Can a Catholic Ever Elope?

Q:  What does canon law say about Catholics eloping?  I understand the issue from the perspective of the  sacramental theology of the Church, but was wondering if canon law had anything to say about it, if a Catholic really wants to elope. –David

A:  When we speak of “elopement” today, we usually envision a young couple running away in the middle of the night to be married in secret, and without the consent of their parents—usually by a justice of the peace in a civil wedding ceremony.  Is it ever possible for a Catholic couple (or a couple including only one Catholic) to marry under such circumstances?  There are actually several different components of the question that merit a closer look from a canonical standpoint.

In “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” we saw that Catholics who wish to marry are obliged to observe canonical form.  Canonical form is described in canon 1108.1, which notes that for a valid marriage, Catholics must marry in the presence of two witnesses, and either the local bishop or the pastor of the parish, or a priest/deacon delegated by either one of them.  Consequently, any Catholic who marries in a civil ceremony—before a judge, justice of the peace, or other secular authority—is not married in the eyes of the Church.  If this is what Catholics intend to do when they elope, their marriage will not be valid, period.

But what if a couple of young “elopers” wanted instead to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, without their parents’ knowledge and/or approval?  Would canon law permit them to do this?

It may be surprising to some, but canonically, parental consent in and of itself has nothing directly to do with marriage validity!  Canon 219 states unequivocally that all the Christian faithful have the right to choose their state of life freely, without any kind of coercion.  This means that if a person wishes to marry—or not to marry—he/she cannot be blocked by parents who are opposed to that decision.

This is not a question of obeying one’s parents!  Church history is replete with stories of holy men and women who refused to follow their parents’ wishes in matters of marriage: great saints like Augustine and Clare of Assisi could be said to have “disobeyed” their parents, who in each case had decided that their children ought to marry and had even arranged marriages for them.  God was, as we know, leading each of them in a different (and apparently in God’s eyes, preferable) direction.

The flip-side is also true, of course, as parents likewise have no right to force their children to become clergy and/or religious.  If someone who has reached an appropriate age wishes to embrace married life, his parents cannot ethically block him from doing so.  The history of medieval Europe is unfortunately loaded with stories of unwilling daughters (often illegitimate) being pushed into convents, and sons—but never the eldest!—herded by their parents into clerical life.  Such abuses undoubtedly prompted the Church ultimately to specify that persons seeking to enter religious life (c. 643.1 n. 4), the priesthood (c. 1026), or married life (c. 1103) must be making that choice freely.

When it comes to marriage, however, canon law also has age-limits, as does civil law; and these can affect the validity of a Catholic marriage, quite apart from what the spouses’ parents might think of the idea.  Canon 1083.1 states that a man is not able to marry in the Church until he reaches his 16th birthday, and a woman must be at least 14.  A Catholic cannot enter a valid marriage if he/she is younger than this.  Any underage Catholic wishing to elope could not do so, even if the couple wanted to marry in the Church.

On top of this outright prohibition on underage marriage, the code also provides a more pastoral instruction in canon 1072.  Pastors of souls are to take care to discourage youths from entering a marriage before they have reached the age customarily accepted in their region of the world.  Since the Code of Canon Law binds Catholics in every country on earth, it’s important to keep in mind that social norms regarding the age at which people marry may vary widely.  In some countries, the notion of a 14-year-old bride and 16-year-old bridegroom might raise no eyebrows at all, whereas in others it would undoubtedly be considered shocking!  Catholic clergy are thus urged not only to follow the letter of the law, but also to take into consideration the social norms of their region.

Nonetheless, Catholics are technically able to get married when they are generally regarded in many countries today as still extremely young.  In fact, at first glance it would appear that the Church is willing to marry young people, even if they are still young enough to be legally under the care of their parents, and if their parents are opposed to it!  But canon law on this issue is actually not so simple.  Canon 97.1 notes that a person is canonically considered a minor if he or she is not yet 18 years old.  And the following canon observes that only a person who has attained majority—i.e., has reached his 18th birthday—has the full exercise of his rights (c. 98.1).  The second paragraph explains that in exercising his rights, a minor remains subject to parents or guardians, except for those matters in which minors are exempt from such authority (c. 98.2).

