Q: As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, what happens when a couple divorces? One spouse may not want a divorce but cannot stop it in states that have a no-fault law. I know many divorcées who have left the Catholic Church because they felt abandoned by it. They could not be involved in Church activities. Do they have to give up their Catholic faith? Someone I know very well is getting a divorce, and I don’t know what the Church’s position is. Are there any support groups for divorced people?
A: Divorce does not change the religion of former husbands and wives. If they were previously Catholic, they remain Catholic unless and until they formally join another religious group or publicly renounce their Baptism.
Because marriage affects society, civil law is always involved—especially regarding alimony and the division of property. If the couple has children, civil law also regulates child support, custody, visitation rights and similar issues.
A valid civil marriage, however, may or may not be a valid sacramental marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church. After a civil divorce, a Catholic spouse can seek from a diocesan tribunal a declaration of nullity (often but inaccurately called an annulment) regarding the sacramental status of that marriage. All the children born in a valid civil marriage are considered legitimate.
A declaration of nullity never denies that there was a civil marriage. That has now been dissolved by divorce but with continuing obligations as the law may provide. A declaration of nullity does say that the civilly divorced Catholic person can enter a new sacramental marriage—provided that he or she meets the requirements of civil law and the requirements of the Catholic Church.
A Catholic who is divorced but not remarried can continue to receive the sacraments. This includes marriage if a declaration of nullity has been given for the first marriage.
A Catholic who enters into a new marriage not recognized by the Catholic Church should request a declaration of nullity regarding the previous marriage. A Church tribunal grants or denies a declaration on the basis of evidence supplied by the person who initiated the process and by the ex-spouse.
In many dioceses, ministry to divorced people is part of the family life office, including retreats or other gatherings for divorced Catholics. Some dioceses also offer special programs for couples entering a second marriage.
A Catholic who has divorced and entered a Church-recognized new marriage can continue to receive all the sacraments and, after appropriate instruction, can serve in any parish ministry.