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Dear Catholic Exchange,
I am a divorced Protestant who would one day like to marry his Catholic girlfriend in the Catholic Church. Is this possible? Will the Catholic Church overlook my previous marriage since it wasn't in the RC Church? Would I need an annulment? Would I need to convert or do I simply make the “child upbringing pledge?”
Peace in Christ!
The Church takes very seriously the words of Jesus Christ, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11-12; cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11). The Church does not recognize remarriage after a divorce because the Lord himself does not. (Please see our FAITH FACT, “Divorce and Remarriage: The Church's Perspective.”)
Marriage is intended by God to be a “perfect union of persons and full sharing of life” (Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, no. 144). A perfect union means nothing is held back. There can be no private reservations, no preserving of the option of breaking off the relationship if things get too difficult. And so a perfect union is of its nature indissoluble. Anything less would not be marriage, in the Catholic understanding. (See our FAITH FACT, “Marriage in God's Plan Discovering the Power of Marital Love.”)
Some people enter into marriage without understanding the essentials of the commitment they are making. Without knowing what they are consenting to, a man and a woman cannot actually give full consent to a marriage union. Without this consent, a marriage does not really take place, even if the ceremony is performed and the marriage certificate is signed. This is what is known as an “invalid” marriage.
The Church always presumes that marriages are valid until proven invalid Protestant marriages included. Thus, the Church does not allow marriages to take place where one partner is divorced; she presumes that the first union is in effect. If there is some doubt as to whether full consent was given to the first union, she has established a process of investigation to resolve the matter. If it is found that a marriage did not actually take place, an annulment is granted. An annulment is an official declaration that the first marriage never really took place. It allows for a marriage to be entered into. (For more information, please see our FAITH FACT, “The Annulment Process.”)
Before proposing marriage to your girlfriend, you can approach her parish priest about the possibility of an annulment of your first marriage. He will be able to put you in touch with the competent authorities.
If an annulment is granted, your being a Protestant will not exclude the possibility of your marrying a Catholic. The Church discourages such marriages as a rule, because “she is the most desirous that Catholics be able in matrimony to attain to perfect union of mind and full communion of life” (Paul VI, Matrimonia Mixta). However, Paul VI continues, we have a God-given right to marry, which the Church respects by providing legislation for marriages even between Catholics and non-Catholics.
Thus, the Code of Canon Law provides that the bishop may give permission for these marriages to take place:
Can. 1125 The local ordinary [i.e. the bishop] can grant a permission of this kind if there is a just and reasonable cause. He is not to grant it unless the following conditions have been fulfilled:
1) the Catholic party is to declare that he or she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith and is to make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power so that all offspring are baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church;
2) the other party is to be informed at an appropriate time about the promises which the Catholic party is to make, in such a way that it is certain that he or she is truly aware of the promise and obligation of the Catholic party;
3) both parties are to be instructed about the purposes and essential properties of marriage which neither of the contracting parties is to exclude.
The obligation to raise the children Catholic thus falls upon the Catholic party. As a Protestant, your own responsibility would be not so much to the Catholic Church, as to your wife to support her in fulfilling her own serious obligations toward her faith and toward her children.
Of course, you might want to convert anyway! The Catholic Church has the distinction of being the only one founded by Jesus Christ Himself. Check out our FAITH FACTS, “Rock Solid: The Salvation History of the Catholic Church,” and “That They May All Be One: The Difference A Church Makes,” and feel free to contact us at Catholics United for the Faith if you have any further questions. You can call us at 1-800-MY FAITH, visit us at www.cuf.org, or write to the address below.
United in Christ,