Discovering an Impediment Right Before the Wedding

Q:  My sister has an upcoming marriage in our Catholic Church in the USA. She is divorced for about 8 years now from her civil marriage. She did not tell her priest she was civilly married because she did not think it mattered since in the Church’s eyes a civil marriage is invalid (or so we read).

It obviously is too late to cancel her upcoming nuptials since we are a month away, can she get married and tell the priest about her prior marriage after the wedding and go through the annulment process then. There is no way she can get an annulment in a month and right now her focus is seeing that her wedding day goes through smoothly.

Can annulments be done after one’s second marriage? Will she have to let the priest know since he will be sending out her marriage license? Will they now have to get remarried after the annulment comes through so the church considers her marriage valid? –Laura

A:  Every so often a question arrives that would make the angels weep, and this is one of them.  Let’s take this situation apart and examine each piece of this incredible situation, before drawing  conclusions.

Laura’s sister is Catholic, was previously married in a civil ceremony, and is now divorced.  As regular readers are well aware, Catholics are required to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, in accord with canonical form (c. 1108); and if they marry in a non-Catholic ceremony without first having obtained a dispensation from canonical form, the marriage is considered invalid in the eyes of the Church (as discussed in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” among many others).  It would appear that Laura’s sister did not obtain a dispensation in advance, and for that reason, the Church would not consider her marriage to have been valid.

But as we saw in “Why Would I Need an Annulment, Since My Civil Marriage Was Obviously Invalid?” Catholics can’t just decide for themselves about the validity (or not) of their marriages.   Canon 1060 tells us that marriage enjoys the favor of the law—which means that when in doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.  In other words, unless and until the Church declares that a marriage was null, we are to assume that it is valid.  It is the purview of ecclesiastical authorities to make this sort of declaration in an official way, even if it is perfectly obvious to everybody that someone’s marriage couldn’t possibly be valid.

This is why the parish priest asked Laura’s sister if she had ever been married before, even if only civilly.  Catholic priests routinely ask this question of prospective spouses who seek to marry in a Catholic ceremony, and we see what Laura’s sister did: she lied.  Laura can try to sugar-coat her sister’s action if she likes (“she did not think it mattered since in the Church’s eyes a civil marriage is invalid”); but if she didn’t think it mattered, then why didn’t she simply tell the truth?

So right away, we can see that the priest who is planning to celebrate the wedding of Laura’s sister has absolutely no idea what he is really dealing with!  He naturally believes that the bride-to-be is able to marry validly in the Church, because he was deliberately provided with false information.  If Laura’s sister continues to maintain this fraud, and goes through the wedding ceremony, it will be invalid—and she knows this.  If she didn’t, why would Laura even be asking this question?

Let’s pause and think for a moment about what this means.  Laura’s sister is planning to exchange vows invalidly with her fiancé—who might be completely in the dark about all this!—and celebrate what she is well aware is an invalid sacrament.  In so doing she is not only perpetrating a fraud on everyone present at the non-wedding (possibly including the fiancé, as just mentioned), but she is also deliberately mocking God.  Note that if the ceremony takes place within the context of a Mass, Laura’s sister will presumably also be receiving Holy Communion during this invalid celebration, which will be an additional sacrilege.  After the non-wedding takes place, Laura’s sister will then live as husband and wife with a man who she knows full well is not her husband at all.

And she is planning to do all of this, because “right now her focus is seeing that her wedding day [sic] goes through smoothly.”

We can see how much these two women think of the mind-numbing outrage the bride-to-be intends to perpetrate: she wants to tell the priest later that “oh, by the way,” she was really married before and so her Catholic wedding was invalid, and she now wants the Church to give her an annulment and fix her second, invalid wedding in the Church.  Both Laura and her sister apparently take it for granted that the Church will readily acquiesce, and give her what she wants, when she wants it—because she wants it.

But here’s the greatest irony: if Laura’s sister were to tell the parish priest the truth before the wedding ceremony, it’s very possible that he himself could declare her first marriage to be null for lack of canonical form right away, without even taking the case to the diocesan marriage tribunal.  As we saw in “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” many bishops permit their parish priests to handle lack-of-form marriage cases themselves, and it generally takes only a few minutes.  In other words, Laura is absolutely wrong that “there is no way she can get an annulment in a month”—and if her sister had told the truth from the beginning, this presumably would have already been taken care of long ago.

If Laura’s sister fails to tell the parish priest about this in advance, and willfully celebrates a sham wedding, try to imagine (if you can!) how the parish priest will react when he finds out what really happened.  Some of his indignation will probably be personal, since of course nobody likes to be deceived—but some of it will be due to the grave moral evil that Laura’s sister has committed before God Himself.  As Saint Paul put it, “Make no mistake: God is not mocked” (Gal. 6:7).

