Long before the Church developed and required a ritual for marriage, there was a consensus on three points. Marriage is a sacrament, marriage is a lifetime commitment and the consent of the couple makes the marriage.  Clearly one of the key issues that arose was, what constitutes consent?  What intention must be part of the consent? How can the couple and others know that commitment, how must it be expressed? What are the conditions that should be present to be sure that the consent is mature, freely given and sincere?

Without a public ritual there were obvious problems. When there was a private commitment, it meant that one partner   could later claim that there had been no such agreement.  Pressure, including threat and kidnapping could extract false consent.  The Church had at times and in various places prohibited secret marriages but still recognized them because of the commitment.  Marriage was among the many other matters that Council of Trent sought to regularize in order to live out the Gospel with less confusion and misinterpretation.

In 1534, the Council decreed unequivocally that Marriages were to occur in public with witnesses and before a priest. The couple made the commitment and hence the marriage, but the priest was there to ask questions to be sure that the couple were free to marry and freely entering the marriage for life. After that time Catholics have been required to be married before a priest or deacon.  Revision to the Code of canon Law after Vatican II allowed to Church to dispense from the “form” and allow a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic before a minister of another Christian denomination, provided that the couple had in the preparation for the marriage testified to their free consent in pre-nuptial interviews, preserving the emphasis on gaining proper public consent.

These efforts to protect the rights, especially of women to entry marriage freely and intentionally truly through a public Catholic ceremony have had consequences for determining the validity of marriages.  Marriages by Catholics outside of such procedures without a dispensation are not recognized by the Church as valid.  However, since the Church could hardly bind those outside of the Church to our procedures and rituals and since we view the marriage as arising from the consent of the couple, we presume marriages of non-Catholics whether civil or religious to be valid.  Therefore if a divorced Catholic who was not married in the church and without dispensation from form wishes to remarry there is a very simple process for declaring the first marriage void.  One need only submit evidence that they were Catholic and entered the marriage without following the requirements of the Church.

On the other hand a divorced non-Catholic who wishes to enter marriage with a Catholic must receive a Catholic annulment, because the Church presumes the validity of marriages of non-Catholics, based on their public consent.

Divorce and Excommunication


Faced with preserving Catholic families in an increasingly secular and religiously diverse world, the American bishops in 1884 asked the Holy See for permission to impose automatic excommunication on Catholics in the United States who divorced civilly. This was not part of the universal law of the church but a special penalty in the U.S. intended to stop the wave of civil divorces and protect the family.  In 1977, the US Conference of Bishops asked for and received permission to end this automatic excommunication.  In 1983, the New Code of Canon Law lifted previously automatic excommunications which were no longer imposed by the Code.

If those who are divorced are not automatically excommunicated, why is there all the discussion of whether divorced and remarried Catholics may receive Holy Communion?  The issue today is not the divorce, itself. The Church does not recognize divorces as having any effect on the validity of Catholic marriages,  even though it sees that there may be valid reasons such as adultery and abuse which might necessitate a civil separate even a civil divorce.

The issue for the Church is the entry into another civil marriage or cohabitation while still in a marriage which is still viewed as valid in the Church.  Persons who have remarried without Church annulment are seen as engaged in a public sin. Divorced and remarried Catholics are in fact encouraged to remain active in the Church attending mass but not receiving the Eucharist.

This may seem confusing but it has important practical consequences for divorced Catholics.

  1. If you are divorced and not remarried you are not excluded from the Eucharist.
  2. If you did remarry, but your later marriage ended in divorce or death, and you are not in another active marriage you may return to communion after going to confession.

If these situations apply to you and you had mistakenly believed that you were permanently excluded from the sacraments, please come to confession and return to full active participation in the sacraments.  If you know of someone who may be mistaken in their presumption that may not return to the sacraments, please encourage them to speak to a priest to help them understand their situation in the Church.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has an on-line program to familiarize Catholics on this and other issues related to family and church. Visit the site and learn more about your faith.

The Catholic Catechism is a guide to the Church’s self-understanding as it has developed over the centuries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which we believe continues in the Church to this very day.   From the Catholic Catechism found at

1659 St. Paul said: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church. . . . This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (Eph5:25, 32).

1660 The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator. By its very nature it is ordered to the good of the couple, as well as to the generation and education of children. Christ the Lord raised marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament (cf. CIC, can. 1055 § 1; cf. GS48 § 1).

1661 The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life (cf. Council of Trent: DS 1799).

1662 Marriage is based on the consent of the contracting parties, that is, on their will to give themselves, each to the other, mutually and definitively, in order to live a covenant of faithful and fruitful love.

1663 Since marriage establishes the couple in a public state of life in the Church, it is fitting that its celebration be public, in the framework of a liturgical celebration, before the priest (or a witness authorized by the Church), the witnesses, and the assembly of the faithful.

1664 Unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility are essential to marriage. Polygamy is incompatible with the unity of marriage; divorce separates what God has joined together; the refusal of fertility turns married life away from its “supreme gift,” the child (GS50 §1).

1665 The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith.

1666 The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. For this reason the family home is rightly called “the domestic church,” a community of grace and prayer, a school of human virtues and of Christian charity.