The answer to this seemingly straightforward question is “it depends.”
It depends on your individual situation and your view of dating and what that means to you. It also depends on how you were previously married and whether the form of that marriage was valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
What the Church Teaches About Divorce and Annulments
In order to give a clearer answer, we need to address what the Catholic Church teaches about divorce. You may not realize this but getting divorced is actually not a sin. Divorced Catholics are free to receive the sacraments and have not committed a sin by getting a divorce. This is one of the misconceptions about being divorced.
However, the problems arise when the divorced Catholic wants to remarry. In the eyes of the Church unless the marriage has received a Declaration of Nullity (also known as an annulment) from the Diocesan Tribunal, the divorced Catholic is still considered to be in a sacramental marriage, even if there was a civil divorce. In such a case, the former spouses are still considered to be married.
This is where things get a little trickier. There are two types of annulments: a documentary process annulment which applies to Catholics married outside of the Church without a dispensation, and an ordinary process annulment, which applies to Catholics who were married inside the Church.
Documentary Process Annulments
A documentary process annulment is relatively straightforward, easy to obtain, and simply requires proof of the divorce decree. It appears to be pretty much a guarantee of obtaining a documentary process annulment based on lack of form, and in such a case, a divorced Catholic should feel relatively free to begin dating again as it would not be morally wrong to do so, although there may be other good reasons to wait which are discussed in further detail below.
Ordinary Process Annulments
The ordinary process annulment is quite a bit more daunting. It involves a lot more time and energy and is not a guarantee, though it seems that many people do receive them. In this type of situation, generally speaking, it is not clear as to whether the marriage will be declared a nullity, but rather such marriages are presumed valid. This means that the former spouses are still deemed married while the Tribunal investigates to determine whether there was a sacramental marriage.
Since it is clear that it is not morally acceptable for a married spouse to date, former spouses who are still deemed married would have to wait to begin dating until they receive the ordinary process annulment. This is because dating while still married in the eyes of the Church would be a temptation to violate the marital obligations in violation of the Sixth Commandment.
Unfortunately, neither the Code of Canon Law nor the Catechism specifically discusses dating. This is likely because the concept of dating is relatively new and many may even disagree as to what it means. Canon law, however, does require Catholics to live morally and to strive for holiness, which raises the question of whether a divorced Catholic should be dating.
Are You Emotionally Ready To Date?
Of course it is only natural to want to try to move on from a failed relationship without wading through the lengthy annulment process. Keeping in mind that the average national divorce rate for second marriages is around 75%, waiting until the timing is right to consider a new relationship may be especially prudent.
The fact that the annulment process can take several years and can be an emotional strain can give you the time you need to heal spiritually and emotionally from the past. It can also help you to obtain clarity and gain self-awareness.
Figuring out what went wrong in your previous relationship can help you avoid the risk of repeating mistakes and can prepare you to make better relationship decisions in the future.
Pope Francis has said: “Have the courage to be truly happy”. While filling the void of loneliness may give you instant gratification, rushing into a new relationship may result in new struggles and even more challenges. True happiness comes first from discerning our vocation and growing in love of Christ first.
What Does the Lord Want For You?
So where does this leave you in figuring out if you should start dating again? We were created to know, love, and serve the Lord. To know and love the Lord means to discern His will for us in our lives.
Discerning what the Lord wants for us each day will allow us to see others as the Lord sees them. It will free us to love others the way He loves. If we do this, then we will be less likely to see others as objects and will likely avoid the risk of setting ourselves up for more pain and disappointment. Personally, when I allow the Lord to work in my life things are so much easier than when I am in the driver’s seat.
Regardless of your individual situation, one thing is very clear, we are all called to live chaste lives, whether married, single, or divorced. This means that reflecting on who you are, what your vocation is, and what the Lord wants for you can help you determine if the timing in your life is ripe for dating.
Discerning the Lord’s Will
In a practical sense consider trying this simple exercise to discern whether it is the Lord’s will for you to start dating again:
Simply close your eyes and pray for the Lord to show you what he wants for your life. Imagine yourself dating in a general sense, and maybe even with someone specific.
- What does dating mean to you?
- Does it mean friendship?
- Does it mean being in a romantic relationship?
- Does it mean being in a serious relationship involving only one other person, or does it mean getting to know different people?
- Does it mean having sex?
- Imagine what dating looks like, what it feels like, how it would impact those around you, especially if children are involved, and note the Lord’s presence or absence, and whether you feel peaceful and positive.
Now take some deep breaths and try to clear your mind. Next, focus on living as a single person and not dating.
- What does that look like?
- What does it feel like?
- How would you spend your time?
- What role would the Lord play in your life if you were single?
Once you are finished – ask yourself – which scenario gives you more peace, which is ultimately what the Lord wants for you.
I actually use this technique quite a bit, and it is amazing how once you clear your mind the Lord can really speak to you. Try this every day until you have a clear vision of what the Lord has in store for you.
Ask for Direction
Of course, if it remains unclear about what the Lord wants for you in your life and whether you should be dating, or even whether you should be dating a particular person, I would encourage you to speak to your priest, seek spiritual direction, or ask a Canon lawyer for advice.