Newt’s Three Marriages

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.

  • doctoreric

    Didn't Newt contract the second marriage while his first wife was alive? Therefore his second marriage was invalid, and when his first wife died, he was free to marry his current wife as the second marriage was invalid.1st valid2nd invalid1st wife dies- Newt's free to marry3rd validRight?(I'm still not voting for him.)

  • St. Elizabeth of Cayce

    One of Gingrich's daughters wrote this week about her parent's relationship. She clarified one thing not well known — her mother, Newt's 1st wife, is still alive. Setting the Record Straight, by Jackie Gingrich cushman

  • Julie Culshaw

    One has to wonder how wise such a person could be, given his personal life and failures at relationships.

  • George @ Convert Journal

    Since we presume all marriages to be valid, wouldn't every subsequent marriage attempt be automatically invalid as long as the ("first") wife were alive (in the absence of an annulment)?Therefore, wouldn't an annulment be needed only for that "first" marriage?Put another way, a declaration of nullity for the "first" marriage does not automatically make the "second" marriage suddenly valid. Right?

  • Fr Longenecker

    Each marriage has to be examined. Here's why: if the first marriage was invalid, that means the person was free to marry and the second marriage may have been valid.The bottom line is that each 'marriage' is presumed to be valid until shown otherwise.

  • sistermaybe

    Father,What I'm a little confused about is this part: "they must enter the marriage covenant with a full understanding of marriage."What do we mean by full understanding? I could argue that most people in our culture don't understand what marriage is (hence why they may support "gay marriage" or support contraception, even if they don't contracept). These examples could show a "not full" understanding of marriage… so are there just a ton of invalid marriages?Thank you for any clarification you can provide (and thanks for your blog!)

  • Fr Longenecker

    could there be a ton of invalid marriages?Yes. That's why there are so many more annulments being granted.But remember, we presume the marriage to be valid until proven otherwise.

  • Sarah Extance Garcia

    I received a Pauline Privilege to enter the Church. Neither my first husband or I were baptized. It was explained that my first marriage was a natural marriage (as opposed to a sacramental marriage). The marriage was dissolved at the moment of my baptism, then my second (Catholic) husband and I had our marriage convalidated after the Easter Vigil Mass (while I was wearing my baptismal robe – talk about a true wedding dress!). There is something very comforting knowing that the Church has settled the question of my first marriage, even though it was sometimes a difficult process. There is such a vast difference between my sacramental marriage and the natural one. The Church contains such wisdom and truth in these matters.

  • catholic4areason

    Father–would you explain how the Church regards the children from an invalid marriage? A friend of mine has avoided seeking an annulment so her Catholic husband can receive Communion because she doesn't want her children considered illegitimate. I told her they weren't, but would like a "one-liner" to explain it. Thanks.

  • Elsasser SC

    And all the marriages based on no kids let's contracept are not valid….. That's 94% invalid marriages! Amazing!

  • Daniel

    First of all, his marriages have no impact on whether or not I'd vote for him, though I'll admit I'm not inclined toward supporting him politically.Concerning his marriages, in order for the Church to determine if they were valid or not he would have to go through an annulment process. What I'd want to know is did certain members of the Church hierarchy give him some kind of special treatment because he's a well known politician with influential connections. I'm going through the annulment process myself (for a divorce in my past) and know it's long and laborious, and is the only thing keeping me from being able to marry the woman I love.I would not be happy with the Church hierarchy if they fast-tracked Gingrich's annulments (each and every marriage would have to be evaluated for validity) because he produced videos and had access to the highest levels of the Catholic Church (especially given the sinful nature of the relationship he had with the Catholic he eventually married, a relationship that began in adultery – why wouldn't that require an especially long look at his past marriages?). I may be naive, but I'd like to think that the rich and powerful aren't treated any differently than us average, working class folks. Unfortunately, circumstances lead me to conclude that Newt got special treatment. To review a single marriage can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months, depending on the diocese. The speed at which he was allowed to marry in the Church, after coming into full communion, tells me that certain bishops and priests gave Gingrich the kind of attention they'd never give to anyone else.

  • JFM

    With all due respect, it sounds VERY bogus.Especially if kids involved, Sorry, but if you live together three years and have kids, even if your ideas entering into the covenant were screwy, it seems like a marriage. Likewise, if the husband says he was actually gay all the time, does that give him grounds for divorce? The idea who have to of sound mind and holding right understanding creates a loophole the size of Texas.The annulment process seems like a well-intended concession to the hardness of peoples hearts and the sin-torn world…. and also like a very dubious and much abused little set-up. I imagine if you ask the Exs of so many people, they'd argue it sure seemed like a marriage to them. As for Gingrich, you can slice and dice it any which way, but three marriages is an obvious abuse, and can anyone NOT imagine such an outspoken couple as themselves slamming anyone else whose journey included such wrinkles? It all makes Catholicism and Conservatism look like e new heirs of the KEnnedy dynasty.

  • mwa

    Dear Fr,on the topic of decrees of nullity, a priest recently said that any priest has the right to grant an annulment, i.e., it need not go to the tribunal. My reading of Canon 1673 disagrees. Is there something else that I am not aware of that confirms his statement?thank you.

  • Anita Moore

    A valid, sacramental marriage is eternal.I thought a valid, sacramental marriage lasted only until the death of one of the parties, leaving the surviving party free to remarry.

  • Wine in the Water

    Daniel, "What I'd want to know is did certain members of the Church hierarchy give him some kind of special treatment because he's a well known politician with influential connections."When I was a catechist in RCIA, annulments were one of the big topics. You have to remember that Canon Law presumes that all marriages involving a baptized Christian are valid until it can be determined that they are invalid. This means that even the most clear-cut invalid marriages must go through the process of formally determining invalidity. One person was probably baptized at some point, but the other never was and they were married in a McDonald's in a ceremony where the minister was a dog and they invoked a UFO sighting-inspired view of the nature of marriage? Still need an annulment. So, while the annulment process can be very long and drawn out, especially when one of the spouses was Catholic at the time of the wedding, sometimes it can be rather quick. For a marriage between non-Catholic Christians (which is the case for Gingrich's first two marriages as I understand), the determination of invalidity is pretty easy. The tribunal just has to verify that neither spouse was ever Catholic and that the ceremony was not Catholic. They don't have to delve into any of the messiness of formation, understanding and intention. So don't be too quick to assume that there is anything untoward at work if Gingrich got a relatively quick annulments.

  • JFM

    I did feel bad after spouting off to read the Newt's first marriage was at 19 to his 23 yr old teacher. Kind of explains some of the future problems.

  • flyingvic

    To be perfectly honest, I can see very little difference between the "mealy mouthed Anglican double talk" used to excuse the obscure Canon's third marriage and the glib Vatican casuistry that might lead to the justification of one such as Newt Gingrich and the labelling of the third attempt as his only true marriage.I find both equally distasteful.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    flying vic, you're absolutely right.The intellectual gymnastics used in this example of cheesy legalism would result in an Olympic gold medal for the pratitioner.