How can Newt Gingrich have been married three times and now be a Catholic in good standing?
In order to understand this you have to understand the Catholic approach to marriage, and to do that we have to put on one side the common misunderstandings about the process to apply and be granted a decree of nullity from the church.
First of all, a decree of nullity is not a “Catholic divorce”. For Catholics a validly married couple cannot be divorced. “That which God has joined together man cannot divide.” A valid, sacramental marriage is eternal. Therefore, the Catholic Church examines whether the marriage was valid in the first place. Another way of saying this is, “A divorce says, “These two people aren’t married anymore.” A decree of nullity (aka an annulment) says, “These two people were never married in the first place.”
For the marriage to be valid the criteria are quite simple. 1. the marriage must be between a a man and a woman 2. They must both be free to marry (in other words, not married to someone already or not having some other impediment) 3. They must enter the marriage covenant with a full understanding of marriage and 4. They must do so with a completely free act of consent. 5. They must be capable of consummating the marriage and be willing to have children. These rules apply for all marriages–Catholic or non Catholic–Christian or non Christian. That’s why a Catholic marriage tribunal is willing to rule on the validity of any marriage–not just Catholic ones.
Whenever I’m asked about the Catholic understanding of marriage I say, “Like marriage itself, it’s simple in principle and complex in practice.” I’m not an expert, and I’m not one to judge, but let’s imagine the situation with Newt Gingrich (or anyone else in a similar situation)–and I should stress that I know nothing of Newt Gingrich’s personal life and am not making a personal judgment. I’m simply commenting on the issue in the largest sense.
The marriage tribunal would start by considering the person’s first marriage. Maybe when the man married he was very young and did not fully understand what marriage was all about. Maybe he came from a broken home where there was no proper understanding or teaching about marriage. Maybe he married an older woman for an ulterior motive–for social or financial advantage, or for an escape from an unhappy home life. Maybe he was under psychological stress or experienced some other pressure to marry. All of these things and many more may influence either his understanding of marriage or the freedom of his will, and therefore the validity of the marriage at the time it was contracted.
A person’s second marriage may have been contracted in even worse circumstances. Just because he made one mistake doesn’t mean he won’t make another. If it was a marriage made after an affair, and if the person was, at the time, promiscuous and never intended to be faithful or to contract a proper marriage, and did not understand what marriage really was and never intended to have children…for all sorts of reasons it might be a very simple matter to say that the second marriage was also invalid.
In saying that a marriage is invalid, the church is saying that despite appearances these two people did not make a marriage. The necessary components for a marriage did not exist. Therefore the church declares the marriage to be invalid, and to never have existed in the eyes of the church.
Newt Gingrich went on to “marry” a third time. This time he married a Catholic. One must assume that he and his bride received proper catechesis and that this time he fully understands what marriage is and what his responsibilities are.