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Question Corner: Should a Catholic date someone whose marriage has not been annulled?

Jenna Marie Cooper writes Question Corner for OSV News (OSV photo)

Q: Can there be situations where a Catholic can date another person who has been divorced but has not yet received a declaration of nullity for that marriage? In a previous column you stated the following: “All marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise.” I have relatives and friends who date divorcees. Couldn’t this become an emotional nightmare if eventually they do get serious and an annulment falls through? (Evansville, Ind.)

A: Yes, it is true that the Catholic Church presumes that marriages are valid until proven otherwise, and it’s only logical that faithful Catholics should discern their life choices in light of this general principle. I always advise divorced Catholics not to start dating unless and until they are declared free to marry by a Catholic marriage tribunal.

The Catholic belief in the absolute permanence of marriage has its foundation in Jesus’ own words in Sacred Scripture. As we read in Matthew’s Gospel, when the Pharisees question Jesus as to whether a marriage can be dissolved, Jesus responds: “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery” (Mt 19:8-9).

This theological reality is reflected in our current Code of Canon Law. Canon 1060 tells us: “Marriage enjoys the favor of law. Consequently, in doubt the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.”

Practically, this means that apart from certain situations where it is plainly obvious on the surface that a valid marriage was never contracted — specifically, I’m thinking of “lack of form” cases where a Catholic attempted to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony without the required special dispensation from the local bishop — a civilly divorced person will always be considered married in the eyes of the church unless and until their union is declared null by a church marriage tribunal after the appropriate canonical process.

Therefore, dating as someone who is still considered married in the eyes of the church, or choosing to date someone with a known prior marriage bond, is, at best, imprudent. As you note, becoming emotionally close to someone you hope to marry, but may not be able to in the end, has the potential to lead to serious heartbreak. At worst, a romantic involvement with someone who is presumed to be already married has the potential to cross the line into the sin of adultery.

Incidentally, this understanding of marriage as fundamentally indissoluble applies equally to all marriages, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. So, for example, if two Protestants marry in their own church, divorce, and then one of them later wishes to marry a Catholic, that initial Protestant wedding would need to be investigated and declared null by a Catholic marriage tribunal in order for the wedding to the Catholic to be allowed to take place.

Because marriage tribunals don’t exist to rubber-stamp requests in a perfunctory way, but rather to discern the actual truth about the circumstances surrounding a marriage, an affirmative decision (i.e., a decision to grant the declaration of nullity) can never be guaranteed. To be fair, at first glance some martial unions may seem especially likely to be declared null; still, this should never be presumed or taken for granted. In fact, most marriage tribunals state quite clearly in their introductory paperwork that those seeking a declaration of nullity must not set a date for a new wedding until the process is concluded.

That all being said, it’s never too late to try to make a difficult situation right. Even if a person with a presumptively valid prior marriage has gotten romantically involved with a new partner, marriage tribunal staff will still be more than to work with them through the nullity process.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to CatholicQA@osv.com.