Tuesday, March 29, 2011
A Question on Christian Marriage
I was recently made aware of your blog, read it this morning and enjoyed your writing very much. I was raised in the Catholic faith and like so many, have fallen away in recent years. I do have a question for you. I posed it to a friend of mine some years ago who has a PhD in Theology and his answer was..."I don't know!"...that question being: Including but not limited to the Catholic faith, what constitutes a marriage in "the eyes" of our Christian God? One example being, if a Catholic man and woman, each never have been married, are married by a civil Justice of the Peace, in the eyes of our Lord, are they married or are they living in a state of sin? And does the Catholic church recognize marriages as being valid performed between individuals who are not Catholic?" Thank you and kudos on your blog!!
Thanks for your question! Perhaps your PhD friend was immersed in some type of more advanced scholarly theological study, but since I am more versed in the theological minutia of daily life, you're in luck! Let me give you a brief overview of Christian marriage (as understood by the Roman Catholic Church), and then address your examples.
Marriage is a natural institution common to all cultures, traditionally marked by the lifelong union of a man and woman for the purposes of love and procreation. The Catholic Church understands marriage to have been elevated to a supernatural and sacramental level by Jesus himself, and sees the marriage of any two baptized Christian people as a sacramental union. The ministers of the sacrament are the couple themselves, when each spouse freely consents to enter into this union of persons. A valid Christian marriage is marked by monogamy, fidelity, permanence, and openness to children -- in other words, a valid Christian marriage is free, total, faithful, and fruitful.
There are some impediments to entering into a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church, but some of these impediments may be dispensed if proper permission is received. A common example of an impediment that can be dispensed is something known as 'disparity of cult,' which refers to a Catholic marrying an unbaptized person. Such a marriage can only be considered valid (but still not sacramental) if a dispensation is granted by the Church. (There are, of course, impediments for which a dispensation cannot be granted, including one person being already married, one having received Holy Orders, or one party previously conspiring to marry (upon condition of death of spouse) while still married [known as crimen -- really, I couldn't make this stuff up!].) Also, if a Catholic is marrying a baptized non-Catholic, they should request a dispensation so that their marriage may still be valid, as well as if a Catholic wants to be married outside of a Catholic Church or by a non-Catholic minister. The Church can grant permission for all of these situations.
It is common that couples (one or both of whom are baptized Catholics) who got married outside of the Church later wish to rectify the situation with the Church, and they can do so through a process called convalidation. One of the priests at my parish is currently giving instruction to a large number of couples who have been married civilly and wish to make their marriage sacramental. Here's a good article on convalidation.
Now, even though Catholics view marriage as a sacrament, they must also conform to the laws of the land, and so a civil marriage must accompany a sacramental marriage. But if a couple is only married civilly, they are not considered to be married sacramentally. Also, if a couple (one or both of whom were Catholic) divorces, they are still considered sacramentally married until such a time as an annulment is rendered by a tribunal of the Catholic Church. There are all kinds of crazy misconceptions about annulments (that's another subject for another blogpost!), but for now let me just explain that an annulment investigation looks at the circumstances leading up to a marriage and determines if one or more of the essential elements of a Christian marriage (remember free, total, faithful, and fruitful?) were lacking. If they were, then the marriage is declared to have been sacramentally invalid. The couple is already civilly divorced (no annulment tribunal will begin an investigation into a particular marriage's validity until a civil divorce is finalized), and the annulment means that since the couple was never married in the eyes of God, the parties are now free to marry sacramentally. Of course, a Church annulment does not render the civil marriage invalid, so this would not affect legitimacy of the children or other such matters.
Your example of a Catholic man and woman being only married civilly but not in the Church could easily be rectified by convalidation, since you say that neither of them was married before. They are legally married, but if they wanted to be married in the eyes of God and the Church and to receive the additional graces of the sacrament, they could approach the pastor of their local parish to start the process toward convalidation. Many couples have done so, and have found it to be a rewarding and spiritually fulfilling process that has strengthened their faith and their marriages.
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) also gives some excellent information related to your question, under the topic of 'Frequently Asked Questions About Marriage.' I think you will find it enlightening. I know I did.
Again, thanks for your question and I hope this has been helpful!
Peace and all good,Leslie