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Chapter 9: Marriage, Sexual Acts, and Family Life

Question H: What Should Spouses Do If Their Marriage Is Troubled?

While every married couple experiences many difficulties—for example, illness, a child’s death, economic hardship—the marriage itself cannot be called troubled unless one or both spouses are not properly fulfilling their roles as spouses and/or parents. Of course, nobody is perfect, and so most couples experience some problems more or less regularly. These amount to trouble for the marriage only when the couple find them hard to handle, and their efforts seem not to make things any better as time goes by. Then they are likely to be tempted to regret having married each other.

With the help of prayer and good advice, nevertheless, a married couple willing to work together can deal with and overcome the difficulties troubling their marriage. Yet sometimes serious marital difficulties justify or even require a separation. Unfortunately, separation, whether justifiable or not, sometimes becomes permanent, and then often ends with divorce and attempted remarriage by one or both spouses. Even in such cases, the couple remain married to each other, and should fulfill relevant marital and familial responsibilities.

1. Couples Should Do All They Can to Overcome Marital Trouble

Sometimes it is said that a marriage has broken down, that a couple’s love has died and their marriage with it, that a relationship has been torn apart so completely that nothing could possibly heal it. The suggestion is that marriage can cease to be before either spouse dies. But marriage is absolutely indissoluble. Therefore, to think about marriage as such expressions suggest is implicitly to deny the very reality of marriage and the truth about it which pertains to Catholic faith.

Mental illness can impair people’s functioning to such an extent that they are not responsible for their behavior and are unable to rectify the difficulties it causes others. If one spouse is afflicted with such a pathology, the other must do his or her best for the good of everyone concerned. Typically, however, marital trouble results from a combination of moral failings, usually on both sides, and nonmoral factors. Since grace and freedom can overcome all serious sins, the moral failings which lead to serious marital difficulties can be overcome. Of course, the couple must cooperate in using available means and in dealing with nonmoral factors which occasion conflict. Moreover, venial sins can result in difficulties which a couple never can entirely overcome, but must live with.

a) Moral failings lead to or aggravate marital difficulties. Assuming freedom from psychopathology serious enough to interfere with deliberation and free choice, a perfectly virtuous husband and wife would be able to deal with anything which happened to them and would never be tempted to wish they were not married to each other. Even if such a couple disagreed about some very important matter, they would find an appropriate way of dealing with whatever divided them without compromising their deep marital harmony.

Of course, no couple is perfectly virtuous. Typically, difficulties begin to trouble a marriage when at least one spouse is doing something he or she should not do, or not doing something he or she should do, and this displeases the other, so that the couple find themselves in a conflict of wills. A difficulty troubling a marriage, therefore, almost always involves a moral conflict rooted in some sin of at least one spouse, and often rooted in ongoing, more or less serious sins of both. (Of course, many difficulties involve nonmoral factors as well, and those will be discussed in d, below.)

Among the sins that lead to or aggravate marital difficulties, failure to fulfill the responsibility to communicate—to express feelings and thoughts carefully and gently, and to listen attentively and sympathetically—has a special importance, since failure to communicate makes it impossible for the couple to cooperate effectively in building their friendship and dealing with other difficulties.

b) A couple who cooperate can overcome serious moral failings. A husband and wife who are prepared to cooperate in overcoming their difficulties must be ready to repent and stop committing any sin or sins troubling their marriage. If the trouble is serious, the sin also is serious; no matter what the character of the act in itself, the fact that it causes serious marital trouble makes it grave matter. Now, the Council of Trent definitively teaches that grace is sufficient so that Christians willing to repent and cooperate with it can avoid mortal sin (see DS 1536/804; cf. 1568/828). Moreover, if both spouses are Christians, their marriage is sacramental, so that they enjoy a special guarantee of “the grace that brings natural love to perfection, and strengthens the indissoluble unity, and sanctifies the spouses” (DS 1799/969). Therefore, a couple willing to cooperate with each other and with God’s grace can successfully deal with any moral failings troubling their marriage.

c) The spouses should repent, forgive, and admonish each other. As soon as serious difficulties trouble a marriage, the couple should talk matters over calmly and fully. No doubt, angry words have been exchanged; perhaps they have nagged and threatened each other. Now they should set aside a time to reflect together about the underlying difficulties. Insofar as these involve moral failings, the remedy is in recognizing and repenting them. To this end, both self-examination and admonition have a role to play, but the former should precede the latter: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Mt 7.5, Lk 6.42).

So, having begun by praying for each other and praying together for the light to see what they are doing wrong and the strength to amend, each spouse should refrain for the time being from criticizing the other, and both should instead examine themselves. This self-examination should include recalling and thinking carefully about any accusations the other has made. Even accusations blurted out in anger often include important elements of truth. These must not be rejected defensively, but accepted with openness as important helps to self-reformation and growth in true marital love. Each spouse should repent his or her own sins, ask the other’s pardon, and obtain forgiveness and grace in the sacrament of penance.

When the spouses have done this, if either thinks the other has not repented some sin causing serious trouble, he or she should admonish the apparently sinful spouse. But anyone admonishing an apparent sinner must proceed in a way appropriate to the relationship and in a manner likely to help rather than aggravate (see 4.E.1.h); so, a spouse who engages in admonition should proceed lovingly and gently. It can sometimes be done almost tacitly, by noticing and showing appreciation for instances of good behavior and ignoring instances of the troubling behavior.

Someone admonishing his or her spouse should appeal to the common good of the marriage and show how the apparently sinful behavior is harming it in specific ways, at the same time reaffirming his or her love and making it clear that no grudge is held. Emphasis should be placed upon hope for a better and happier marriage once the present difficulty is overcome. Any sign of repentance and any effort the spouse makes to cooperate in improving matters should be greeted with gratitude.

