Last week’s column about Holydays and Church law sparked some interesting discussions with parishioners, which, in turn, brought up some other related questions about Church law. So it occurred to me that it might be helpful to discuss some of these in my column. I hope this doesn’t come across as being legalistic. It just seems that a greater awareness of these norms that may affect you or your family will help you to live peacefully and happily with Christ, His Church and your fellow Catholics.
Ecclesiastic Law. Since the first century the Church has recognized the need to enact laws to govern the communal life of the Church and assist Catholics in applying the Divine Law (what God reveals in Scripture or Sacred Tradition) and Natural Law (what God reveals in nature) to their day to day lives. Different laws have different purposes: to provide good order, protect rights, clarify responsibilities, etc.. As such, while all Church (or “ecclesiastic”) laws are important and should not lightly be set aside, some are more critical than others. Using civil law as an example, you should almost always obey stop signs, but might not in a real emergency; but you may never commit murder.
The Precepts of the Church. Over the centuries certain laws have been widely recognized as the most critical of the ecclesiastic laws, and have come to be called the “Precepts of the Church,” or even the “Commandments of the Church.” Although they are not directly received from God they are meant to serve Divine and Natural Law. While traditionally listed as anywhere from 5 to 10 in number, no one official list has ever been definitively proclaimed by a particular pope or ecumenical council. Rather, each individual precept derives its authority from being historically widely and universally recognized by popes, bishops, councils, doctors, and great theologians as being of fundamental importance. As such, all Catholics have a grave responsibility to keep them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (at 2042 and 2043) lists five:
–“The first precept…You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor…”
–“The second precept…You shall confess your sins at least once a year…” [This is understood to apply only if we are aware of that we have a mortal sin to confess.]
–“The third precept…You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season…”
–“The fourth precept…You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church…”
–“The fifth precept…You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church…”
Most historical lists also include the Sixth Precept: “To observe the laws of the Church concerning marriage.” Its omission from the CCC does not mean that it is no longer a precept or critically important. In fact, it is very surprising that it was omitted, given the decline in awareness of these ecclesiastic laws, and that ignoring them can invalidate a marriage and cause couples to find themselves in a mortally sinful lifestyle.
The Church’s Laws on Marriage. The Sixth Precept refers specifically to those ecclesiastic laws that govern how a Catholic goes about entering a valid Catholic marriage—i.e., a true marriage in the eyes of God. Considering how important marriage is—to God, to the Church and to couples in love—all Catholics should be aware of certain basic requirements of the law before they consider marriage, and should seek to comply with all the marriage laws when they become aware of them.
To help with this, let me give a brief list of some of the ecclesiastic laws on marriage all Catholics should be aware of. Note that some of these directly reflect Divine and/or Natural Law, and are therefore not “merely” Church law.
First, laws that effect the validity of a marriage (if these are not obeyed, the marriage is invalid):
–Catholics normally must be married in a Catholic ceremony before a Catholic priest or deacon; attempts to marry in any other sort of ceremony (e.g., before a justice of the peace, in a Protestant church, etc.), are usually not valid.
–A Catholic may not marry if either of the couple has been married before and not received an “annulment” from the Catholic Church. Note: non-Catholics do not have to be married by a Catholic priest, so we usually recognize the marriage of two non-Catholics before a justice of the peace, etc.. Note also: the Church will consider a petition for annulment even of a previous marriage between two non-Catholics.
–A Catholic wishing to marry a non-Catholic must make two promises (and inform his/her non-Catholic fiancé): 1) to do everything in his/her power to raise all the children from the marriage as Catholics, and 2) that this marriage will not lead him/her away from the Catholic faith.
–accept and intend the three “goods of marriage”: 1) permanence (i.e., no divorce), 2) fidelity (faithful all throughout their marriage) and 3) procreation (open to the birth of children);
–give free consent to the marriage, without force or fear;
–have “sufficient use of reason,” not “suffer from a grave lack of discretionary judgment,” and/or be psychologically able to “assume the essential obligations of marriage”;
–not be impotent at the time of the marriage.
–There are also very specific rules regarding which priest may validly officiate at marriages.
(An invalid marriage can often be easily “remedied”: assuming no complicating factors (e.g., need for annulment of a previous marriage), after a period of preparation with a priest, the couple can be married in a simple Catholic ceremony.)
There are other important ecclesiastic laws that effect the liceity (legality) of the wedding. Disobeying these norms does not make the marriage invalid, but they still bind us, normally under pain of sin.
–Catholics normally must:
–be married in a Catholic church or chapel;
–be Confirmed before marriage, unless this can’t “be done without grave inconvenience”;
–go through a period (usually 6 months) of preparation and investigation before the marriage can take place;
–be married in the parish which they lawfully belong to;
–coordinate with and receive necessary permissions from their lawful pastor.
I hope this is helpful.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles