Catholics in Non-Sacramental Marriages

Q1: I plan to marry a Catholic, who just got a divorce. An annulment of his marriage could take two years or more, which at my age is not a course I want to take…  Since I am not baptized, I understand our marriage would not be a sacramental one, even if it takes place in church after the annulment comes through.  I’m trying to understand the difference between a non-sacramental marriage ceremony held in church, and one performed civilly outside it.  Apparently it’s not the non-sacramental-ness of them that makes the difference, so what does? –Linda

Q2: My fiancée is Catholic, and says she has to get married in a Catholic church, but as I am a Buddhist I want to have the ceremony in a Buddhist temple.  Her family and priest are insisting that the wedding must be Catholic…. What can I say to her about Catholic law that will convince her to marry in a Buddhist ceremony as I want? –Hong

A: When non-Christians want to marry Catholics, it’s no surprise that they can quickly become confused about what exactly Catholics have to do if they want their marriage to be recognized by the Catholic Church. And in quite a few cases, they don’t understand what the Church expects them to do themselves, as the future spouses of Catholics. So before directly addressing these specific questions, it may be helpful to look at some of the more general principles that always apply to marriages between a Catholic and a non-Catholic.

First and foremost, it’s critical for any non-Catholic , Christian or not, who wishes to marry a Catholic to keep in mind at all times that the Catholic Church’s number-one concern is for the spiritual well-being of the Catholic party to the marriage. Any rules and regulations that the Church imposes on the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic are intended to safeguard the faith of the Catholic spouse.  Bear in mind that the Catholic Church doesn’t make such marriages difficult because it dislikes non-Catholics per se!  Rather, the Church is naturally concerned that when a Catholic marries someone of a different faith—or of no faith at all—the close everyday contact with a husband/wife who does not hold Catholic beliefs can strain or weaken the faith of the Catholic spouse.  Married persons obviously share countless different aspects of their daily lives with each other; but if only one spouse is Catholic, this means that religious faith is one of the few things that the Catholic has to live out alone, without support or reinforcement from the non-Catholic spouse. This is a simple, undeniable fact.

And this is why canonically, the Church restricts the marriages of Catholics to non-Catholics.  As we saw in both “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” and “Can Non-Catholics Receive the Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony?” when a Catholic wants to marry a baptized non-Catholic, he must first obtain permission from the diocesan bishop.  Canon 1124 tells us 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.  The bishop will want to be assured that the faith of the Catholic party to the marriage will not be jeopardized by living with a non-Catholic Christian husband or wife.

But when the non-Catholic spouse isn’t even a Christian, the Church’s rules are even stricter. As was discussed in the columns just mentioned above, canon 1086.1 states bluntly that marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person is invalid.  This law can be dispensed by the local bishop, but only if he has ascertained that the Catholic spouse is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith—and will also do all in his/her power to ensure that any children of the marriage are raised as Catholics (c. 1125).  Once again, protecting the faith of the Catholic party to the marriage is key.

In countries where Catholics are in the minority, it is very common for Catholics to marry non-Catholics, and so one might assume that diocesan bishops grant the necessary permission/dispensation automatically, as a matter of course. In actual fact this should never be the case; if the parish priest of the Catholic party can see that the Catholic’s faith is in danger, he can and should forestall the wedding.  And if the bishop is nonetheless asked to grant permission or a dispensation for such a marriage to take place, he should refuse it, if he believes this is necessary in order to protect the spiritual well-being of the Catholic.

For example, imagine a case in which the non-Catholic future-spouse is overtly hostile to the Church, making it clear during wedding-preparation discussions with the parish priest that he/she thinks Catholicism is ridiculous and hopes the Catholic spouse will “wise up” and abandon it.  Or let’s say that a Catholic wishes to marry someone who is well known for making public attacks on Catholicism—perhaps the prospective spouse is a cleric in his/her own faith, and openly criticizes the Catholic Church for its teachings.  In such a situation, it’s pretty easy to imagine that after the wedding, the Catholic spouse won’t be able to practice his/her faith without hindrance!  Therefore the Catholic party’s pastor would wisely press to defer the wedding of such a couple, unless and until it became clear that the non-Catholic would permit the Catholic spouse to profess the faith freely and openly, without being prevented from carrying out his/her duties as a Catholic.

