“Ask a Priest: Is Divorce and Remarriage Considered Worse Than Murder?”

Q: I am 76 years old and have been “remarried” for the past 15 years after having divorced. It’s my understanding after having researched this subject on Catholic websites, that absolution after confession appears to be granted and available to all Catholics, including murderers, but not for divorced Catholics. So, if true, this tells me that my “sin” of divorce is more serious in the eyes of the Catholic Church than the sin of murder. It seems that a murderer on his/her way to their execution can simply go to confession, confess their sin, receive absolution, then proceed to receive Holy Communion. The Church will forgive a murderer, but a divorced Catholic will never be able to partake in all of the Church’s sacraments unless they agree to the ordeal of inquisition by annulment! What do I not understand? Did I not interpret this issue correctly? -A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your note. It might be good to focus on two points here. One deals with contrition, the other with the nature and dignity of marriage. (Divorce, by the way, is not necessarily a sin in itself.)

For a valid confession, a penitent has to have contrition (sorrow for his sins) and the resolve to make amends (the intention in the here-and-now to avoid sin again).

Thus a murderer can receive absolution if he is contrite and resolved not to sin again. A divorced-and-remarried Catholic who doesn’t have an annulment and who doesn’t want to seek one lacks the proper contrition; the person isn’t ready to make a good confession if he intends to keep on living with and having relations with his partner. The key here is that he doesn’t intend to give up the sin – hence, he can’t be validly absolved.

The point isn’t that the Church considers divorce and remarriage a worse sin than murder. The point is that someone who persists in living in an irregular union does not really have the required contrition for his sin and thus cannot receive absolution. This is not to say that some divorced-and-remarried don’t harbor regrets about their situation. The problem is they aren’t taking the proper steps to fix their situation.

The prohibition against divorce and remarriage comes from the lips of Jesus himself. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

What the annulment process involves is the Church investigating and finding that there was a defect in a marriage from the start. The process is not an “inquisition”; rather, it is an attempt to learn the truth of whether both partners met the conditions for entering a valid marriage in the first place.

Many people who have passed through the annulment process have found peace. They are able to bring a chapter of their lives to closure. They can understand better what went wrong. Often it gives them a kind of new lease on life. Perhaps you might want to reconsider pursuing an annulment.

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