What Does the Church Teach About Divorce?
When the Song of Songs speaks of marital commitment as a love that "deep waters cannot quench nor floods sweep away" (8:7), it reminds us of an important reality to which the Catholic Church bears witness: A valid, sacramental marriage between two baptized Christians is permanent. No power on earth can dissolve it. lt remains until the death of one of the spouses.
This may be an unpopular position to take in our culture, but it's based on the explicit teaching of Jesus. He said with regard to married couples: "They are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate" (Mt 19:6). For this reason, the Catholic Church opposes divorce.
Jesus went on to say that those who have been validly married commit adultery if they attempt to remarry by taking another partner (see Mt 19:9). Why? Because they are still married to the original spouse.
Nevertheless, Jesus noted a special case: When a first marriage is "unlaw- ful," he said, the ban on remarriage doesn't apply, because the first union was not valid (see Mt 19:9). A true, "lawful" marriage didn't exist in the first place.
In this light, the Church recognizes that not all attempts at marriage are valid, even if they have been legally recognized by civil authorities. Certain conditions invalidate attempts to marry. For example, if a woman were forced to take vows against her will, or a man attempted to take his sister as wife, the resulting "marriage" would be invalid.
When the Church grants an annulment, therefore, it's not providing a "Catholic divorce." Rather, the Church is declaring an instance of the special case Jesus noted: Civil authorities may have legally recognized a particular couple's union, but for one reason or another, a valid sacramental marriage was never present. The individuals are free to marry.
The Old Testament distinction between a concubine and a wife is some- what analogous to the Church's distinction between civil and sacramental marriage (see Gn 21:10-14; Jgs 8:31; 1 Cor 7:15). Even in the civil law of many societies, valid and invalid marriages are similarly distinguished.