“Ask a Priest: Twice Divorced … Why the Need for Annulments?”

Q: I’m in my 50s and consider myself a Christian but yet not a Catholic. An old-school, conservative Catholic priest once told me that I cannot become a Catholic until the following matter is resolved: In my 20s, I married (in a Protestant church) a woman, but 12 years later she wanted and got a divorce. A few years later I married another woman (by a Protestant minister). Eight years later she also wanted and got a divorce. I’m now in a loving relationship with another woman, but we are not married yet. The Catholic priest told me that I need to get annulments for both my former marriages, and then marry the woman I’m currently with, but only after she has also got an annulment for her first marriage. Or else I will not be welcomed into the Catholic community. However, I fail to see how this mess can ever be resolved. None of the women have any interest whatsoever in going through an annulment process. Plus, I cannot see any solid, formal reasons for annulment (of the first marriage). I could of course go into celibacy, but that would mean abandoning my loved one and the life we’ve built, making her deeply unhappy and forever ruining any chances for her to become a Christian. And the same would most likely happen to my children. They would see a father who chooses to “save his own soul” at the cost of many others, just because a priest told him so. I would risk making many people bitter toward the Church. As you can see, this is a serious dilemma for me. Is there any other way? I want to become a Catholic, but not if it means pushing everyone I love away. – N.E.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A. My guess is that one reason why you are drawn to the Catholic Church is because you sense that it has something substantial to offer, something that Protestant denominations lack.

What the Church teaches is the fullness of what God has revealed through Jesus, and Our Lord was very clear about marriage. “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).

This teaching flows from the very nature of marriage. It reflects the inner life of the Trinity. When baptized Christians enter into a marriage with the right dispositions, it is for life. The Church considers such a bond a sacrament and doesn’t have the authority to dissolve a true marriage.

Now, to live in accord with that truth is part of what being Christian demands. So the dilemma you describe seems false. In effect you are saying that by living like a Christian you would drive someone away from Christianity. That implies that not living like a Christian will somehow draw others to Christianity. That rings hollow.

You yourself admit that you cannot see solid reasons for an annulment of your first marriage. That is a good place to start. A Christian interpretation of that fact would mean that you are still married to your first wife in the eyes of God.

That is the reality that you would need to start with. Certain demands flow from that fact. Among them: You couldn’t remarry while your first wife is still alive.

Perhaps that is what God is calling you to face. Perhaps by living a celibate life, you can grow in holiness.

If that seems beyond your capabilities, you are right. Holiness is beyond all of us – if we depend on our resources. God calls us to holiness with the implicit promise that he will give us the grace to become holy if we follow his path.

At the end of the day, the Catholic faith is about putting God first in our lives. All other relationships come second.

I would like to clarify one point. You mentioned that without the annulments you wouldn’t be welcomed in the Catholic community. That isn’t quite true. You could enter the Church, after proper instruction and a good confession, but you couldn’t marry in the Church, at least not now.

Now, perhaps there might be grounds for an annulment for the first marriage. You would need to speak with a priest about that. However, I don’t want to raise any false hopes here, since you in effect believe that the marriage was valid. Nevertheless, it is true that sometimes the presence of a “divorce mentality” in one or both of the potential spouses can make a marriage null. In other words, someone could enter into a supposed marriage with a kind of caveat in the back of their mind, “If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just get a divorce.” This can nullify a marriage, because it can empty the promise of entering into a lifelong union.

My point in mentioning this possible factor is simply to encourage you to take concrete steps by entering into a dialogue with a priest you can trust, or contacting someone at your Catholic diocese headquarters, to move forward. Don’t think that God can’t bring something wonderful out of your current situation, even if you don’t know what that will look like.

For now the choice comes down to this: Who is first in your life? Christ, or your woman friend?

Perhaps you want to take all this to prayer. I hope you choose well. Count on my prayers.

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