Some Basics of Marriage Canon Law. In light of all the heated discussion over the last few years, as well as the Holy Father’s recent letter, Amoris Laetitia, it may be time for me to review a few basic practical aspects of Catholic Church law, called “canon law,” on marriage.
First of all, what is marriage? It is a covenant of mutual total self-gift of one man and one woman to each other, commenced by the free consent of both parties, and ordered to the conception and raising of children and mutual support of the couple. Essential to a valid marriage is a commitment to permanence/indissolubility, fidelity, and children (the “three goods of marriage”).
Turning to Church’s law we first remember that these laws are meant to help us to live according to the natural law and the divine law, and in peace with each other. Since marriage is a public act that affects other individuals and society, both the civil/state and Church authorities have always had certain minimal requirements to certify that a particular relationship is really a marriage. The state of Virginia requires that a couple receive a marriage license before they exchange vows in front of an authorized “officiant.” In a similar way, the Church requires that Catholics be married in a Catholic ceremony before a priest or deacon.
Catholic Ceremony. Unfortunately, many Catholics are unaware of this most basic requirement, so let me restate it clearly: for a Catholic to enter into a valid marriage in the eyes of God he/she must normally do so in a ceremony before a Catholic priest or deacon, and failure to do so renders that attempt at marriage invalid.
For centuries most western governments unified civil and religious wedding ceremonies by recognizing priests and deacons as de facto civil “officiants.” In the last two centuries many countries have separated the “civil wedding” from the “Church wedding,” and most religious communities, including Protestants, now recognize couples as validly married if they just have a civil ceremony (so no church ceremony is necessary). This is important to remember, since Catholic law recognizes these non-Catholic wedding ceremonies as valid, unless they involve a Catholic spouse.
Effects of Merely Civil Weddings. For a Catholic, being married by a civil officiant creates a civil legal bond, but he/she is not married in the eyes of God. This means that if a Catholic is merely civilly married and living with a person as husband and wife (including having sexual relations) he/she is committing the grave sin of adultery (sex outside of marriage).
It should also be noted that sometimes when Catholics seek to marry non-Catholics they forget that if the non-Catholic was previously married in a civil ceremony the Church recognizes that “previous marriage” as valid in the eyes of God so they are not free to marry the Catholic.
Divorce. Once a valid marriage (“in the eyes of God”) is entered into, it is permanent, or indissoluble. While the state may allow a couple to divorce, that does not end the marriage in God’s eyes, so that the couple is still married.
Sadly, sometimes the relationship between spouses disintegrates and they need to live separately (e.g., spousal abuse, abandonment, etc.). In many cases they may then morally pursue what the Catechism calls a “civil divorce,” if that is “the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance” (2383). So that civil divorce is not itself sinful.
But there is also “the sin of divorce,” that is, the willful attempt to break-up/ end a valid marriage. For example, if a husband civilly divorces his wife in order to marry another woman, that husband commits the sin of divorce, while his abandoned wife is not guilty of any sin. As the Catechism teaches: “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death…” (2384). (See below for discussion of repentance).
Divorce and Remarriage. But even when there is a civil divorce, neither spouse is free to marry anyone else, and to attempt to do so would be an act of public adultery and bigamy. By “attempt to do so” I mean undergoing a civil or non-Catholic religious ceremony, with another “spouse.” This is not a real marriage in Church law, even if other non-Catholic religions might recognize it as valid. As Jesus clearly teaches in Matthew 19: “whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”
Note Jesus says, “unless the marriage is unlawful.” Some marriages, from their very beginning, lack something so essential that they are invalid. A clear example of this might be when either of the “spouses” is already previously validly married to someone else or was forced to marry against their will. (I’ll leave other grounds for another column). In those cases, the Church has formal procedures, including a whole court system of judges, lawyers and experts, to justly ascertain the true status of the marriage. If those procedures determine that there was no valid marriage from the beginning the Church declares the marriage null from the beginning (“annulment”) and the “spouses” are free to marry someone else.
But if an annulment is not obtained, the Church must assume that the couple did what they stood up and declared before God and society: that they were validly married.
Some Consequences. There are no direct canonical consequences to a Catholic who receives a civil divorce, although, they should repent any sins related to break down of the marriage (and go to confession) and make necessary amendments. They should also make a true effort to restore the marital relationship, if this is possible.
However, canon law prohibits those who (attempt to) remarry without an annulment from receiving the Eucharist, since they “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” (Canon 915). Marriage is a persistent and manifest act, so that these Catholics who continue to publicly live in a way that is objectively contrary to the meaning of Holy Communion, i.e., radical communion with both God and other Catholics, effectively exclude themselves from the Eucharist. (This rule extends also to Catholics who are merely civilly married).
Solutions. What should Catholics who find themselves in an “irregular marriage” do? First, they can cease to live in the invalid marriage. Second, they can work with their priest to validate their “irregular marriage”; a divorced/remarried Catholic might pursue an annulment so that they would be free to marry. Third, if for grave reasons it is impossible to leave the “irregular marriage” (e.g., there are minor children, etc.) then couples may sometimes, working with a priest, commit to live forever as “brother and sister,” i.e., in separate bedrooms with no sexual relations (although care must be taken to reduce any moral confusion this might cause others).
Remember. I am not writing to chastise, but to teach the truth. Let us continue to show charity and kindness to each other, especially those among us who find themselves in difficult and trying circumstances.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles