What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? (Part I)

Q: My daughter stopped practicing her faith and was married to a protestant in his church.  Now she has come back, and her protestant husband is preparing to become a Catholic too, next Easter.  They understand that their marriage isn’t valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, but the parish priest told them he can just “bless their marriage” and it will be all right.  Can that possibly be true? –Eamon

A: We’ve seen many times before in this space that a Catholic only marries validly in a Catholic ceremony, or if he obtains advance permission from the diocesan bishop to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony (c. 1108.1; see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” for more on this).  This holds true even for non-practicing Catholics, like Eamon’s daughter, who marry either civilly—i.e., before a Justice of the Peace or some other government official—or in a non-Catholic religious ceremony.  Consequently, it certainly seems on the face of it that the wedding of Eamon’s daughter is invalid, due to lack of canonical form.  If she were to petition for an annulment, it presumably would be a very easy case for this reason.

But from what Eamon says here, it appears that his daughter and her soon-to-be-Catholic husband want to stay together, and to rectify their marriage-situation in the Church.  So how can they do that?

Before we get into the canonical niceties of this sort of situation, it’s worth noting that the concept of “having a marriage blessed” is found nowhere in canon law.  But that doesn’t mean that the priest who spoke about this to Eamon’s daughter is inventing gibberish—he isn’t.  The expression “bless a marriage” is street-talk, referring to several different possible canonical procedures that can, under certain circumstances, validate an invalid marriage.  Let’s look at the specific situation described in the above question, and see how it can be handled under canon law.

If a Catholic couple, or a couple with one Catholic party, has married invalidly because they failed to follow canonical form, and they want to correct this in the eyes of the Church, the marriage can be validated retroactively as per canon 1161.  This is known in canonical lingo as radical sanation, a term of Latin origin which indicates that the invalid marriage is being “healed at its root.”  Once the sanation has been completed, the marriage is recognized by the Church as having been valid from its inception (c. 1161.2).

In this case, the sanation would involve obtaining a dispensation from the canonical form for marriage, for Eamon’s daughter and her husband. (The notion of dispensation, the relaxation of an ecclesiastical law in a particular case {c. 85}, was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”)  Such a dispensation would allow the Catholic party to the marriage to marry before a non-Catholic minister, in a non-Catholic ceremony, and the Catholic Church would recognize the marriage as valid.

If readers are thinking at this point that the granting of a dispensation after the fact (for something which has already been done in the past) involves some kind of a time-warp, they’ve definitely got a point!  In actual fact, Eamon’s daughter should have requested this dispensation in advance, before her wedding ceremony in a non-Catholic church had even taken place.  But she obviously didn’t do that.  Now that the invalid wedding ceremony is over and done with, the Church provides the opportunity for Catholics who subsequently regret their failure to handle this properly, to correct it.

Who can grant such a dispensation, and thus sanate this marriage?  Rome always has the authority to grant a retroactive validation (c. 1165.1); while the diocesan bishop can also grant it in most cases, including those involving lack of canonical form (cf. c. 1165.2).

Note that for this to work, both spouses must still maintain their consent to the marriage—the consent which Eamon’s daughter and her husband presumably exchanged in their non-Catholic wedding ceremony.  In other words, if one or both of them no longer agree to mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage (c. 1057.2), the radical sanation of the marriage does not occur.  Put simply, if the marriage is to be made valid in this manner, the lack of canonical form must be the only invalidating factor in this marriage; in order for the sanation to work, when the retroactive dispensation is obtained, it must be filling the only gap, with all other necessary aspects of a valid marriage already in place.

This may sound extremely technical and legalistic to many readers—and it is.  The whole notion of radical sanation is an example of what the code describes in canon 11 as “merely ecclesiastical law.”  In other words, the notion of radical sanation, and the system to achieve it, were created not by God Himself, but by members of the Catholic hierarchy.  (See “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for a more in-depth look at the notion of divine versus ecclesiastical law.)  That doesn’t mean that the invention of radical sanation is “bad law”; note that much/most of the Code of Canon Law consists of laws created by human beings.  Considering that Christ made His twelve Apostles the first bishops, and put Peter at their head, it’s pretty obvious that God has no intrinsic objection to having His Church on earth ruled by men!  And in this case, we can see that those men tasked with the immense duty of caring for the Catholic faithful have devised a way for Catholics who have failed to obey church law, and thus married invalidly in a non-Catholic ceremony, to correct their mistake and continue to live together as man and wife.

It’s possible to “heal” marriages that are invalid for other reasons too.  We’ll take a look at some other examples in a future column.

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