Can a Catholic date a person whose marriage has not been annulled?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: Can there be situations where a Catholic can date another person who has been divorced but has not yet received a declaration of nullity for that marriage? In a previous column, you stated the following: "All marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise." I have relatives and friends who date divorcees. Couldn't this become an emotional nightmare if eventually they do get serious and an annulment falls through? (Evansville, Indiana)

A: Yes, it is true that the Catholic Church presumes that marriages are valid until proven otherwise; and it's only logical that Catholics should discern their life choices in light of this principle. I always advise divorced Catholics not to start dating unless and until they are declared free to marry by a Catholic marriage tribunal.

The Catholic belief in the absolute permanence of marriage has its foundation in Jesus' own words in Sacred Scripture. As we read in Matthew's Gospel, when the Pharisees question Jesus as to whether a marriage can be dissolved, Jesus responds: "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery" (Mt 19:8-9).

This theological reality is reflected in our current Code of Canon Law. Canon 1060 tells us: "Marriage enjoys the favor of law. Consequently, in doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven."

Practically, this means that a civilly divorced person will always be considered married in the eyes of the church unless and until his or her union is declared null by a Catholic tribunal after the appropriate canonicalinvestigation.

Therefore, dating as someone who is still considered married in the eyes of the church, or choosing to date someone with a known prior marriage bond, is not a good decision since this person is not free to marry . As you note, becoming emotionally close to someone you hope to marry, but may not be able to in the end, has the potential to lead to serious heartbreak. At worst, a romantic involvement with someone who is presumed to be already married has the potential to cross the line into the sin of adultery.  Furthermore, if a Catholic marries someone who has not received a declaration of nullity, he or she puts himself or herself outside of being in communion with the Church and is unable to receive the sacraments; if an annulment is able to be granted later, that invalid marriage may be validated.   Of course, people may have friendships, but becoming deeply emotionally involved with someone who is still in a presumptively valid marriage is a danger in many ways, especially to one’s soul.

Incidentally, this understanding of marriage as fundamentally indissoluble applies equally to all marriages, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. So, for example, if two Protestants marry in their own church, divorce, and then one of them later wishes to marry a Catholic, that initial Protestant wedding would need to be investigated and declared null by a Catholic marriage tribunal in order for the wedding to the Catholic to be allowed to take place.

Because marriage tribunals don't exist to rubber-stamp requests in a perfunctory way, but rather to discern the actual truth about the circumstances surrounding a marriage, an affirmative decision (i.e., a decision to grant the declaration of nullity) can never be guaranteed and should never be presumed or taken for granted. In fact, most marriage tribunals state quite clearly in their introductory paperwork that those seeking a declaration of nullity must not set a date for a new wedding until the process is concluded which typically takes a year or two from the time the tribunal receives the petition since a small staff handles all cases for the entire diocese, and the Church requires many steps of investigation along the way because the marriage is presumed to be valid.

All that being said, it's never too late to try to make a difficult situation right. Even if a person with a presumptively valid prior marriage has gotten romantically involved with a new partner or even married out of the Church, be certain to speak with a priest who will provide direction to petition the tribunal to begin a nullity investigation.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].