There are three serious mistakes to avoid in admonishing. First, no matter how wronged one feels, admonition must not be used as a means of striking back; even the appearance of retaliation must be avoided, for to act, or seem to act, out of anger and hatred will only further damage communion and harden the sinner—if, indeed, he or she is one. Second, no matter how urgent it is that the apparent sinner change his or her ways, one should not try to induce change by appealing to selfish interests; that is wrong not only insofar as it is manipulative but also insofar as it is likely to alter behavior without inducing repentance, thus blocking the needed growth in love (see D.4.f–g, above). Third, no matter how discouraged one feels about the prospect that one’s spouse will change, he or she never should be condemned as hopeless. If there really is a moral failing, repentance remains possible, but if there is not, the spouse’s difficulty deserves understanding and sympathy, not condemnation.

d) The spouses should try to deal with nonmoral sources of trouble. If the effort to deal rightly with the moral dimension of serious marital troubles does not yield entirely satisfactory results, the spouses again should talk matters over, calmly and fully, trying to identify nonmoral sources of difficulty and how to deal with them. For, although marital troubles typically involve moral conflicts, many moral conflicts are occasioned by other things that are not as they should be.

Sometimes physical or psychological illness leads a spouse to behave badly: a husband with an ulcer is always irritable, a wife who is neurotic is upset if the house is not kept perfectly neat. This leads to venial sins, for example, of verbal abuse, sulkiness, refusal to cooperate in small matters. Although such sins very often are neither deliberate nor serious in themselves, the other spouse recognizes them as evil and is likely to react sinfully. So, the spouses’ wills come into conflict, and when this conflict seriously disturbs marital communion, the wrongful acts for that reason become grave matter, though not mortal sins if they remain nondeliberate.

A similar process can be triggered by many other nonmoral evils. Due to defects in knowledge of the other sex or lack of communication skills, spouses can fail to understand each other. They can encounter any of the difficulties that even a perfectly virtuous couple would—financial problems, lack of adequate living space, things wearing out or breaking down, and so on—and any such difficulty can occasion conflict of wills, with consequent marital trouble.

Even if a nonmoral evil would be insignificant and tolerable in itself, a couple who see that it is occasioning serious marital trouble have a grave obligation to try to deal with, and so prevent, its continuing harmful effect on their relationship. Once the source of trouble is recognized, the spouses themselves can deal with it in some cases. But often they will need appropriate help: medical or psychological care, counseling to improve mutual understanding and communication, training to acquire needed skills, and so on. Couples who see the need for such help have a grave obligation to make any sacrifices necessary to obtain it; they should not delay in the vain hope that the trouble will go away with the mere passage of time.

e) Spouses whose troubles persist should seek counseling. If a couple’s serious marital trouble persists despite their best efforts to talk matters over and deal with the underlying difficulties, they should obtain help from someone experienced in dealing with marital difficulties and faithful to the Church’s teaching about marriage and its responsibilities. Often, this will be a priest or deacon, but sometimes the needed help can be obtained from some happily married couple friendly to both spouses but not especially close to either. While the couple should look primarily for moral guidance in seeking such help, they often will receive other useful advice and help as well.

With the advantage of objectivity, suitable counselors can see through self-deception and rationalization, thus helping the spouses to discover sins their self-examination has overlooked. Counselors must be strictly impartial, since partiality would further divide the spouses and render ineffective the moral guidance and exhortation directed to the less-favored spouse. Both spouses should be encouraged to explain fully their views of the trouble and its causes. (A counselor often prudently judges it best to meet with the spouses separately at this stage.) He or she should listen carefully and ask sufficient questions to understand the specific conflict of wills and the sins involved in it, while paying special attention to inadequacies in the couple’s understanding of the marital relationship and its responsibilities. For many marital troubles arise because one party or both falsely suppose that marriage in some respects is an arrangement for obtaining what one wants out of life or a partnership in which neither spouse need contribute more than the other and both are entitled to equal benefits.

Counselors also should try to identify and call to the spouses’ attention any nonmoral sources of trouble, help them learn how to deal with those matters, encourage them to do so promptly, and, if possible, provide needed help or assist them in finding it.

f) Couples should learn to live with less serious difficulties. Even when couples do what they should to overcome serious marital troubles and what they can to overcome minor ones, every marriage has its less serious difficulties. Every Christian sometimes commits at least nondeliberate venial sins (see DS 228/106, 891/471, 1537/804, 1573/833), and some of these inevitably lead to a conflict of wills between the spouses. The residue of sin is not insignificant, and can always provoke serious trouble unless the couple persevere in trying to deal with it. Each spouse must strive to overcome his or her own faults, and both must practice mutual understanding, tolerance, and ready forgiveness.

If the spouses do everything they can, in most cases their troubles will subside, and their life together will be as happy as can be expected in this fallen world. In any case, they will experience the most important sort of happiness: peace within themselves and with God. But even a good marriage may never be happy by conventional standards, and obviously cannot be so if there are major, irremediable, nonmoral sources of difficulty, such as severe mental illness. Thus, even if a couple fulfill all the essential responsibilities of marriage and remain faithful until death, they may experience much hardship and suffering.

Those who receive this cross should accept it as part of their particular vocations, realizing that Christians are not entitled to expect conventionally successful and happy lives in this world. Rather, they should faithfully fulfill their responsibilities in order to prepare material for the kingdom, where alone all evils will be overcome and all goods securely enjoyed.

