Why Would I Need an Annulment, Since My Civil Marriage Was Obviously Invalid?

Q:  I am Catholic, and was married with civil ceremony to my ex-husband…and we divorced the following year.  Now older and hopefully wiser, I want to share the rest of my life with my current partner.  We want to get married, but can’t because my previous marriage (only civil, not in the church) is still not annulled.

A Catholic priest told me that I can marry anyone in the church, so we can be blessed.  It would be considered a Secret Marriage.

My question is, would that marriage be valid?  I want to know if doing that would not be against God’s law? –Ethel

A:  There are two separate canonical issues in Ethel’s question.  The first one, of course, involves her failed civil marriage, and her ability to marry validly in the Catholic Church.  The second issue concerns the advice she was given by the priest whom she mentions.  Let’s take a look.

As we have seen so many, many times before in this space, if Catholics are to marry validly they must observe canonical form (c. 1108).  This means that they must marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony; before the diocesan bishop or parish priest, or a cleric deputed by either of them; and in the presence of two witnesses.  If a Catholic marries in a wedding ceremony that is not in accord with canonical form, the Church holds that it is invalid—unless the Catholic requested and obtained from the diocesan bishop a dispensation from canonical form in advance (see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” for more on this).

Needless to say, a wedding ceremony celebrated by a civil authority, such as a Justice of the Peace or the Mayor of one’s city, does not follow Catholic canonical form.  Consequently, without getting a dispensation in advance, a Catholic does not marry validly in a civil ceremony.  Since Ethel had no dispensation, she is right to assume that her civil marriage would not be considered valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Ethel has never requested an annulment of this marriage, which ended in divorce.  Can she marry validly in the Catholic Church anyway?  After all, it’s perfectly clear that her civil marriage was not valid—right?

This is actually quite a common scenario: a fallen-away Catholic marries outside the Church in what is obviously an invalid wedding ceremony, and later returns to the faith and wants to marry someone else in the Catholic Church.  If everyone knows that the first marriage wasn’t celebrated in accord with canonical form, it can be tempting to think that there’s no need to get an annulment before celebrating a “real” marriage in the Church.  It can be a tempting thought—but it’s wrong.

The fact is, people untrained in the law can wrongly assess the facts of a situation like Ethel’s first marriage; and without asking all the right questions and obtaining all the necessary information, it’s dangerously easy to reach an erroneous conclusion about its validity.  To cite only one example, what if Ethel became a Catholic only after her civil marriage?  If neither she or her husband was Catholic at the time, there’s no reason to assume that their marriage was invalid, since non-Catholics are not bound by canonical form!  And if the Church recognizes their civil marriage as valid, then of course Ethel would have to obtain a declaration of nullity of that marriage, before she could possibly marry somebody else in the Church.

Canon 1060 tells us that marriage enjoys the favor of the law, and so in doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.  In other words, when someone has been through a wedding ceremony, has a marriage license, etc., we are to assume that they are married—unless and until the Church declares that the marriage was null and they aren’t really married at all.  Put differently, the burden is on Ethel to prove to the Church that her first marriage wasn’t valid; and if ecclesiastical authorities agree, they will make a formal declaration to that effect, after which she will be able to marry another man in a Catholic ceremony.

Ordinarily, those “ecclesiastical authorities” just mentioned are found in the diocesan Marriage Tribunal, constituted under the ultimate authority of the bishop.  But as was discussed at length in “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” in many dioceses there is another possibility in some cases.  When a Catholic has previously been married in a non-Catholic ceremony—a situation that constitutes a complete lack of canonical form, in other words—and now wishes to marry in the Catholic Church, the parish priest who is responsible for preparing the couple for marriage can, as part of the prenuptial investigation mandated and described in canons 1066-1067, assess the circumstances of the first marriage and declare it null himself.

This would mean, in Ethel’s case, that if the pastor of her parish is permitted by the diocesan bishop to do this, he can review the facts and all the documentation pertaining to her civil marriage; and if he concludes that it is appropriate, he can declare that it was invalid on his own authority, without sending the case to the diocesan Marriage Tribunal at all.  Then he can proceed with preparation of Ethel and her fiancé for a Catholic wedding in the parish.

That said, let’s examine what Ethel was told by the priest whom she mentions (who incidentally was not the pastor of her parish).  Ethel says that this priest claimed she could marry anybody she wanted in the Church, without an annulment of her first marriage—and it would be a “secret marriage.”

It should be painfully obvious at this point that what Ethel was told is complete nonsense.  If she were to marry in a Catholic ceremony without first obtaining a declaration of nullity of her first marriage, it would be an invalid marriage!  Sadly, we see here yet another instance of a Catholic priest making up the rules as he goes along, much like the tragic case discussed in “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest.”  It’s not clear whether he was trying to be “nice” to Ethel, or if he was hopelessly confused himself, but in the end it doesn’t really matter: if Ethel had accepted his false information, she could have gotten into a lot of canonical trouble by invalidly marrying another man in a Catholic ceremony.  It is fortunate that Ethel was skeptical, and sought to educate herself on the matter further.

While we’re on the subject, however, the Code of Canon Law actually does contain provisions to celebrate a secret marriageCanons 1130-1131 tell us that celebrating a Catholic marriage secretly can be permitted for a grave and urgent reason; and this would require that the prenuptial investigation, normally conducted by the parish priest, is carried out in secret.  Why would it ever be a good idea for a couple to marry in the Church, without their marriage becoming a matter of public knowledge?

One such situation arose in recent years in a large European diocese, with a significant population of Catholic immigrants living there in an illegal status.  When these immigrants wanted to marry in the Church, they also had to approach the civil authorities, in order to obtain the necessary civil marriage license.  But the moment that they told the civil authorities that they were living in that city and wanted to get married … they were arrested and deported.

In terms of civil law, this was entirely understandable; but when word got around among these illegal immigrants, they immediately realized that unless they wanted to be sent back to their home country, they couldn’t marry in the Catholic Church—because ordinarily a Catholic wedding requires a civil marriage license.  These illegal immigrants, therefore, began simply living together without getting married.

Most Catholics can appreciate that cohabitating without the benefit of marriage is morally wrong in the eyes of the Catholic Church; but church officials could certainly understand why these immigrants didn’t dare approach the civil authorities for a marriage license.  To solve the problem, the bishop of the Church in this country quietly arranged with his clergy to celebrate secret marriages for these immigrants.  In this diocese, an illegal-immigrant couple is prepared for marriage and the wedding is celebrated in full accord with canon law—but the marriage is not civilly recognized, because the civil authorities know nothing about it!  Yes, the arrangement is definitely less than ideal; but the Church’s primary concern in this messy situation is for the spiritual well-being of its members, and so the civil-licensing requirement takes a back seat.

It should be evident that the correct definition of a secret marriage has nothing whatsoever to do with Ethel’s situation.  The bishop or religious superior of the priest who gave Ethel this false information should be informed of what happened—because if the priest has done this to Ethel, it’s likely he has done (or will do) the same to other members of the faithful as well.

To sum up, Ethel’s civil marriage is almost certainly null, but she has no authority to make this determination herself.  It will likely be a simple matter, but somebody in the Church with authority to do so has to review all the evidence, and make an official declaration as to its invalidity.  Only then will Ethel be able to marry validly in a Catholic wedding ceremony.

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