Annulments and hell

Q: My husband abandoned me years ago. I know that I am married and that I am called to live chastely, and I am doing that. But my friend told me I will go to hell since I don't have an annulment. Is that true? (Madison, Wis.)

A: No, nobody "needs" a declaration of nullity to avoid hell, or even to participate fully in the life of the church. In fact, it's never good to start the marriage nullity process because of feeling rushed or pressured by third parties.

We are all required to live out the virtue of chastity according to our state in life and particular circumstances. This means, essentially, that a person can only enjoy sexual intimacy with a person to whom they are married. Divorce in and of itself is not necessarily sinful, and being an abandoned spouse is certainly not a sin. But -- as you correctly note -- even in cases of divorce, separation or abandonment a once-married couple is still presumed to be married until potentially proven otherwise by a Catholic marriage tribunal. Because of this, a divorced Catholic would need a declaration of nullity if they wanted to marry another person (and it would be sinful to engage in acts proper to marriage with someone to whom they were not married).

But, if you are at peace living a chaste life as a divorced Catholic without seeking a new marriage, it's perfectly fine to remain as you are.

Q: I am getting married and the priest my fiance and I met with said we need new baptismal certificates. Why can't we just use the ones our parents got when we were baptized? (Portland, Maine)

A: Baptismal certificates aren't a one-and-done kind of document. It is true that when you are baptized, you (or your parents, if you were an infant at the time of your baptism) receive a paper certificate attesting to the fact that your baptism took place on a certain day at a particular place.

However, the official record of your baptism is not one piece of paper in a file, but rather an entry into a baptismal registry book. Your entry in the baptismal register in your parish of baptism then serves as the "master record" of your life as a Catholic. Baptismal registry books register the details of a person's baptism, but also include room for subsequent major sacramental life events.

For instance, when a Catholic who was baptized as an infant later receives the sacrament of confirmation, this is recorded next to their name in the baptismal register of their parish of baptism. If the confirmation happens in a parish other than the one where they were baptized, then the parish of confirmation must take care to contact the parish of baptism to ensure that everything is recorded properly.

Other life events that must be recorded in a person's original baptismal register include reception of holy orders and religious profession, or a woman's becoming a consecrated virgin. Marriage in the church is also an important life event to be recorded in a baptismal register -- and if a marriage is declared null by a tribunal, this would also be noted in the same place.

When Catholics request a copy of their baptismal certificate, their parish of baptism issues a brand-new hard copy based on the information in the baptismal register. This new copy will have a section on the back which relates all the biographical details recorded over the years in the registry book.

So, if you are requesting a copy of your baptismal certificate as part of your marriage prep, a newly-issued one lets the priest or deacon know about any previous life events, such as a prior marriage or previous reception of holy orders, which might present an issue or impediment with your upcoming wedding.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.