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Salvation for the Invalidly Married?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 12, 2007

In response to my recent column on marriage, a reader asked whether salvation was possible for those in invalid marriages. This presents an excellent opportunity to summarize the mind of the Church on a delicate subject.

Under Church law, the first question for any marriage is whether it is valid in the eyes of God. For Catholics, this entails such questions as: Were both parties free to marry? Were they competent to marry? Did they make the proper commitment? Was it witnessed by the Church? If the marriage is not valid and cannot be made so, then the couple should separate unless they are raising children, in which case they should live together as brother and sister.

Where deep love is present, this obviously requires heroic virtue. In consequence, the Church's requirements may strike some as cruel. But once we have gotten ourselves into an untenable situation spiritually, it is not unreasonable for God and the Church to demand that we put some teeth into our supposed remorse. In any case, reality is reality, and if one is not really married, one ought to act accordingly.

Let Each Strive According to His Strength

Despite all this, the question of personal salvation for those locked in invalid marriages is not so easily resolved. The Church acknowledges that the tangles of these situations are extremely difficult to unravel, and she continuously offers the mercy of Christ even to those who have not the strength to do the untangling. Of men and women who are thus ensared she asks that they refrain from receiving communion but otherwise remain active in the Church, taking as much advantage as possible of the spiritual benefits she offers.

The Church understands that all of us come to God by degrees. What she most earnestly desires is that all receive the truth, that all have access to grace, and that each one should strive according to his strength with trust in God.

In this connection, it is important to note that none of us can say with certainty what constitutes a mortal sin for a particular person. While it is possible to identify grave matter, it is not possible to determine (for others) the two other elements required, full knowledge of the evil and full consent of the will. In invalid marriages, the objective evil is grave, and this places the couple very definitely in serious spiritual jeopardy. But it will ultimately be the degree of personal guilt which determines the gravity of the sin for each soul.

So is salvation possible? It is certainly possible, depending on so much that we cannot fathom. No class of persons, judged only by their external circumstances, is ever damned. God alone reads hearts. God alone can unravel all the strands which lie tangled there. Our task, as always, is to bear witness to the truth in love, and to both pray for and encourage those in spiritual difficulty. Final judgment is, for every conceivable reason, best left to God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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