this topic, there is much confusion these days in the Church, especially with regard to Pope Francis’s exhortation, ―Amoris Laetitia‖. He wrote that document in the spirit of reaching out to Catholics who are in irregular marital situations such as divorce. He didn’t change any doctrine on marriage; he can’t. The doctrine is as I have written here.

And, I wrote this in a spirit of clarity, and hope it has helped answer your questions. But, I certainly am open to meeting with anyone here (or people that you know) who are in a difficult situation regarding marriage, or if you have questions. I am here to help you navigate through it all with the love and healing mercy of God.

May you know the peace of Christ,

Fr Greg