Canon Law and Marriage Records

Q: My wife and I have been married for eight years.  We were married in her parish church at that time, but we now live in the same parish where my family lived when I was born, and where I went to parochial school.

My wife was chatting with the parish secretary about various things and somehow they ended up talking about my being baptized there.  The secretary looked in the old parish register and said that yes, I was baptized and made my First Communion and was confirmed, but there’s no record of us ever getting married, and there should be (or so she said)!  What the heck does that mean?  We were married in a different Catholic parish, by my wife’s pastor, so there’s a record of it there, and we have a copy of it.  Why would our current parish have a record of our marriage in a different parish anyway?  My wife is still shaken by this, she said the parish secretary kind of intimated that we’re not really married.  Can you shed any light on this? –Blake

A:  Blake’s question regards a seemingly mundane canonical requirement  that can have potentially huge implications if it is ignored: parish record-keeping of the sacraments administered to parishioners.

Canon 535.1 explains the general rule: every parish is required to keep registers of baptisms, marriages, and deaths.  Additionally, some dioceses and/or Episcopal Conferences mandate that parishes in their territory keep other registers as well—for first Holy Communion, for example, or confirmation.  (See “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain from Meat Every Friday?” for more on what an Episcopal Conference is and does.)  Parish priests are obliged to make sure that the registers are updated as needed, and that the register-books are carefully preserved.

This isn’t just a mindless, bureaucratic regulation.  A baptized Catholic ipso facto has certain rights and obligations that unbaptized persons/non-Catholics don’t have.  To cite one of the most obvious examples, once he is baptized, a Catholic is able to receive the other Catholic sacraments (cf. c. 849); an unbaptized person is not.  Another very common situation where proof of baptism is critical concerns marriages involving at least one Catholic: if the other party has not been baptized, it is necessary to request a dispensation from the impediment of disparity of cult (see “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” for more on this).  Consequently, it’s vital to maintain written records that clearly document when, where, and by whom a person was baptized—and this information is preserved in a parish’s baptismal register (c. 877).   This is not optional!

What if a person was baptized outside of his parish church—perhaps in the chapel of a monastery located within parish territory, or in the hospital in danger of death–Canon 878 states specifically that when a baptism is administered by someone other than the parish priest, the minister of baptism is to notify the parish in whose territory it was performed, so that the baptism may be properly recorded in the parish register.  In this way, a record of every Catholic baptism is maintained in the register of some parish, no matter where it actually took place.

But as the abovementioned canon 535.1 indicates, the record-keeping doesn’t end there.  All Catholic parishes around the world are required to maintain marriage registers too, again containing all the vital where-when-who information (c. 1121).  You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to appreciate that a Catholic’s legal status in the Church changes once he is married.  For one thing, a Catholic who is currently married is obviously impeded by that fact from marrying someone else (c. 1085.1)!  Additionally, a married Catholic man is impeded from receiving priestly ordination (c. 1042 n. 1), while married Catholic men and women alike cannot validly be admitted to the novitiate of a religious institute (c. 643.1 n. 2).

Not every Catholic gets married in the same parish where he was baptized, of course.  That’s why canon 1122 stipulates that the pastor of the parish where a marriage has been celebrated must notify the parish(es) where the spouses were baptized, and the marriage is to be recorded in the baptismal register(s) there.  Let’s say that John and Mary were married in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.  John had been baptized in St. Andrew’s, 1000 miles away, while Mary was baptized in Queen of Peace Parish, located in the same diocese as St. Patrick’s.  The pastor of St. Patrick’s is required by law both to (a) enter all the relevant information in the marriage register of St. Patrick’s, and (b) send notification of John and Mary’s wedding to both St. Andrew’s and Queen of Peace.  The pastors of St. Andrew’s and Queen of Peace are in turn required to enter the information they receive from St. Patrick’s into their own parish baptismal registers, near the entries recording John and Mary’s baptisms.

This means that there is a record of John and Mary’s marriage in the parish where it took place, and also in the parishes where they were baptized.  That way, if they were to divorce civilly, and one of them wanted to remarry in the Church, the baptismal certificates (which prospective spouses are normally required to present as a prerequisite for the celebration of a marriage, cf. cc. 1066-1069) would indicate that they had already been married.  If their marriage were later declared null by a diocesan marriage tribunal, a notice of that annulment would have to be sent as soon as possible to both the pastor of St. Patrick’s, and the pastors of St. Andrew’s and Queen of Peace, and all three pastors would be obliged to record this in their marriage/baptism registers (cc. 1123, 1685).  In this way, the registers in all three parish churches would always show the current marital status of John and Mary, and provide evidence that they were free to remarry in the Church.

To return to Blake’s case, however, it’s clear that someone failed in his duty to ensure that Blake’s marriage was recorded in the baptismal register of the parish where he had been baptized.  Either the pastor of the parish where the wedding took place neglected to inform the parish of his baptism; or the pastor of the parish where Blake was baptized failed to note the information he received into the baptismal register near the entry documenting Blake’s baptism.  That is a failing that is solely the responsibility of the pastor—it is not in any way the fault of Blake and his wife.  It also has no bearing whatsoever on the validity of their marriage: the mere fact that the wedding was not properly noted in the baptismal register certainly does not affect the fact that they are indeed married, and can prove it!

So the parish secretary was correct that there should be a record in the baptismal register of Blake’s marriage.  Probably the easiest thing for Blake to do at this point is simply to phone the parish where he was married and request that they send the necessary information to the parish of his baptism.  Then he might want to double-check that when it arrives, the pastor does indeed enter it into the baptismal register.  But note, however, that Blake has no legal obligation to do this, and it certainly does not change his current status as a baptized, married Catholic.

Now we can see that entering information regarding the conferral of sacraments like baptism and marriage into the appropriate parish registers is much more than just bureaucratic pencil-pushing.  The canonical status of the Catholic faithful can hinge on it, and so it is crucial that these records be accurately maintained.

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