What does the Catholic Church teach about Divorce vs Annulments?

A divorce is said to end a valid marriage, but a declaration of a annulment says there was no valid marriage in the first place.

Even the civil law recognizes the distinction. In every state the civil law provides for annulment in cases where no valid consent has been given by one party. The classic case is that of the drunken sailor who sobers up to discover himself “married.” The law says he really isn’t married because marriage requires a knowing consent, and a seriously intoxicated person can’t consent to anything, since consent requires a clear mind.

Likewise, “shotgun weddings” can be annulled because no free consent is given if the groom “consents” to the wedding only to save his life.

That’s the civil law on annulments. Church law is similar. For a valid, sacramental marriage to take place, both parties must be capable of giving consent, and both then must consent. Since a child is incapable of consenting to marriage, any attempted marriage by a child is invalid. And adults, though generally capable of giving consent, may not give authentic consent in particular circumstances.

A sacrament of marriage requires, for instance, a lifelong commitment and an openness to children. This is part of the consent to a sacramental, permanent marriage. If one party participates in the wedding ceremony with no intention to have a lasting marriage (“I’ll give it five years, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll leave”) or with a refusal to have children, the marriage is invalid from the start, even if the intention is kept secret and the ceremony goes off – excuse the phrase – without a hitch.

So what’s the Catholic position on divorce?

It is that divorce – the ending of a truly sacrament of marriage – is never possible. Ecclesiastical and civil law parallel one another annulment, but they are entirely different on divorce, because the church recognizes the sacrament of marriage can be ended only by the death of one of the spouses. Civil divorces, which adjudicate child custody and the division of marital property, are permitted to Catholics, but they do not end the marriage.

In the eyes of the Church, civil divorces are really just legal separations.

This means that Catholics who are “divorced” are really still married to one another – they’re just living apart – and neither spouse may “marry” someone else until the other spouse dies. Any such attempted marriage is no marriage at all. It is plain old adultery.

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