How Do you Fix an Illicit Sacrament?

Q: I recently read your post titled “Can Catholics Marry in any Parish Church They Want?” To my dismay, I learned for the first time that if a wedding takes place outside the parish of residence, permission for the wedding is required not only from the presiding priest but from the priest of the parish where the bride and/or groom live. As such I have learned our marriage is valid but (likely) illicit.

Five months before our wedding, my now-husband suddenly had to move … we booked our wedding at his former parish with the parish priest we knew (and where we were continuing to attend Sunday Mass). We provided this priest our current addresses of residence but he never mentioned the need to gain permission from my husband’s new parish.

… I understand the validity of the sacrament is not in question, and I understand our Lord is merciful and our culpability is reduced by our lack of knowledge and trusting the priest would advise us correctly, but it grieves my husband and myself to be in this position.  Is there anything we should or could do to remedy an illicit status of a sacrament? –Stephanie

A: Stephanie’s question highlights the important canonical distinction between validity and liceity.  We have encountered other situations where these terms were of central importance (such as “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” and “Why Is This Method of Baptizing Illicit?”), but let’s take another look at what these concepts actually mean in practice, and see how they apply in Stephanie’s case.

An action, such as (but not limited to) the administration of a sacrament, is said to be valid when it is done correctly, in accord with all the requirements, and thus can be said to have actually taken place.  In contrast, as we have seen so many times before in this space, when a sacrament or other action is invalid, this means that some critical element(s) was/were missing or defective in some way—resulting in an act which might appear to have taken place, but in reality did not occur.  For example, if a priest were to pour water over an infant’s head and say words which indicated that he intended to baptize the child, but failed to use the correct formula of words that explicitly mentions the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (as discussed in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity”), the Church holds that the baptism would be invalid, meaning that the child was not in fact baptized at all.

And if the child wasn’t really baptized, there’s only one way to remedy the situation: the baptism has to be performed again, this time using the correct Trinitarian formula, to ensure that the sacrament is valid.  It’s important to note that technically, in this scenario the baby isn’t being baptized twice—because on the first occasion, there was no baptism, even though to the child’s parents, his godparents, and other onlookers, it certainly looked like there was!

But liceity is a separate concept.  An act is said to be licit when it is performed in accord with the law.  In other words, an action that is licit is legal.  A good example of illiceity was addressed in “Why Is This Method of Baptizing Illicit?” which discussed baptism by sprinkling water over the person, as opposed to pouring water over his head or immersing him completely.  We saw that baptism by sprinkling is not considered licit in the Catholic Church, which is another way of saying that it’s illegal, and thus should not be done.

So validity and liceity are two separate canonical concepts—and they don’t always go together.  It is possible, for instance, that a sacrament is conferred validly (meaning that it really does take place), but illicitly.  In fact, the case of baptism by sprinkling that was just cited is a good example of this.  The Catholic Church holds that the method of baptizing by sprinkling water should not be used (making it illicit); but if it is, sprinkling in itself does not render the baptism invalid.

But while we can encounter actions that are valid but illicit, the opposite does not exist.  It is impossible to act in a way that is invalid and yet is still licit.  That’s because invalid acts—acts which, as discussed above, might have seemed to take place but actually contained some critical defect that rendered them null—are never licit.  In other words, it is never legal to act invalidly.

How does Stephanie’s marriage situation fit into all this?  She tells us that she and her husband had planned to marry at his parish, but he unexpectedly had to move before the wedding took place.  Stephanie’s husband-to-be ended up living in a different parish—because canonically, parishes are territorial (c. 518), meaning that your parish is determined by your home address (see “Parish Registration” for more on this).  When Stephanie and her husband did get married as originally planned, therefore, it was in a church that was not the parish church of either spouse.

Canon 1109 tells us that by virtue of his office, a parish priest validly assists at marriages not only of his parishioners, but even of non-parishioners.  (See “Becoming (Or at Least Marrying) an Eastern Catholic” for an exception to this rule, which does not apply in Stephanie’s case.)  Thus it should be quite clear that the pastor of the parish where Stephanie and her husband were married was able to celebrate their wedding validly, even though neither spouse was a parishioner. As Stephanie correctly noted, this was discussed in more detail in “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?

Stephanie’s marriage was indeed valid (unless, of course, there was some other problem which we know nothing about).  But she is right in observing that when a couple marries before a priest who is not the pastor of either spouse, their territorial pastor is supposed to give his permission for the wedding in advance, as per canon 1115.  There is an understandable pastoral reason for this: the parish priest is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the members of his parish (cf. c. 519), and so his parishioners’ reception of the sacrament of matrimony is something which he should ordinarily be involved in!

The precise wording of canon 1115 is important: it states that the pastor of the parish where the spouses are actually residing has to give his permission for the wedding to take place elsewhere.  When the word “permission” is used in the Code of Canon Law, it indicates a matter of liceity.  In other words, failing to obtain the required permission does not invalidate an act; instead, it renders the act illicit.

This is why Stephanie concludes that her wedding was valid, but illicit.  So how do you fix an illicitly celebrated sacrament?

As we’ve already seen, if a sacrament or some other action is determined to be invalid, the way to remedy this problem is straightforward.  You simply celebrate the sacrament or perform the action again—making very sure this time that whatever happened the first time to invalidate it doesn’t happen the second time around!

But when an action is found to be valid yet illicit, it makes no sense to perform the action again.  After all, if the action was valid, that means it had its desired effect the first time—and so repeating it would be pointless.  In actual fact, there’s not much of anything that you can do to remedy a valid-but-illicit act after the fact, apart from ensuring that the illiceity of the act is avoided the next time (if there is a next time).

It’s worth noting at this point that Stephanie and her husband did nothing wrong here.  Any fault lies with the priest who celebrated their wedding, since he should have known that it was technically necessary to first get permission from the pastor of the groom’s new parish.  And to be fair, it’s not impossible that he actually did obtain that permission on his own, without mentioning it to the couple.  Stephanie takes it for granted that because he never mentioned it to her or her future husband, the priest must have disregarded the requirement; but it does indeed happen that before a wedding, parish priests quietly make phone calls and/or get documents as necessary, taking care of everything without telling the couple.  In fact, sometimes informing an engaged couple of all the paperwork and legal requirements does nothing but confuse and upset them unduly—so a tactful priest may conclude that it’s not worth bothering them with the details.

If, however, the priest who officiated at the wedding of Stephanie and her husband routinely fails to ensure that any necessary permissions for a marriage are obtained in advance, one can logically conclude that he is regularly celebrating weddings which are illicit—and he needs to stop.  It can be tempting to take the view that “so long as it’s valid, it’s okay,” but this is a sloppy and irresponsible way of looking at the Church’s laws, which exist for a reason!  Let’s keep praying for our parish priests, that they may celebrate the sacraments for us both validly and licitly, in the way that the Church intends.

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