Q: My ex-husband and I are both Catholics. We got married in my parish church. We later were divorced but never got an annulment.
Recently he got remarried in a civil ceremony. They went on their honeymoon to [a major European city], and I bumped into them shortly after they came back. They smugly announced to me that “we had our marriage blessed in [the Catholic cathedral there].”
WHAT? How did they do that, since our marriage was never annulled? –Beth
A: They didn’t.
After obtaining a bit more information from Beth, it’s fairly clear what must have happened here. At issue is not remarriage in the Catholic Church without an annulment, but rather a misunderstanding of the notion of “having a marriage blessed.” Let’s walk through this step by step.
First of all, Beth is absolutely right that the story of her ex-husband’s remarriage doesn’t add up. If he and Beth married in a Catholic wedding ceremony, and never sought/obtained an annulment after their divorce, then the Church considers them still to be married. As per canon 1060, the validity of their marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.
It makes sense, therefore, that when Beth’s husband wanted to marry someone else, he couldn’t do so in a valid Catholic ceremony. Since his first marriage to Beth has not been established by a Marriage Tribunal to have been invalid, the Church holds that he is still married to Beth. Put differently, Beth’s husband can’t marry someone else in the Church, due to the impediment of prior bond (c. 1085).
This means, logically, that in the eyes of the Catholic Church, the second marriage of Beth’s husband is invalid. He is, in other words, now living with another woman who is not his wife. If he wants to remedy this situation, what can he do? The answer is pretty straightforward: he needs to request a declaration of nullity of his first marriage from the diocesan Marriage Tribunal. And if they eventually determine that his first marriage to Beth was indeed null for some reason, he will be able to marry someone else in the Catholic Church.
Note that an annulment will not automatically validate his second marriage outside the Church. Even if Beth and her ex-husband had received an annulment of their marriage before her ex-husband’s second wedding, his second marriage in a civil ceremony is invalid because it was not celebrated in accord with canonical form (cf. c. 1108). We have looked at the concept of canonical form many times before in this space, in “How Does the Presence of a Priest at My Non-Catholic Wedding Make it Okay?” and “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” among many others. So after he obtains an annulment of his first marriage—something which incidentally should not be taken for granted!—he will be able to rectify his second, invalid marriage in the Catholic Church.
So what is Beth’s ex-husband talking about, then? How did he and his new wife somehow have their marriage blessed by the Church in a foreign country, on their honeymoon?
Well, we already know what this doesn’t mean. This man did not show up at the door of a church in a foreign country, and have them somehow validate his invalid second marriage on-the-spot. This would be impossible not only for the reasons just stated above, but also because he and his new wife aren’t members of that parish, and don’t even live in that diocese! As we saw in “Marriage and Quasi-Domiciles,” Catholic priests rightly don’t agree to marry any stranger who randomly walks into their parish off the street—much less agree to arrange somehow to rectify a Catholic stranger’s invalid civil marriage. This type of spiritual care is, quite understandably, the responsibility of the pastor of Beth’s ex-husband’s parish back home, since it is his parish priest who has been entrusted with this man’s spiritual wellbeing (cf. cc. 519 and 528). While of course we all can attend Mass and receive the Eucharist at a strange parish while on vacation, and go to confession there as well, the notion that we would show up without any warning and ask a priest we’ve never seen before to help sort out our marriage-issues is quite another matter!
No, what actually happened here is very simple. Beth’s former husband and his new wife visited a famous cathedral on their European honeymoon, and while they were there, they told one of the priests that they were newlyweds, and asked him to give them a blessing. And like any good priest, he readily agreed—not realizing that they had been married outside the Church, and were planning to tell people that they “had had their marriage blessed” in this well-known Catholic cathedral.
The fact is, people ask priests to bless themselves, other persons and various objects all the time. Here in Rome, for example, it happens every single day that numerous visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica will search out a priest and ask him to bless the rosary/medal/statue/crucifix that they just purchased—and the priest will immediately do just that. Similarly, it is not uncommon for a mother to stop a priest and ask him, “Father, will you bless my baby?” People routinely ask priests to bless their homes, their cars, and their pets (with the feast-day of St. Francis of Assisi being considered a particularly appropriate day for the blessing of animals).
As a general rule, when a person approaches a priest with such a request, the priest assumes their good will. He doesn’t question whether the rosary was stolen, or the baby was kidnapped! This is all the more true in a famous cathedral like the one Beth’s ex-husband visited with his new wife—where pilgrims make such requests umpteen times per day. If someone devoutly asks for a blessing, why wouldn’t a priest grant it?
But note that canonically, there is a huge difference between asking a priest to bless you and your new spouse, and having your invalid marriage validated sacramentally in the Catholic Church. This latter is informally known as “having your marriage blessed,” although there is in fact a lot more that happens besides simply receiving a priest’s blessing. The various ways that an invalid marriage involving a Catholic can be rectified were discussed in “What Does it Mean to HaveYour Marriage Blessed? Part I,” “Part II,” and “Part III.” Needless to say, none of them involves merely approaching a priest out of the clear blue sky and asking him for his blessing.
It seems pretty clear that Beth’s ex-husband is being less than honest here. He knows full well that he can’t marry again in the Church without an annulment—that’s why his recent wedding was a civil ceremony—but it seems that he wants to think (or wants others to think) that somehow his second marriage has been given the Church’s approval. It hasn’t.
Catholic children are regularly taught that if they do something sinful in secret, God sees them anyway, and so they can’t hide their wrongdoing from God. Yet there are a lot of Catholic adults out there who seem to think that if they can somehow fool the Church (or the Catholic clergy) into approving their actions, this makes their actions morally okay. It goes without saying that they are kidding themselves. In the case of Beth’s ex-husband, the priest at the European cathedral did nothing wrong by giving him and his new wife a blessing as requested—but it is very wrong for her ex-husband to misrepresent that blessing as some sort of a validation of his new, invalid marriage.