How should a Catholic deal with an adulterous spouse?

I know that the church teaches that marriage is permanent, but then if a catholic person’s spouse is cheating on them then how can they deal with the situation? They can’t divorce, so can they get it annulled?

For the sake of the scenario, let’s assume that the spouse is not only not repentant (and does not even feel bad) but also has no intention of stopping his/her adulterous habits.

The Church teaches that everything should be done by the spouses to forgive and make the marriage work. If it cannot then a separation is permitted. More than likely the couple will get a legal divorce but they remain married in the eyes of the Church.

Please note that being unfaithful is not grounds for annulment. Nothing that happens after the marriage has taken place are grounds for annulment. For example, if a husband is unfaithful, or a drunkard who beats his wife and children, or a gambler, or drug addict or whatever none of those things are grounds for annulment.
Grounds for annulment apply only to matters PRIOR to the marriage taking place. It is possible that something that happens during the marriage may support something that happened prior to the marriage but things that happen during the marriage in themselves are not grounds for annulment.


The Marriage Tribunal would have to consider whether the adulterous spouse took his/her marriage vows seriously in the first place.

For instance, if it was found that the cheating spouse had been having carnal relations with another prior to the wedding, and resumed doing so afterwards, the Tribunal could find that there was no real intent to forsake all others and cling only to the innocent spouse. That could be grounds for an annulment.

Although there are only so many things humans are capable of doing, each situation is unique and must be judged on its merits. Therefore we can’t give a definite answer.

And it is incorrect to say that Catholics can’t divorce. They can, and do. In fact, a case for a decree of nullity can not be advanced until a civil divorce is finalized. What Catholics can not do is remarry without a decree of nullity. Furthermore, so long as a divorced Catholic is living a chaste life, he or she is may still be considered in full communion with the church and free to receive the sacraments.

CCC 2383 The separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases provided for by canon law. If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.

CCC 2386 It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.

While adultery in itself is not absolute grounds for an annulment it CAN be. If the spouse who is committing adultery has made it obvious that he/she has no plans to change, that very definitely IS grounds for an annulment. If I were the spouse being serially cheated on, I’d first see a good divorce lawyer and then file for annulment from the church!

That is absolutely NOT correct. What happens during the marriage is not grounds for annulment. It makes no difference if the adulterous spouse has no plans to change. These are not grounds for annulment.

Grounds for annulment apply PRIOR to marriage only.

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Hello Thistle.

Good answer but incomplete and misleading. There is a such thing called the Pauline Privilege, which goes all the way back to St. Paul for whom it is named. If the adulterous spouse is addicted to porn or perhaps acting out in a homosexual way or engaged in another perversity, this is grounds for divorce AND the subsequent annulment. This fact is as old as the Church and was originally applied not only to cases of perversion, but also to those persons who were married to a non-believer and were constantly tried in their faith in their marriages. There were cases of persons named among the Saints whose spouses even turned them into the Roman authorities that resulted in actual Martyrdom and to avoid this outcome, others were sometimes allowed to divorce instead. They were given divorces and since the process we know today as Annulment had yet to be developed into what we have today, the process they experienced was complete and did leave the former married person free to obtain a spouse once again. Keep in mind the whole picture, past, present and future.


With respect, this is not the Pauline Privilege. The Pauline Privilege allows a marriage between two non-baptized persons to be dissolved if one of the persons becomes baptised and the non-baptized party departs.

It is codified in Canon 1143:
Can. 1143 §1. A marriage entered into by two non-baptized persons is dissolved by means of the pauline privilege in favor of the faith of the party who has received baptism by the very fact that a new marriage is contracted by the same party, provided that the non-baptized party departs.
§2. The non-baptized party is considered to depart if he or she does not wish to cohabit with the baptized party or to cohabit peacefully without aVront to the Creator unless the baptized party, after baptism was received, has given the other a just cause for departing.
And you can read more here:

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from canon law–if the wayward spouse is repentant, forgiveness and readmittance to the common conjugal life is earnestly recommended, but the wronged spouse does have the right to separate. This does not invalidate a valid marriage, however. If the marriage was valid prior to the infidelity, the separated spouses are not free to remarry while they both live.

*Art. 2.


Can. 1151 Spouses have the duty and right to preserve conjugal living unless a legitimate cause excuses them.

Can. 1152 §1. Although it is earnestly recommended that a spouse, moved by Christian charity and concerned for the good of the family, not refuse forgiveness to an adulterous partner and not disrupt conjugal life, nevertheless, if the spouse did not condone the fault of the other expressly or tacitly, the spouse has the right to sever conjugal living unless the spouse consented to the adultery, gave cause for it, or also committed adultery.

§2. Tacit condonation exists if the innocent spouse has had marital relations voluntarily with the other spouse after having become certain of the adultery. It is presumed, moreover, if the spouse observed conjugal living for six months and did not make recourse to the ecclesiastical or civil authority.

