Hey, Father! A recent column concerning divorce and declarations of nullity of marriage prompts this question

A recent column concerning divorce and declarations of nullity of marriage prompts this question: What about a practicing Catholic who divorces, has the prior marriage declared null, and then marries a divorced non-Catholic who decides they aren’t ready/comfortable with submitting the past marriage to a Catholic legal process? Is the Catholic still able to participate in the sacramental life of the Church?

— Anonymous in our diocese

              The questioner recognizes a very common difficulty. Society in general does a double-take when confronted with the Catholic presumption that a marriage once validly entered is considered indissoluble by any means other than death (with some rare exceptions). People see people entering and leaving marriages at will, and they assume that a view contradicting common societal practice is questionable.

              On the other hand, many are surprised that the Catholic Church presumes in favor of the validity and indissolubility of all heterosexual marriages, of people of any religion and no religion. These five words are helpful: “Marriage is a natural institution.”

              We recognize that “consent makes marriage,” and that the consent given by spouses-to-be at a wedding must be based on the personal strength and will of each party. Many marriages may in fact be lacking in valid consent on the part of at least one party. The task of our tribunal is to judge whether facts presented regarding a particular marriage overturn the presumption in favor of the validity of any celebrated marriage.

              One of the parties to a marriage which has resulted in divorce must petition for a declaration of nullity, if the parties are eventually to be declared free to marry according to the law of the Catholic Church. Over many years, I have read and judged numerous cases of marriages of two non-Catholics.  Some of these come from people who are intending to become Catholic; such persons may intend to marry a Catholic. Other cases come from people who seek to marry a Catholic but have no personal interest in becoming Catholic. 

              Over time, I have been edified by the numerous people who, obviously, love their prospective spouse so much that they are willing to submit their past marriage to a process which is, in their view and the view of society generally, unnecessary.

              From the Catholic point of view, it is necessary to do what is possible to regularize the status of people who seek to enter a new marriage following a divorce. The aim of our legal processes is to attain a regular status — that is, a new marriage will be able to be recognized in the Church. Ordinarily, this regular status is expected if a Catholic is to continue to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.

              The Church’s tribunal ministry remains at the service of those who seek to establish a right to marry in the Catholic Church.

Father Kevin Laughery, pastor of St. Jerome in Troy and St. James in St. Jacob, has been a judge of our diocesan tribunal since his priesthood ordination in 1983.