2. Sometimes Spouses May or Should Initiate a Marital Separation

Generally, spouses should remain together and deal as best they can with marital troubles and other problems. Under some conditions, however, one spouse may, or even should, intentionally break off common life, including marital relations, and establish residence apart from the other. For the most part, separation is justified only as a last resort and usually should be carried out in a way which leaves open the possibility of reconciliation.

During a separation, spouses must be especially conscientious about fulfilling their responsibilities to their children, while avoiding any relationship that might lead to marital infidelity.

a) Generally, one may separate from an adulterous spouse. A married person who, with sufficient reflection and full consent, engages in sexual intercourse, whether natural or sodomitic, with a third party commits a mortal sin of adultery. Someone morally certain, not merely suspicious, that his or her spouse has committed such a sin generally has the right to break off common life.

A spouse is not justified in separating on this basis if he or she also committed adultery, consented to the other’s adultery, or provoked it, for example, by deserting, unreasonably refusing marital intercourse, or deliberately failing to provide support, with the result that desperate need led to prostitution.

Also, the innocent spouse, without approving the other’s adultery, sometimes decides to accept it and continue married life. This is done either explicitly, when an innocent spouse agrees to continue or resume conjugal relations with his or her repentant, adulterous spouse, or tacitly, when a spouse morally certain the other party has committed or continues to commit adultery nevertheless tolerates it by freely continuing to engage in marital intercourse. Once one spouse has explicitly or implicitly accepted the other’s adultery, it no longer provides a ground for separation. If, however, adultery recurs, the innocent spouse need not continue accepting it.

b) The innocent spouse should consider the good of marriage. In deciding whether to exercise the right to separate, the innocent spouse should take into account the requirements of Christian mercy and the inherent importance of the good of marriage, which remains despite the damage adultery has done to it.

If the adulterous spouse is truly repentant, mercy and concern for the good of marriage strongly argue for forgiving the infidelity and maintaining or restoring marital communion.285 If the adulterous spouse is not repentant and the innocent partner judges that separation might induce repentance, the same factors seem to require that the latter initiate a separation while leaving the way open for reconciliation.

What about cases in which the sinning spouse is obdurate and the innocent spouse sees no realistic hope that separating will induce repentance? The innocent party should take into account all the responsibilities of his or her vocation, not least to any minor children and to the marriage itself. He or she remains entitled to marital intercourse, and perhaps other elements of the good of marriage can be salvaged even if it seems unlikely that mutual, faithful communion will be maintained. After prayerful discernment, therefore, the innocent spouse may either separate or tolerate the adultery, depending on which course seems best, all things considered. In separating, though, he or she should not entirely foreclose the possibility of reconciliation, and the separation should be reconsidered if the adulterous spouse eventually repents.

c) A spouse should separate when necessary to avoid grave harms. Sometimes one spouse leads or even pressures the other, or a child, into committing grave sin. Again, a spouse’s behavior might pose a serious threat to the life, health, or bodily integrity of his or her spouse and/or child. Sometimes the one causing the harm is not morally responsible—for example, if the harmful behavior results from psychosis—but, more often, there is at least some moral responsibility.

If the threat of grave harm is such that delay in separating would be dangerous, immediate separation is the only right course.286 In other cases, other means of preventing the harm should be tried first. Since separation itself usually seriously harms the good of marital communion, this harm should not be accepted without first making a serious effort to avoid it. Moreover, Christian mercy requires that the spouse suffering harm try not only to prevent it but to help the spouse who is behaving badly change for the better; and alternatives to separation often are more effective ways of achieving this end.

That is especially so when the bad behavior is more or less the product of psychological illness or serious moral weakness. So, for example, the wife of a brutal, alcoholic husband should consider having him arrested, so that the public authorities will force him to enter rehabilitation; for even though separation might seem a less aggressive measure, in many cases it also is less effective. Again, the spouse of someone who becomes seriously mentally ill should prefer to have him or her committed for treatment rather than separate and allow the illness to remain untreated.

Quite often, when the injury is spiritual or moral rather than physical or psychological, spouses wrongly tolerate grave harm to themselves or their children, or even cooperate in grave sin, instead of separating. But if, for example, a wife and mother abandons her faith and begins to undermine the children’s faith, and the husband can only prevent this harm by separating, he should separate; or, if a husband persistently perverts the marital relationship by pressuring his wife to engage in nonmarital sexual acts, and she cannot deal with this occasion of grave sin except by separating, she should separate.287

d) A spouse may separate if the other makes common life too hard. The traditional treatment of marital separation, reflected in the Church’s law, considers separation justified not only on the ground of adultery and to avoid grave harm but in some additional cases in which one spouse makes “common life too hard.”288

Plainly, that does not provide justification for those who decide to separate simply in order to compel their spouses to submit to their will. It is gravely wrong to use even temporary separation simply as a manipulative device against one’s spouse, not only because it violates the responsibility to carry on common life but because it is an exercise of coercion contrary to conjugal friendship. Moreover, those who separate merely because they think it is in their personal interests proceed just as if they were not married, which gravely violates the responsibility to maintain common life.

