Dear Catholic Exchange:
My Catholic daughter is considering marrying a divorced man who was married in a civil ceremony. Does our Church recognize this marriage or could she marry this man in the Church?
By way of introduction, let us consider what constitutes a valid marriage. According to the Catholic Church, marriage is a covenant or partnership of life between a man and a woman, which is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1601). What is required for a marriage to be valid is consent. As the Catechism states: “The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage.’ If consent is lacking there is no marriage” (no. 1626).
A marriage is valid when two persons enter into the covenant with free and mutual consent. They must enter into the marriage covenant while “not being under constraint” and “not impeded by any natural or ecclesiastical law.” The Church teaches that this free exchange of consent is the indispensable element necessary for a valid marriage (cf. Catechism, no. 1625). Catholics have an additional requirement for contracting a valid marriage. If a person is professed Catholic and has not left the Church by formal declaration then he must be married in the Catholic Church for the marriage to be valid.
If a marriage occurs, it is either a sacramental marriage or a natural marriage. Both are marriages. Both are recognized as valid and protected by the Church as holy unions. When validly contracted between two baptized people, marriage is a sacrament. (Please see our FAITH FACT “Marriage in God's Plan Discovering the Power of Marital Love.”) A marriage involving at least one unbaptized person can still be a marriage but it is not elevated to the level of a sacrament. This is known as a natural marriage. Hence, if consent is freely given by two non-Catholics in a civil ceremony, the two may be validly united in a natural marriage.
The fact that a marriage lacks sacramental dignity does not constitute grounds for invalidity. To be considered invalid, both require the same scrutiny. Jesus Christ has established His Church as the keeper and dispenser of the Christian sacraments. He has, therefore, empowered the Church to determine whether a couple entered into a valid marriage (cf. Mt. 16:18-19, 18:15-18). (Please see our Faith Facts on “Divorce and Remarriage: The Church's Perspective” and “The Annulment Process.”)
On the matter of previous marriages, the Church states that the invalidity of the union be determined prior to remarriage. The Code of Canon Law provides the following in canon 1085: “§2. Even though the previous marriage is invalid or for any reason dissolved, it is not thereby lawful to contract another marriage before the nullity or dissolution of the previous one has been established lawfully and with certainty.”
Thus, in your daughter’s case, before she would be allowed to enter into marriage with a divorced man, the Church requires that several stipulations be observed. A diocesan marriage tribunal must ascertain that to the best of their knowledge the previous union was not a valid marriage. If certain impediments are found to have been present when marriage vows were exchanged, the marriage may be declared null and void the marriage never existed. However, the authority to judge whether or not a marriage is null belongs to a marriage tribunal. A diocesan marriage tribunal must ascertain that to the best of their knowledge the previous union was not a valid marriage.
As individuals, we do not have the authority to decide whether a marriage was null. While serving as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the “consent which is the foundation of marriage” is not private, so neither would a judgment about the validity of that consent be a private matter. Marriage is not a private matter. It is a covenant established by God, and recognized by the Church and society. Further, it involves not only the individual, but also the spouse and any children. Hence, the matter of determining whether a marriage took place cannot be handled on the level of the individual conscience. Rather, this must be examined and judged by the proper external forum established by the Church.
United in the Faith,
Catholics United for the Faith
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Steubenville, OH 43952
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