If a Catholic Marries a Non-Christian, How is it a Sacrament?

Q:  An unbaptized person can’t receive any of the other sacraments unless he gets baptized first, right?  So how is it possible for a Catholic to marry a non-Christian in a Catholic ceremony?  I don’t see how the non-Christian spouse can be receiving the sacrament of matrimony, if he’s never received the sacrament of baptism!  Is the marriage a sacrament for the Catholic but not for the non-Christian?  How does this work?  –Ashley

A:  It’s a very astute observation!  By thinking it through logically, Ashley has spotted a genuine theological/canonical quandary.  We already saw back in “Can Non-Catholics Receive the Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony?” that if a Catholic marries a baptized non-Catholic (a Baptist, let’s say) in a Catholic wedding ceremony, the Church teaches that each spouse is indeed receiving the sacrament of matrimony.  Since the Church generally recognizes the validity of non-Catholic baptisms, the Baptist spouse would indeed be receiving the sacrament along with the Catholic spouse.

But if a Catholic marries a non-baptized person—a Muslim, let’s say—in a Catholic wedding ceremony, and if a Catholic wedding confers the sacrament of matrimony on the two spouses by definition, how can the non-baptized spouse possibly be receiving that sacrament?  And if the non-Christian doesn’t receive the sacrament, how can the Catholic spouse be receiving it?  Is it possible to have a sort of “half-sacrament,” in which one spouse is excluded but the other is not?  The Church’s abstract theological understanding of the sacraments comes face-to-face with practical reality in this very common situation, and there’s no denying that Catholic theology’s resolution of the problem leaves many theologians (and canonists too) less than satisfied.  Let’s take a look at what the Church teaches, proceeding logically step-by-step, and then we’ll see what conclusions can be drawn from it.

For starters, it’s absolutely true that you can’t receive any of the other sacraments unless you’ve been baptized first.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1213) and the Code of Canon Law (c. 849) both use the same language—baptism is the doorway (ianua in Latin) to the other sacraments.  This terminology is nothing new: St. Thomas Aquinas used precisely the same phrase in his Summa Theologiae (IIIa q. 73) nearly 800 years ago.  (See “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity” for a different but related discussion of this basic issue.)

This means, obviously, that if a person who has never been baptized attempts to receive another sacrament—like confession or matrimony—he can’t.  The non-Christian could go through all the external motions, so that the average onlooker might reasonably conclude that he received the sacrament; but in reality, nothing sacramental would take place.  In other words, the sacrament would be conferred on the non-Christian invalidly.  (The concept of sacramental validity was discussed in greater detail back in “Marriage and Annulment.”)

Consequently, if a non-Christian marries a Catholic, in a Catholic wedding ceremony, the non-Christian spouse is not receiving the sacrament of matrimony.  If a Catholic marries a Buddhist, a Muslim, or any other unbaptized person in a Catholic wedding, the unbaptized spouse doesn’t receive the sacrament, regardless of the sincerity of his intentions—simply because he can’t.

But let’s probe this question further.  If the unbaptized spouse isn’t receiving the Catholic sacrament of matrimony in a Catholic wedding ceremony, what then is happening to the Catholic spouse?

Before directly answering that question, it’s important to note first that, as was discussed in the same “Marriage and Annulment” article already mentioned above, the Church teaches that in a Catholic wedding, the sacrament of matrimony is not conferred on the spouses by the priest or deacon who officiates.  It is conferred by the spouses themselves, who administer it to each other when they exchange their consent.

As canon 1057.1 observes, a marriage is brought into being by the lawfully manifested consent of two people who are legally capable of getting married.  In other words, the Catholic cleric, who must be present at a Catholic wedding (with some rare exceptions that do not concern us here), does not actually marry the two spouses, because they marry each other.  Instead, the relevant canons of the code repeatedly assert that the cleric simply “assists” at the marriage (cc. 1108-1111).

When a Catholic marries an unbaptized person, even in a Catholic ceremony, the Catholic spouse is not conferring the sacrament of matrimony on the non-Christian spouse.  And the Church does not hold that the non-Christian confers the sacrament of matrimony on the Catholic spouse either.  It is impossible (according to Catholic teaching) that the sacrament can be conferred “halfway,” on one spouse but not on the other!  So what is actually going on at a wedding like this?  And why does the Church even permit it?

