We converted to the Catholic Church 20 Years Ago, but We Weren’t Asked if We’d Been Married Before

A reader of this blog submitted the following in response to my post “RCIA and Prior Marriages: Waiting for the Sacraments“:

My husband and I converted to the catholic faith twenty years ago. We were not asked if we’d been married before. We’ve been very devoted and active in our church. However, upon our daughter’S decision to convert, annulment came to the forefront. She was married before. Total fear has gripped me as I realized my husband and I were married to others. We have been married for over thirty years. I was married once to an abusive alcoholic who physically beat me and my children. I eventually left him. My husband was married three times before. The first lasting eleven years the second two lasting less than a year. He was mixed up. His first wife is now dead. We have no idea where any of these people are and the pain and effort to try to find them would be horrendous. So, now what. We leave the church? This is scary and upsetting. My husband and I are very much in love and both feel very, very blessed to have found each other after the pain we went through.

First, I want to urge you not to even THINK of “leaving the church” as you and your husband belong to the Church and she belongs to you.

However, all the same, this is a serious situation. Since you say you’ve been very devoted and active in your parish, a good starting point would be for both of you to go and visit your current pastor and explain what has come to light. Make sure he understands that when you were going through RCIA (or the equivalent) you were never asked about prior marriages, and had you been asked (or had you understood the significance of a prior marriage) you would have given forthright and truthful answers (Jesus knows this already).

As I wrote in my post, we ask about prior marriages before people come into the Church exactly so that this does not happen, but I do not know the correct approach twenty years after the fact. It will depend — to a large extent — on your pastor and what he counsels is prudent for you to do. I know that’s not a very excellent “Canon Law” sort of answer, but for us laypeople it is important to listen to our pastors, who are responsible for our spiritual well being, and rely upon their judgments and decisions. When we do this (give obedience to the Church’s lawful ministers) it becomes the pastor’s issue if he’s off the mark, not ours (see Luke 17:2). Only when we know that our pastor is flat out wrong is it appropriate to “go over Father’s head”.

I am not the right person to answer all the marital “ins and outs” — as in whether this marriage or that marriage was actually valid. The facts aren’t complete enough anyway. Most likely, your husband’s first marriage is a non-issue because his first wife has died. If his first wife was living when he married his second and third wives, those marriages may never have been valid either. The fact of your first husband’s abuse and alcoholism is very sad and I’m very sorry, but may not have much to do with whether that marriage was valid or not; more facts are needed to answer that question.

Do not despair, as you are Home and no one has a right to ask you to leave. The hardest part will be to approach your pastor and begin the discussion, but it will not be nearly as painful or impossible as you have come to fear. Remember that Our Lord is already walking this path with you, and has you and your husband safely in His Most Sacred Heart.

Please be assured of my prayers during this time, and let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

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Another Vasectomy Question

From a commenter to my post, Vasectomy and the Catholic Church: Search Engine Q&A:

My wife has had repeated miscarriages since she has gotten older (seven so far). We have been abstaining to avoid another miscarriage. I believe it would be acceptable in God’s eyes for one of us to have a procedure that would make it impossible for her to become pregnant, but she does not. What does The Church say?

My response:

Dear ___________:

I received your question concerning the situation with your wife having had a number of miscarriages. As someone who has experienced (as a husband and father) two miscarriages myself, I am very sorry that you and your wife have had to go through this. Depending on how far along into a pregnancy the miscarriage occurs, it can be very traumatic and painful.

I’d suggest that you first go to a priest who you know and trust and talk to him about this situation. Since you earnestly asked the question, I assume you want to find answers that are authentic reflections of what the Church actually teaches. On occasion priests can be found who will put a “rubber stamp” on things that are pretty questionable. Such priests actually make things worse. If you don’t have a “go-to” priest, maybe begin by asking a trusted friend who he or she would see about this concern.

Please understand that *I* am not an authority on official Church teaching. But I can tell you that my *understanding* is that the Church’s view on “having a procedure that would make it impossible” for your wife to become pregnant would not be favorable.

This is because, first, there are other NON-PERMANENT things that you and your wife can do that don’t affect either your or your wife’s reproductive capacity. For example, many Catholic couples, for a variety of reasons, practice Natural Family Planning, which allows the couple to observe the wife’s cycle and determine which days she might be fertile or ovulating. The rest of the times during the cycle the couple need not abstain. There may also be other options that could be discussed further with a trustworthy priest.

There is also a second serious problem that would arise with a permanent procedure, which is that sexual union between spouses is intended by God to reflect the “unitive, procreative, and donative” elements of marriage. “Unitive” is essentially what Jesus talks about in the Gospel when he refers to the two becoming “one flesh”. “Donative” is the free giving of self to one’s spouse, which isn’t entirely possible once one intentionally interrupts the part of oneself that leads to procreation. “Procreative” is the part that brings about children.

When we talk about these elements, we can’t give what we don’t possess, and sometimes that’s not our fault. If a person is born sterile, it doesn’t mean they can’t marry. But we aren’t free intentionally remove our own “faculties” either. Doing so is essentially a rejection of a gift from God. We are, in the moment, returning the thing that God gave us for our own good and happiness and choosing something else that God did not intend.

“Unitive, procreative, and donative” aspects of sexual expression also help us understand *why* sex is reserved for marriage. It simply isn’t possible to do what God intends for us in the sexual act with a partner outside marriage. We might be “having sex”, but at least one (if not all) of the elements intended to present in the act are missing.

When we turn one or more of these elements “off” within marriage, we run the risk of harming the marriage itself.

Please know that I will be praying for you and your wife, and wish you a very blessed Easter.