If My Ex-Spouse Dies, Does That Make My Second Marriage Valid?

Q1: My first husband and I were married in the Church but then we divorced.  I later married again in a non-Catholic ceremony.  My first husband just passed away.  Does that mean my second marriage is now valid? –Carrie

Q2: If you divorce and remarry outside the Church, and then your first spouse dies, can you receive Communion again? –Rob

A:  Before addressing the legal issues pertaining to this very common scenario, it’s worth noting that as has been said several times before in this space, canon law follows theology. When it comes to marriage, canon law reflects the Church’s theological teaching on this sacrament.  This fact is directly relevant to these two questions, because if you understand Catholic theology on the sacrament of matrimony, the law regarding this particular situation is fairly easy to deduce.  So let’s first review the Catholic Church’s understanding of marriage, and then we’ll be able to see why the law is not so simple as our two questioners may think.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is pretty unequivocal about the indissolubility of marriage:

The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined that “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). (CCC 1614)

This is, of course, the basic reason why the Catholic Church does not accept divorce and remarriage—because Jesus didn’t.  Once a couple has been validly married, and the marriage has been consummated (see “Canon Law and Consummating a Marriage” for more on this), the Church teaches that the marriage cannot be dissolved (CCC 1640).  If the marriage is found for some reason to have been celebrated invalidly—as has been discussed here numerous times, in “Marriage and Annulment” and “Do Lapsed Catholics Marry Validly Outside the Church?” among many others—then the Church will issue a decree of nullity, and the spouses will be able to marry in the Church again.  (Strictly speaking, of course, it’s inaccurate to speak of marrying “again,” since the first, invalid marriage wasn’t really a marriage at all.)

If a Catholic was married in a Catholic wedding ceremony, and subsequently remarries outside the Church without obtaining an annulment of the first marriage, the second marriage is invalid, period.  The Catholic may very well have obtained a civil divorce, making the second marriage legal under civil law; but the Catholic Church nevertheless regards the Catholic as still being married to his/her first spouse.  Unless the couple are living as brother and sister, the divorced-and-remarried Catholic is living in an adulterous situation, in a state of objectively grave moral evil.  To quote the Catechism again:

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ – “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12), the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists…. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence. (CCC 1650)

There is nothing new here—on the contrary, this has been the Church’s teaching from time immemorial.  And note that so far, we have been speaking only of Catholic theology.  Predictably, canon law accords perfectly with theology on this issue, since canon 1085.1 states that if a person is already married, he/she cannot validly marry someone else.

But as we all know, when your spouse dies, you are no longer married to him/her on this earth, and thus the Catholic Church holds that you can now validly marry somebody else.  So if a Catholic was remarried outside the Church while his first spouse was still living, what happens to the validity of that second marriage if the first spouse dies?

The answer is simple: nothing.  It was an invalid marriage and it still is, for a couple of different reasons.

The first one is a matter of logic.  At the time of the second wedding, the Catholic party was impeded from marriage by the impediment of prior bond, as per the abovementioned canon 1085.1.  The impediment existed at the time of the second wedding, and that’s what counts.

There’s another reason why the second marriage of a divorced Catholic is still invalid despite the death of the first spouse, and this one pertains to canonical form.  This concept has been addressed quite a few times before, in “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” and “How Does the Presence of a Priest at my Non-Catholic Wedding Make it Okay?” among many others, but in short, a Catholic must marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony—which means the wedding must be celebrated in accord with church law and in the presence of the local bishop, the parish priest, or another Catholic cleric deputed by either of them (c. 1108.1).

(Yes, there is a loophole: it’s possible to obtain a dispensation from canonical form in advance from the diocesan bishop, as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?”  But we’re talking here about the remarriage of a divorced Catholic, whose first marriage was not annulled.  There is no way that such a dispensation could ever be granted in these circumstances.)

A Catholic who has remarried, without first obtaining a declaration of nullity of his first marriage, must obviously have remarried in a non-Catholic ceremony.  That marriage would be invalid due to lack of canonical form—quite apart from the fact that the Catholic can’t marry again anyway, due to the impediment of prior bond.  The death of the Catholic’s first spouse doesn’t change this.

So if the first spouse dies, the divorced/remarried Catholic is still in an invalid marriage; and unless they’re living as brother and sister, the couple remains in an objectively immoral situation. If the Catholic now wants to return to the Church, what does he/she need to do?

1.) Legally, the second marriage has to be made valid.  The Catholic should start by speaking to the parish priest regarding how to go about doing this.  Assuming that there are no other canonical issues involved, fixing this should not be an insurmountable problem at all.

2.) Spiritually, it’s time for the Catholic to go to confession and sort out the moral issues involved in this whole situation.   These will of course vary from person to person; but regardless of individual circumstances, sacramental absolution is a critical component of returning to the Church.

Once the widowed Catholic has straightened out his/her second marriage in the eyes of the Church, and confessed any serious sins in confession, then it’s possible to receive Communion again (see “Divorced Catholics and the Eucharist” for more on this).

To sum up, when a divorced and remarried Catholic’s first spouse dies, that removes the obvious obstacle to a second marriage in the Church.  But it doesn’t remove the need for the Catholic to actively take the steps necessary to have that second marriage recognized as valid by the Church, since it doesn’t happen automatically.  One can’t simply say, for example, “Well, I guess my remarriage in a Lutheran ceremony is now valid!” because it doesn’t work that way.  Still, it is very possible—and it may actually be very easy, depending on the individual circumstances—for a Catholic to resolve his irregular marriage situation after the death of the first spouse.

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