Divorce, annulments and dissolutions in the Catholic Church

  • Mark Gilbert
  • 4 December 2015

On the 25th October the general assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome concluded what was popularly known as the Synod on the Family. The two big issues were, crudely, “Can divorced couples be allowed to receive Holy Communion?”, and “How should the Catholic Church deal with homosexual couples?” The second issue was not really addressed.

The Synod finished with a consensus document that passed with a narrow two-thirds majority, and a homily by Pope Francis in which he warned bishops that are dispassionate to the needs of “wounded families” under their care and are habitually unmoved by grace, saying to them: “A faith that does not know how to root itself in the life of people remains arid and, rather than oases, creates other deserts.”

This sounds like liberalism to me, where church leaders are called to root their faith in a human experience rather than in Jesus Christ and his word in the Bible alone.

The Consensus document tries to uphold Roman Catholic sacramental theology, which says that the sacrament of Holy Matrimony in the Catholic Church creates an indissoluble bond between a man and a woman, whilst at the same time wrestling with the reality that 40-50% of Catholic marriages end in divorce and many divorcees end up in civil marriages or de-facto relationships. The consistent position of the Roman Catholic Church has been that these people cannot receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, and are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, which according to the Church is the means of God’s grace through her sacraments.

Loopholes abound, however, like the fact that a Catholic divorcee that remarries in a civil ceremony but is celibate in that relationship may receive Holy Communion privately. They are not living in sin provided they are not having sex with their new partner; however, to receive Holy Communion publically would be scandalous. (If they move to a new area where people don’t know about their previous relationships then they can receive Holy Communion publically with impunity.) The Synod encourages further knowledge and use of this loophole and others by people who have divorced and remarried.

Another big area for loopholes are annulments and dissolutions of marriages. An annulment is a way for the church to declare publically that the prior relationship was not a marriage in the Church’s eyes, so there is no impediment to remarriage. A dissolution breaks a marriage bond that is acknowledged to exist. There are many criteria for annulments and dissolutions. For example, a marriage must be consummated, or it can be dissolved by the Church. The requirements to consummate a Catholic marriage are:

  • an erection
  • ejaculation of semen containing sperm
  • an orgasm by the husband, simultaneous with the orgasm of the wife
  • an orgasm by the wife, simultaneous with the orgasm of the husband
  • an absence of contraception
  • the ability to create life following the penetration.

Based on these criteria (which I obtained via personal communication from the office of the Judicial Vicar, the Roman Catholic office responsible for annulments and dissolutions in my state in Australia), it is estimated that up to 70% of Catholic marriages have not been consummated. The Synod recommends greater use of the annulment and dissolution process, and encourages the training of more people so that this process can be streamlined. While these laws might be surprising to many readers, it is the harm these laws cause for marriages where people suffer with conditions like vaginismus and impotence that is of very great concern.

Sadly, whilst the Catholic Church holds on to her sacraments as the means of grace, rather than faith in Christ alone, and while she acts as the legal gatekeeper to these sacraments, then legalism will abound and people will be taught to obey the letter of the law. But in reality it’s the Spirit who brings about true repentance and faith in Jesus alone for the forgiveness of all sin.

Why not talk with your Catholic friend about what they think of the Synod on the family? You could then say that, while the Catholic Church ties herself up in knots with all sorts of rules and regulations from which she seems unable to escape, the gospel is simple—just trust Jesus as Lord for the complete forgiveness of any sin, even divorce.