Q: I am a Catholic and recently divorced. I’m in the process of working through an annulment. The internet has a lot of opinions about whether divorced Catholics can/should date prior to annulment. From what I’ve read, I see nothing that forbids it, although there are a lot of individual priests, theologians and busybodies who weigh in and offer opinions and personal interpretations. I’m not really interested in what an individual priest whom I’ve never met and who knows nothing about my situation thinks I should do. I am interested in the Church’s teaching and guidance. Could you weigh in on this? Ultimately my question for you is “does it say specifically in Canon law that a divorced person should not date?”—Cristy
A: There are actually several different issues raised by Cristy’s question. The first one, of course, is the question she asks directly, about Catholics who are divorced but who haven’t received an annulment (yet), wanting to date other people.
But it’s also necessary to look at a presumption which is surprisingly common, that if Catholics are forbidden to do X, this must be spelled out explicitly in the Code of Canon Law. Finally, there’s a third issue which is likewise quite common, and it involves “asking questions” in such a way as to elicit one particular answer. The wording of Cristy’s question makes this embarrassingly clear from the start. Let’s examine these matters one at a time, starting with the issue of dating before one has received an annulment. What does the code say about this?
We saw in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” as well as “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? Part II” that marriage enjoys the favor of the law (c. 1060). This means that after a wedding ceremony, a man and woman are presumed to be really married—and if one of them later on wants to argue that the marriage was actually invalid, the burden is on him/her to prove its invalidity. If invalidity cannot be proven, the marriage is considered to be valid.
This is directly relevant to Cristy’s situation, because as she tells us, she is “in the process of working through an annulment.” In other words, she doesn’t have a declaration of nullity from her diocesan Tribunal, although she has apparently asked for one. Maybe she will eventually receive the annulment, and maybe she won’t—we don’t know the situation, so we can’t make any predictions. But as per canon 1060, the presumption right now is that Cristy is married.
This logically begs the question: in the eyes of the Catholic Church, can a married person date other people? Before tackling this it’s necessary to be aware that, as this article observes, there are multiple understandings of the word “dating.” Here, we’re using the standard definition of “dating,” which involves getting together socially with a person of the opposite sex, with the intention that the relationship is (or at least might be) heading in a romantic direction, potentially leading to marriage. Cristy wants to know how the Code of Canon Law weighs in on this particular issue—but in fact canon law is completely silent on the subject of dating.
Although the code does not explicitly forbid dating while waiting to receive an annulment, that doesn’t mean that we can automatically conclude that dating in such circumstances is okay! On the contrary, there are a couple of very good reasons why Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, the promulgator of the current Code of Canon Law, wouldn’t have even bothered to address this subject. For one thing, the concept of “dating” is a cultural phenomenon, and while it might be the norm in your country, it doesn’t exist at all in other regions of the world. In many parts of Asia, for example, traditional parents—including Catholics—still arrange for their children to marry a spouse whom the parents have chosen/approved. We took a look at one such case in “What Happens When Canon Law Conflicts With Social Custom?” (Incidentally, if the bride and groom don’t actually consent to the marriage, their lack of consent will invalidate it; but as a general rule, in this cultural atmosphere the young people defer to the wishes of their parents, and do indeed give their consent.) These marriages routinely take place without any kind of “dating” beforehand.
But more importantly, there’s no need for canon law to specifically address the question of divorced Catholics dating before receiving an annulment, because for theological reasons the answer is already quite clear. If you’re married to one person, the Church expects you to be faithful to that person—which logically means you shouldn’t be dating someone else. (Cf. c. 1134, which notes that “from a valid marriage there arises between the spouses a bond which by its nature is perpetual and exclusive.”) Remember, the main point of dating a member of the opposite sex is to find someone with whom you’d like to become romantically involved, as a possible future spouse. If you currently have a spouse, then dating doesn’t make sense, does it?
True, it’s entirely possible that if you’ve long been waiting for your diocesan Tribunal to rule on your annulment petition, you might receive a positive answer any day. Thus you might think to yourself, “What’s the point of waiting, why not start dating now?” But bear in mind that it’s also possible you won’t receive a positive answer at all—in other words, the Tribunal might rule that there is insufficient evidence to prove that your marriage was invalid. If that’s the case, then you are still presumed to be married in the eyes of the Church.
This is why priests and theologians will as a rule tell you that it is inappropriate for a Catholic to be dating other people while waiting for an annulment to be granted. Their grounds for telling you this aren’t directly spelled out in the code; they are a matter of theological interpretation, an interpretation which is actually quite straightforward and unambiguous.