A decision to separate temporarily may well be reasonable when common living is very difficult if it seems the good of marriage might be served in this way by leading the other party to reflect seriously and repent. Harder to justify is a decision to separate for an indefinite time, even as a last resort to escape unresolved serious marital troubles, except because of adultery or to avoid grave harm—situations already treated above. For marital consent is a commitment to pursue the good of marriage not only for better but for worse, whereas an indefinite separation is very likely to lead to very serious harm, including adultery by at least one of the spouses, to the already-damaged marital communion. Still, in some rare cases one spouse may cause the other or the children such great difficulties that the other can rightly judge it too hard to continue common life. This decision is properly made, however, only if it is based on prayerful and conscientious discernment, taking into account all the relevant goods and all the person’s responsibilities.

e) Marital separation is subject to the Church’s authority. Since Christian marriage is a service to the Church and subject to her authority, Catholic spouses with justifiable reasons to separate should comply with Church law in doing so.289 The innocent party who judges it best not to forgive or tolerate adultery may separate at once without first obtaining Church authorization. But if the separation is prolonged or permanent, he or she should consult a priest within the first few months (the Church’s law requires that formal authorization be sought within six months).290 Apart from separations justified on the basis of adultery, authorization to separate should be obtained in advance, unless there is danger in delaying. In that case, authorization should be obtained soon after separation; moreover, if the reason for separation ceases to exist, common life should be resumed unless authorization is obtained not to do so.291

Civil divorce cannot dissolve a Christian marriage, and generally spouses should not seek one. It makes reconciliation very unlikely and often opens the way to a new and enduring adulterous relationship, while further damaging the effectiveness of the real and indissoluble marital union as a sign of the unbreakable union of Christ and the Church. Still, in some cases there is virtually no hope of reconciliation and civil divorce is necessary to deal with important legal matters, such as property rights or the enforcement of a man’s financial responsibilities toward his wife and children. Only in such cases is a Catholic justified in deciding to obtain a civil divorce, and even then he or she should not begin legal proceedings without first obtaining the Church’s authorization.292

f) Separated spouses still have marital and familial responsibilities. Since separation does not alter the fact that the couple are married, they still must fulfill all their marital and familial responsibilities other than those pertaining to sexual acts and common life, which now is broken off. This includes fulfilling certain affirmative responsibilities toward each other: to pray for each other, to communicate insofar as that is necessary to keep open the possibility of reconciliation, to cooperate in caring for their children, and so on.

Moreover, the spouses should remain completely faithful to each other, entirely avoiding any romantic relationships with third parties. This may require severely limiting previously unexceptionable relationships with members of the opposite sex, since a separated person all too often becomes romantically involved with someone who up until then had been only a friend, coworker, good neighbor, or the like.

No matter which spouse provoked or initiated a separation, both remain fully responsible for their children’s care.293 Indeed, separated parents must work even harder to do everything they can for the children’s good. Separation of itself tends to deprive children of the parenting and security they need, and they are likely to suffer grave and permanent harm unless both spouses do their best to prevent it.

During a separation, serious failures of parental responsibility are very common and always are grave matter. In many cases, one spouse, due to hostility, makes it difficult for the other to have reasonable access to the children; husbands often irresponsibly fail, or even refuse, to provide child support; sometimes both spouses exploit and damage children by using them to conduct their hostilities against each other.

g) Despite separation, spouses can live good Christian lives. Abandoned or justifiably separated spouses bear a very heavy cross. But that cross belongs to their vocation: “In such cases their example of fidelity and Christian consistency takes on particular value as a witness before the world and the Church.”294 Like all other Christians, they should hope confidently in God’s grace, which always is available to them for the asking. They should use every available means to fulfill their responsibilities, and should not let shame or false self-respect prevent them from seeking and accepting any help civil society can provide. When necessary, they should demand help from the Church, while other Catholics should recognize their special responsibility, not only to encourage these brothers and sisters in their hard situation but to aid them materially when necessary: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6.2).

3. Troubles Related to a Doubt about Validity Can Be Overcome

Sometimes serious trouble can be a sign that, even though a relationship seemed to be a marriage, in fact it was not, since the couple were not validly married. While it always is wrong for a married person to wish he or she were not married, someone whose marriage could be invalid does nothing wrong in recognizing a reason for doubting its validity; and once such a reason is recognized, it should be looked into.

a) Any doubt about the validity of a marriage should be resolved. Sometimes relationships considered marriages by everyone, including those involved, actually are invalid: either the parties were not free to marry each other, or one or both failed to give adequate consent, or some requirement of the Church for validity was not met. If one or both parties to a valid marriage doubt that they are married, the marriage will be troubled unless the doubt is put to rest; and if a couple who are not married are confident that they are, that is a bad state of affairs. Many factors which cause invalidity also result in serious trouble between the couple, but the results often will be unsatisfactory if it is dealt with simply as marital trouble. Moreover, a couple actually not married to each other lack some essential benefits of real marital communion, especially the sacrament of marriage. Since, then, the possible invalidity of a marriage is a very serious matter, everyone should be alert to its signs, and, if they appear, should acknowledge the doubt they raise and deal with it.

Still, even if a doubt arises, a Catholic who, so far as he or she knows, entered into marriage in accord with the Church’s law should presume that the marriage is valid and should continue to act accordingly until the opposite is proved. However, Catholics in putative marriages who are morally certain that they are not married have no marital rights, and so may not engage in sexual intercourse with their putative spouses; nor should they consider themselves free to marry unless and until the Church so determines.

b) Various facts can reasonably give rise to such a doubt. If a Catholic attempts marriage without a Catholic ceremony and without obtaining the bishop’s authorization, the couple very probably are not married.295 If a couple agreed before marriage that one of them would be sterilized or that they would always practice contraception so as never to have children, their relationship is not a valid marriage.296 If either partner was involved in a previous relationship which had any semblance of marriage, and the problem of that prior relationship was not cleared up before attempting a Catholic marriage, that partner probably was not free to marry.297 If a couple have tried but failed to consummate their marriage, it may be null; if not, it possibly is dissoluble.298

If either or both partners were reluctant to marry but were forced to do so because of some pressure—for example, by parents concerned about the woman’s pregnancy, or by one party’s desperate need to emigrate or obtain a place to live—the consent required for marriage might have been lacking.299 If after marriage either partner learns of some pre-existing circumstance which would have deterred him or her from consenting had it been known at that time, the consent may not have been sufficiently informed to make a marital commitment, particularly if the matter was an important one bearing on the marriage itself, such as the other party’s attitudes about matters of religion or about marriage and its responsibilities.300 Moreover, in general, if either party deserts or judges it justifiable to separate, the possibility should be considered that the trouble is caused by a factor which renders the putative marriage invalid. For desertion and separation signal profound trouble in a relationship, and sometimes the trouble results from one or another factor which also could render the relationship invalid as a marriage.

