Father Kenneth Doyle

Q. I am divorced and, even though both my ex-husband and I are Catholic, we were married not in the Catholic Church but by a justice of the peace. Recently, my ex-husband remarried, and the ceremony was performed by a Catholic priest.

I am wondering whether my ex-husband applied to the Catholic Church for a determination that his earlier marriage (to me) “didn’t count” and, if so, how I might find that out. (I am also wondering whether, if he did so, this leaves me free to remarry in the Catholic Church — or would I, also, have to apply for a similar judgment?)

I have asked several priests these questions and have received several different answers. Can you help me out? (Indianapolis)

A. The most likely scenario is that, sometime following your divorce, your ex-husband petitioned the Catholic Church for a determination of what is called, technically, “lack of canonical form.” (A Catholic must ordinarily be married within a Catholic church and before a priest or deacon. A bishop may dispense from this requirement for a Catholic party entering a mixed marriage.)

For a “lack of form” to be granted, it must be shown, by a recently issued Catholic baptismal certificate, that at least one of the spouses was bound to observe canonical form, and that no dispensation from that form was granted by a bishop prior to the wedding. Also, the petitioner also must show that the original non-Catholic ceremony was not validated (“blessed”) later on by a Catholic ceremony.

Provided those requirements can be met, the “lack of form” process is fairly simple and results in a declaration that the marriage, as you put it, “didn’t count” in the Catholic Church’s eyes.

If your ex-husband did, in fact, obtain such a decree, this would invalidate the marriage for both parties, meaning that, should you want at some point to remarry in the Catholic Church, you would not need to reapply for that same determination.

As to how you might find this out, the petitioner (in this case, your husband) would have been advised by the diocesan marriage tribunal of a successful outcome to his petition, but you as the former spouse would not automatically have been notified. You do, however, have a right to that information, and you could obtain it simply by contacting the diocese where you think your husband might have brought the case.

Q. Before my father died in a hospice, he had (several times) received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. I thought that meant that his sins were forgiven and that he would not have to suffer in purgatory. Nevertheless, my siblings insist on having annual Masses offered for him. Why should we pray for his soul if he had the sacrament for the sick? (Jessup, Maryland)

A. The effects of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, as listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in No. 1532 are as follows: uniting the sick person to the passion of Jesus; strength, peace and courage to endure the sufferings of illness or old age; the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance; the restoration of health, if that be conducive to the person’s salvation; and preparation for passing over to eternal life.

Notice that this list does not include the remission of all punishment due to sin. However, there is a sacramental called the apostolic pardon, which is a blessing a priest administers when someone is in danger of death, following the anointing (and, if the person is able, the reception of holy Communion.)

This blessing carries with it a plenary indulgence, and is worded as follows: “By the authority which the Apostolic See has given me, I grant you a full pardon and the remission of all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (An alternate and acceptable wording is this: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.”)

I believe that most theologians and spiritual guides would see this apostolic pardon as a prayer petitioning God to do what the words ask, rather than an order commanding the Lord to act in a certain way.

My feeling is that I can never be certain that a person has passed on in complete purity of spirit, with every stain of selfishness erased from the soul. For that reason, I view Masses for the deceased as always valuable.

Surely, should the person have already gained eternal joy, the Mass will at least benefit those who attend it and those who requested it.

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Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.