Q: We Catholics believe that marriage is a sacrament. So how is it possible for a Catholic and a non-Catholic to get married in the Catholic Church? Doesn’t that mean that somehow, a protestant or even a non-Christian is receiving a Catholic sacrament? How does that work? –Brian
A: This is an extremely good question, as it illustrates one of the great theological difficulties involved when people of different faiths want to marry. The Church recognizes that in general, marriage is a natural right, which is certainly not reserved exclusively to Catholics or to Christians. At the same time, the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is one of the seven sacraments. So how can these apparently conflicting teachings be reconciled? Let’s look first at marriages involving non-Catholic, baptized Christians, and then at marriages of the unbaptized.
Canon 1055.1 echoes the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes 48) when it asserts that the marriage covenant has, between the baptized, been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament. The following paragraph is even more precise: a valid marriage cannot exist between two baptized persons without it being by that very fact a sacrament (c. 1055.2).
This means that when two Catholics, two protestants, or a Catholic and a protestant marry validly, their marriage is by definition a sacramental marriage. Ironically, not all protestants agree with this! Lutherans, for example, do not believe that there are seven sacraments, for they accept only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This means that when two baptized Lutherans marry validly in a Lutheran church, they themselves do not believe that their marriage is sacramental. Catholics, in contrast, will unhesitatingly assert that this Lutheran marriage is in fact a sacramental marriage, whether the spouses accept that or not. Simply put, we believe that it is impossible for two baptized people to validly marry without their marriage being a sacrament.
Since the Church decides what is a valid Catholic sacrament and what isn’t, it follows that when two people marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, the Church has the authority to determine exactly what it is that makes the marriage valid. In the case of two Catholics, this is hardly surprising; but in the case of a Catholic marrying a protestant, it requires some explanation. After all, non-Catholics can’t be expected to follow Catholic teaching, right?
The answer may be surprising. It is indeed true that church laws are binding on Catholics only—unless a non-Catholic chooses to marry a Catholic in the Church. In such a case, Catholic theology and laws apply to both parties. This is why the canons of the code pertaining to marriage bind not only all Catholics, but also anyone outside the Church who marries a Catholic (c. 1059). We see here one of the many reasons why marriage preparation is so important: Catholic sacramental theology must be explained clearly to non-Catholic spouses, so that they understand and can knowingly will a valid Catholic marriage at the exchange of wedding vows. Simply willing a marriage as they personally understand it is not enough.
As was discussed in “Marriage and Annulment,” the Church teaches that when two people marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, they are actually administering the sacrament to each other. When a non-Catholic marries a Catholic, he has to intend the same exclusivity, perpetuity, and mutual self-giving that Catholics must have, if his consent is to be valid. When this is done, the result is a valid Catholic marriage that involves one spouse who isn’t even Catholic! It is also, as we’ve just seen above, a sacramental marriage.
But when a marriage involves at least one party who is unbaptized, the situation is different. By definition, a person who is not baptized cannot be married sacramentally. Both the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1213)and canon law (c. 849) state that baptism is the “gateway to the sacraments,” because a person must be baptized first before receiving any of the other six sacraments—including the sacrament of matrimony.
When two Buddhists marry in a Buddhist ceremony, their marriage is obviously not sacramental since they are unbaptized. But this does not mean that the Catholic Church does not recognize their marriage—it does. If the Buddhist religious authorities acknowledge the marriage as valid, the Catholic Church does too. The two Buddhists can be validly married, without their marriage being sacramental.
Now let’s take this a step further. When a Catholic marries a Jew, a Muslim, or any other nonbaptized person, even when the wedding is celebrated validly in the Catholic Church, their marriage is non-sacramental. It cannot be otherwise, since it involves one party who is not baptized. The Church regards it as a totally legitimate marriage—and a valid one, assuming that nothing happened at the celebration to render it invalid—but this wedding did not involve the celebration of a sacrament. The fact that one of the spouses is Catholic is insufficient to make the marriage sacramental, since a sacramental marriage requires both parties to have been baptized.
On the face of it, this may sound objectionable, but nothing morally wrong is going on here! It is not inherently sinful to have a non-sacramental marriage. It is true that, as we saw in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” the Church does not as a rule permit marriages between Catholics and the unbaptized (c. 1086.1). But the diocesan bishop may, if he sees fit, grant a dispensation to permit such a wedding to be celebrated in the Catholic Church (c. 85). The Church’s main concern will always be for the faith of the Catholic party to the marriage; but if there is no obvious, well-founded fear that the Catholic will be prevented from practicing his faith, or will leave the Church through indifference, the bishop will ordinarily allow it to take place. Keep in mind that if there were something intrinsically evil about the marriage of a Catholic to an unbaptized person, the Church would never permit the possibility of a dispensation under any circumstances.
Hopefully we can all by now appreciate the theological nuances involved in answering Brian’s question. An unbaptized person who marries a Catholic does not receive the sacrament of matrimony—nor does the Catholic spouse in this case. But a baptized non-Catholic does, with proper pre-marital preparation, both receive a Catholic sacrament and confer one on his Catholic spouse, whether he actually believes he is doing so or not. In both cases, a valid marriage is possible, and the Catholic party remains in good standing within the Catholic Church.
If this all sounds to Catholics as if it’s more complex than it should be, well, it is. The problem, however, is not that the Church’s laws are too complicated; rather, the problem is that society is filled with so many non-Catholic religions! Over the past several centuries, the Catholic Church has been obliged by the realities of the protestant Reformation, and also by the spread of Catholicism into largely non-Christian cultures, to recognize that sometimes Catholics want to marry those who do not share our faith. The Church would of course prefer that everyone on earth would embrace Catholic teachings, and this certainly would simplify its marriage law! But the Church cannot legislate marriage based on the way things should be. It has to work with things the way they really are.