Threats of divorce early in a marriage can indicate that there was no consent to an indissoluble union. Many other more or less clear-cut signs can indicate either defects in consent or, possibly, incapacity at the time of marriage to assume and fulfill some of its essential responsibilities. Among these are indications of gross irresponsibility early in marriage: the man refuses to support the woman; she rejects the responsibilities of homemaking; either or both come and go as they please; or the man shows no interest in the woman’s pregnancy and regards their baby as her exclusive responsibility. Other signs bear on the sexual activity of one or both partners: infidelity early in the marriage, ongoing use of pornography both before and after marriage, homosexual behavior, a demand by one party that the other engage in repugnant sexual behavior, use of contraception from the beginning of marriage because one partner would prefer never to have children or repeatedly insists on postponing them. Sometimes, too, serious substance abuse or a severe psychological problem around the time of marriage indicates an invalidating condition. Serious difficulties early in marriage centering around one or both partners’ manipulative behavior and insistence on their rights can indicate that the consent in this case was only to a more or less fair arrangement rather than a genuine communion of life.

c) By resolving doubts, the trouble can be dealt with appropriately. Many of the signs which point to possible invalidity do not establish it as a fact, for they also could manifest one or both spouses’ unreadiness to fulfill their responsibilities in a valid marriage.

Nevertheless, when there is doubt, the parties must neither presume the marriage to be invalid nor live with the doubt.

If the couple still wish to be married, most doubts about consent can be resolved by reaffirming consent to marriage.301 Whatever marital trouble they might have, they are no less able to overcome it than any other married couple. But when a couple have separated and do not wish to be married, doubts about validity must be resolved by determining whether the putative marriage is or is not a real one. The matter should be taken to a diocesan tribunal or to a priest, who will help initiate tribunal proceedings.

A sound conclusion that a marriage is invalid can be reached only if the facts are truthfully presented and the Church’s law is properly applied. This requires that the case be presented to the appropriate Church authority.302 Since only the Church’s judges can settle marriage cases involving Catholics, no individual can determine his or her own freedom to marry, even with a priest’s advice and help.

4. Spouses Who Attempt Remarriage Have Special Responsibilities

Neither partner in a valid marriage should attempt a second marriage while the other is living. Any sexual activity by the parties to a union of that kind is adulterous, not marital. Catholics who persist in adulterous relationships nevertheless have many of the responsibilities of marriage and family life, not only to their true spouses and all their children, but even to the partner with whom they live. If they fulfill these and other responsibilities, the Church is confident that God’s grace of repentance and merciful forgiveness will be available to them if ever they are willing to accept it.

a) Such spouses should stop committing adultery. To call a relationship a “second marriage” suggests that, even though one party or both were previously married to others, they now are truly married to each other. Of course, when such a union is confirmed by civil marriage following civil divorce, society considers it to be a marriage. Moreover, so-called second marriages commonly differ in important ways from casual relationships or the less stable unions of couples merely living together: the partners can desire a loving and stable union, and can act as good parents. But even so, since marriage is absolutely indissoluble, neither partner in a real marriage can enter a second marriage as long as both are living. Thus, despite appearances and decent desires, the partners in such unions are not actually spouses. They should accept that fact and its implications in accord with the truth Jesus teaches: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10.11–12; cf. Mt 5.6, 1 Cor 7.10–11). And since adultery is always gravely wrong, they should break off their sexual relationship at once.

Generally, too, they should separate. Not doing so is almost certain to be an occasion of grave sin for them, while to others it is a sign of marital communion which does not actually exist and a possible source of scandal. But what if the couple have very grave reasons for continuing to maintain a common household, for example, they have small children who might not be properly cared for if they separate? Perhaps they can rightly continue to reside together, but only if they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”303 In any case, such a couple are not in an impossible situation. Perhaps they can separate and still fulfill their essential responsibilities to their children and each other; if not, they certainly can live chastely, provided they pray for the necessary grace, repent their past sins, and use all the available means.

b) So-called internal forum solutions solve nothing. Church law provides that, when necessary, certain acts of Church governance and jurisdiction can be carried out in a private or secret way. Although such acts then cannot have all their usual legal consequences, they can affect someone’s moral status and so enable him or her to live with a good conscience. Such acts are said to be carried out “in the internal forum.”304

Some theologians, canonists, and pastors try to help Catholics who have attempted remarriage by advising them that they can rightly treat their second union as a valid marriage if only a single condition is met: they have reached a confident judgment of conscience that they are not living in an ongoing adulterous relationship. Sometimes such advice implicitly assumes that it does not matter whether the first union was a valid marriage, because outwardly it seems that nothing of it remains, while the second union has all the conventional appearances of a real, and perhaps good, marriage. Sometimes the assumption is that the marriage’s objective validity is not important, provided those concerned are not acting against their consciences. And sometimes it is thought that those involved in or contemplating a second union are competent to judge whether the first union was a valid marriage. Regardless of the assumption, those offering such advice often call this way of acting an “internal forum solution.”305

In reality, however, those who give such advice are neither exercising Church authority nor applying Church law; they are replacing these with subjectivist conscience and their own opinions and feelings about marriage and divorce. They may think that the law’s inadequacy, as they see it, and the failure of Church leaders to remedy it justifies them in doing so for what they consider to be an overriding good: the peace of conscience of divorced Catholics living in second unions.

