Is it a sin to divorce?
That’s the question good Catholics often ask, usually
because the years-long struggles have finally become unbearable or—God
forbid—they have already met someone new.
They want a quick and easy answer so they can move on. But as my
husband’s old Polish grandmother used to say, “Iss not so ee-sy!”
Is it a sin to steal?
If you’re a little child wandering the streets of India, alone
and starving, and not believing it is wrong to steal a loaf of bread, then NO. If you
are an American child who does know stealing the bread is wrong, but you
are also starving, then your culpabiltiy (guilt) is far reduced by your circumstances! Now, the Indian child can still sin (after
the age of reason) by stealing something he doesn’t really need
but simply desires. He knows it’s wrong but like all of us who sin, he just
wants it. I remember an American child
who snuck into her mother’s purse so she could
buy a cute pair of shoes. It was me, many
years ago, and even then I knew it was a sin I rationalized my need
and justified my behavior, but my conscience—and Sister
Immaculata—made sure I went to Father in confession later.
What underlies a sin?
Can Catholics file for divorce?
Maybe. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states:
The separation of the spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense. – CCC 2383
To keep a spouse from gambling away the family’s finances,
to stop a father from molesting his daughter, to escape forced illicit sexual
acts, or other extreme cases such as ongoing emotional or physical violence, a spouse may seek protection through civil divorce—if
it’s the only possible way. However . . . they are still married in the
eyes of the Church until and unless they seek and receive a Decree of Nullity (commonly
Are there other reasons that are okay?
No, but physical separation may be permitted. I know a
couple who had a relatively normal marriage in the early years. But she had
some deep emotional struggles and turned to alcohol to cope while he avoided
her by staying at the office—which only made her become angrier and drink more.
The pattern worsened as she turned her bitterness toward him and they both
failed to get outside help for their problems. After the adult children left
the home, their relationship grew so caustic that no one wanted to be around
them. For peace of mind, they finally separated.
Each lived in a small apartment and
their children visited them when they could. He supported her financially and
occasionally on holidays they would get together for short periods of time.
Unable to work it out, this couple found separation a way to be kinder to and
pray for each other.
So how do I know if civil divorce is a sin for me?
It’s like going to a doctor to see if you have a
disease. Most people can’t self-diagnose—they
need expert help. A wise and holy person
who understands the human heart and who fully embraces Church teachings should be
your guide. This can be a priest or a lay person—and maybe a good Catholic
therapist—who will help you “take your temperature, draw blood, review your
x-rays”, and rightly assess the results.
you been to marriage counseling?
What is the intended result?
Current Canon Law (written when divorce was not so prevalent) requires one to get the Bishop's permission before filing for civil divorce if it is not an emergency situation (Cn 1153.1). However, even bishops understand this is impractical if not impossible to implement in most places. In my own diocese this year there are over 400 petitions for nullity; giving each party enough time and attention to hear their cause could be at least 6 hours (if not much more!), or 50+ hours per week just on hearing divorce pleas. And this is only a fraction of all divorced Catholics who don't bother with annulments. Clearly the Church needs and wants to help but she is not equipped to handle the deluge of divorce. We need a better system to handle the crisis, but that's for another post!
( 1 ) Separate for peace, remaining civilly married and true to your vows—and to your spouse—until their death. This may seem impossible but it’s not. Many people have chosen this path and have full and happy lives. The suffering you endure in this choice can be lovingly offered up as a gift to God for the healing and salvation of both of you.
( 2 ) Separate for safety and file for civil divorce, but only after careful counsel and understanding you’re still married in the eyes of the Church. That means living faithfully to your marriage vows even if apart, until the death of your spouse.
( 3 ) Consult
with the Church about the possibility of a Decree of Nullity for your attempt
at marriage. Improperly but commonly called annulment, this is an
investigation by the Church of the time you married to see if a valid marriage
bond formed when you both said “I do”. It’s like
civil court proceedings but it’s not the spouses who are on trial; it’s the truth of the marriage bond that’s being examined. Many times people marry under grave pressure
(pregnancy) or as an escape (from childhood home abuse). While the Church (in her
justice) vows to uphold a valid marriage bond, she also recognizes (in her mercy and justice)
that some people attempt marriage wrongly. There were hopes, dreams, and a wedding, but
no true marriage bond. Then they have children and stay for several decades
struggling against all odds. When the
marriage finally fails, and it can be pointed back to the time of consent that
there was some grave defect of consent, the marriage bond can be declared
The civil marriage, the good times, the years together, and
the children are not “invalid”, but no
true marriage bond—as the Church understands from Christ—was ever formed. This is a complex topic because we are
complex persons, and almost nothing sets off more angry discussion than this
among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. So seek the fullness of truth.
You really won’t know the answer to “Is (civil) divorce a sin?” for YOU until you do.