Why Would Non-Catholics Get an Annulment?

Q:  As a non-Christian I was civilly married (no kids), that marriage in civil divorce. Later I found faith (I’m Catholic now) and met a wonderful man with whom I’m in love. He’s Catholic too.  I found out that we will not be able to marry in Church, unless I get an annulment.

I was told I have to go through a full annulment process which is quite long in my country due to a lack of people educated in Canon Law.  I brought documents to the tribunal office (one of two) in my country and they said that they will put me on a waiting-list (few years long), but meanwhile I can supply more evidence if I find some.

My main concern, when trying to find more useful information to build my case, is this: are the “standards” the same for both Catholics and non-Catholics—unity, indissolubility, the good of spouses and having children?

What if a non-Catholic at the time of getting civilly married does not know the full information about how Catholic Church views marriage?  In general—I am wondering how non-Catholics can give valid consent, if they don’t know what the Church teaches about marriage? —Lenka

A: Lenka has hit on a very fundamental theological and canonical issue that arises often in cases involving the marriage of non-Catholics.  If two non-Catholics marry in a non-Catholic ceremony and later divorce, and now one of them wants to marry a Catholic in a Catholic ceremony, how does the Catholic Church regard the first marriage?

We have seen many times before in this space that Catholics who wish to marry are required to observe canonical form (see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for more on this).  Among other things, Catholics have to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony which is celebrated by either the bishop, the parish priest, or another cleric delegated by either of them (c. 1108.1).  If they fail to do this, and marry in a non-Catholic wedding without obtaining a dispensation from their bishop in advance, the marriage is invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

But the Church certainly doesn’t require two non-Catholic spouses to observe the same canonical form.  It’s perfectly logical that two Baptists will marry in a Baptist wedding ceremony, Jews in a Jewish ceremony, and so on.  People who were raised in no faith at all may understandably marry in a civil ceremony, conducted by a government official.  As far as the form of such marriages is concerned, the Catholic Church accepts that it is valid for the non-Catholics who marry in accord with it.  In short, if a Buddhist marries in a ceremony that is recognized by Buddhist religious authorities as “legit,” then with regard to its form, it’s regarded as valid by the Catholic Church too.

So does that mean that every marriage of two non-Catholics is automatically regarded by the Catholic Church as valid?  No, and Lenka is onto something here.  At issue is the distinction the Church makes between divine law (sometimes referred to as natural law), and laws which are created by the church hierarchy, known simply as ecclesiastical laws.  The difference between the two was addressed in greater detail in “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” but in short, ecclesiastical laws are established by mortal men (like bishops, or the Pope himself), and they can therefore be changed.  Divine laws, in contrast, are laws which are considered to have been established by God, and they are thus unchangeable by man.  Divine laws also apply to everyone—not just Catholics.

This is why, for example, if non-Catholic Christians baptize using wording which does not include the Trinitarian formula (“In the  name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”), the Catholic Church holds that the baptism is invalid.  This issue was discussed in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,” but suffice to say here that the Church holds that the Trinitarian wording was given to us by Christ Himself (Matt. 28:19).  That means everybody who baptizes has to use it, or else the baptism is invalid.

With regard to marriage, if (let’s say) a Methodist man wanted to marry his daughter, or a Muslim woman wanted to marry her father, the Catholic Church would instantly declare such a marriage invalid.  This is not because the Catholic Church claims to have jurisdiction over non-Catholic religious groups in their own internal affairs—it doesn’t.  Rather, the Church holds that the prohibition on marrying any relative in the direct line of consanguinity (c. 1091.1) is a matter of natural/divine law.  As such it applies not only to Catholics, but to everyone on earth.

The example just raised is a clear-cut one, and so you’d be hard pressed to find any religious group (or any civil jurisdiction, for that matter) which permitted someone to marry a relative in the direct line.  The Methodists and Muslims would never allow their members to do this—because they likewise believe that this would be a blatant violation of natural law!

But as Lenka rightly observes, there are other fundamental aspects of marriage which the Catholic Church also holds to be of divine law, which other religious groups (and non-religious persons) do not.  As we saw in “Contraception and Marriage Validity,” canon 1101.2 notes that a marriage is invalid if one or both parties excluded any essential element or property of marriage.  If, say, two people marry in a ceremony where they are not agreeing to indissolubility, or if they absolutely exclude ever having children, the Church holds that whether they’re Catholic or not, they are not consenting to marriage as God created it.

The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, described the Church’s understanding of marriage:

The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator… and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent… By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown… As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them (GS 48).

Note that since God (not the Catholic Church) established marriage, it’s for everyone, Catholic or not—and certain elements are intrinsic aspects of what marriage is all about.  If you don’t consent to them, the Church’s position is that your consent was defective, and your marriage was not valid.

And speaking of consent, the Catholic Church also holds that everyone who marries, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, must be consenting freely to the marriage.  Canon 1103 states that a marriage is not valid if it was entered by force, or by grave fear imposed from without (see “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” for a scenario involving this canon).  For many, many centuries, the Catholic Church has held that consent makes the marriage.  But not everyone in the Church has always been completely sure that this applies to non-Catholic marriages too.

That’s why in 1986, a dubium was submitted to the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, asking for an authentic interpretation of canon 1103.  As was just seen recently in “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” this Council alone can give authentic (i.e., official) interpretations of unclear canons or other laws promulgated by Rome.  In this case, the Council was asked whether canon 1103 applies also to the marriages of non-Catholics.

The response was in the affirmative, and can be read here (although only in Latin).   This means that the Church’s position is that if a spouse doesn’t consent freely and willingly to marriage, it’s not a valid marriage—no matter what religion the person is, or where the marriage was celebrated.  It also means that a Catholic Marriage Tribunal could, let’s say, judge the marriage of two Hindus in a Hindu ceremony—and if there were sufficient evidence that one or both spouses were forced into a marriage they didn’t want by their parents, and uttered the words of consent only because their family members absolutely insisted, the Tribunal could find the marriage null.  The Hindu would then be free to marry a Catholic in a Catholic wedding ceremony.  Hindu religious authorities might perhaps hold that such a marriage was perfectly valid, and maybe the unwilling spouse(s) thought so too—but the Catholic Church would not.

So to get back to Lenka’s question: there definitely are situations when non-Catholics might marry in a non-Catholic ceremony, and the Catholic Church would regard their marriage as invalid.  This is only because the Church holds that certain aspects of marriage are matters of divine law, and thus apply to everyone—whether they know that or not!  Note that unless such a marriage is brought before a diocesan Marriage Tribunal, because one of the non-Catholic spouses wants a declaration of nullity in order to now marry a Catholic, the Catholic Church does not pass judgment on it at all.  But as we’ve just seen, it’s quite possible for non-Catholics, and even non-Christians, to petition a diocesan Marriage Tribunal for a decree of nullity of their marriage—and if they can prove that there was missing from their consent something which the Catholic Church holds is an intrinsic element of marriage as God intended it, that Tribunal will declare the marriage null.

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