Many people who have experienced the heartbreak of divorce wish to remarry.
The Church understands this.
To be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, the Church can't simply assume that everyone who is divorced is free to remarry, and so it has the annulment process to investigate whether a person was validly married in the first place.
Some in our culture don't want to wait for an annulment before they begin dating. They go ahead and date in the expectation that they will receive an annulment.
Is this okay?
A Reader Writes
A reader writes:
Are there any official guidelines for divorced people dating before seeking an annulment?
I know someone who is doing this and claims that they aren’t "breaking any rules" by doing so.
To answer this question, I need to distinguish two different situations: Those who are waiting for a documentary process annulment and those who are hoping to obtain a ordinary process annulment.
Documentary Process Annulments
Some people are in need of what is called a "documentary process" annulment. These are cases where it is so clear that a marriage is null that all that has to be done is to present certain documents that will prove nullity.
The most common kind of annulment in this category is when Catholics (who are obliged to observe the Catholic form of marriage) get married outside the Church without a dispensation.
In these cases the nullity of the marriage is so obvious and certain that the Church does not require an extensive investigation, which is why the documentary process exists.
It is possible, even before the annulment is granted, to be certain that one is not married to one’s former spouse.
In such cases, unless there is something else affecting the situation, one is entitled to regard oneself as free to marry someone else, and it would not be automatically wrong to investigate prospective marriage partners.
Though not automatically wrong, it still could be prudent, for a variety of reasons, to get the documentary process annulment first.
Ordinary Process Annulments
Most annulment cases are not documentary process ones. They require an extensive, formal investigation, and they are known as "ordinary process" annulments.
In these cases it is not clear prior to investigation that a person is free to marry, which is why the investigation is necessary.
Such marriages are presumed valid, and parties are obliged to regard themselves as still bound to their prior spouse until such time as it is proven that the marriage was null.
So what about dating before the annulment in their case?
"Dating" is a phenomenon that only appears in certain cultures. As a result, one won’t find it explicitly mentioned in the Code of Canon Law.
What one will find is a canon that requires the faithful to act in communion with the Church even in their daily activities:
Can. 209 §1.
The Christian faithful, even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church.
Things that would impair their communion with the Church, such as actions not consistent with Catholic morality, violate this obligation.
Further, the Code provides:
All the Christian faithful must direct their efforts to lead a holy life and to promote the growth of the Church and its continual sanctification, according to their own condition.
One thus cannot get around what moral theology would say on the grounds that one isn’t "breaking any rules" that are explicitly found in canon law. Canon law itself requires people to live in a moral manner and strive for holiness.
And even if canon law didn’t say this, the fundamental moral obligations to act in accordance with one’s state of life and to pursue holiness would remain.
Beyond the question of one's obligations under canon law, there is the even more fundamental question of how dating without an annulment fares in terms of moral theology: Is it moral to be dating someone if you are divorced and don’t have an annulment?
Basic Moral Principles
Dating is a romantic activity, and it is simply inappropriate to engage in romantic activity with one person when you must regard yourself as married to another.
To do so is a violation of the Ninth Commandment (not coveting one’s neighbor’s spouse) that also puts one in danger of temptations to violate the Sixth Commandment (not committing adultery)--either mentally, physically, or both!
Apart from very unusual circumstances, those who need an ordinary process annulment must for practical purposes regard themselves as still married, and so for them dating in this condition has the same moral character as dating someone other than their spouses while still married.
Moral theology would repudiate the actions of a man who knows that he is bound to his wife yet dates another woman, and so it repudiates the actions of a man who must presume that he is bound to his wife yet dates someone else.
In addition, pursuing romance with someone else when you are presumed bound to another is not an act of love.
It's actually cruel.
It not only tempts you to violate your marital obligations, it tempts another person into an immoral situation as well.
It also messes with both of your feelings and–should and annulment not be forthcoming–it will lead you to the very distressing choice between continuing the relationship in violation of your moral obligations or ceasing the relationship and all the pain that will mean.
Putting another person in that kind of risk does not have that person's best interests at heart and so it is not an act of love.
It is an act of selfishness that does not care about the risk you are putting the other person in.
Bottom line: Dating when you are not clearly free to contract marriage is fundamentally disordered on multiple fronts.
It's just plain wrong.
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