Lost Spouses and Marriages


In 1792, the French Astronomer Guillaume le Gentil went to India to observe the Transit of Venus.


He missed the first one, and the next one wouldn’t show for several more years. So he decided to stay behind and wait for the next one … and his observatory promptly suffered bad weather and he observed nothing. This almost drove him insane, but he managed to regain his sanity and return to France.

When he returned to France he found he was declared legally dead. His estate was plundered by relatives, his position at The Royal Academy was filled by someone else, and his wife remarried. The King stepped in and rectified the first and second problem, and Guillaume handled the third one by remarrying.

What’s the Catholic Protocol on missing spouses? If someone’s wife remarries because she thinks she’s a widow, then which husband is she really married to.


I suspect this happens A LOT.

If you leave your community of origin, then all your roots are “severed”.

You can go to Mass daily in your new location(s), even if temporary and in-transit.

Worse if you go to some extremely remote locations.

Happens all the time.

As Catholics, are we forbidden to leave home?


Interesting question! I am now curious about the ins and outs too :slight_smile:

To stab a guess I would presume that there would need to be a declaration involved in certain cases?

Like if you went away for a known vacation to your wife, but she had you declared dead just cause she is up to no good? VS a declared KIA lost for 5 years?

And then like in Cast Away, even though since it was only a fiancé and the new husband she had a kid with, he walked away.

But what about as you said if Tom Hanks’ character had been married and new husband no kid? And the wife is still totally in love with her once thought dead husband?

Hmm epic interesting :slight_smile:


In the secular world a “missing” person can be declared legally dead. The question is does “The Church” recognize this as ending the marriage?


Canon law made easy addressed this question.

The punchline is that you need a declaration from the bishop with moral certainty that the original spouse is dead in order to remarry. This is a higher bar than a secular declaring them dead.

And if it turns out to be wrong, then the second marriage was in fact invalid.


Sounds about right.

I suppose though, it might be possible to continue to live chastely with the 2nd husband if there were children involved in the 2nd marriage, like in modern divorce situations.


I am not sure you are entirely correct about needing “a declaration from the bishop”. The first part of the Canon states, “Whenever the death of a spouse CANNOT be proven by an authentic ecclesiastical or CIVIL DOCUMENT…”(my emphasis added). When a civil court declares a person “dead” a death certificate is issued. Now a “civil document” does exist in the form of both a court ruling and a death certificate. Now if the “dead” spouse shows up at a later date, well, I guess that bridge will have to be crossed then.



Normally, a death certificate is proof enough that a person is dead. This would be produced by the coroner’s office or vital records office or something like that. The Church doesn’t require anything more since, in these cases, there is no controversy about the person’s death.

If it is a civil Judge, however, who makes a declaration of death or produces a certificate of death only after conducting some sort of investigation into the matter, that is not considered sufficient for the Church: a separate, ecclesiastical process would be necessary.




The protocol would depend on what the Parties desire–does the man want to resume his marriage to his wife? Does she want to, also? Then, they could take the appropriate route to accomplishing that: the “second marriage” would be declared invalid and they’d go back to living their married life.

If the man wants to resume his marriage but the wife does not…well, that is not an easy problem to solve.

The woman can be married to only one person at a time but there would be conflicting presumptions about her marital status.



I am not a Canon lawyer nor did I stay at a Holiday Express last night but as I read Canon 1707 if one can produce a “civil document” i.e. a death certification no “ecclesiastical process would be necessary”. Only if no “civil document” is available does the bishop need to issue “a declaration of presumed death”. I have no experience with the process of declaring a person dead but given the legal consequences of having a person declared dead I must assume (and yes, I do know what assuming does) that a civil judge does not declare someone dead just because no one has heard from that person for a couple of years.


(You’ll have to clue me in as to what the Holiday Inn reference means…)

Such a document would have some import for the Church but it is generally seen as being insufficient to establish a presumption of death in the Church’s legal system (according to what I was taught, anyway). Particular circumstances would also make a difference, such as someone who was known to be at the World Trade Center but never found after 9/11, compared to somebody who just disappeared from the middle of Wisconsin one day. It’s easier to presume the death of the former and a civil document in that case would be more readily accepted as sufficient…yet, the Church would still want to take at least a cursory look at the facts of the matter.

I have had experience in only one case involving a missing/civilly declared dead person. It was in the Philippines and the standards there seem to be more lax than in the USA. The Church did not accept that document as sufficient proof of death.



It refers to commercials for Holiday Inn Express. youtube.com/watch?v=eHCTaUFXpP8


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.