§3. If the innocent spouse has severed conjugal living voluntarily, the spouse is to introduce a cause for separation within six months to the competent ecclesiastical authority which, after having investigated all the circumstances, is to consider carefully whether the innocent spouse can be moved to forgive the fault and not to prolong the separation permanently.

Can. 1154 After the separation of the spouses has taken place, the adequate support and education of the children must always be suitably provided.

Can. 1155 The innocent spouse laudably can readmit the other spouse to conjugal life; in this case the innocent spouse renounces the right to separate.*

Sometimes, however, the nature of the infidelity and the unfaithful spouse’s testimony about it indicates that the unfaithful spouse had never intended to give true and unequivocal matrimonial consent. In that case, a marriage thought to be valid may have been invalid, because of the hidden intention of the unfaithful spouse.

Serial cheating is pretty good evidence that the partner never entered the marriage with an intent to remain faithful. I stand by what I said though perhaps I could have phrased it differently. Try this: If I were married to a serial cheater I’d file for divorce and then stop off at the church on my way back home and pick up the forms to file an annulment—and I’d feel optimistic, because usually serial adulterers were serial fornicators first. And I hope at the Synod this Fall, that the bishops and Pope do speak about this and streamline the process.

Sorry but it doesn’t matter what you think. Each case will be heard on its own merits and ruled on by a tribunal and neither you nor I can say any case is more or less likely to succeed.

Just to repeat what I said earlier, grounds for annulment apply ONLY to matters PRIOR to a marriage. Nothing that happens during a marriage is grounds for annulment although it may support something that is claimed to have happened prior to a marriage.
In other words, if a couple were virgins before the marriage, neither was ever involved in anything that could be an impediment to the marriage, and neither was coerced in any way into the marriage then if one of the spouses during the marriage became “a serial adulterer” and had no intention to change that is not grounds for an annulment.

I’m curious what you mean when you say you hope the process is streamlined. If you hope that what happens during a marriage will become grounds for an annulment that will not happen because it cannot happen. A valid marriage cannot be invalidated. Its impossible.
If you mean make the process more efficient that is a separate issue.

What I mean is simple. Currently, the annulment process varies both in the time it takes, cost, and numerous other factors from parish to parish. This is ridiculous. It’s sad when a marriage ends and I believe every couple considering a divorce should exhaust every option from therapy, to prayer, to speaking with a priest before they throw in the towel. Some situations however are valid reasons for a couple to end their marriage. Serial adulterers in this age of STD’s and partners who physically abuse their partner are only two of these potential situations in my opinion. I know for a fact–as I received one of the questionnaires, filled it out and sent it in–that Pope Francis intends to discuss the annulment process that the church uses at the synod this Fall. I am glad to have him take this approach and hopefully standardize it and expedite it too!. Annulment needs to be standard everywhere. When a Catholic divorces and remarries and finds themselves excommunicated, we usually lose another entire generation of Catholics. In other words, if I couldn’t receive the sacraments, I’d probably not see much point in remaining Catholic, and many Catholics feel the same. But when they either just quit going to church or join a protestant church, they take their kids with them. Thus, an entire family leaves the faith–and that’s a shame! Pope Francis also seems to see the problem with this and I wait hopefully to see what ideas the Pope and bishops may come up with at the synod.

As to events that happen after a marriage not being grounds for an annulment, I’d agree but only to a point. Nobody knows they are marrying a serial adulterer or a wife beater until they marry them. However their behavior after the marriage speaks profoundly about their mindset when they entered the marriage and as such, CAN be used along with other things as grounds for an annulment.

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Sorry but that is wrong. Nothing that happens during the marriage is grounds for annulment. Things during a marriage may be used to support grounds for annulment of matters prior to the marriage.

Yes. To clarify: Lack of capacity for fidelity, reservations in consent, or a formed intention to violate the marriage bed after the wedding, though hidden from a spouse on the wedding day, can come to light later. While the problems had to exist when consent was given for the problems to have a bearing on validity, it is not necessary for the problems to have been known on the wedding day.

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Let me try to further simplify my point. If you have a man who has had sex with every girl he knew prior to marriage and then he marries a woman and gets caught cheating, the real reason his wife might want rid of him is that he cheated on her, but the fact that he left a trail of previous sexual partners 9 miles wide, can be brought up by the woman at an annulment. If a man beats his wife multiple times and eventually his wife leaves him, it would also be helpful if the guy had a couple of DV’s against him from previous women before the marriage. I can’t make my point any plainer–

You are quite correct. Annulment looks at the contract between the two being married; their intentions as proven by witnessed statements or behaviours or status that is contrary to the valid contract. If these can be proven then there may be grounds for declaring the contract null and void ab initio. Behaviour after the wedding rarely adds to any consideration of the proven intent at the time of the marriage sacrament.