Of course, a Catholic who in the past entered into a marital relationship under the Church’s authority sometimes is free to marry despite the fact that both parties to that relationship are still alive. In virtually all such cases, the relationship would have been a sacramental and consummated marriage had it been valid, but, for some reason, it was not. However, any marriage should be presumed valid by all concerned unless and until the contrary is proven according to the Church’s law.306

This presumption is not peculiar to marriage cases. All important, socially significant acts should be presumed valid, provided those who undertake them appear to meet the usual conditions for doing them. Without this presumption, one never would know how to respond to such acts, what various persons’ rights and duties were, and so on. Thus, if it were not reasonable to presume the validity of an apparent marriage involving a Catholic, neither would it be reasonable to maintain the more general presumption without which social life as a whole would be impossible.

According to the Church’s law, only a Church judge can deal with marriage cases.307 Of course, those who wish to enter into a new relationship often think, and perhaps even firmly believe, that their earlier relationships were not true marriages. But they are interested parties, and no one is likely to be a good judge of a matter which, besides involving the rights of others and the community’s common good, has such a profound and direct impact on his or her own interests as this one does.

It will be said, however, that a so-called internal forum solution is justified in at least one sort of case: a putative marriage cannot be proved invalid, but a party to it knows for certain that he or she never has been married; such a person, it will be argued, is objectively free to marry, and therefore can do so in good conscience. However, marriage is not the act of a single individual, but of a couple and even, in a certain sense, of the wider community to which the couple belongs, inasmuch as people cannot marry without doing what is considered necessary in their community to do so. If an individual’s putative marriage cannot be proved invalid, his or her putative and prospective spouses and the Church must consider it valid, and so that individual, even if unmarried, is not objectively free to marry. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explains:

 By the way, as far as the “internal forum solution” is concerned as a means for resolving the question of the validity of a prior marriage, the magisterium has not sanctioned its use for a number of reasons, among which is the inherent contradiction of resolving something in the internal forum which by nature also pertains to and has such important consequences for the external forum. Marriage, not a private act, has deep implications of course for both of the spouses and resulting children and also for Christian and civil society. Only the external forum can give real assurance to the petitioner, himself not a disinterested party, that he is not guilty of rationalisation. Likewise, only the external forum can address the rights or claims of the other partner of the former union, and, in the case of the tribunal’s issuance of a judgment of nullity, make possible entering into a canonically valid, sacramental marriage.308
The fundamental error of the so-called internal forum approach lies in trying to reduce a problem about the validity of a marriage to a private problem of individual conscience, even though marriage is ineluctably social as a human reality and ineluctably ecclesial as a saving mystery.

The practice of so-called internal forum solutions also is pastorally disastrous. Even though someone whose problem has been dealt with in this way may really believe he or she is not living in sin, the practice itself cannot reasonably be expected to bring about that state of conscience. For it invites self-deception and rationalization, and peace of conscience attained by such means is not a reliable sign of freedom from the guilt of grave sin (see CMP, 3.C).309 Moreover, a supposedly pastoral solution which sets aside a previous union in favor of the partners in a current relationship disregards other parties. That includes not only those directly involved—for instance, abandoned spouses and children—but Jesus himself, other Catholic couples whose marriages are troubled, young people who interpret what is going on to mean marriage is dissoluble and who will later attempt marriage on that basis, and so on.

c) Those in bad marriages should accept the truth of their situation. If Catholics who have attempted remarriage think their first union might not have been valid, they should put that doubt to the test in a Church court. If they have no real doubt or do not wish to seek a decree of nullity—or if they have sought such a decree but their marriage was not proved invalid—they should abstain entirely from sexual intercourse and other sexual acts. Indeed, even if they do not choose to do so, they still are better off in avoiding self-deception and rationalization, accepting the truth of their situation, and continuing to fulfill all the responsibilities they are willing and able to fulfill.

That, obviously, includes their responsibilities as parents to all their children, as well as responsibilities with regard to matters such as support toward both (or all) their former and present partners. Moreover, such people should not consider themselves separated from the Church, but should listen to the word of God, persevere in prayer, attend Mass, contribute to works of charity, help in efforts to promote justice, and do penitential works. However, they should not participate fully in the Eucharist by receiving Holy Communion, for “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”310

Those who accept the truth of their situation and do their best to live a Christian life within its limits can continue to hope for salvation. Although they are unwilling now to repent and amend their lives, being honest with themselves enables them to remain aware of their guilt, and without that awareness they could not repent. Assuring such Catholics that God is ready to forgive them whenever they are ready to repent, the Church looks forward as a loving mother to their repentance rather than their obduracy until death.