Canonists and theologians alike have wrestled with this question for generations, without reaching a fully satisfactory conclusion.  A key complicating factor in the equation is the Catholic Church’s understanding that marriage is not only for Catholics, or only for baptized people.  Strictly speaking, every person has a natural right to marry.  The desire to seek out a member of the opposite sex, and to have children with him/her, is a natural, normal, healthy part of being human!  As such, it cannot be restricted only to Catholics or only to baptized Christians.  The Church recognizes that non-Christians marry too—it’s just that the marriage of non-Christians isn’t a sacrament.

When two Jews, for example, marry in a Jewish wedding ceremony, the Catholic Church accepts that they are, of course, really getting married!  If they are sincerely doing what their own faith tells them they need to do, then they can hardly be faulted in any way by the Church.  Obviously, the Catholic Church wishes that ultimately all people would embrace the Catholic faith and be united together—as Christ Himself prayed “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).  Nevertheless, as the Second Vatican Council’s Document on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae stated unequivocally,

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom.  This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion… in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs… (DH 2 ).

Within the context of marriage, this means that the Catholic Church will not—because it cannot—claim that you can only get married if you are a Catholic, or only if you’re a baptized Christian.  Non-Christians have, so far as the Church is concerned, “real” marriages too.  Often they’re called natural marriages.

Let’s get back to the specific question of a Catholic marrying a non-Christian.  As was discussed at length in “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” all Catholics who wish to get married are bound to observe canonical form (c. 1108).  That means that as a rule, Catholics are married in a Catholic church, in a Catholic ceremony, in the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon—and naturally the end result is that they receive the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, conferring it on each other.  When two Catholics wish to get married, this is ordinarily a non-issue.

If a Catholic wishes to marry a baptized non-Catholic, there is an issue: canon 1124 requires them first to obtain permission of their bishop.  This issue was specifically addressed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” but in a nutshell, the Church will always want to make sure that the non-Catholic spouse will not hamper the Catholic spouse in the practice of the faith.  This is the underlying reason for the requirement—the bishop is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholic party to the marriage, and he has to do his best to ensure that it will not be directly endangered if the marriage takes place.

But when a Catholic wishes to marry a non-Christian, the Church’s concern is even greater.  That’s why strictly speaking, marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person is, according to canon 1086.1, actually invalid!  It can only take place in the Church if the bishop agrees to grant a dispensation from the law—a concept which was explained in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” already mentioned above.  Many of us know of instances where such marriages have been permitted to take place in a Catholic ceremony, of course; these weddings were allowed only after the bishop granted the request for a dispensation.

While the Church isn’t particularly keen on Catholics marrying non-Christians, we can see that it often permits it.  Keep in mind that when such a wedding takes place with the Church’s permission, it is completely legal, and the Catholic spouse in no way should be construed as doing anything wrong!  Nonetheless, the marriage is not a sacrament—as we already saw above, it can’t be.  It is referred to as a non-sacramental marriage.  We have finally arrived at the answer to Ashley’s question.

There’s no denying that it might seem a bit strange to assert that in this situation, a Catholic is marrying in a Catholic church, in a Catholic ceremony, in accord with Catholic canon law… and yet does not receive the Catholic sacrament of matrimony.  Still, as odd as the answer might seem to some, it’s the only logical theological rationale for what is happening.

While we’re on the subject, another question arises: what happens to the non-sacramental marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian, if the non-Christian subsequently chooses to be baptized?  Faced with little alternative, the Church teaches that their marriage becomes sacramental, once the baptism takes place!  Again, it may not sound like the ideal answer, but it is the Church’s position.

Canon law is complicated enough already, in those matters which pertain exclusively to Catholics—and as we can see, in those aspects of the law that touch upon non-Catholics (which usually concern marriage), some concepts become trickier still.  It’s worth noting that this isn’t necessarily because law is always complex, in and of itself; rather, it’s due to the undeniable fact that everyday life can become extremely convoluted, when it involves trying to balance the natural rights of all human beings alongside the rules that specifically govern the Catholic faithful.  The world is a complicated place; canon law is just trying to keep up.

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