If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part I)

Q1: Can I be received into the Catholic Church if I was not married by a Catholic priest? –Rachel

Q2: I was divorced from a Catholic in 2012. Our marriage was not in a Catholic Church nor administered by the Catholic clergy.  I am not Catholic, but I am in RCIA classes now and looking forward to becoming baptized in the Catholic Church this Easter.

There are some questions on whether the Church can proceed with my baptism prior to invalidating this previous marriage.  My Church is telling me I must receive my ex’s baptismal certificate, to invalidate the marriage, or I cannot be baptized. My ex will not cooperate with this request. She will under no circumstance make available her baptismal record, or reveal in what Church she was baptized. My deacon called her and she refused cooperation with him as well.

Can you enlighten me on any recourse I might have to be able to proceed with baptism?  Can I receive special dispensation from the Church to proceed with my baptism? –Jim

A: There is a lot of confusion among non-Catholics about the Church’s requirement that Catholics must marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony.  How does this rule apply when an already married non-Catholic wants to become Catholic?  When does the Church recognize (or not) the validity of a non-Catholic marriage, if one of the spouses now wishes to enter the Church?

As was already discussed in “Why Would Non-Catholics Get an Annulment?” there is one important aspect of marriage validity which, so far as the Church is concerned, applies only to Catholics: Catholics are required to marry in accord with canonical form, a concept which has been addressed numerous times before in this space (in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” among many others).  Briefly put, the canonical form of marriage requires that the marriage be celebrated in a Catholic ceremony, in the presence of either the pastor, or another priest or deacon deputed by him (c. 1108).  This applies even when only one of the parties to the marriage is Catholic.

Canonical form is certainly not required for marriages involving two non-Catholics.  When, for example, two protestant Christians marry in a protestant wedding ceremony, or a couple without any religion marry in a civil ceremony in a government office, the Catholic Church does not claim that their marriage is invalid because they failed to observe canonical form!  It’s important to understand 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—as was the law pertaining to canonical form, which was established in the 16th century.  Divine laws, in contrast, are laws which are considered to have been established by God, and they are thus unchangeable by man and unaltered by time.  Ecclesiastical laws pertain to Catholics only, as the Church has no authority to legislate for people who are not its members (cf. c. 11); in contrast, divine laws apply to everyone on earth—not just Catholics.

To answer Rachel’s question, then, the mere fact that a non-Catholic was married in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony does not automatically mean that the Catholic Church has issues with the validity of the marriage.  Church law regarding canonical form is not binding on marriages between two non-Catholics.

But there’s a lot more to marriage validity than the issue of canonical form!  Catholic theology on the subject of marriage is both vast and rich, so it’s impossible to do justice to it here.  But the Church’s fundamental teachings on what marriage is all about are grounded not in man-made ecclesiastical laws, but in Scripture, which addresses God’s plan for all of humanity—both Catholics and non-Catholics.

For this reason, the Church’s positions on aspects of marriage which it traces directly to divine teachings—that marriage is indissoluble, that spouses must be open to children (see “Contraception and Marriage Validity” and “Fertility and Marriage Validity” for more on this), that marriage is only between a man and a woman (as discussed in “Could Canon Law be Changed to Permit Gay Marriage?”) and many others—are held to be applicable to everybody who gets married, not only Catholics.  Catholic clerics didn’t invent these teachings and decide to apply them to Catholics; these facets of marriage were given to us by God Himself.

Thus it’s only logical that if a non-Catholic marriage is in violation of what the Catholic Church considers to be divine law, the Church will hold that such a marriage is not valid.  This now brings us directly to Jim’s question.

Jim, a non-Catholic, says he is divorced and remarried.  He now wants to become a Catholic.  Of course the Church will be delighted to have him! but the marriage-issue has to be addressed first.  That’s because the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is for life—and it bases this teaching on the words of Our Lord.  As the Catechism puts it,

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 why the Catholic Church does not accept divorce and remarriage (assuming that the first marriage was valid).  The Church takes this position, not because somewhere along the line a Pope or other cleric decided it should be this way, but because this is what God told us.  And God didn’t declare that this applied only to Catholics; He applied it to all mankind.

