What Makes a Marriage Valid in the Church?

Dear Catholic Exchange:

My nephew, who is Catholic, was married in a non-catholic ceremony conducted by the bride's father, who is a Baptist minister. I have read that they could have sought a dispensation from the bishop of the diocese for approval under these circumstances. However, they did not. Since their marriage, God has blessed their union with a baby girl and my wife and I are godparents to the baby, who was baptized Catholic. I would like to advise the couple concerning their status in the church but I don't know what to tell them. Are they married in the eyes of the church? Can my nephew take communion? What should they do to insure that the baby is raised and educated in the Catholic faith?

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours in Faith,
Christopher Sotkovsky

Dear Mr. Sotkovsky,

Peace in Christ!

You could ask your nephew whether the pastor from whom the couple requested baptism said anything about being married outside of the Church. They may have had there marriage quietly convalidated in the Church with an exchange of vows.

As to whether you should approach your nephew, this can be a touchy subject, because he and his wife likely believe that they are "validly" married.

The fundamental element that "makes the marriage" (i.e. validity) is free mutual consent (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1625). If two baptized persons validly exchange consent, the marriage is sacramental by that very fact (Catechism, no. 1601; cf. Code of Canon Law, canon 1055 §2).

Catholics, however, are "governed not only by divine law but also by canon law" (canon 1059). Canon law requires that Catholics celebrate marriage according to canonical form (i.e., have a Catholic wedding), unless dispensed for a just cause. Unless this dispensation is granted by the local ordinary for a just cause, a marriage outside the Church is generally not recognized as valid. So, a Catholic couple who marry outside the Church without a dispensation are not really married.

Jesus Christ has empowered His Church to administer and regulate the Sacraments for the spiritual health and well-being of the faithful. This is part of the Church's authority to "bind and loose" (cf. Mt. 16:18-19, 18:15-18). The Church always seeks the spiritual well-being of the faithful. The Code of Canon Law is provided by the Church in order to direct and assist the Christian faithful in acting according to their faith.

Couples in such irregular marriage situations are not to receive Eucharistic Communion while they continue to engage in conjugal relations. The Church does not necessarily presume that the couples are in grave sin (cf. Catechism, nos. 1857-61), but, for their spiritual well-being and the spiritual well-being of the faithful in general, such couples are not allowed to receive Communion if they continue to engage in conjugal relations. This irregular situation can generally be remedied by a convalidation, assuming the absence of other impediments.

The primary way for a child to be raised in the faith is for the parents to live the faith. Your nephew should live a sacramental life and participate in the liturgy of the Church. In addition, there are customs that predispose the faithful toward the liturgical life of the Church and help develop a sense of the sacred (see Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy). In short, families are to be domestic churches where children flourish.

I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to call us at 1-800-MY FAITH (693-2484) or email us with any further questions on this or any other subject. If you have found this service to be helpful, please consider a donation to CUF to help sustain this service. You can call the toll-free line, visit us at http://www.cuf.org/, or send your contribution to the address below. Thank you for your support as we endeavor to "support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church."

United in the Faith,

Eric Stoutz
Information Specialist
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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