April 15, 2009
The Sacrament of Marriage is far more than just a contract with the State. The Sacrament of Matrimony in the Roman Catholic Church is a Covenant between the man, the woman, and Jesus Christ (CCC 1601). There is, as we are all aware, a separation of Church and State. Therefore, the Document of Divorce simply breaks the civil living and financial arrangements of a couple; it does not and cannot break the Covenant – the spiritual bond - that the couple made with God and the Church when they married. The Church views divorce simply as a separation from common life, not an end to the marriage. Consequently, after a divorce with the State has been granted an annulment with the Church ought to be pursued through the Tribunal office of the Diocese in which you live.
Because of the difference of how the Church and State look at marriage, a divorced person is still not free to marry again, because he or she is still married in the eyes of God. It is only prudent and right, then, that a person who is divorced not date until the person’s marriage has been declared invalid (commonly called an “annulment”). We realize that this is a major stumbling block, or at least a tough issue, for many people. We would like to present three reasons why you should wait to date.
First, someone who has gone through a divorce needs some time to heal and to go through the grieving process. Many articles about dating after divorce indicate that you should take some time off between the end of a marriage and starting a new relationship. “Re-bound” relationships only complicate life further. This ‘time off’ helps you to reflect on what happened in the marriage and even do counseling or join a support group if you think you need it. Journaling is a great way to process your feelings — anger, grief, despair, loneliness, etc. Focus on yourself, your children, if you have them, your family and friends who support you, and your continued Faith life to decide what you need in life, and to grow spiritually and emotionally. Civil divorce, remember, does not separate you from the Church; a divorced person can, and should, continue to receive the Sacraments, as long as that person is not in an invalid marriage or living with someone.
Second, get all the legal considerations and ramifications of the civil divorce process resolved — child custody, visitation, debt reduction, sale of property, etc. If the divorce was bitter or hostile, try to establish a better relationship with your former spouse, especially if you have children. Don’t let the pain of your divorce emotionally harm your children. That goes without saying, but may take some time to achieve.
Third, call the Tribunal office about scheduling an appointment to begin the annulment process – in our diocese, your local parish priest is not directly involved in the judicial process of an annulment. It’s much easier to go through the process when you’re not already in a relationship. Don’t wait for years or when you’re dating someone; the longer you wait, the harder it will be to recall what happened in the courtship, engagement, and marriage. Plus, it’s more difficult to locate witnesses if you wait for years. You may get married again; prepare for that now.
Going through the annulment can be a difficult thing to do, but it can also be very healing. Additionally, going through an annulment is also a tangible living of your Catholic Faith. Keep in contact with the Tribunal throughout the process and take advantage of the opportunities you are given to read the testimony of your witnesses (and possibly that of your former spouse) and to read the decision once it’s completed. Both of these can provide you further occasions of growth. Follow through with any counseling that is required of you, which may be directed by the Tribunal.
Once you’ve done these things, you are in a better position to step back into the dating world. Respect your partner, and don’t put him/her in a position where he/she must walk away from the relationship in order to follow the teachings of the Church. If you begin dating someone who is not Catholic, and has been divorced, remember that he/she will need to go through the annulment process as well so that you can marry in the Church. If the person is hostile to the idea of having to do this, back away from the relationship.
Most of all, remember you have chosen to follow the Catholic Faith, and we want you to continue living that Faith. You believe in the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the Sacraments. If you marry outside the Church, you have put yourself outside the Church and you will not be able to receive the Sacraments, except the Rite of Penance (Confession), since you are living in a state of sin.
It is our hope that your priest can accurately and compassionately guide you, as well as encourage you. If not, find another priest, not a different denomination. We truly believe that time to heal and grieve, the legal considerations and ramifications of the civil divorce, and the annulment process are good reasons for the ‘date’ to wait.
Mary Tarver is a tribunal judge who was formerly employed by the Bismarck Diocese. She now works as a tribunal judge in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas. Msgr. Patrick Schumacher is a priest of the Diocese of Bismarck.