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

Q: Neither me or my wife are baptized, but we both desire to be and plan on going through the RCIA process in order to do so. I believe I understand that our marriage is valid according to natural law because neither of us are baptized, and as soon as we are baptized it becomes sacramental.  Is it possible to get married again, but through the Church after our baptism/confirmation/communion? We would very much like to be married by a priest and now our marriage by a government official kind of seems lacking in gravitas. Thank you! –Michael

A: In the past, we’ve looked at a variety of situations involving a married person who wants to become a Catholic (for example, “If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part I)” and “Can You Become a Catholic If You’re in an Irregular Marriage?”).  But we’ve never had a question exactly like Michael’s before, and so it merits a closer look.

Michael and his wife are non-Christians.  That means, obviously, that when they got married, they didn’t have a church wedding.  In fact, it’s quite clear that theirs was a civil wedding, since Michael indicates that they were married “by a government official.”

As was already discussed in the articles cited above, the Catholic Church has absolutely no issue with this.  While Catholics are required to marry in accord with canonical form (discussed in “Discovering an Impediment Right Before the Wedding,” and “Why Would I Need an Annulment, Since My Civil Marriage Was Obviously Invalid?” among many others), this requirement certainly doesn’t pertain to non-Catholics, baptized or not.  Only Catholics are obliged by canon law to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, before their bishop, or the pastor of their parish, or a cleric delegated by either of them (c. 1108).  This, in short, is why a Catholic cannot be married validly by a government official in a civil ceremony; but Michael and his wife could.

Therefore, the Church considers Michael and his wife to be truly married.  But now that they both wish to become Catholics, what happens to their marriage?

Michael is correct that right now, since both spouses are unbaptized, their (valid) marriage is non-sacramental.  That’s because no one can receive any of the other sacraments without having been baptized first.  For this reason, as we saw in “Catholics in Non-Sacramental Marriages,” the Church refers to baptism as the “gateway to the other sacraments” (c. 849).

And Michael is likewise correct that “as soon as we are baptized [our marriage] becomes sacramental.”  The Code of Canon Law makes no specific mention of this sort of situation; but by simply applying its laws and its theology to such a case, the Church logically concludes that the new Catholic’s non-sacramental marriage now becomes sacramental.  (We looked at a comparable situation in “If I Become a Catholic, What Happens to My Marriage? (Part II).”)

Consequently, when Michael and his wife are baptized in the Church, if they want their marriage to be recognized as valid they don’t need to do a thing.  But as readers can see, that wasn’t what Michael was asking.  Rather, he wants to know if he and his wife can be married in a Catholic ceremony after their baptism—because as prospective Catholics they consider a Catholic wedding to be more solemn than a mere civil ceremony “by a government official.”

It should be easy to understand that when someone embraces the Catholic faith, and learns to appreciate the beauty and the awe-inspiring grandeur of its liturgy and its sacraments, he may find that any secular equivalents fall flat in comparison.  That clearly seems to be the case with Michael and his wife—even though they know that their civil marriage is really a marriage in the eyes of the Church.  But this is precisely the point: their marriage by a government official when they were unbaptized truly is a marriage.  And once two people are married, why would they need to marry each other again?

As was discussed in “How Do You Fix an Illicit Sacrament?” if a sacrament was conferred invalidly, it is necessary to re-administer the sacrament again, because the first time it had no effect.  But in Michael’s case, his civil marriage did indeed have an effect—although not a sacramental one—and the Church holds that it will become sacramental at the moment when both spouses are baptized.  In other words, Michael’s valid non-sacramental marriage will become a valid sacramental marriage, simply by virtue of the two spouses getting baptized.

Since their marriage is already valid, it would make no sense, either theologically or canonically, for Michael and his wife to have a Catholic wedding ceremony after becoming Catholics.  It’s certainly possible that they feel that as soon-to-be Catholic spouses, something is missing somehow … but in reality, nothing is missing at all.

That said, if Michael and his wife are nevertheless anxious to do something to confirm that they are a Catholic husband and wife, they could arrange with their parish priest to renew their wedding vows after their baptism.  In many countries, this is a very common occurrence, especially on a couple’s wedding anniversary: they attend Mass and recite their vows again before the priest.  It’s a lovely event, but it is important to remember that canonically, it has no effect whatsoever!  Rather, it is merely an occasion for a husband and wife to proclaim to God, to each other, and to the world that yes, they are married, and they are glad of it.

In preparation for their new life as Catholics, Michael and his wife already have plenty of spiritual work to do.  First, of course, they will go through their parish’s program for adult converts to the faith (known in English as RCIA, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), at the end of which they will be baptized.  On top of that momentous spiritual event, they will be confirmed and receive their First Holy Communion—meaning that they will receive three sacraments practically at once.  In the spiritual sense of things, this means that the couple has a lot on their plate!

But fortunately, they won’t need to worry about preparing themselves for marriage, because they already did that long ago.  As non-Christians, Michael and his wife were validly married—and as Catholics, they will remain that way.

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