Do Lapsed Catholics Marry Validly outside the Church?

Q: I was raised Catholic, but in my 20's I fell in love with a Baptist woman and started attending her church with her on Sundays. Eventually we got married in the Baptist church. Later our marriage fell apart and we divorced, and I returned to the Catholic Church.

Now I'm dating a great Catholic woman and we want to get married. Her mother is opposed, because she says there's no way we can marry in the Catholic Church. Since the Church doesn't recognize divorce, she insists that I'm still married to my first wife. But I say that we can, because I wasn't a practicing Catholic at the time of my first marriage, so I was never married in the eyes of the Church anyway. Who's right? What can I do? — Ray

A: First of all, when questions arise about whether or not one may marry in the Catholic Church, the one person to whom you can always turn is the pastor of your parish. He can either give you a reliable answer immediately, or find out the answer for you. There is never any need for a Catholic to be left wondering about whether or not he is barred from marrying!

That being said, let's look at the issue of whether a lapsed Catholic, who has married in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, is considered to be married in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

In the August 22 column we discussed the canonical form by which all Catholics are bound to marry. Canon 1108.1 states that as a rule, a marriage involving at least one Catholic is valid only if it takes place (1) in a Catholic church; (2) in the presence of a Catholic priest or other cleric who has authority to assist at the marriage, and (3) in the presence of two witnesses. 

But is a Catholic obliged to observe canonical form if he doesn't consider himself a Catholic any longer? According to canon 1117, these requirements must still be observed if at least one party to the marriage is a Catholic who has not defected from the Church by a formal act. If the Catholic party to the marriage has left the Catholic Church by a formal act, he is no longer bound to observe canonical form. The marriage of such a former Catholic in a non-Catholic ceremony could in this case be recognized by the Catholic Church as valid.

If, on the other hand, a Catholic has merely ceased to practice his faith, and has not actually left the Church by a formal act, he is still bound to observe canonical form if he wishes to marry. Consequently, if such a lapsed Catholic marries in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony — without obtaining in advance the dispensation that was discussed in our August 22 column — his marriage will not be considered valid in the eyes of the Church. In this case it should be possible for him to obtain a declaration of nullity, which will then leave him free to marry in the Church.

So what exactly does it mean to defect from the Church by a formal act? This has been problematic for canonists, because the term "formal act" is broad and open to interpretation. After the new Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983, legal scholars spent over 20 years discussing and debating what this phrase actually means. For example, has a Catholic who simply stopped attending Sunday Mass, and begun instead to go to protestant Sunday services, defected from the Catholic Church by a formal act? The unofficial consensus was no, since on the surface, there seems to be nothing formal about this!

Canonists then began to examine the possibility that leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a full-fledged member of a non-Catholic faith community (or a non-Christian religion) would constitute a formal act. They found that in some cases, where joining another faith involved structured catechesis and/or ceremonial actions — becoming an Orthodox Jew is probably the most striking example of this — it appeared that this could be the formal act mentioned in this canon. But at the same time, there are many protestant groups which assert that a person becomes one of their members simply by attending their services and generally agreeing with their teachings. And it is difficult to construe this as a formal act for purposes of canon 1117. Once again, it was difficult to draw any definitive conclusion, or to find a rule of thumb for what constitutes a formal act and what doesn't.

Thankfully, in March 2006, clarification was provided by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, the branch of the Vatican Curia that provides authentic (i.e., official) interpretations of canons and other legal documents when questions are raised. The Council noted that for a true formal act of defection from the Church, "it is necessary that there concretely be:

(a.) the internal decision to leave the Catholic Church;
(b.)the realization and external manifestation of that decision; and
(c.)the reception of that decision by the competent ecclesiastical authority."

The document notes that merely having one's name removed from one's parish membership records does not fulfill these requirements. Rather, a person must intend "a true separation from the constitutive elements of the life of the Church: it supposes, therefore, an act of apostasy, heresy or schism" [emphasis in original]. Additionally, "the act [must] be manifested by the interested party in written form, before the competent authority of the Catholic Church," which usually means either the person's diocesan bishop or his pastor.

Offhand, it would therefore seem that most of the Catholics who leave the Catholic Church and begin attending non-Catholic services do not actually make the formal act required by canon 1117. Therefore, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, they are still bound to observe canonical form if/when they decide to marry. Failing to do so will render their marriage invalid.

In your case, your description of your attendance at a Baptist church does not indicate that you actually abjured your Catholic faith and embraced that of the Baptists in a formal way. Nor does it appear from your description of the circumstances that you actually manifested in writing a rejection of Catholic doctrine in favor of Baptist teachings, and sent it to either your pastor or the bishop. If you didn't, you probably cannot be considered to have left the Church by a formal act — which means you were still bound to observe canonical form when you got married. Your marriage in a Baptist church, without previously obtaining from your bishop a dispensation from canonical form, is in that case most likely invalid. And if it was not a valid marriage, it would not prevent you now from marrying validly in a Catholic wedding ceremony. 

So what should you do now? Arrange to meet with your pastor, and describe the entire situation. Be sure to explain honestly the circumstances surrounding your attendance at Baptist Sunday services in lieu of Catholic Mass. If it is clear that you were bound to observe the canonical form of marriage and failed to do so, the process of declaring your first marriage to be null may be fairly simple. Once you obtain such a declaration, you ought to be able to proceed with the regular preparations for a valid marriage in the Catholic Church.

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