It’s impossible to predict with certainty how the parish priest and the diocesan marriage tribunal will react to this hoax; but it’s pretty safe to say that things will not proceed as effortlessly as Laura and her sister seem to assume.  That’s because it’s painfully obvious that Laura’s sister doesn’t think much of either the Church’s moral teachings (like telling the truth) or the integrity of its sacraments.  As we saw in “Why Can’t He Get Married in the Church, If He’s Got an Annulment?” the Church can, when appropriate, acknowledge that a person’s prior marriage was in fact null—but if there is no reason to believe that the problem which led to that nullity will be rectified in the future, it can prevent one or both ex-spouses from marrying again in the Church.  This is known as a vetitum (cf. c. 1682).

It could conceivably happen that the parish priest and/or the diocesan marriage tribunal will conclude that the main reason why Laura’s sister married invalidly in a civil ceremony years ago involved her failure to appreciate the serious spiritual ramifications of marrying in the Catholic Church.  If that’s the case, it seems fairly obvious that she doesn’t take the Catholic sacrament of matrimony any more seriously now!  So while we can’t know for certain how this would play out, it’s not unreasonable to conjecture that Laura’s sister might find herself on the receiving end of a vetitum; and the burden will then be on her to convince the Church somehow that her mindset has changed, and she is now more mature and serious enough to marry validly in a Catholic ceremony.  Sadly, all this could easily be avoided, if Laura’s sister would simply own up to the truth and have an honest discussion about the real facts with the pastor of her parish before her wedding day.

While we’re on the subject of last-minute revelations before a wedding, it’s worth mentioning that the Code of Canon Law does include a provision for pastors who discover an impediment only when everything has already been prepared for the ceremony (known as omnia parata cases, c.1080.1).  The canon does not apply in the case of Laura’s sister, since it applies only to those impediments for which it is theoretically possible to receive a dispensation (see “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” and “When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?” for more on what a dispensation is and how it works).  A couple of fictitious examples should serve to clarify how this canon can apply.

Let’s imagine that Margaret and Sam have been engaged for well over a year, and their wedding is scheduled for next Saturday.  They diligently cooperated with their parish priest in all the required preparation and investigation, and the priest determined that they are free to get married in the Church.  But let’s say that a distant relative finds out about the wedding, and comes forward with evidence that Margaret and Sam are actually first cousins!  The couple honestly never knew this before, because Sam’s father died when he was a baby and nobody was ever really sure of his family background.

As we saw in “Can Cousins Marry in the Church?” an impediment exists to Margaret and Sam’s marriage, since they are related within the fourth degree of the collateral line (c. 1091.2).  But the Church holds that this impediment can be dispensed, to permit the marriage to take place.

Ordinarily, it is necessary for the parish priest in such cases to approach the diocesan bishop and request that a dispensation be granted—but Margaret and Sam’s bishop is currently in another country undergoing medical treatment, and there is no way to contact him before the wedding.  In this situation, the parish priest himself could grant the dispensation, and inform the bishop as soon as possible (cf. c. 1081).  The wedding can then take place in church without any problem.

But by way of contrast, here’s a different scenario.  Let’s pretend that Brenda and David are planning to get married next month in their parish church, and they have gone through all the necessary marriage preparation in advance.  The pastor of their parish determined that nothing stands in the way of their marriage in church.  Out of the blue, however, one of the invited guests contacts the priest to say that David already has a wife and three children living on the other side of the globe, and he abandoned them years ago when he moved to his current home.  For unknown reasons, this marriage was never reported to the parish where David had been baptized, and so it isn’t noted on his baptismal certificate (see “Canon Law and Marriage Records” for more on this scenario, which unfortunately happens far too often).  It turns out that David has been lying to both Brenda and the parish priest from day #1 about his marital status.

Everything is already prepared for Brenda and David’s wedding.  Can the parish priest grant them a dispensation from the impediment of prior bond in David’s case (cf. c. 1085)?  Absolutely not.  The Catholic Church teaches that if you are validly married to one spouse, you cannot validly marry again while the first spouse is living.  Only if the Church determines that the first marriage was invalid for some reason, can you marry someone else in the Church.  The validity of David’s first marriage would have to be adjudicated by the diocesan marriage tribunal, and he would be free to marry Brenda (assuming she still wants to marry him!) only if and when his first marriage is found to be null.  Put differently, there is no way to “dispense” anyone from this impediment, because the Church holds that it is a matter of divine law.

This second, imaginary case is canonically similar to the situation of Laura’s sister, and for that reason canon 1080.1 does not apply.  But as already discussed above, the fact that her first marriage involved a complete lack of canonical form means it is probably very easy to get it annulled right away.

We can see here that the Catholic Church bends over backwards in order to help the faithful celebrate the sacraments validly, so long as it can do this without jettisoning fundamental Catholic teachings.  But despite the Church’s willingness to help, there are Catholics out there who can’t be bothered to cooperate, and are perfectly amenable to offering grave offense to God by treating the sacraments He graciously gave us as nothing more than a game.  Let’s all pray for Laura, her sister, and the rest of the family, that they may realize that they are playing with fire—and make the effort to rectify this sad situation before it’s too late.

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