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Does the imposition of legal sanctions by the Catholic Church on divorced individuals who have remarried carry actual spiritual consequences in the context of their relationship with God, or is it rather an expression of church discipline that can be questioned and circumvented without impacting the spiritual salvation of these individuals?

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  • By legal sanctions, do you just mean "a divorced person cannot remarry"?
    – Peter Turner
    May 19, 2023 at 18:51
  • In the context of the Catholic Church, the term "legal sanctions" often refers to the restrictions and consequences applied according to Church law, or Canon Law. In the case of a divorced person who remarries without obtaining an annulment of their first marriage, these restrictions traditionally have included not being able to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, among other restrictions. It's also important to note that these restrictions pertain to the remarriage in the Church.
    – bujals
    May 19, 2023 at 20:38

2 Answers 2

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The Catholic Church teaches, in short, that marriage is for life. In Catholic understanding “divorced individuals” do not exists. There are no sanctions on divorce, because it would be not logical to sanction something that doesn’t exist.

Canon 1141 states this rather clearly:

A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.

There follow some special cases for very specific situations, but for this question these are not relevant.

From canon 1151 to 1155 the problem of adultery and the separation of spouses is covered. The canons do NOT regulate the dissolving of the marriage as a result of adultery.

From this it follows that when a Christian couple is married in church, that marriage remains, even if they should have a divorce for civil right. The civil marriage thus ends, but not the catholic marriage. And that implies that remarried couples by civil law live in adultery by Church teachings.

Now from Church law to Church teachings: CCC 2380 teaches:

Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations - even transient ones - they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire. The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely. The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.

CCC 2384 - 2386 speak about civil divorce in some detail:

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another's husband to herself.

Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.

It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.

One can debate over the gravity of the sin, but I think it is clear that civil divorce in itself, when one doesn’t want to keep all the nuances of the CCC, may be called a sin. Remarrying makes it a graver sin.

Now the question was if the legal sanctions have actual spiritual consequences. There are two effects to be considered.

First is the sin itself. With or without legal consequences, sin is by definition in Catholic teaching, as CCC 1850 puts it:

Sin is an offense against God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight." Sin sets itself against God's love for us and turns our hearts away from it. Like the first sin, it is disobedience, a revolt against God through the will to become "like gods," knowing and determining good and evil. Sin is thus "love of oneself even to contempt of God." In this proud self-exaltation, sin is diametrically opposed to the obedience of Jesus, which achieves our salvation.

So even without any legal consequences there are serious spiritual consequences.

One of the legal consequences of publicly living in sin is that one can no longer receive the Body of Christ, as stated in canons 915 and 916:

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible. (bold by me)

The problem with confession for the remarried individual is that absolution cannot be given without repenting. If one stays remarried, how can one believable repent? So the logical consequence is that one who is civil divorced and not remarried may (!), but who is remarried may not receive the body of the Lord. In catholic faith that is a grave spiritual consequence indeed.

(quotes are taken from the CIC and the CCC to be found on the website of the Vatican)

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Does the imposition of legal sanctions by the Catholic Church on divorced individuals who have remarried carry actual spiritual consequences in the context of their relationship with God, or is it rather an expression of church discipline that can be questioned and circumvented without impacting the spiritual salvation of these individuals?

Before going on, let us see what Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church have to say on the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage.

Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her that is put away from her husband, committeth adultery. - Luke 16:18

The Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2384 Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery:

If a husband, separated from his wife, approaches another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery, and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another's husband to herself.

2385 Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.

2386 It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2384 - 2386

There is no excommunication for divorced and remarried Catholics in the Code of Canon Law of 1983. This is a change from the Code of Canon Law of 1917 which made remarriage after a civil divorce a punishable offence of excommunication. This punishment no longer exists.

However for divorced Catholics who remarry after a divorce without getting an annulment can not receive communion and unless they are willing to change their lives in this matter can not receive absolution in the sacrament of confession, with the exception of being in serious danger of dying.

In other words, getting married after a civil divorce is considered a grievous sin in the eyes of the Church.

Thus to answer your question clearly: Apart from the legal sanctions imposed on divorced and remarried Catholics (unless an annulment has been granted), this situation would most certainly affect one’s relationship with God, because one would be living in the state of grievous sin. IN the eyes of the Church, this is not up to debate and can not be circumvented.

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  • Just out of interest: wasn’t this my answer already?
    – ABM K
    May 21, 2023 at 16:24
  • @ABMK The two are closely united, but there are nuances between them.
    – Ken Graham
    May 21, 2023 at 17:35

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