To Date or Not to Date

So apparently you all like talking about annulment.

No big surprise, really. Most single Catholics — at least those of us "of a certain age" — deal with the subject either directly or indirectly in our dating lives.

I have received more mail on this topic than I have any other subject since I started writing for Catholic Match. And, as fascinated as you may be with questions surrounding who gets an annulment and why, there is one big question most of you want to hear more about: dating and annulments. When is it okay to date? Is it okay to date someone who doesn't have an annulment? Someone who has applied for an annulment? Do you have to wait until the annulment is granted?

So let's take that question on today — Is it okay to date someone who is divorced but doesn't have an annulment?

The way I see it, half of the answer is crystal clear, and the other half is kind of murky.

Here's the crystal clear part: If someone is divorced and doesn't yet have an annulment, they are presumed in the eyes of the Church to still be married. I say "presumed" because, until the investigation is over and the tribunal has ruled, no one can say that for sure. The tribunal may find that no sacramental marriage ever existed. But they may not. And, unfortunately, you and I are not tribunals. (I don't know — maybe that's fortunate. I really wouldn't want that responsibility on my head.) We can't say "Well, look at the situation. Clearly there was no marriage." Maybe there wasn't, but that's not our call to make. We haven't seen all the evidence. We haven't interviewed the witnesses. That process is in place for a reason.

So, bottom line. This person is presumed to be married. Respecting the Church and respecting the process means respecting that fact.

That's the clear part. The murky part comes in when we start to talk about "dating."

Several of you wrote to ask me if it's a sin to "date" someone who doesn't have an annulment. It's a hard question to answer, because the concept of "dating" isn't particularly clear. The Church has never proclaimed on the question of dating someone with no annulment, because the concept of "dating" doesn't exist in the Church's realm. It's a fairly recent cultural construct, and exists mostly in the Western world. It's defined differently among different people at different times. And it's difficult for the Church to be clear about something that isn't clearly defined.

Some things are obviously clear. To engage in sexually intimate behavior with someone who is presumed to be married would be presumed to be adultery. But then again, to engage in sexually intimate behavior with someone who isn't presumed to be married would be fornication. It's a sin either way.

But does "dating" someone who is presumed to be married constitute adultery? That's a trickier question. What is dating? Is going out to lunch with someone adulterous behavior? Is it adulterous if it's dinner? Obviously it's not the meal, or the act of sharing that meal, that's adulterous. It's the circumstances and the intentionality. If these two people are sneaking around behind a spouse's back, if they're being deceptive, if they're violating the intimacy that spouse has the right to expect, then they are behaving in an adulterous way. It's a sin against the spouse who is being deceived.

The situation changes slightly when a couple is publicly separated and legally divorced. Yes, there may still be a sacramental marriage present, and that's a big deal. But I think that a certain level of friendship with the opposite sex that would be highly inappropriate for someone with a spouse waiting at home becomes more appropriate when that couple has formally separated.

Notice I said "friendship." I think this is the key. It can be a very good friendship. It can be a close friendship. Share lunch. Share dinner. Have fun. Be friends.

I think planning or moving toward marriage while one partner remains "unannulled" is unwise. I don't know if it's technically sinful, but I do know that it's disrespectful of the process, and it could be setting two people up for enormous disappointment if the tribunal doesn't grant the annulment.

I think engaging in dating-type romantic affection — kissing, "making out", whatever you want to call it — is probably inappropriate for the unannulled as well. If it goes far enough, that kind of behavior can cross the line into being sinful even for those who are free to marry. But even before that point, there is sort of an understanding or an expectation that this is a prelude (or at least a possible prelude) to marital-type behavior if the relationship progresses toward a marital-type (i.e. married) relationship. While someone is still presumed to be validly married, I would advise them to steer clear of that.

People sometimes say to me "Well yeah, we're keeping it at a level of friendship. But our feelings are more than friendship. Is that a sin?" Look, you can't control your feelings. They just are. You can control your thoughts, so just as you shouldn't be fantasizing sexually (about anybody you aren't married to, really), you probably shouldn't be fantasizing about the big wonderful wedding you're going to have once that pesky annulment is out of the way. Again, it may or may not be sinful, but it is definitely setting you up for a possible disappointment.

I know that each individual situation is unique. Some annulments are more clear-cut than others. Some applicants, over the course of the process, can see that in their individual case the annulment is extremely likely to be granted. That's why individual judgment and prayerful discernment become so important in these situations.

I also know that a vast majority of Catholics who apply for annulments, get them. And I know that can easily lead to a mentality of "of course he'll get his annulment, so what's the big deal?"

We'll talk about that next time.