The fact is, legal interpretation happens all the time—and that’s the way it should be. No sound legal code of any kind contains rules governing every single conceivable scenario that may arise. If it did, that code would undoubtedly run to millions of pages, and no jurist would be able to master it; and those whom the code governed would be constantly wondering/worrying whether they were violating a law or not. At the same time, the number of courts and their case-loads would both have to increase dramatically, to handle all the alleged violations. Such a system would be essentially unworkable, as court-appearances would consume much of our time, and ordinary daily life would grind to a halt.
That’s why canon law, like other legal codes around the world, provides the general rules and norms governing those situations which experience has proven to arise on a more or less regular basis … and it ordinarily leaves the hard cases and local situations to interpretation by canonists and theologians. Grounded as it is in Catholic theology, the Code of Canon Law doesn’t need to address every imaginable scenario; by applying broader concepts—like the virtue of justice, or the spiritual purpose of the sacraments, e.g.—one finds that more often than not, there is a clear answer to particular legal queries that may arise. We saw examples of this in “Can We Be Required to Wear Masks at Mass?” and “Can Church Officials Require Us to Get Vaccinated?” among others. The Code of Canon Law certainly makes no statements regarding either of these scenarios; but it’s nonetheless fairly easy to apply theology, existing law, historical praxis, etc., and reach a logically solid conclusion.
Note that these sorts of conclusions aren’t mere “opinions and personal interpretations,” as Cristy describes them. They are logical, consistent interpretations of Catholic theology and canon law which, in the eyes of the Church, are the only reasonable ones.
And this brings us to the next issue. Cristy tells us that “there are a lot of individual priests, theologians and busybodies who weigh in and offer opinions and personal interpretations.” It sounds like Cristy has been asking/researching her question online, and getting the above answer from multiple sources, perhaps like this one … and she doesn’t like what she’s hearing. Instead of reluctantly accepting what she’s given, Cristy declares that she is “not really interested in what an individual priest whom I’ve never met and who knows nothing about my situation thinks I should do. I am interested in the Church’s teaching and guidance.” In reality, what priests and theologians (and maybe even busybodies?) have been telling her is the Church’s teaching. The fact that the priest who answers your question doesn’t know who you are is completely irrelevant!
For centuries, Catholics have been regularly receiving spiritual advice from priests in the anonymous darkness of a confessional, which is deliberately designed to ensure that the priest doesn’t know you (see “Confession by Appointment and Face-to-Face” for more on this). If anything, the fact that your identity is unknown may help the priest to give you advice/instruction that is utterly objective, and applicable to any person in the same situation. It would seem that Cristy knows this; otherwise, why was she posing her question to unknown priests and theologians on the internet in the first place?
Nevertheless, in her frustration Cristy has turned to a canon lawyer (who doesn’t know her either), asking the canonist to “weigh in on this.” Sadly, when she received the above answer, she responded with an outpouring of invective, making it even more clear that this wasn’t the reply she wanted.
There is absolutely no question that a Catholic whose marriage has failed can find him/herself in a state of protracted loneliness, and it’s entirely natural that a divorced Catholic would want to find somebody else to spend his/her life with. But as we Catholics know, marriage—assuming of course that it’s a valid one—is for life. The Catechism, citing the words of Our Lord Himself, explains that this has always been the teaching of the Church:
In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts. 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 why, as discussed in “Marriage and Annulment,” Catholics who wish to remarry must first obtain a declaration of nullity of their first marriage. If the diocesan Tribunal can determine that their marriage wasn’t valid to begin with, then the Church can declare officially that they were never really married—and if you were never really married in the eyes of the Church, then you can find someone else to marry, and start all over again. While waiting for that annulment—which might never arrive at all—a Catholic could understandably be anxious to start looking for another spouse as soon as possible! The “problem” is, the Church’s teaching is understandable too—and it conflicts with the notion that a Catholic might be looking for a new spouse while still married to the old one. It is a cross which many divorced/separated Catholics struggle to bear, and in many cases it definitely seems to require fidelity to Catholic teaching which may be described as sacrificial and even heroic.
Let’s pray for Cristy and all other Catholics in her situation, who are struggling to deal with the after-effects of a failed marriage and anxious to make a new start with someone else as soon as possible. May they obtain peace, and find the moral strength to trust that the Church’s teachings are the right ones—even if/when these teachings conflict with their personal desires.
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