So how do these canons play out when either a Catholic boy between the ages of 16 and 18, or a Catholic girl between 14 and 18, wants to get married?  After all, anyone in these age-brackets is, on the one hand, old enough to marry validly in the Church; but on the other, still canonically considered a minor.  How can such a young person get married in a Catholic wedding ceremony, without the approval of his/her parents?

Canon 1071.1 n. 6 provides the answer.  It notes that except in case of necessity, no one is to assist, without the permission of the bishop, at the marriage of a minor whose parents are either unaware of the marriage, or reasonably opposed to it.  The wording of this canon is extremely precise, so it merits a closer look.

For starters, note that the canon states that Catholics under the age of 18 should not be permitted to marry in the Church if their parents are reasonably opposed to the marriage.  It’s entirely possible, therefore, for such young persons to marry anyway, if the pastor determines the parental opposition to be unreasonable.  Parents might perhaps be considered unreasonable if, to cite a few examples, they’re objecting because they selfishly want their son or daughter to remain at home and keep them company, or want their child to marry somebody else who is more wealthy, or are determined (as just discussed above) that their child should become a priest or sister instead.  The Church would, in such cases, examine the totality of the situation, and it could conceivably decide that the young people’s decision to marry outweighs their parents’ objections.

Secondly, note that the canon excepts “cases of necessity.”  So if, let’s say, young people wish to marry in wartime, and their parents cannot be located or contacted, the Church might decide to go ahead with the marriage.  Or necessity might arise if a parent is senile, or in a coma, and thus physically unable to be made “aware” of the marriage.  Again, the circumstances have to be assessed in each individual case.

Thirdly, this canon states clearly that even if the parents are aware of and reasonably opposed to the marriage of their minor children, the bishop has the authority to allow the marriage anyway.  It’s important to remember that the diocesan bishop is responsible for the spiritual care of all the faithful of his diocese (c. 383.1), and that includes Catholics under the age of 18!  A situation could conceivably arise in which the parents of a minor might have reasonable objections to his marriage from a practical, material standpoint—but the bishop might determine that from the spiritual perspective, there is good reason to permit the marriage to take place nonetheless.  Keep in mind that both the parents of a minor, and that minor’s bishop, have responsibilities for the minor’s wellbeing; but because their areas of responsibility are not identical, the parents and the bishop might very well end up disagreeing on the issue of marriage.

Finally, the use of the word permission in this canon has a significance that must not be overlooked.  In the code of canon law, whenever permission is required to do something, it pertains only to liceity, and not to the validity of the action.  In this particular case, this means that if a Catholic minor were married in circumstances that required the bishop’s permission, but for some reason that permission was not obtained, the marriage is illicit, or illegal.  It does not mean that the marriage is invalid.  The distinction between validity and liceity was discussed in more detail in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II,” but in short, the couple could truly be married, even if the law declares that the marriage really should not have taken place.  Note that any onus for such a violation of canon law would lie not on the newlyweds themselves (who are merely relying on the decision of the pastor who permits the wedding), but rather on the Catholic cleric who officiated at their marriage, and by marrying them without the proper permission, violated the law.

So what can we conclude from all this?  Speaking generally, it’s pretty difficult to assert that the Code of Canon Law approves of elopement!  Nevertheless, there are certain  situations in which it might be possible for a very young couple to marry in the Church without their parents’ knowledge and/or consent.  The Church has to balance the rights and responsibilities of Catholic parents for their children, with the right of all persons to make their own decisions about their choice of a state in life.  And as we’ve just seen, sometimes the one has to make way for the other.

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