Question: Can a Catholic ever marry a divorced non-Catholic? From my understanding, anyone “divorced” would have to have their previous marriage determined invalid by a Church Tribunal, right? Does that mean a Catholic can’t date a “divorced” person unless the Catholic knows the “divorced” party would be free to marry and their previous marriage was invalid?
Yes, your understanding is on target that anyone divorced would have to have their previous marriage examined and determined invalid by a Church tribunal before his/her marriage to a Catholic could be blessed by the Church. The reason for this is that the Catholic Church recognizes any marriage as valid until proven otherwise. That’s the case for two Protestants or two Hindus as well as for two Catholics. The assumption is that the couple is in good faith and their decision is to be honored. We believe that a commitment of vows creates a reality and is to be respected.
Even should they separate, each would still be, in the eyes of the Church, “already married”, and hence it would be advisable for a Catholic not to become intimately involved in a romantic relationship with one of them.
In going thru an annulment process with a tribunal, it is not a given that the outcome will be dissolution or judgment of invalidity. An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce”. The tribunal process is a looking back at the exchange of vows to see if there was some impediment preventing them from being really free to make this decision even if they thought they were ready to undertake it. Such impediments can be psychological (force or fear); emotional (scars that make one incapable of truly taking on the responsibilities that marriage requires); or physical (impotence/inability for sexual intimacy).
If it becomes clear through consultations with the couple, their families or friends, that such an impediment was present in one or the other (or both), the marriage is considered invalid.
Pope Francis recently put together a commission that may work on making this process a bit easier on people, so stay tuned for more on this.