If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part II)

Q: I was married in a civil marriage, and we are still happily married.  At the time, my husband was a baptized protestant (Baptist), and I was not baptized.

Recently I became a Catholic.  When I converted, it was my understanding that our marriage is considered valid by the Church. I was told that my marriage was “elevated to sacramental status” when I was baptized, in an automatic way.  This info was supposedly via the expert in Canon Law at the Archdiocese…. If that’s the case, that’s great!! As long as God is happy and that’s the final word, I’ll let the matter be.

But when I repeated this to my parish priest, he gave me a strange look and said he’d re-inquire, as that sounded confusing to him and he’d never heard of such a thing.

Adult baptisms in this country are fairly rare, and no one seems to know of precedent cases: already civilly married, then one party converts and is baptized. What is the status of our marriage? –Nora

A: As a non-Christian who only became a Catholic as an adult, Nora is something of an anomaly in the majority-Catholic country where she lives.  This presumably explains the confusion of her pastor regarding her marriage in a civil ceremony, many years before her conversion to Catholicism.  Although we’ve never looked at a scenario exactly like Nora’s, all the relevant law has already been discussed, in different ways, in a number of previous articles.  Let’s take this situation apart, apply the law and praxis mentioned in those prior articles, and see what conclusions we can draw about Nora’s case.

To begin with, there’s a general rule of thumb which directly applies here.  If the Catholic Church would have already considered your marriage valid back when you were a non-Catholic, then converting to the Catholic faith doesn’t invalidate it.  The flip-side is true too: if the Church would, for whatever reason, have regarded your marriage as invalid before you became a Catholic, then becoming a Catholic doesn’t magically make it valid.

This is because the Catholic Church has always held that marriage is a natural right, whether you’re Catholic or not.  Speaking broadly, human beings can marry regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof.  The Catholic Church has never asserted that just because two non-Catholic spouses marry in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, their marriage is invalid for that reason alone.

True, when the Catholic Church talks about the validity of a marriage, it defines “marriage” in a specific way that is grounded in Catholic theology.  For example, we saw in “If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part I)” that the Church does not consider valid the second marriage of a divorced person (assuming that the first marriage was valid), because Jesus Christ Himself told us, “what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matt. 19:6).  Our Lord was speaking here of humanity as a whole, not just Catholics—and so this marriage rule applies to everyone.  Therefore the Catholic Church does not consider a second marriage after a divorce to be valid, regardless of the type of wedding ceremony that was celebrated, or the spouses’ religious beliefs.

Similarly, if one or both spouses categorically reject the possibility of ever having children together (see “Contraception and Marriage Validity” for more on this), the Catholic Church holds that this invalidates the marriage because it involves defective consent—whether you’re a Catholic or not.  That’s because, as was discussed in the article just mentioned, the Church holds that openness to children is an essential element of every marriage.  In short, the Catholic Church will tell you that it’s a key part of what a marriage is.

There are other theological issues (especially involving the exchange of consent by the spouses) that can potentially affect the validity of any marriage, so far as the Catholic Church is concerned.  That’s why, to cite another example, the Church would not hesitate to assert that if a couple was married at the point of a gun, and unwillingly exchanged “consent” out of fear, this is no marriage, and it makes no difference if the spouses are Catholics or not.  See how it works?

It often happens that people wrongly equate the validity/invalidity of such a marriage with its sacramentality.  In actual fact, valid marriages are sacramental only if both spouses are baptized (c. 1055.2; see “Can Non-Catholics Receive the Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony?” for more on this).  But valid marriages will be non-sacramental if one or both spouses are unbaptized (as seen in “Catholics in Non-Sacramental Marriages,” and “If a Catholic Marries a Non-Christian, How is it a Sacrament?”).  As was discussed in the articles just mentioned, “sacramentality” and “validity” are not synonymous.  It’s quite possible to celebrate a non-sacramental marriage that is unquestionably valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  In majority non-Christian countries, it happens countless times every day!

In Nora’s case, her marriage clearly couldn’t have been sacramental, because she herself was not a Christian at the time.  But as was just stated, that’s not necessarily a problem.  Just because Nora married in a civil ceremony, that doesn’t automatically mean the Church considers it invalid.  Think about it: if Nora had married her husband in his protestant parish church, their marriage still wouldn’t have been sacramental, since Nora was not yet baptized.  This is worth emphasizing, because when assessing cases like Nora’s, it’s disheartening to see how many people—Catholics and non-Catholics alike—fail to grasp this important point.

Neither Nora nor her husband had ever been married before, and there’s no evidence that their exchange of consent was faulty in any way.  In other words, there doesn’t appear to be any reason why the Church would regard their marriage as invalid for theological reasons.  Consequently, the remaining canonical issue here is rather simple: does the Catholic Church consider invalid the civil marriage of a non-Catholic Christian and a non-Christian?  The validity (or not) of Nora’s marriage hinges on this question.

This is not a situation that is directly addressed by the Code of Canon Law.  After all, the code pertains to Catholics, and both Nora and her husband were non-Catholics, so why would the Church presume to write laws governing them?  Instead of citing canons, therefore, it’s necessary to apply both logic and theology to such a case, which is something that diocesan marriage tribunals around the world do all the time.

As a non-Christian, there’s no theological reason why Nora couldn’t marry validly in a civil ceremony, so far as the Catholic Church is concerned.  After all, if two spouses who had been raised as atheists were to have a civil wedding ceremony, the Church would accept the marriage as valid—because what other sort of ceremony would they have?

The only potential issue in Nora’s case would involve her husband’s protestant denomination.  If his faith taught that members are always forbidden to marry in a civil ceremony, then they wouldn’t accept his marriage to Nora as valid.  And if the leadership of her husband’s protestant community denied the validity of his marriage to Nora … then out of deference, the Catholic Church would too.

In point of fact, the clergy of the denomination to which Nora’s husband belongs have no problem with their members celebrating civil weddings.  They thus consider him to be validly married to Nora.  For that reason, the Catholic Church does the same.  Nora’s marriage, therefore, is indeed valid in the eyes of the Church.  (For the record: if Nora’s husband had been, say, Greek Orthodox, his bishop would likely have informed him that his civil marriage was not considered valid in the Greek Orthodox Church—and the Catholic Church would defer to that judgment.)

What Nora was told by “the expert in Canon Law at the Archdiocese” is absolutely correct: Nora’s (valid) marriage was non-sacramental because she was not baptized; but the Church holds that when she was baptized it became sacramental, without anyone having to do a thing.  This was addressed in the already mentioned “If a Catholic Marries a Non-Christian, How is it a Sacrament?”  This is another instance of the application of both logical and theology to a particular case, since the Code of Canon Law does not directly address this specific situation.

So as a new Catholic, Nora has absolutely nothing to worry about regarding the validity of her marriage.  While her parish priest was at first taken aback by the response of the archdiocesan canonist, he subsequently sorted it out and realized that nothing further needs to be done.

Nora’s attitude throughout this brief period of uncertainty is commendable: “As long as God is happy and that’s the final word, I’ll let the matter be.”  One of the hallmarks of the Catholic faith is obedience to one’s lawful ecclesiastical superiors, trusting that what they tell us we’re required to do is what God Himself requires; and Nora demonstrated that she was perfectly willing to acquiesce.  It seems that Nora has started out on her new life as a Catholic on the right foot.

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