Consequently, if a non-Catholic remarries while his/her first spouse is still living, the Catholic Church would say (if asked!) that if the first marriage was valid, the second marriage is invalid.  And if a divorced-and-remarried person wants to become a Catholic, this is a problem that has to be addressed—because the potential Catholic is currently living with someone who is not really his/her spouse.

If it’s possible to establish that for some reason the first marriage was not valid, then the potential Catholic would be free to marry someone else—and so if the potential Catholic can obtain an annulment (from the Catholic Church) of the first, non-Catholic marriage, then a marriage to somebody else is possible.  This was discussed at length in “Can You Become Catholic If You’re in an Irregular Marriage?”  Otherwise, the potential Catholic is living in a state of grave moral evil, because he/she is living as husband and wife with someone who really isn’t his/her spouse at all.  If you want to become a Catholic, this state of moral affairs has to end.

It is clear, therefore, that Jim is being given correct information.  If he wants to be married to his current wife, his first marriage has to be annulled.  In his case, this would appear to be pretty easy, because his first wife was a Catholic and they were not married in a Catholic ceremony.

As we’ve already seen above, Catholics are required to follow canonical form for marriage—and since Jim’s wife didn’t do that, that logically means that their marriage must be invalid in the eyes of the Church.  All that Jim needs to do is to provide the necessary proofs, and depending on his diocese, it may be possible for the parish priest himself to grant this annulment (see “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” for more on this).  If the pastor of the parish can take care of it, this annulment would likely take only a few minutes.

The problem, however, is that Jim doesn’t have his ex-wife’s baptismal certificate, showing that she is indeed a Catholic.  It’s impossible for the Church merely to take Jim’s word for it; it needs hard evidence!  If the ex-wife doesn’t care to give Jim a copy, that’s her prerogative, since she can’t be forced to cooperate in this matter.  What to do?

It would seem that there are three options.  First of all, if Jim knows where his wife was born, one would presume that his parish priest (or the deacon, or someone from the diocesan Tribunal if necessary) could start contacting the Catholic parishes in that area.  After explaining the situation to the pastors of those parishes, they may be able to get information verifying that yes, Jim’s first wife was in fact a baptized Catholic.  Then, it should be a fairly straightforward matter to obtain an annulment due to lack of canonical form.

But if that’s impossible, the second option would be for Jim to request an annulment of his first marriage on some other grounds (assuming that there are any).  This is a much more time-consuming process, and there’s no guarantee of success—which is understandably why the clergy of Jim’s parish are pursuing the first option.

Finally, if it can’t be proven that Jim’s first marriage was null, then in order to become a Catholic Jim would have to agree to cease living with his second spouse as husband and wife.  If readers are skeptical that this is a reasonable possibility, it’s worth noting that sometimes couples in this sort of situation really do agree to live henceforth as brother and sister; but of course even if Jim is willing to do this, his second wife may very well think differently (especially since she is presumably not a Catholic, and not planning to become one).

By this point, the answer to Jim’s final question should be clear: there is no way for the Church to grant “special dispensation” so that he can become a Catholic and remain with his second wife, without obtaining an annulment of his first marriage.  As was discussed in “When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?” a dispensation—which is the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law in a particular case (c. 85)—cannot be granted to someone who wants to live as husband and wife with someone who isn’t really his wife.  As we’ve just seen above, the Church’s refusal to accept divorce and remarriage isn’t a matter of “merely ecclesiastical law”; it’s a divine teaching and thus cannot be dispensed.

So to sum up, the Catholic Church has no problem with the fact that non-Catholics marry in non-Catholic wedding ceremonies.  But it has a serious problem with anyone who leaves his/her spouse in order to marry someone else, because the Church takes very seriously the divine prohibition on this (quoted above).  If a divorced and remarried person can establish that the first marriage was not valid, that means he/she was never really married, and so it’s possible to marry somebody else.

There’s no denying that marriage law in cases like this can sound pretty complicated!  But note that this is not because the Catholic Church is randomly making these laws up on its own.  The notion that a valid marriage is indissoluble while the two spouses are alive is something that was given to us not by church leaders, but by God.

Part II can be read here.

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