Dating & Divorce: What Does the Church Really Teach?

When I first learned the basics of Church teaching on divorce and remarriage in an abstract, impersonal way during my undergrad, it felt fairly clear-cut and straightforward. But once I had to try and explain it to a close Catholic friend of mine as she tried to navigate the waters of separating from her abusive husband, nothing seemed so simple anymore.

If we’re being honest, we have to admit that Church teaching on divorce and remarriage is really difficult in a culture that tries to tell us that our every desire should be met with instant gratification and that suffering should be avoided at all costs.

So when we’re talking about the issue in terms of Catholic dating and matters of the heart, that teaching can feel especially difficult.

The Yes & No of the Church’s Stance on Divorce

The Yes & No of the Church's Stance on Divorce

Can Catholics divorce? Yes.

But does that then mean that they’re no longer married? No.

For the rest of the world, to say you’re divorced is the same as saying that your marriage is over. But the Church teaches that a true marriage is a permanent bond, broken only by death.

This teaching is based on Christ’s words in Scripture: “Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:9). So for a Catholic then, civil divorce does remain an option, but its main purpose would be for things like ensuring the safety of one of the spouses or children or dealing with financial or similar matters rather than to attempt to break the marriage bond.

How Annulments Fit In

How Annulments Fit In

A lot of people mistakenly think that an annulment is just a Catholic version of divorce. In the case of my friend that was separating from her abusive husband, one of her relatives even assumed that the husband’s current behavior would be “grounds for annulment.” These are just the type of painful, emotionally charged circumstances that can make the matter feel confusing.

The reality is that an annulment isn’t about the spouses’ current behavior. Instead, it’s a declaration by the Church that there was no valid marriage in the first place, because of issues that invalidated it from the beginning.

More specifically, the reasons an annulment could be granted are:

  • A lack or defect in canonical form, which essentially means that, though it was wedding of Catholic people, the ceremony wasn’t done in a proper Catholic way, i.e. in front of a priest or deacon and two witnesses, using the rites of the Church;
  • There was an impediment to marriage – something that made the two people unable to marry each other at the start, like that one of them was already married, or that they were actually close blood relatives;
  • Defect of consent, which can mean that one or both of the people didn’t understand what a Catholic marriage was, or didn’t really have the intention to live out the Church’s requirements for a spouse, at the time they said their vows.

Only after the Church investigates the matter and finds that there was an issue that made the marriage bond null from its start (hence the term “annulment”) are the two people free to remarry.

So—Can a Divorced Catholic Date?

So—Can a Divorced Catholic Date?

It depends, largely on the question of whether an annulment has been sought, and on whether one means dating in the typical sense of the word.

If the divorced Catholic has already been granted an annulment, they’re quite able to date and seek a potential spouse without any moral problems. And another Catholic can definitely date someone whose marriage has been annulled, with no moral issues or caveats.

But if one is in the middle of the annulment process, or an annulment has been denied, the matter is a little less straightforward.

If you really don’t know whether an annulment is going to be granted or not, you should probably be pretty cautious about dating. What if you were to find a perfect future spouse, only to learn that you’re not free to marry? As painful as it might be, it would probably be more prudent to put off dating until you know for sure that you’re free to marry.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t look for fellowship and friendships. These things are important for everyone, but especially for those who are uncertain about their future freedom to marry, or who know that remarriage will never be an option. Loneliness can be a hard cross to carry, and we should never fall into the trap of thinking that impossibility of remarriage means we’re condemned to live in total solitude.

The Church’s teachings on these matters can be a hard pill to swallow for some. But if we’re being honest, Catholic living demands a lot of us no matter our life circumstances. For the never-married man or woman, the Church’s requirement of sexual abstinence can be very hard. And the same can be said for those struggling with same-sex attraction. Even marriage itself has some pretty darn hard requirements.

It’s important to remember that, in our fallen world, there will be heavy crosses and difficulties for each of us no matter what. And the bottom line is that these things are difficult because of the reality of sin, not because the Church is demanding difficult things from us merely for the heck of it.

Rather, the Church is always treating us as a loving Mother who wants us to find our ultimate happiness in Heaven.