The cheating and abusing during the marriage are NOT grounds for annulment.
If he slept around before getting married that in itself is not grounds for annulment. You have no idea what might have transpired between his last cheating event and the marriage, He may have made a sincere Confession for all you know.
Your problem is that you are making sweeping statements which have no meaning. Only a tribunal can sort what did and did not happen prior to marriage and what the real intent of both parties was leading up to the marriage.
You cannot simply say he slept around before getting married and did so after getting married so it should be clear cut to get an annulment. That is nonsense.

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Hello Doc.

Thanks for the reply. The Pauline Privilege pre-dates Canon Law and it was applied all along and is still a valid way of dealing not only with disparity of religion, but also say for the situation in an abusive marriage where the wife needs to leave for her own safety and that of her children. It is very misleading to infer that it is only for differences of religion. Another thing that comes to mind is this: Canon Law is only a PART of the entire BODY OF LAWS governing the Church and her people. it isn’t the only law and some folks who quote it here at CAF tend to try and make it the ONLY Laws that matter. Your quotation is valid but it is only a PART of the answer not the WHOLE of the answer.


Well, if you are asked to be a witness, they do ask questions about behaviors and statements made by the spouses both before and after the beginning of the attempt at marriage.

News Flash for all those in this thread!! Canon Law isn’t the only Law in the Church. It is only a PART of the Laws governing the Church. It isn’t the Bottom Line, the Only Line, or the Final Line. It is one of the lines. Sorry if I offend but this is one of my pet peeves. * All of Church’s Laws *must be considered and all of them hold as much weight as the Canon of Law most commonly referred to here at CAF. The Marriage Tribunal isn’t the only body that has authority in matters of Marriage. Please do not exaggerate or distort the Authority held by those other sources whose Office and Authority are just as binding as the Code of Canon Laws contained in the 1983 A.D. Code.

It is a mistake made in this thread in particular to infer that divorces and annulments prior to the current Code were somehow deficient because the current Code wasn’t yet around. Consider that Canon Law didn’t exist when Jesus walked the earth and it’s codification took millennia to develop into what we have today, yet married people were divorcing all those millennia long. the Church ahs been there all along assisting those whose marriages where in trouble. The Church never makes anyone stay in a marriage that is abusive. A person cannot be forced like that. There are answers outside the current Code of Canon Law. It is only a part of the picture when a marriage needs help. Please don’t present canon Laws as if the were written on tablets of stone by the hand of God.

It is also misleading to imply that only the Marriage Tribunal has the ability to nullify a Marriage. That isn’t so, sorry Thistle.

Now that I got that part off my chest, if any person is in a marriage and the opposite spouse is an adulterer, then the first recourse is always the Parish Priest and the Sacrament of Confession. If neither spouse has any kind of relationship with their Parish Priest, then the Church will be greatly disadvantaged when the actual adultery happens and they suddenly need the Church’s help because it has become an “emergency.” Do not wait. Regular use of the Confessional is one source for a healthy marriage and if both hubby and wifey go on a regular basis, then there is much less likelihood that adultery will happen to begin with. I think **all **couples in the Church should make a good Confession the night before the Sacrament of Matrimony is given them and part of the plans they lay for their married life should included how often they plan to go to Confession together. It should be part of their Pre-Cana Instructions!!!

Okay. Another soap box speech from me. Gee, back to the question. Really if it is a one time thing and not chronic, it can be resolved with spiritual help from the Priest and Brothers and Sisters religious who would be glad for the opportunity to assist. make use of them where they can be found. Adultery is grounds for annulment but it doesn’t necessarily men that has to happen. It can be worked out.


Hello Thistle.

You’re wrong. You’re only partly informed and you’re getting rude. Everything that happens in a marriage is looked at when it gets examined. Validity of a Sacrament is only one part of the purpose of examining a marriage. And that is only one function of the marriage tribunal. They examine those coming into the Church as well to see what Sacraments may be valid and what ones are needed. They aren’t the only recourse for divorcing couples and yes you’re also wrong about a valid Sacrament being dissolved. It can be and is and will be in the future. Today’s Saints from Portugal are a prime example of a valid Sacrament being dissolved by the Church. Look into the story of Saints Teresa and Sanchia of Portugal and see first hand how the Church dealt with the one Saint’s Marriage. Not only was she a Princess, but her marriage to a King was annulled for reasons neither was at fault for; they were simply ignorant of the guidance of the Church. Nullified Sacramental Marriage with no fault on either party. Go figure. :shrug: She was divorced and he remarried and had children by his second wife and theirs was a valid Sacramental Marriage too. She founded a convent and bother herself and her sister Sanchia retired from the world as Sisters and both became Saints.