[Editor's Note: Because of the nature of annulments, we at Catholic Exchange stress the importance of contacting a canon lawyer. You may do so through your diocese's Tribunal.]

Mary Beth Bonacci, in addition to being a columnist is an internationally known speaker. In 1992 she addressed 10,000 teenagers in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1993 she spoke to 75,000 people at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. In 1996 she conducted a national seminar for single adults in Uganda, Africa. She does frequent radio and TV work, and has even made several appearances on MTV. In 1999, she spoke to 22,000 people at the TWA Dome during the Pope's visit to St. Louis. Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. Contact Mary Beth at Her website is

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  • Guest

     "But I think that a certain level of friendship with the opposite sex that would be highly inappropriate for someone with a spouse waiting at home becomes more appropriate when that couple has formally separated. "

    Miss Bonacci makes a distinction that the Church does not make.  The Church allows separation in certain cases and it does nothing to the marriage bond.  I was separated for three years from my husband and this comment that it is more appropriate to have a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex as long as the "couple has formally separated" makes me angry.  I acted like I was married when I was separated and the best advice I can give anyone is to treat people who are separated no differently than any other married person.  The Church still views them as married, so you should view their marriage as the Church does. 

    I believe the Rev. Kelly wrote a book on the sacrament of marriage and wrote that keeping company with someone in the hopes their marriage would be annulled in the future was sinful.  I completely agree.  Nothing good can come out of a "close friendhip" between members of the opposite sex when one is married to another, especially if there is a separation.  Give me a break and use common sense.  It is a near occassion of sin.


    Just because there is no "spouse waiting at home" does not make the relationship less sinful.  The fact that there IS a spouse period does.  As Catholics, we are supposed to witness to the world that marriage is indissoluble and not act like the world.  Being separated is a time of temptation and some support from good Catholics to be faithful is what people in difficult situations need, not more temptation.

  • Guest

    Friendship with the opposite sex — even between two parties who are not free to marry — is not inherently sinful. St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal (who was married), St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, even Our Lord and St. Mary Magdelene (who was close to Jesus, yet did not sin) are all examples of this. We can learn a great deal from one another, and grow closer to the Lord, through a godly friendship. What we eat, and when, is beside the point — though a good rule of thumb is to minimize time alone in private, and that both parties should remain accountable to a confessor and/or spiritual advisor, to steer them clear when their own judgment gets clouded.

    I agree with Ms. Bonacchi, that the Church does not address the subject of "dating" per se. I also agree that there are two very good reasons (Mary-Beth points out both) to exercise caution with regard to exercising caution and not getting too far ahead in thoughts, behaviors, or intentions: If we get ahead of the Church, we leave ourselves open to real spiritual harm, heartache being the least of it.

    I was 35 when I married, and understand how lonely it can be, and how frustrating to wait. (This is true for married couples, too, who must wait for the blessings of children and may be tempted to stray away from the parameters the Church has set). That loneliness and frustration can easily become temptations to sin. But they can also be vehicles of grace when they are offered back to God with faith, hope, and love.

    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    Hmmm –

    – Why is it that so very many of us seem to have some view that
    ‘life is too short’
    when actually our view should be that
    ‘eternity is long and longer and forever’?

    Remember, I love you, too

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    Yes, it is possible to have friendships with the opposite sex without having them be sinful.  This article is specifically talking about those separated from their spouses. 

    What offended me about the article was the comment that friendships between the opposite sex are "more appropriate when that couple are formally separated".  The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce, it is a piece of paper.  This article is giving more weight to civil divorce, that somehow it makes a friendship "more appropriate".  Why was the distinction made?  How would you feel if your husband and you separated and he then developed a close friendship with another woman?  I doubt you would view it as a vehicle of grace. 

    The article is making a distinction, that somehow if you aren't sneaking around to see each other, it makes it more appropriate.  We all know that society scarcely frowns on dating between divorced people.  But as Catholics, we should frown on it.  I have heard a priest condemn dating among the divorced from the pulpit, all Catholics should, if you honestly believe in the indissolubility of marriage.  If you don't believe marriage is indissoluble, if someone is just a hop, skip and a jump away from annulment then hey, why not – it is just a joke anyway.  I believe in the indissolubility of marriage.  All marriages are presumed valid by the Church, that is the way Catholics should view marriages, the way the Church does.

  • Guest

    "I also know that a vast majority of Catholics who apply for annulments, get them."


    338 anulments granted in 1968 in the U.S.  50,000 anulments in the U.S. in  2002, even though the number of Catholic marriages have dropped by one-third.  What a joke.   Our Catholic leaders are allowing for divorce and remarriage under the phony pretext of marriage annulments.  Tradition on the sanctity of marriage has been abandoned, and many families have been destroyed.

