By: Mary Beth Bonacci
So apparently you all like talking about annulment. No big surprise, really. Most single Catholics – at least those of us “of a certain age” – deal with the subject either directly or indirectly in our dating lives. I have received more mail on this topic than I have any other subject since I started writing for Catholic Match. And, as fascinated as you may be with questions surrounding who gets an annulment and why, there is one big question most of you want to hear more about: dating and annulments. When is it okay to date? Is it okay to date someone who doesn’t have an annulment? Someone who has applied for an annulment? Do you have to wait until the annulment is granted? So let’s take that question on today – Is it okay to date someone who is divorced but doesn’t have an annulment? The way I see it, half of the answer is crystal clear, and the other half is kind of murky. Here’s the crystal clear part: If someone is divorced and doesn’t yet have an annulment, they are presumed in the eyes of the Church to still be married. I say “presumed” because, until the investigation is over and the tribunal has ruled, no one can say that for sure. The tribunal may find that no sacramental marriage ever existed. But they may not. And, unfortunately, you and I are not tribunals. (I don’t know – maybe that’s fortunate. I really wouldn’t want that responsibility on my head.) We can’t say “Well, look at the situation. Clearly there was no marriage.” Maybe there wasn’t, but that’s not our call to make. We haven’t seen all the evidence. We haven’t interviewed the witnesses. That process is in place for a reason.
So, bottom line. This person is presumed to be married. Respecting the Church and respecting the process means respecting that fact.That’s the clear part. The murky part comes in when we start to talk about “dating.” Several of you wrote to ask me if it’s a sin to “date” someone who doesn’t have an annulment. It’s a hard question to answer, because the concept of “dating” isn’t particularly clear. The Church has never proclaimed on the question of dating someone with no annulment, because the concept of “dating” doesn’t exist in the Church’s realm. It’s a fairly recent cultural construct, and exists mostly in the Western world. It’s defined differently among different people at different times. And it’s difficult for the Church to be clear about something that isn’t clearly defined. Some things are obviously clear. To engage in sexually intimate behavior with someone who is presumed to be married would be presumed to be adultery. But then again, to engage in sexually intimate behavior with someone who isn’t presumed to be married would be fornication. It’s a sin either way.
But does “dating” someone who is presumed to be married constitute adultery? That’s a trickier question. What is dating? Is going out to lunch with someone adulterous behavior? Is it adulterous if it’s dinner? Obviously it’s not the meal, or the act of sharing that meal, that’s adulterous. It’s the circumstances and the intentionality. If these two people are sneaking around behind a spouse’s back, if they’re being deceptive, if they’re violating the intimacy that spouse has the right to expect, then they are behaving in an adulterous way. It’s a sin against the spouse who is being deceived. The situation changes slightly when a couple is publicly separated and legally divorced. Yes, there may still be a sacramental marriage present, and that’s a big deal. But I think that a certain level of friendship with the opposite sex that would be highly inappropriate for someone with a spouse waiting at home becomes more appropriate when that couple has formally separated. Notice I said “friendship.” I think this is the key. It can be a very good friendship. It can be a close friendship. Share lunch. Share dinner. Have fun. Be friends.
I think planning or moving toward marriage while one partner remains “unannulled” is unwise. I don’t know if it’s technically sinful, but I do know that it’s disrespectful of the process, and it could be setting two people up for enormous disappointment if the tribunal doesn’t grant the annulment. I think engaging in dating-type romantic affection – kissing, “making out”, whatever you want to call it – is probably inappropriate for the unannulled as well. If it goes far enough, that kind of behavior can cross the line into being sinful even for those who are free to marry. But even before that point, there is sort of an understanding or an expectation that this is a prelude (or at least a possible prelude) to marital-type behavior if the relationship progresses toward a marital-type (i.e. married) relationship. While someone is still presumed to be validly married, I would advise them to steer clear of that. People sometimes say to me “Well yeah, we’re keeping it at a level of friendship. But our feelings are more than friendship. Is that a sin?” Look, you can’t control your feelings. They just are. You can control your thoughts, so just as you shouldn’t be fantasizing sexually (about anybody you aren’t married to, really), you probably shouldn’t be fantasizing about the big wonderful wedding you’re going to have once that pesky annulment is out of the way. Again, it may or may not be sinful, but it is definitely setting you up for a possible disappointment.
I know that each individual situation is unique. Some annulments are more clear-cut than others. Some applicants, over the course of the process, can see that in their individual case the annulment is extremely likely to be granted. That’s why individual judgment and prayerful discernment become so important in these situations. I also know that a vast majority of Catholics who apply for annulments, get them. And I know that can easily lead to a mentality of “of course he’ll get his annulment, so what’s the big deal?”
Credit to Mary Beth Bonacci of Catholic Exchange.