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for (Christian) marrying, it is essential that I should not be already married with a wife living, sane and "undivorced", and so on (Austin, 1962)

If "undivorced" implies married, what does that sentence mean?

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

Undivorced does not simply mean 'married'. It means never having been divorced.

To clarify, the following people are "undivorced":

  • A person who has never married.
  • A person still married to their first spouse.
  • A person who had once been married, but who had that marriage annulled.
  • A person who had once been married, but whose spouse died while they were still married.
  • A person currently married to someone, after a previous annulment or widowing.
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The sentence refers to all the impediments to marriage which Christians must avoid for the marriage to be legal and binding. It gives illustrative examples (already having a wife, having an ex-wife, and being of sound mind).

There are two kinds of impediments to marriage. The examples in the sentence are all of the more serious kind, diriment (separating) impediments, which cause a marriage to be null and void in the view of the church. The other kind, prohibitory impediments, are those which do not nullify a marriage, but cause it to violate church law.

Diriment impediments

A marriage is null and void in the view of the church if, at the time of marriage, one of the parties is:

  • a child or permanently impotent
  • bound by an unbreakable religious obligation of chastity
  • unbaptized
  • already married (even if divorced)
  • a close relative
  • unconsenting (e.g., forced, insane, confused, mistaken)
  • guilty of the murder of the other party’s spouse or of adultery with the promise of marriage

A marriage is also null and void if contracted without the blessing of the church or without witnesses, or if the marriage contract includes conditions which are incompatible with marriage (such as a promise of divorce).

Prohibitory impediments

A marriage violates church law if it violates:

  • a betrothal
  • a simple vow of chastity
  • ecclesiastical prohibition
  • the ecclesiastical calendar

A marriage also violates church law if one of the parties is a baptized Christian of a different denomination.

Basis in Semitic and Roman law

In brief, these impediments go back to Semitic and Roman law. Many can be considered social custom, but some arise from the Jewish religious view of marriage as an irreversible union of flesh:

[A] man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.
Genesis 2:24 (NAB)

Any union of the flesh creates a valid marriage in the eyes of God. This is why the Jewish law obliges a rapist to pay the bride price and treat the victim as his wife:

If a man comes upon a young woman, a virgin who is not betrothed, seizes her and lies with her, and they are discovered, the man who lay with her shall give the young woman’s father fifty silver shekels and she will be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her as long as he lives.
Deuteronomy 22:28–29 (NAB)

Denominational differences

Denominational differences render some of these impediments moot. For example, some Protestant denominations do not sanction vows of chastity, establish an ecclesiastical calendar which prohibits marriage at certain times of the year, or prohibit interdenominational unions.


The Catholic Encyclopedia. Entries I consulted: “Canonical Impediments”, “Clandestinity”, “Council of Trent”, “Espousals”, “Ligamen”, “Vows”.

Webster’s Online Dictionary. Entries I consulted: “diriment”, “dirempt”.

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"prohibits marriage at certain times of the year": like Labor day? – Mitch Aug 21 '12 at 17:14
@Mitch: “Forbidden times (tempus clausum, tempus feriatum). […] These forbidden periods, though formerly much longer, were reduced by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, cap. x, ‘De Reform. Matrim.’) to the two following times: from Advent to the Epiphany, and from Ash Wednesday to Low Sunday.” —The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Canonical Impediments”. – MετάEd Aug 21 '12 at 17:17
For the Roman Catholic Church, certain of those impediments are no longer in effect, or not to the extent stated above, e.g. regarding interfaith marriage. – Mark Beadles Aug 21 '12 at 18:19
@MarkBeadles Yes, from personal experience I can confirm that the church often turns a blind eye to impediments. Due to my Quaker upbringing I was never baptized. Regardless, I was not considered an infidel and was married by a priest. – MετάEd Aug 21 '12 at 18:28
Even what the Council of Trent stated must have been modified in practice; I know more than one couple who got married (according to Catholic faith and church) on December 26 or similar dates. – Paola Sep 6 '12 at 18:12

In The Bible Jesus at one point (Matthew 19:9) basically says that marrying a divorced person is no different than adultery. Based on this, many devout Christians don't (and particularly 50 years ago didn't) believe in the validity of divorce. As far as they are concerned, once you are married you are married until one of the pair dies, no matter what the state says.

So what this is saying is that the person in question would not be an acceptable person if they've been divorced.

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+1 For the context- very interesting – ngmiceli Aug 21 '12 at 16:27

The word undivorced here refers not to 'me' but to 'a wife'. After a wedding, the (hypothetical) person Austin married remains his wife lifelong. However, both civil and church law in 1962 allowed in certain circumstances for divorce, and for a marriage to be annulled in the case of incurable insanity (in which case of course she could not consent to a divorce). So it appears that Austin is drawing a distinction between married in the sense of 'having taken part in a wedding' (which might include widowers, those married to the insane, "and so on") and in the sense of 'in a state of Christian marriage'.

Without reading the book, I'm unsure whether he puts inverted commas round undivorced because the validity of divorce is questionable (as T.E.D. says), or simply because it was a neologism in the 1960s.

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