    "I think engaging in dating-type romantic affection — kissing, "making out", whatever you want to call it — is probably inappropriate for the unannulled as well. "  This quote from Bonacci is unbelievable.  "I think, is probably inappropriate".  As if there is a case where it could be appropriate.  This is adultery plain and simple, nothing to think about.  They are still married in the eyes of God, and that is all that matters!  Who allows this so called Catholic to write for this website.  Why are you using soft language on such a serious moral offense. You are causing scandal to the faithful.   And lastly, who is advertising your association with MTV.  More scandal.  As if I would want my children or anyone to turn on a channel that promotes homosexuality, fornication, abortion, and is so anti-Catholic it could only be the work of the devil himself. 


  • Guest

    It is possible that she went on MTV for the same reason Jesus dined with tax collectors and sinners — to shed light in darkness. It's important for all of us to do that — to share our faith not just with each other, but with those who need it most (those who don't already have it).

    Materdequint, I did not say inappropriate friendships were a channel of grace, but that the loneliness and frustration of the single life could be a channel of grace.

    Having said that, I've recently been informed of some facts that has made me change my mind about my original assessment. While Mary-Beth has done a great deal to encourage teens and adults to live chastely (including her work with "Courage"), doing anything to encourage divorced-but-not-yet-annulled adults to date (that is, form friendships with any kind of romantic intention, future or present) prior to receiving their annulment is a grave mistake.

    I was wrong not to check out my facts before responding, and I apologize for any offense my original remarks caused.

    I found an excellent article on "annulment myths" on the Ave Maria Singles site, here, written by :Fr. Juan-Diego Brunetta, O.P., J.C.D  

    Although he mentions nothing about "dating," he does indicate that those in the annulment process should put off any wedding plans for at least 18 months, which is generally how long the process takes. 

    Heidi Hess Saxton

  • Guest


    Thank you for your honesty, and willingness to  perform the due diligence necessary to come to your conclusion.  A conclusion that is in accord with Catholic moral teaching.

    The world and church is in a state of moral crisis.  A crisis so dire that it led Scott Hahn to exclaim, "have we reached the point of no return."  MBB's article has added fuel to the fire of this crisis.    So sometimes you have to be a "flamming torch" to defend the faith, and fight fire with fire.   Scott and Kimberly Hahn have spoken eloquently on the sacrament of marriage, the fallibility of annulments, and the dangers of having opposite sex freindships while married.  I believe the title is "Three to get married".  MBB would do a great service to herself and her readers by listening to this before she writes again on this subject.


  • Guest

    Of course, the Hahns (as wonderful as they are) speak with the same level of authority as the rest of us. That they would render an opinion about any kind of friendship is not, in point of fact, infallible teaching.

    For all the reasons I've already mentioned, I'm not convinced that it is impossible for a man and woman to have any kind of friendship so long as one or both are not free to marry. Church history teaches us otherwise. What I said was there may be no romantic intention (present or future) so long as one or both are not free. There is a difference. And it is this difference I believe Mary-Beth could have done a better job articulating.

    Incidentally, I couldn't help but notice that Father Frank Pavone endorses Catholic Match, even though (unlike Ave Maria Singles) I have found nothing on the site to suggest that they prevent divorced-but-not-annulled people from using the service. (If anyone else finds it, I'd like to know where it is.)

    Heidi Hess Saxton Editor, "Canticle" Magazine Blogroll

  • Guest

    Papal bull,


    I would love to read about what the Hahns say about annulments.  Annullments are fallible.  I believe a tribunal declared Joan of Arc a heretic. 

     An annulment decision is also never final until one of the spouses dies.  You can contract a new marriage with a decision of nullity in the first and second instance, but if new evidence is available, it can be appealed to the third instance even AFTER a new marriage is contracted in the Church.  Theoretically, the decision of nullity could be overturned meaning the parties to the new marriage should separate. 

     I did a lot of research during my separation and it seemed when I read something from someone who was very knowledgeable (for example had served on the Roman Rota and helped write the current code of Canon Law) I became more skeptical of the way decrees of nullity were adjudicated in the US.  There is a lot of information on about this.  I also read Robert Vasoli's book.  An article by Robert Vasoli is on

    I came very close several times to filing for a civil divorce just so I could petition for a decree of nullity.  Almost everyone told me it would be a slam dunk.  But I was not comfortable with the process.  There is a truth about my marriage, either I am married or I am not.  It seemed like the US tribunals were judging differently than the Roman Rota.  My conscience would not allow me to do it.  Thank God. 



    I apologize for misreading what you wrote.