Can You Become Catholic If You’re in an Irregular Marriage?

Q: A coworker and friend needs help with a really tough question about canon law. This one has stumped some of the best canonists in our area.

My friend is an Anglican who wants to convert to Catholicism badly. He is married and was never married before.  His wife was married before… she and her previous husband are both Fundamentalist Baptists (staunch anti-Catholics).

Obviously she needs an annulment for my Anglican friend to enter the Church. However, she doesn’t want him to become Catholic…. She is familiar enough with our canon law to understand that refusing to get an annulment is enough to keep him out of the Church. So she does this to try to force him to choose between the Church and her.

My friend is heartbroken over this. He knows the Catholic Church is the only true Church, and he wants in, but he is being kept out by his wife’s refusal to cooperate with the annulment process.

Is there any hope for him in canon law? Is there any way he can bring a case before the Church against her previous marriage, without involving her in the process? –Shane

A: There are a number of different canonical issues in this question, including some assumptions that Shane is making which are not accurate.  Let’s first take a look at the marriage situation of Shane’s non-Catholic coworker; then we’ll be able see whether it would affect his reception into the Catholic Church, and if so, why and how.

First of all, as we Catholics are well aware, once Catholics get married in a valid wedding ceremony, they are married until the death of one of the spouses.  Catholics cannot marry again if their first spouse is still living, unless of course it can be proven before a marriage tribunal that somehow the first marriage was null (as was discussed in “Marriage and Annulment”).  As the Catechism explains, this teaching is clearly rooted in Scripture:

In His preaching, Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning.  Permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts.  The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God Himself has determined it. “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).  (CCC 1614)

This is nothing new to most Catholics, but here’s a question that might have never occurred to them before: Does this teaching about the indissolubility of marriage apply only to Catholics?  Or are non-Catholics required to follow it too?

The answer is pretty straightforward.  The Catholic Church holds that Jesus’ statement applies not just to Catholics, but to everyone.  Put differently, the indissolubility of marriage isn’t merely an ecclesiastical law invented by men; it’s a matter of natural law, established by God—and thus every human being is obliged to follow it (see “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for a more in-depth discussion of the difference between ecclesiastical and divine/natural law).  Consequently, if a person marries, then divorces and remarries without any declaration that the first marriage was actually null, the Church will hold that the remarriage is not valid.  That’s because so far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the divorced person is still married to his/her first spouse.

But while the Catholic Church does not accept divorce and remarriage, we know that many non-Catholics do.  The Catholic Church obviously doesn’t run around openly attacking them for doing this; but if these non-Catholics were to ask the Catholic Church whether their second marriage is valid, the Church would tell them that it isn’t.  Since, however, the vast majority of non-Catholics don’t particularly care what the Catholic Church teaches, they understandably don’t ask this question, and thus we all manage to coexist without getting into constant arguments about this important sacramental and social issue.

But in certain situations, non-Catholics do ask.  As we saw in “Why Would Non-Catholics Get an Annulment?” it sometimes happens that a Catholic wants to marry a non-Catholic who has been married before.  If the non-Catholic’s first marriage can be proven to have been invalid, then it’s possible for him/her to marry a Catholic in a Catholic wedding.  Thus we occasionally find Catholic marriage tribunals adjudicating the validity of marriages of non-Catholics.  This only occurs, of course, because one of the non-Catholic spouses requested it.

Now how does all this apply to the case of Shane’s coworker?  He and his wife are both non-Catholics, married in what was of course a non-Catholic ceremony.  But his wife was married before, and her first husband is still living.  They’re divorced, but their marriage was never found to be null.  In the eyes of the Catholic Church, therefore, they’re still married.

This in turn means that when this divorced woman married Shane’s coworker, their marriage was not valid (so far as the Catholic Church is concerned), because she was already married to someone else.  Since everyone involved in this equation is a non-Catholic, the Catholic Church doesn’t butt into their affairs and volunteer this information! but it is nevertheless the Church’s position in actual fact.

But now Shane’s coworker wants to become a Catholic.  If he does, he will be bound by the Church’s law on marriage (cf. c. 1059).  Now he will have to care what the Catholic Church says about the validity of his marriage—because if you want to be Catholic, you have to follow the Catholic Church’s rules.

What can be done?  Well, the most obvious solution is the one which Shane mentions in his question. If his coworker’s wife’s first marriage can be found null for some reason (something which incidentally should not be taken for granted!), then she will be free to marry someone else.  And then she and her second husband could have their marriage regularized in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  At that point, Shane’s coworker would be properly married, and everything would be fine.

Except that it isn’t, because the wife is refusing to ask for an annulment.  Is there a way around this?

To answer Shane’s last question first, canonically there is no way that his coworker “can bring a case before the Church against [his wife’s] previous marriage, without involving her in the process.”  There are only two parties who have the legal right to petition for a decree of nullity of this marriage, and they are the spouses themselves (c. 1674 n. 1).  This is only common sense: would you want a third person to be able to petition a court to declare null the marriage of you and your spouse?

But if the coworker’s wife doesn’t want to request a Catholic annulment of her non-Catholic first marriage, it’s quite incorrect to conclude that the coworker is thereby banned from becoming a Catholic.  Shane’s assertion that “obviously she needs an annulment for my Anglican friend to enter the Church” is absolutely false.

The fact is, in order to enter the Catholic Church, this man has to avoid living in a state of sin.  Since the Catholic Church teaches that he is not actually married to the woman with whom he is living as man and wife, that means that they need to stop living as man and wife.  Apparently the coworker understands this; as Shane tells us, “he knows the Catholic Church is the only true Church, and he wants in.”  If the man believes what the Catholic faith teaches, it’s only logical that he should want to correct this situation.

And there are only two ways to correct this situation: either marry her properly, or stop living with her as man and wife.  Since the coworker can’t do the former, the only option left is to do the latter.  Then he will be able to be received into the Catholic Church.

This is the solution to the problem.  It’s actually not a tough question to answer at all, so it’s hard to imagine why it “stumped some of the best canonists in [Shane’s] area.”  What is far more likely is that these canonists were unable to give the coworker an answer that he wanted to hear.  And how can we blame him?  Shane’s coworker is caught in an especially difficult situation, pitting his conscience against his wife, and forcing him to choose one or the other.

But if we think the possible scenarios all the way through, the final result might be much better than it initially looks.  Imagine that the coworker chooses in favor of his conscience, announces that he is going to become a Catholic, and tells his wife that they have to either separate, or live together as brother and sister from now on.  Before concluding that this is unduly hard on her, remember that she is the one who has caused this whole quandary in the first place, by refusing even to try to get an annulment of her first marriage, so that she and her second husband would be able to marry in the eyes of the Catholic Church.  If the wife is presented with this either-or scenario, and she realizes that her husband means business, she may very well change her mind in order not to lose him!  And if she can indeed obtain an annulment of her first marriage, Shane’s coworker may in the end find that he has both the Catholic Church and his wife too.

Canonically, this is actually a pretty easy question to answer.  What’s truly tough is doing it.  Let’s say a prayer that Shane’s coworker can have the grace and strength that he needs, to do what his conscience tells him is right.

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