Marriage between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic

Q: My husband and I have been married almost 21 years now. He was raised as a Mormon, though he is a non-believer in any faith. We were married in the Church during a time when they had not fully decided on the validity of Mormon baptism. Since then, the Church has decided Mormon baptism is not valid. What ramifications does this have on my marriage? I am a committed, traditional Catholic and am raising our sons in the Faith. My husband is very understanding of my devotion, something I insisted on long before we were engaged. –Jodie

A: While this particular question refers to a rather uncommon scenario, marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics in general are anything but uncommon, particularly here in the United States. Let’s first take a look at what the code says about such marriages, and then focus on Catholic-Mormon intermarriage as a specific example.

An important distinction must be made between the marriage of a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, and that of a Catholic and a non-Christian. Canon 1086.1 states that marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person is invalid. The concept of sacramental invalidity was discussed in detail in “Marriage and Annulment“—but in short, such a couple could go through all the external motions of a Catholic wedding, yet there would be no sacramental effect, and the couple would not in fact be truly married in the Church.

But canon law provides that this impediment to a valid marriage—known as the impediment of disparity of cult—may be dispensed. The general notion of dispensation tends to be alien to us, as it does not exist in U.S. civil law. Imagine that you were driving 55 mph in a 40 mph zone, and a police officer pulled you over and accused you of speeding. You really were driving faster than the speed limit, so his accusation would be justified. But now imagine that you were able to pull out a certificate from the governor of your state, declaring that you personally were legally permitted to drive faster than the law ordinarily allows, because the governor felt that you had good reason to do so. Neither the police officer nor any traffic judge in the state would be able to punish you!

This might be a fanciful analogy, but it illustrates the Church’s concept of dispensation. A bishop (or other diocesan official with dispensing authority) may dispense a Catholic member of his diocese from certain canonical requirements, if he believes that it is justified in a particular case (c. 85). That Catholic then is not obliged to follow the law in question. This happens with some regularity when Catholics seek to marry non-baptized persons. Once a dispensation—known as a “dispensation for disparity of cult”—has been obtained, a Catholic may validly marry a non-Christian.

When a Catholic wishes to marry a baptized Christian who is not a Catholic, however, the law is different: canon 1124 asserts that without express permission from the competent authority, marriage between two baptized persons, one of whom is Catholic and the other is not, is prohibited.  Note that the wording is significantly different from that of canon 1086.1. While marriage to a non-Christian is invalid without a dispensation from the law, marriage to a non-Catholic Christian merely requires permission. If the couple for some reason failed to get this permission, the marriage would be valid, although technically it would be illicit (illegal).

Why does the Church make it more difficult for Catholics to marry non-Catholics, whether they’re baptized or not? The Church’s chief concern is for the faith of the Catholic party to the marriage.

Marriage to someone who does not share his basic beliefs understandably poses a challenge to a Catholic, who has to preserve his faith without the benefit of sharing it in common with his spouse. It is the responsibility of a diocesan bishop to see to the spiritual welfare of the faithful in his diocese (c. 383.1), so he must rightly be concerned about the Catholic party’s faith. Before granting either a dispensation to marry a non-Christian, or permission to marry a non-Catholic Christian, the bishop is obliged to see to it that Catholics seeking to marry non-Catholics are prepared to remove any dangers of defecting from the faith (c. 1125 n. 1). The same canon notes that the Catholic party to the marriage must promise to do all in his power to raise any children of the marriage as Catholics. If it does not appear sufficiently clear that the Catholic is willing to do this, the bishop will refuse to grant the dispensation or the permission for the marriage to take place. On a similar note, if the non-Catholic spouse is clearly hostile to Catholicism, to the Catholic party’s continued practice of the faith after the marriage, or to the notion that the children of the marriage are to be raised Catholic, the bishop will be hard-pressed to find any justification for granting a dispensation or permission. While it may seem to a casual observer that marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics are always allowed, it is important to realize that the bishop’s approval of such a request is not automatic!

People who obtain such dispensations or permissions often never even know about them. Generally, when the pastor of the Catholic party meets with the prospective spouses, he assesses whether there is any possible threat to the Catholic’s faith, and makes a determination to seek a dispensation or permission from the bishop. Unless the bishop disagrees with the pastor’s assessment of the situation, the request is generally granted. The dispensation or permission is in fact a part of the marriage record, and should be noted in the parish sacramental register.

Returning to the original question, does a Catholic seeking to marry a Mormon need a dispensation to marry a non-Christian, or permission to marry a non-Catholic Christian? Mormons do have a form of baptism, but for years there was uncertainty among Catholics as to whether or not it was truly valid. Several statements from the Vatican in the past 30 years indicated that it was valid, but this did not satisfy many Catholic clergy here in the U.S., who had more direct contact with Mormons and were convinced that their baptismal rite had no sacramental effect. Discussion of this issue, therefore, continued until 2001, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith  (CDF) declared that the baptism conferred by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons, is invalid.

What effect does this statement have on marriages between Catholics and Mormons celebrated before 2001? It is important to keep in mind that the Congregation’s statement is theological, not canonical. If something is theologically true, it has always been true, because the truth does not change! Since Mormon baptism is invalid now, and since there is no evidence that either the Mormon rite of baptism or their theological understanding of it has changed, it was also invalid in the past. Therefore it does not appear possible to suggest any sort of a “grandfather clause” for those marriages that took place before the CDF’s 2001 pronouncement. Because the Catholic Church does not hold that Mormons are baptized, it is necessary to obtain a dispensation if a Catholic and a Mormon wish to marry in the Catholic Church. Without such a dispensation, the marriage would be invalid.

Since, however, many in the Catholic hierarchy here in the U.S. never believed that Mormon baptism was valid, it was common practice in at least some dioceses simultaneously to grant permission to marry a baptized non-Catholic, AND a dispensation for disparity of cult, as a precaution. In this way, the marriage would be valid whether the Mormon party’s baptism was valid or not! It is quite possible that this was done in Jodie’s case without her knowledge.

So what does Jodie have to do to ensure that her marriage is valid? The answer may be surprising: nothing. As canon 1060 states, marriage enjoys the favor of the law, so a marriage is presumed valid until the contrary is proven. Unless a marriage tribunal finds that Jodie’s marriage is null, the Church presumes that she is validly married; and unless she or her husband seeks an annulment, no marriage tribunal is going to examine their marriage! The task of a marriage tribunal is to examine whether failed marriages were ever truly valid in the first place; it is not their function to establish whether a happy marriage is in fact valid or not.

If conscience nevertheless dictates that a spouse enquire further, the thing to do is to consult one’s pastor. Tell him the situation, and accept his advice. Keep in mind that the Church’s laws on marriage are intended for the good of souls—causing someone to worry about the status of his or her marriage has never been their purpose.

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2 Responses to Marriage between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic

  1. Pingback: Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church? | Canon Law Made Easy

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