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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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.