RCIA and Prior Marriages: Waiting for the Sacraments

My anecdotal experience working in RCIA is that the single greatest impediment for potential converts to Catholicism involves resolving issues created by what the Church calls “irregular marriages”, that is, when a person in marrying is not properly ready, willing, and able to be married according to Canon Law. (CIC 1095-1107). Most frequently, this involves situations where the person who wishes to become Catholic is either divorced and remarried, or the person’s spouse was previously divorced and is now remarried.

Someone who wishes to become Catholic but is told that he must resolve the issue of a prior marriage may feel that the Church is dealing rather — er, harshly — with him. After all, how can one be held to the Catholic standard for marriage, when he isn’t even Catholic yet?

The good news is that anyone who wishes to become Catholic but has a situation with an irregular marriage can usually eventually resolve the situation and receive the sacraments. Joining the Church is rarely (never?) impossible, but it sometimes demands that a person do something that is uncomfortable, undesirable, or costly. And, it’s going to take longer than usual. It may even require the great penance of having to communicate with a former spouse concerning the fact of the annulment, drawing attention to an intensely personal decision. I doubt the first person to whom a new convert to Catholicism wishes to announce his conversion is the ex. The annulment process creates a vulnerability, by its nature.

For Catholics, marriage is a “…covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which is of its own very nature ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptized, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (CIC 1055).

The RCIA team and the pastor can, by reaching out to the candidate or catechumen, do much to mitigate this sense of harshness, by reminding the person that he is a valued member of the church community and free to become involved in many aspects of the Church’s life while he awaits resolution of his particular marriage issue so that he can finally enter into full sacramental communion with the Church.

What’s key for the RCIA team, and for the pastor of the parish, is to deal with the issue very early on in the RCIA process, so that there are no surprises or hurt feelings. It’s really important to inform the person that it may take longer than the time remaining to the next Easter Vigil to get the situation straightened out.

Point out to the catechumen or candidate that RCIA may take a year, but many times it takes longer, up to three years. Encourage and remind him that Jesus has waited patiently for him up to this point, and one’s response to Jesus’ call sometimes involves offering one’s own patience until the proper time. This call to patience can be spiritually enriching, even while it is frustrating.

It’s the job of the RCIA team to inquire about each potential convert’s marital situation, and provide the information needed to resolve the issue. It is not the job of the RCIA team to initiate the annulment process for the person, fill out the person’s annulment documents, or attempt to hasten the annulment process by calling the diocese or marriage tribunal.

The first step is to inquire about every candidate or catechumen’s marital situation. To help with this, I’ve created a short series of questions. The questions are basic, and are not meant to address every situation, but should help to steer everyone in the right direction.

We should all be grateful to hear that the Vatican, under the leadership of Pope Francis, is beginning to seriously look at “streamlining” the marriage and annulment process for divorced and remarried Catholics. While the likelihood that the Church will ever substantially change its position relative to the fundamental teachings on marriage is nil, the way the Church approaches the annulment process, and the manner in which divorced and remarried Catholics (and candidates or catechumens in RCIA) receive pastoral care, are matters that can be improved and modified, and we can have hope that in seeking to improve its pastoral approach, many more people who are currently away from the sacraments will be able to fully participate in the sacramental life of the Church.

SIMPLE RCIA MARRIAGE QUESTIONNAIRE

1. ARE YOU CURRENTLY MARRIED?

IF THE ANSWER IS YES, PROCEED TO QUESTION 2.

IF THE ANSWER IS NO, YOU ARE LIKELY FREE TO RECEIVE THE SACRAMENTS, HOWEVER, IF YOU HAVE BEEN PREVIOUSLY MARRIED, YOU WILL NEED TO OBTAIN AN ANNULMENT BEFORE YOU CAN RE-MARRY.

2. IS THIS YOUR FIRST MARRIAGE?

IF THE ANSWER IS YES, PROCEED TO QUESTION 4.

IF THE ANSWER IS NO, PROCEED TO QUESTION 3.

