As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, the first marriages of Peter and Carol are sacramental relationships that have not been dissolved, and their civil divorces are invalid, as is their present marriage.

Church doctrine holds that Carol and Peter should have applied for an annulment--a judgment by the church which proves "with moral certainty" that their first marriages lacked from the beginning "some essential element for a true sacramental bond." Because they did not seek annulment and are living as man and wife, the church sees them as living in sin. They may not take communion.

When it comes to divorce, the American quest for convenience runs up against the high wall of Catholic Church logic.

"If you take poison and I give you an antidote, it's your choice to take it and live or to reject it and die, " says the Rev. Paul Morel of Olney's St. Peter's Church, the Zombolases' parish. "The church can help you if you let it. Annulment is the only way. But many people don't want to be bothered with waiting, maybe for a year. They want that annulment done yesterday."

Morel, 33, is a soft-spoken native Washingtonian, one of four priests serving the 1,300 families of St. Peter's Church. Had Carol and Peter come to him for an annulment, he would have handed them a three- page questionnaire titled "A Guideline for Writing the Story of Your Marriage," to be completed and sent to the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Washington. The questionnaire asks for information on issues such as "unusual fears in childhood," "inclination towards anger or tantrums" and "inappropriate silliness or outbreaks of crying." Specific questions deal with sexuality, attitudes toward having children, drugs, alcohol and breaking the law.

"I can't do a thing for a couple seeking annulment," Morel says. "Annulment must be processed by the tribunal downtown. They do the investigating. I would never tell anybody that they have a good chance. Why should I build up their hopes if there is nothing there?"

In his one year in Olney, three couples came to him to discuss annulment, and he performed three marriages in which one partner had an annulment. He does not see divorce as a serious problem in his parish.

He does keep a flier on hand, "Why the Church Is Granting More Annulments," which talks about the 6 million divorced Catholics in the United States. It states: "The new annulment procedure is an attempt to bring justice and compassion to many divorced and separated Catholics whose marriage actually was one in appearance only."

Once the paperwork is finished, the church asks for a donation. Morel's face tightens when discussing "people who think that money will take care of annulment--that's not true. If you come to the church with nothing, the church will take care of you."

Morel calls the parish priest "a mediator between man and wife" and says the church is "made up by people, saints and sinners." "We the parish priests get caught in the middle," he says. "We say, 'Let us help you to rectify the situation.' But we can only help if they observe the laws of the church."

"Marriage is still marriage--a sacrament of the church," Fr. Morel says. He lowers his voice: "People who remarry without annulment must not ask for communion and thus make a mockery of the church."