Q: In our parish RCIA program, I have a couple that were married civilly, but plan to marry next year in the Catholic Church back in her hometown. Both are baptized Catholic and have received Holy Communion, but neither has been confirmed.
They were told by the priest that will marry them that they need to get confirmed or he cannot do their wedding. I’m telling them that they first need to get married in the Church or they cannot get confirmed. How can we resolve this? –Mike
A: There are a couple of separate canonical/theological issues interwoven in Mike’s excellent question. One of them involves administering the sacraments to persons who are currently in an objective state of grave sin (in this case, to baptized Catholics who are cohabitating). The other concerns the marriage of Catholics who have never received the sacrament of confirmation. Let’s look at these two questions individually, and then we’ll be able to sort out the way(s) to resolve this couple’s situation.
We’ll start with the second issue first. Canon 891 states that children are to be confirmed at about the age of discretion, which is more or less the age of seven (cf. c. 11; see also “Can Catholic Children Receive the Last Rites?” and “Can Children Make Their First Communion Before Their First Confession?” for more on the age of discretion, also known as the age of reason). Together with baptism and the Eucharist, confirmation is one of the sacraments of initiation—which, as the Catechism notes, “lay the foundations of every Christian life” (CCC 1212). Thus it makes theological sense that confirmation should be administered soon after a Catholic child is able to understand basically what it’s all about.
But the same canon 891 notes that a Bishops’ Conference can decide on a different age. (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a Bishops’ Conference is.) In a number of countries today, and for various reasons, the sacrament of confirmation is often not administered until Catholics are in their teens; and an unintended result of this is that many Catholics never receive the sacrament at all. In some cases, the family stops attending Mass regularly once the children make their First Holy Communion—which is erroneously seen by many as a kind of “crowning achievement.” Consequently, their children are no longer sent to catechism classes, which is obviously not the children’s fault. Regardless of the reason, many people today have been raised Catholic (more or less), but have never been confirmed. So what happens when they grow up and want to get married in the Church?
Canon 1065.1 provides the answer. Catholics who have not been confirmed are to receive the sacrament before getting married, if this can be done without grave inconvenience. Note that the last part of the sentence indicates that it is not obligatory—and it certainly does not affect the validity of the marriage. If, let’s say, a Catholic couple is making plans to marry a year from now, and the pastor of their parish hears that one or both of them has not been confirmed, he can (and should) urge the unconfirmed person(s) to prepare to receive the sacrament in the interim. Assuming that there is time, the unconfirmed future spouse(s) can join whatever sacramental-preparation program the parish may have, and be confirmed before the wedding is scheduled to take place. This scenario, according to the canon, is the ideal.
But there are plenty of situations where the ideal isn’t doable, for practical reasons. Imagine, for instance, that the parish priest only discovered a few weeks before the wedding that one/both of the spouses hadn’t been confirmed. Or maybe the spouses arranged to marry in a hurry this summer (let’s say he’s in the navy, and his ship is leaving shortly after the wedding), and parish confirmations aren’t scheduled again until the following spring. Or perhaps the parish is in a rural area which the bishop can only visit sporadically to administer confirmation—and he isn’t planning to come again for at least a couple of years. In these sorts of cases, the wedding need not be postponed until both spouses are confirmed, and to refuse to marry such a couple would constitute a violation of their rights (see “Can Catholics be Prohibited From Marrying in Lent and Advent?” for further discussion of the right to receive the sacrament of matrimony).
Now let’s look at the other issue that constitutes a critical part of Mike’s question. He is helping two fallen-away Catholics, who were married in a civil ceremony, to regularize their situation and return to the Church. Since the Catholic Church does not recognize their civil wedding, it holds that they are currently living together without the benefit of marriage. The couple clearly does want to rectify this; they are planning to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony as required.
There’s a delicate balancing-act that always occurs in situations like this one. On the one hand, the Church is happy that this couple want to return to the faith, and live henceforth as practicing Catholics. It certainly doesn’t want to scare them away! But on the other hand, the two have been living together (and presumably engaging in sexual relations) without being married in the Church—and this sinful activity has to stop immediately. If one of them is willing and able to move out of the house until the wedding, that’s great… but it’s easy enough to imagine that they don’t want/can’t afford to do that. And if they already have children, that obviously makes the situation more complicated still.
This is why Mike is trying to make sure that the couple marry in a Catholic ceremony as soon as possible. The longer they have to wait, the more likely it is that they might renege on the agreement they have presumably made to live as brother and sister until their Catholic wedding—especially if they are still sharing the same bedroom! Mike’s concern is responsible and theologically well founded.
It is this concern about sinful activity which is understandably leading Mike to tell this couple that they first have to be married in the Church—and no longer in their irregular marital situation—before they plan to receive the sacrament of confirmation. To quote the Catechism again,
To receive Confirmation one must be in a state of grace. One should receive the sacrament of Penance in order to be cleansed for the gift of the Holy Spirit. More intense prayer should prepare one to receive the strength and graces of the Holy Spirit with docility and readiness to act (CCC 1310).
Now if they really needed to receive the sacrament of confirmation before the sacrament of matrimony, this couple would have to postpone their wedding—meaning that in the interim, they’d still be stuck in a sort of sexual limbo, and still running the risk of submitting to the temptation to abandon their temporary brother-and-sister lifestyle. But fortunately, as we’ve just seen, they don’t need to do this at all. The couple can marry as soon as reasonably possible, without being confirmed first.
Under these circumstances, therefore, the priest from the woman’s hometown, who is insisting “that they need to get confirmed or he cannot do their wedding,” is in error. Perhaps it would be best if Mike would get in touch with this priest, and politely explain the situation (perhaps politely explaining canon law in the process). If even that doesn’t work, Mike might contact the bishop in whose territory that parish is located—and let him know that the parish priest is unwilling to follow the law and celebrate the wedding. The bishop undoubtedly has no idea that this is happening—and if one of his priests is refusing to administer a sacrament to the faithful for spurious reasons, he would want to know!
To be fair, there’s yet another complicating factor here: as was discussed in “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?” strictly speaking, the priest from the woman’s hometown doesn’t have to marry the couple. After all, they live elsewhere and aren’t his parishioners, so he isn’t spiritually responsible for them (cf. c. 519). Still, it does appear that he already agreed to celebrate the wedding, and the couple and their families are now planning to have the wedding there because he told them he would do it. One could make a pretty strong argument that the priest has bound himself to celebrate the marriage, and thus he cannot put forward legally unsound reasons for refusing to do it now.
Nonetheless, if they want to, the couple can avoid all this if they change their wedding plans, and arrange to marry not in her hometown, but in the parish/diocese where they currently reside (c. 1115). The pastor of the parish where this couple actually lives, and where Mike is assisting them in returning to the Church, will naturally have an accurate handle on the situation and marry them promptly. They can make preparations to receive the sacrament of confirmation later.
It’s quite a tricky situation, isn’t it? We can see that the Catholic Church is anxious to welcome this couple back into the Church, while at the same time it is unwilling to jettison completely either its moral teachings on sexuality, or its sacramental theology. Still, the Church is willing to juggle as much as it can for the spiritual well-being of the faithful, which is always its primary concern.