It’s impossible to be sure, but judging from the wording of Hong’s question (only part of which is reproduced here), it could be that he has been manifesting to his prospective Catholic bride, her family, and the pastor of her parish that he has little tolerance for the Catholic faith.  This would explain their apparent unwillingness to agree to request a dispensation from canonical form, which would permit Hong’s Catholic fiancée to marry in a Buddhist ceremony.  As was discussed in detail in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” it is canonically possible for a Catholic to obtain such a dispensation in advance, thereby enabling the Catholic to marry validly in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony; but since the pastor of Hong’s Catholic fiancée evidently does not want to request a dispensation from the diocesan bishop, there may very well be a broader issue here which he reasonably feels the need to address first.  Hong has the right to expect his future wife to respect his own Buddhist beliefs, but his Catholic bride-to-be has exactly the same right herself!  And if her pastor can see that the faith of Hong’s fiancée may be threatened by her marriage to Hong, this might understandably lead him to insist that the wedding be a Catholic one—so as to reinforce in Hong’s mind the need for religious tolerance and respect.

While Linda is likewise a non-Christian who plans to marry a Catholic, her specific question is canonically very different. Linda is correct that if she marries a Catholic in a Catholic wedding ceremony, theirs will be a non-sacramental marriage.  This was discussed in depth in “If a Catholic Marries a Non-Christian, How is it a Sacrament?”  but in short, the marriage of a Catholic to a non-baptized person is always non-sacramental by definition.  This is because baptism is necessary before a person can receive any of the other sacraments (cf. c. 849, which notes that baptism is the “gateway to the sacraments”).  If one party to the marriage is not baptized, he/she is thus unable to receive the sacrament of marriage.  And if one spouse cannot receive the sacrament, the other spouse—even if he/she is baptized—does not receive it either.

Note that there is nothing necessarily wrong with a Catholic having a non-sacramental marriage.  If the Catholic party arranged with his/her pastor to obtain a dispensation in advance, and was married in a Catholic wedding ceremony, the marriage is recognized by the Catholic Church as valid.  In no way can a Catholic who was married in this sort of scenario be faulted for doing something morally objectionable!  On the contrary, a Catholic party to such a marriage has done exactly what the Church requires.

In contrast, consider the case of a Catholic who marries a non-Christian in a civil ceremony outside the Church, as described by Linda in her question. The Catholic man whom Linda wants to marry is, unless and until his previous marriage is annulled by a Catholic marriage tribunal, still considered by the Church to be married to someone else!  Yes, if he went through a civil ceremony in the meantime (obviously without any dispensation allowing him to so), the wedding would certainly be non-sacramental; but in the eyes of the Church it would also be invalid, and it would be gravely wrong for any Catholic to knowingly, deliberately agree to such a ceremony.  In multiple ways, he would be failing to obey the Church’s teachings and rules regarding marriage—and as a result the Church would consider him to be cohabitating without the benefit of marriage, a grave moral evil.

The Church is not seeking to block the marriage of Linda to her prospective husband for frivolous reasons. On the contrary, the Church is once again looking out for his spiritual welfare—which is why it teaches that he cannot marry Linda without first obtaining an official declaration from the Church that his first marriage was null.  There’s no doubt that the annulment process can be long and complicated (see “Why Do Marriage Annulments Take So Long?” for more on this issue); but remember that the Church’s goal is not to rubber-stamp all annulment-requests, but rather to determine the truth in each case while simultaneously upholding the sanctity of marriage.  If speeding things up leads to a trivializing of the process, then it’s far preferable—although naturally more frustrating!—to wait it out and be sure it is done properly.

What conclusions can be drawn from all this? Firstly, the Catholic Church does indeed permit Catholics to marry non-Catholics, whether baptized or not—but it first wants to ensure that there is no clear threat to the faith of the Catholic party to the marriage.  Secondly, the Church’s rules regarding marriage may seem cumbersome and inconvenient, but they exist for a reason: the Church takes marriage very seriously, and the complexity of its processes can reflect that.  And finally, obedience to authority, which is a hallmark of the Catholic faith, is always necessary for a Catholic to marry validly in the eyes of the Church.

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