So I just started a new feature where blog readers can send in their questions and I do my best to answer them. Questions could be related to faith, relationships, personalities, or anything else I write about here. Just a reminder, I am no expert, so this is just a Woman with an Internet Connection and An Opinion. Feel free to send in your questions as messages as comments. Please ask fun questions too!
Hey Sue, I had a question regarding the wedding vows where people say “until death do us part”. What exactly is the meaning of “death” in case of the union between two people? Is it just physical death? What happens when a couple has kids and one spouse passes away? Isn’t this a case of remarriage too like the ones post divorce? I’ve heard of couples getting an annulment as long as there’s been no sex, else there is almost no or minimal chances of getting an annulment. This is based on what I’ve heard from people, hence, I think that’s how it works, but if there’s something that I’m missing, would be really happy if you can tell me. Also, if what I’ve heard is true, then I somehow don’t feel that remarriage after physical death should be accepted by the church, since it feels contradictory. What are your views on this? :)
I can give you the facts of what the Church allows and doesn’t (death does refer to physical death, and Catholics are free to marry if their spouse dies even if they have children, remarriage is not a sin as the exclusive marriage bond does break with death), but it seems as if there are two main questions that you have-
- Why do we use the term ‘till death do us part’ in a Catholic marriage if it is possible for a marriage to be annulled?
- And why should the bond of marriage end with physical death?
So for the first question- Why do we use the term ‘till death do us part’ in a Catholic marriage if it is possible for a marriage to be annulled?
A lot of people misunderstand what an annulment is. I think most people just think of it as a ‘Catholic divorce’, just a few more hoops to jump through in order to be able to marry in the Church the second time round. But the fact is that the Church believes it CANNOT end a marriage that is valid and sacramental, that the bond that God creates between two people in a valid and sacramental marriage cannot be broken. As this article says, ‘Just as you can’t separate the ingredients of a cake after you’ve baked it, you can’t separate a man and a woman after they’ve been validly and sacramentally married.’
So what’s an annulment then? An annulment is basically saying that the marriage never was a real marriage, (and er… the cake was never a cake, but just bread) because some condition that made it a marriage was missing. There are far more detailed blogs and articles online you can read about it, but I’ll give you a few examples:
- One or both of the couple did not freely choose to enter into the marriage. Forced marriages are not valid marriages. Shotgun marriages are not valid marriages. Child marriages are not valid marriages.
- One or both of the partners did not plan to remain faithful or be open to children (planned to use contraception) at the time of the marriage.
- One of the partners had a pre-existing psychological condition that they hid from the other.
- One of the partners was impotent.
- One of the partners hid some important information that could have affected the decision.
You may notice that all these are pre-existing conditions that nullified the validity of the vows. If both made the vows in sincerity, and one later changed their mind, that doesn’t mean the marriage can be annulled.
What about the sex question? Well, that has little to do with a marriage being annulled. But it is possible for a marriage that was valid and sacramental, but that has not yet been consummated to be dissolved.
Once a couple has been validly married AND consummated their marriage, there is no power in heaven or earth that can break that marriage. Except death, but we’ll talk about that later. So in what seems to be pretty uncommon cases, one or both partners CAN ask for the marriage to be dissolved if they have not had sex.
On to question two: why should the bond of marriage end with physical death?
Marriage is a pretty big deal if we’re looking at it through Catholic eyes. It’s not just a piece of paper, not just a business agreement, not just a social institution. It’s a big enough deal to make a man and a woman choose to make a permanent choice that will affect everything about the rest of their lives.
So if we can so far as to say for the rest of our lives, or until death do us part, why not say forever, or into eternity?
I’m going to say something that might sound very unromantic – Catholics don’t really believe in soul-mates. At least not in the way that Nicholas Sparks and the hopeless romantics of the world do – that one soul you were fated for all eternity to be united with, the other half of our souls, etc. That sounds great, but it doesn’t hold up to logic or reason which is what our faith is based on. God has a plan, but He works with our choices.
So how can we be romantic enough to say ‘till death do us part’, but not romantic enough to say ‘until eternity’?
It comes down to the true meaning and purpose of marriage. Lifelong companionship is beautiful in itself, but it has been lifted to something even deeper, truer and more beautiful. It is a SIGN, a SYMBOL and a PREPARATION for the Divine Romance, the union of Jesus with the Church, and each soul within it. Whaaaa… Yes, I said it and it’s true. Our faith is ALL about romance. Jesus, the bridegroom, and we (yes, even the guys) are all brides! Okay, not exactly… but the terms and the concepts and even the realities of bridegrooms and brides was created by God to give us a glimpse, a foretaste of the reality of union with Him, which is what our entire earthly life is a preparation for.
You shall no more be termed ‘Forsaken’, and your land shall no more be termed ‘Desolate’; but you shall be called ‘My delight is in her’, and your land ‘Married’; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married…and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. Isaiah 62:4-5
It’s hard to grasp, right? Especially since most of what we have learned about our faith from our childhood has not introduced us to this radical concept. But think about this – the hunger you have felt deep in your bones, even sexual desire, the ache for something more… all that was supposed to point us to a fulfilment that not even the most dreamy spouse could provide.
All that to say… the REAL Wedding Day is the day we are united with Jesus in heaven. If at all we believe in soulmates, then Jesus is that soulmate, the One who completes us, the One our soul has been waiting for, the One who has waited for us for all of eternity. All love stories are a reflection of and a prefigurement of the Divine Love Story that surpasses all earthly love stories.
Does that mean our earthly spouse means nothing to us in heaven? Not at all! If God created such a holy bond and relationship on earth, why would he just throw it away? Fr. Raneiro Cantalamessa says “Marriage does not come to a complete end at death but is transfigured, spiritualized, freed from the limits that mark life on earth, as also the ties between parents and children or between friends will not be forgotten. In a preface for the dead the liturgy proclaims: "Life is transformed, not taken away." Even marriage, which is part of life, will be transfigured, not nullified.”
But in heaven our love is transformed from earthly limitations. It is not possessive any more. So if someone remarries, it could be a genuine gift from the Lord for the remainder of the earthly life, and not a detraction from the goodness of the bond of the first marriage. I hope this makes sense!
Here's a few quick facts, clarifications and thoughts that came up in my (somewhat) extensive research that might be helpful:
- Children of annulled marriages are not considered illegitimate.
- Annulments are not supposed to extremely difficult to get if there are valid reasons, and the Pope has been trying to streamline the annulment process.
- Annulments do not need the consent of both spouses. But there do need to be witnesses, people who have been familiar with the couple and their marriage.
- Civil divorce is not a sin, it may be necessary in order to get child support etc in the case of annulled marriages or separations.
- Although sacramental and valid marriages cannot be broken, sometimes a couple is advised to separate, especially in cases of abuse of any kind. But they are not free to remarry.
- It is never a good idea to judge or speculate on other people's broken or annulled marriages, or think it is a reflection of their character or faith, because we have no idea the kind of hell they may have been through.
- All marriages are presumed valid until a decree of nullity is sought and approved. So don't assume anyone has an invalid marriage.
- If you have any questions out of more than idle curiosity, every diocese has assigned priests and I think canon lawyers who can guide you through the specifics.
I just spent the last three days reading and researching annulments, throwing around questions and thoughts like ‘What’s the difference between ratified, valid, sacramental, and consummated, and how are they connected to indissolubility... wait, is that a word? How was Mary and Joseph’s marriage a real marriage if they never consummated it? What if two old people who CAN’T have sex want to get married? Can they be roommates without giving scandal?” Such is life and conversation in my women’s household. :-D But that’s my next post.