In the Catholic Church, a marriage is considered a life-long state that can't be dissolved. However, it sometimes happens that one spouse abandons the other.
For example, let's assume Alice is married to Ben. Their marriage is valid, but some years later Ben leaves her. Alice tries to reconcile, but Ben refuses contact with her.

According to the Catholic Church, Alice definitely can't get married again. How is she supposed to live her life? Could she join a religious order? Or does she have to be alone until she dies?

Also, Catholics widely claim that a child has a right to a mother and a father. Assuming Alice has children, how does the church justify that she now has to raise them alone, rather than finding a new husband? From her perspective, the situation is more similar to the death of a spouse than to a normal separation, since she did not consent to the separation and cannot do anything about it.

In this hypothetical, Alice did nothing to "make" Ben leave her and he refuses any attempt to reconcile. I think reasonably similar situations are quite common in practice.

  • Cf. 1 Cor. 7:10-11 "But to them that are married, not I but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband. 11 And if she depart, that she remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. And let not the husband put away his wife." Feb 23, 2019 at 22:20
  • If we are talking about real life men who abandon their wives, Alice should hire a private investigator to follow Ben, which will inevitably uncover his adultery.
    – Beestocks
    Jun 21, 2019 at 5:24

3 Answers 3


There's not a lot that can be done in this particular instance. One possibility is for Alice to argue that if Ben saw fit to leave, he didn't seem to be taking the marriage vows very seriously, and perhaps the marriage wasn't valid after all.

Catholicism regards marriage as including a permanent state of fidelity to one's spouse; Ben's leaving might be used to support an argument that at the time of the marriage, he didn't subscribe to this understanding of marriage. And canon law states that if one of the parties "marries" while intentionally meaning by marriage something different than the Church means, the relationship isn't a marriage:

If, however, either or both of the parties by a positive act of the will exclude marriage itself, some essential element of marriage, or some essential property of marriage, the party contracts invalidly.

(Canon 1102 sec. 2)

If Alice chooses to go this route and request a declaration of nullity in the marriage, the marriage tribunal is under the obligation to notify Ben and summon him to the ecclesiastical court within 20 days (canon 1507 sect. 2). If Alice has no idea of where Ben is—which may be the case; you don't specify—then it won't be possible to summon him. In this case it's possible for the judge to try and contact him, and, failing, issue a decree stating that all reasonable efforts to summon Ben have been made, and ordering the marriage tribunal to proceed.

If Ann does know where Ben lives (but simply can't communicate with him), a citation can be delivered to the address he's reasonably believed to live at. If Ben refuses to respond, but there is reasonable proof that the citation was delivered to him, the judge can declare Ben absent. This may allow the case to proceed without him. I don't know whether the law allows a declaration of nullity to be granted with Ben absent, much less whether it would be granted in the specific case. If it is, of course, Alice was never married and is free to if she desires.

If Alice chooses not to seek such a declaration, or if for whatever reason the declaration is not granted, then Alice is indeed married. She is unable to validly marry again, at least until Ben dies (canon 1085); nor can she enter a religious institute (canon 643, sec. 1, note 2).

However, she can request the local bishop to try to mediate in the affair:

Whenever there is hope of a favorable outcome, the judge is to use pastoral means to reconcile the spouses and persuade them to restore conjugal living.

(Canon 1695)

Indeed, this process should have started even before the annulment process:

Whenever the judge perceives some hope of a favorable outcome at the start of litigation or even at any other time, the judge is not to neglect to encourage and assist the parties to collaborate in seeking an equitable solution to the controversy and to indicate to them suitable means to this end, even by using reputable persons for mediation.

(Canon 1446 sec. 2, emphasis added)

If this is not successful, Alice can request an ecclesiastical decree of separation. There are a few situations in which the Church recognizes that abandonment of a spouse is the right of the other spouse: if the one spouse has committed adultery (canon 1152, sec. 1) or if "either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too difficult" (canon 1153 sec. 1). But if neither of these is the case (as appears in this instance), then Ben has wrongfully and maliciously abandoned Alice. If the bishop issues a decree of separation, it will account for the care of their children as well (canon 1154). It will require them to live out their lives in fidelity to the absent other, and to hope and pray for, and possibly try to work towards, reunification.

  • I take it that it doesn't matter if Ben gets a civil divorce and civil remarriage – Alice's options are still the same? Many Protestants I know would (at a high level) agree with the approach you describe here, except that they would permit Alice to consider herself divorced once Ben begins committing adultery with his "new wife." Aug 2, 2017 at 19:44
  • 1
    Well if Ben refuses to communicate with Alice she might not know about his divorce :-) That said, it's likely that if Alice chooses to go the annulment route, that might be easier if Ben is "remarried". I have seen a number of articles written strongly in favor of the non-annulment option though. Aug 2, 2017 at 19:47
  • It might be good to emphasize that Ben's failure to take seriously the permanence of marriage would invalidate the marriage only if that failure were present at the time of the (alleged) marriage. Feb 21, 2019 at 19:29
  • @andreas better? Feb 21, 2019 at 21:10
  • 👍 "…hope and pray for, and possibly try to work towards, reunification."
    – Geremia
    Jun 20, 2019 at 2:32

The answer is simple. Alice should behave exactly as if her husband were traveling abroad, in a indefinitely long voyage, far away somewhere, but alive... They will be bound as husband and wife 'till death do them part'...

Reference: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1640

Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God's fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom.

  • 1
    Can you give is some references to show that this is the case, and especially that this is the only option? Aug 2, 2017 at 16:32
  • 1
    This may be your view of how it should work, but this is not how it does work in the Catholic Church in the case presented in the question. So this doesn't answer the question asked. Aug 3, 2017 at 15:00
  • @LeeWoofenden This does answer the question "How is she supposed to live her life?" I agree, though, that the practice since Vatican II often fails to correspond to what should be done. Feb 21, 2019 at 19:34

As you note, marriage is indissoluble in Catholicism:

Mark 10:6-12 (DRB) But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. 7 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife. 8 And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. 9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 10 And in the house again his disciples asked him concerning the same thing. 11 And he saith to them: Whosoever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her. 12 And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

And so the only options are to be reconciled or "remain unmarried," one being released from this latter restriction only after the death of their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:39).

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 "But to them that are married, not I but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband. 11 And if she depart, that she remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. And let not the husband put away his wife."

The spouse which was abandoned is then free to do anything married persons are able to do (them still being married to someone), except remarry or, quite obviously, live as though they were open to marriage with another person, which according to the New Testament is adultery.

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