285. See CIC, c. 1152, §1; cf. c. 1695.

286. See CIC, c. 1153.

287. Bayer, Rape within Marriage, argues that a wife may use contraception if the couple should not have a child but her husband forces her to have intercourse. If correct, that view would allow such a wife to avoid separation by materially cooperating in nonmarital intercourse while defending herself against the harm of conception, on the analogy of the defense which any woman may rightly make against pregnancy which would be caused if she were raped by a man other than her husband. In reality, however, a wife in that situation will be strongly tempted to cooperate formally, though reluctantly, in nonmarital intercourse and also is likely to intend, not to defend herself against the fullness of one-flesh communion, but to prevent the coming to be of the child which the couple should not have. Bayer himself unwittingly verifies this point when he defines intra-marital rape to mean “any sexual act of a husband, which is capable of impregnating his wife, and which is at the same time forced upon her by her husband against her objectively justified and serious refusal of consent” (3). Plainly, the sexual acts of husbands which are analogous to rape include many which are not capable of impregnating their sexually oppressed wives. So, in defining intra-marital rape as he does, Bayer manifests the real point of his argument: to justify such a wife’s use of contraception precisely insofar as it is contralife. But that is always wrong (see 8.E.3).

288. CIC, c. 1153, §1.

289. Those attempting to do so in accord with the relevant canons cited below may find that the Church’s law in this matter is not in use in their diocese. Where that is so, it does not lessen moral responsibilities not to separate except for justifiable reasons, to avoid civil divorce if possible, to fulfill parental responsibilities, to avoid involvement in a new romantic relationship, and so on.

290. See CIC, c. 1152, §3.

291. See CIC, c. 1153.

292. See CIC, c. 1692.

293. CIC, c. 1154, prescribes: “After the separation of the spouses, suitable provision is to be made for the adequate support and education of the children.” Archibald D. Hart, Children and Divorce (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1982), a professional psychologist writing from an evangelical-Christian standpoint, makes clear many of the damaging effects of divorce on children, but also, without condoning divorce, offers helpful advice for dealing with these bad effects.

294. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 83, AAS 74 (1982) 184, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 17. Also, John Paul II, Homily at the Mass for Families (York, England), 6, Inseg. 5.2 (1982) 2010–11, OR, 7 June 1982, 9, teaches: “Let us not forget that God’s love for his people, Christ’s love for the Church, is everlasting and can never be broken. And the covenant between a man and a woman joined in Christian marriage is as indissoluble and irrevocable as this love (cf. AAS 71 [1979], p. 1224). This truth is a great consolation for the world, and because some marriages fail, there is an ever greater need for the Church and all her members to proclaim it faithfully. Christ himself, the living source of grace and mercy, is close to all those whose marriage has known trial, pain, or anguish. Throughout the ages countless married people have drawn from the Paschal Mystery of Christ’s Cross and Resurrection the strength to bear Christian witness—at times very difficult—to the indissolubility of Christian marriage.”

295. See CIC, cc. 1108–17.

296. See CIC, c. 1055, §1; c. 1101, §2.

297. See CIC, c. 1085.

298. See CIC, c. 1084, §1; c. 1142.

299. See CIC, c. 1103.

300. See CIC, cc. 1097–98; c. 1102, §2.

301. See CIC, cc. 1156–59. Precisely how consent must be reaffirmed varies in diverse cases; the priest or Church official helping the spouse or couple with the problem will explain what is necessary. But in any case, the spouse or couple need not fear embarrassment, since there is no need to make the situation public.

302. CIC, c. 1671, prescribes: “Marriage cases of the baptized belong to the ecclesiastical judge by proper right.” The judge in question usually is that of the tribunal of the diocese in which the marriage occurred, or in which one of the parties is living, or in which relevant evidence can most easily be gathered (see c. 1673). Certain cases are reserved to the Holy See. While an attempted marriage by a Catholic without a Catholic ceremony or a dispensation from that requirement is not even a putative marriage in the Church’s eyes, a Catholic who has attempted marriage with one person is no longer free to marry another unless declared by the Church to be so.

303. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 84, AAS 74 (1982) 186, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 17. On the conditions under which such cohabitation is permissible: Bernard O. Sullivan, Legislation and Requirements for Permissible Cohabitation in Invalid Marriages (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1954).

304. See CIC, c. 130; c. 1079, §3; c. 1082.

305. See James H. Provost, “Intolerable Marriage Situations Revisited,” Jurist 40 (1980): 141–96. In support of this use of the so-called internal forum, some point out that the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Cardinal Seper) sent a circular letter, not published at the time, to bishops, 11 Apr. 1973 (Canon Law Digest 9 [1978–81]: 503–4), on the indissolubility of marriage and “abuses against the prevailing discipline concerning the admission to the sacraments of those who are living in an irregular union,” and that the concluding paragraph of this letter stated: “As regards admission to the sacraments, the local Ordinaries will likewise please urge observance of the prevailing discipline of the Church on the one hand, and, on the other hand, however, take care that pastors of souls follow up with special solicitude those also who are living in an irregular union, applying in the solution of such cases, in addition to other correct means, the approved practice of the Church in the internal forum.” However, in answer to a request for a clarification of the phrase, “approved practice of the Church in the internal forum,” Archbishop Hamer, Secretary of the Congregation (who had countersigned the letter of 11 Apr. 1973), wrote to Archbishop Bernardin, President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 21 Mar. 1975 (ibid., 504–5): “I would like to state now that this phrase [”probata praxis Ecclesiae"] must be understood in the context of traditional moral theology. These couples may be allowed to receive the sacraments on two conditions, that they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles, and that they receive the sacraments in churches in which they are not known so that they will not create any scandal." Again, in answer to an inquiry from the Scandinavian Episcopal Conference, 19 Feb. 1976 (ibid., 507), about the possibility of readmitting to the sacraments Catholics “convinced in their formed conscience that their fidelity to their second marriage is not a sin despite the objective contradictions with the Church’s teaching and marriage discipline” and also “convinced that they are not obliged to give up sexual relations,” the Congregation replied, 14 Apr. 1976 (ibid., 508): “With regard to the admission to the sacraments of the previously divorced and remarried, the Congregation requests that you not introduce any innovation. In case you propose theological arguments for a change of practice, the Congregation is gladly ready to investigate them.” Finally, referring to one instance of the misinterpretation of the 1973 letter, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Church, Pope and Gospel” (letter to the editor), The Tablet (London), 26 Oct. 1991, 1311, explains: “Cardinal Seper’s mention in his letter of 1973 of the ‘approved practice in the internal forum’ which Fr Davey cites was not referring to the so-called internal forum solution which properly understood concerns a marriage known with certainty to be invalid but which cannot be shown to be such to a marriage tribunal because of a lack of admissible proof. Cardinal Seper for his part was not addressing the question of the validity of a prior marriage, but rather the possibility of allowing persons in a second, invalid marriage to return to the sacraments if, in function of their sincere repentance, they pledge to abstain from sexual relations when there are serious reasons preventing their separation and scandal can be avoided.”