3. IS YOUR ORIGINAL SPOUSE (OR, IN THE CASE OF MORE THAN ONE MARRIAGE, ANY FORMER SPOUSE) LIVING?

IF THE ANSWER IS YES, YOU WILL LIKELY NEED TO OBTAIN AN ANNULMENT BEFORE YOU CAN RECEIVE THE SACRAMENTS.

IF THE ANSWER IS NO, PROCEED TO QUESTION 4.

4. HAS YOUR CURRENT SPOUSE EVER BEEN MARRIED BEFORE?

IF THE ANSWER IS YES, PROCEED TO QUESTION 5.

IF THE ANSWER IS NO, YOU ARE LIKELY FREE TO RECEIVE THE SACRAMENTS.

5. IS THE ORIGINAL SPOUSE (OR, IN THE CASE OF MORE THAN ONE MARRIAGE, ANY FORMER SPOUSE) OF YOUR CURRENT SPOUSE LIVING?

IF THE ANSWER IS YES, YOUR SPOUSE’S PRIOR MARRIAGE(S) WILL LIKELY NEED TO BE ANNULLED BEFORE YOU CAN RECEIVE THE SACRAMENTS.

IF THE ANSWER IS NO, YOU ARE LIKELY FREE TO RECEIVE THE SACRAMENTS.

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7 thoughts on “RCIA and Prior Marriages: Waiting for the Sacraments

    • John, it’s a real possibility that I would not deny, but fortunately the determination isn’t made by us. I would not use that fact to discourage anyone to seek an annulment.

  1. These questions online here only pertain to those whose marriages were recognized in church, however, most of our RCIA marriage issues have to deal with those baptized Catholics who were 1) never married, but have what we refer to as “common-law marriages” in some cases for 20 or more years, and in their cases, they just need to have their union blessed by the church (ie. marriage) before they receive the sacraments of initiation; 2) in other cases, some baptized Catholics only married civilly and in those cases there could be prior civil or non-Catholic marriages before they entered the Catechumenate and they only need to fill out simple paperwork with their diocese because of “lack of form;” get their unions blessed before the church (ie. marriage) before they make their sacraments; 3) in the cases of non-baptized Catholics, civil and religious marriages are considered to be valid in the Catholic Church, although not as a sacrament, and do require an annulment if both parties were not baptized Catholic at the time of their marriage.

    Figuring out these issues is almost like trying to do algebra questions.

  2. I am a single-never-married cradle Catholic well over forty years of age, whose father (a permanent deacon) works on quite a few annulments. I am not privy to the case details and do not wish to be although I understand that technically the information submitted by the parties is not required to be kept confidential. In addition the less I hear about annulments the better as far as I am concerned — I am tired of the whining and people insisting the date of their “next “wedding” takes precedence over the date of the receipt of their hoped for annulment. In other words they’re perfectly happy to have a civil wedding a year or more before they receive news from the tribunal as to whether their first “marriage” was valid or invalid. Also perhaps people don’t realize but in the diocese where my father serves, which is a large diocese, many of the people working on annulments at the diocesan level are volunteers. People need to take their faith seriously and act like adults. If not, I am sorry to say it descreases my respect for marriage and married people.

  3. BTW, for all of you who seem to think annulments are just too easy and quick to get, let me tell you about mine. It took seven years to find a priest who didn’t lose paperwork and had the time to help me out. Part of the paperwork are questions about the relationship both before and after the marriage, in detail – it took me 75 pages and well over a month and a half to finish them, because having to write about it made me have to deal with things I thought I was already over. My ex-husband, a rabid atheist who’d already remarried, did all he could to slow the process down, which I found out later is not that uncommon. In all, it took over a year and a half, and it was gut-wrenching the entire time.

    • Dear Shawna:
      I can relate to everything you wrote. I am at the one year mark and just had my interview at the tribunal office. I had 2 1/2 hours of re-living the trauma that was my first marriage to a Catholic in a Catholic church.

      Never did I imagine that years later my decision to become a Catholic would be contingent on so many others and that I would have to be re-traumatized so many times in the process of telling even well-meaning clergy and lay ministers my life saga.

      The irony, depending on the whims of others, I may never become a Catholic because my first hellish marriage was deemed by them to be valid. Why should one determine the other?

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