306. See CIC, c. 1060, c. 1085, §2.

307. See CIC, c. 1671. If extraordinary circumstances justified handling some case in the internal forum without meeting all the relevant requirements of canonical procedure, still the case would not really be resolved (but only seem to be) unless someone having jurisdiction correctly applied the Church’s law. See Francisco Javier Urrutia, S.J., “The ‘Internal Forum Solution’: Some Comments,” Jurist 40 (1980): 128–40.

308. Ratzinger, “Church, Pope and Gospel,” loc. cit.

309. For insight into how the practice of so-called internal forum solutions invites self-deception and rationalization, see the criteria proposed by John R. Connery, S.J., et al., “Appendix B: The Problem of Second Marriages: An Interim Pastoral Statement by the Study Committee Commissioned by the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America: Report of August 1972,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 27 (1972): 236–37. Some of the proposed criteria are plausible, although, used by an interested party apart from any careful process, they plainly would result in frequent erroneous judgments. But one suggested criterion is “tolerance or intolerance of common life,” which invites the following line of practical reflection: “In that first relationship, which I once thought was a valid marriage, my partner and I did not tolerate common life well. If we had, we would be happily married today. But, in fact, she deserted me [or I found life with him unbearable, or eventually neither of us wanted to go on with it]. So, we clearly lacked tolerance of common life. Therefore, plainly it was not a valid marriage.” Indeed, intolerance of common life could translate “molestam cohabitationem,” which Trent definitively teaches cannot be said to justify divorce (see DS 1805/975).

310. John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 84, AAS 74 (1982) 185, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 17; cf. John Paul II, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 34, AAS 77 (1985) 271–72, OR, 17 Dec. 1984, 13, where the position is restated. For a helpful commentary, see Dionigi Tettamanzi, “The Pastoral Care of the Family and Irregular Situations,” OR, 30 Aug. 1982, 6–8; cf. E. Gagnon, “Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Civilly Remarried Catholic,” in Contemporary Perspectives on Christian Marriage, 205–14; Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., Remarried Divorcees and Eucharistic Communion (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1980). Some who argue that such persons may receive Holy Communion cite theological opinion from the early 1970s, including that of certain theologians, such as Joseph Ratzinger, who are undoubtedly faithful to the Church’s teaching; see, for example, Ladislas Örsy, S.J., Marriage in Canon Law: Texts and Comments, Reflections and Questions (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1988), 292–93, citing and quoting brief passages from Joseph Ratzinger, “Zur Frage nach der Unauflösigkeit der Ehe,” in Ehe und Ehescheidung, ed. Franz Henrich and Volker Eid (Munich: Kösel, 1972), 55–56. However, such theological opinion must be read in its historical context: a discussion which took place in the decade or so before the session of the Synod of Bishops which met in 1980 (for a brief chronology of that discussion, see Provost, “Intolerable Marriage Situations Revisited,” 174–78). During its second period, which began in 1974, the International Theological Commission (of which Ratzinger was then a member) took up this issue; the Commission’s conclusion (International Theological Commission, “Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage,” 5.3, in Texts and Documents, 1969–85, 173–74), adopted in forma specifica (that is, with an absolute majority subscribing not only to the ideas but to the very wording), was firm and clear: “The incompatibility of the state of remarried divorced persons with the precept and mystery of the Paschal love of the Lord makes it impossible for these people to receive, in the Eucharist, the sign of unity with Christ. Access to eucharistic Communion can only be had through penitence, which implies detestation of the sin committed and the firm purpose of not sinning again (cf. DS, 1676).” Subsequently, the issue was discussed in the 1980 session of the Synod of Bishops; the teaching of John Paul in Familiaris consortio gathers up and responds to that discussion, reaffirming the exclusion from the Eucharist of the divorced who have attempted remarriage, and using terms similar to those of the International Theological Commission’s document to explain the matter. Thus, the cited theological opinions of Ratzinger and others have been superseded, and now should be recognized as having been erroneous. The error was in attempting to hold at once two inconsistent positions: that marriage not only should not be dissolved but is indissoluble (which implies that those who have attempted a second marriage are living in adultery), and that those who continue to live as if they were spouses in an attempted second marriage can be reconciled (which implies that they are not living in adultery). Ratzinger himself, “Church, Pope and Gospel,” loc. cit., comments on an attempt to draw norms from his earlier theological work: they “are not norms in any official sense at all. They formed part of a suggestion (‘Vorschlag’) I made as a theologian in 1972 [note omitted]. Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium to whose judgment I would submit. . . . Now, the magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of the present Holy Father in Familiaris Consortio.”