Appendix 2 – When a Catholic Marries

The Church takes marriage very seriously. Catholic tradition regarding marriage draws on two thousand years of pastoral experience. This is embodied in the practical wisdom of Canon law. The ‘rules’ for marriage set out below should be understood in this context, as wisdom and care for women and men. Through marriage laws and practices, the Church strives to promote the moral and spiritual well-being and happiness of all couples.

In Chapter 6, which provides an ethical perspective on marriage, there is an emphasis on marriage as a vocation, a way of life that should be entered with reflection and prayer and without haste. Once a couple decide to marry, they need to understand the commitment they make – entering the unity of a life-long, binding relationship. Much depends on what is in their minds and hearts at the time of marriage commitment.

What intentions are required for marriage?

Some basic conditions are required for a couple to enter into marriage validly and with the right intentions. First both partners must be free to marry, that is, neither person can be already married or bound by some commitment to another person. Their married love is meant to be exclusive – no other party can enter their community of life and love.

Assuming they are free to marry, three basic intentions are required.

  1. They both must intend to marry, that is, they choose to enter a permanent, life-long, binding commitment – not a provisional arrangement or trial marriage – ‘We’ll stay together if it works out’.
  2. Both parties must intend to marry by their own free choice, not under compulsion or pressure from the other partner or any third party.
  3. They must be willing to have children – to be open to God’s gift of new life.

Neither partner can set conditions on the marriage, such as making the marriage depend on whether or not there are children or on some property arrangements.

What is required for the celebration of marriage?

The Church lays down some simple conditions concerning the way a marriage involving Catholics is to be celebrated. The couple must make their mutual consent before a priest or deacon and two witnesses, usually in a church. If both parties are baptised, they are themselves the ministers of the sacrament of Marriage as they make their mutual free consent.

The marriage of a Catholic to another Catholic, or the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic, is valid only if it is celebrated before a priest and other witnesses, unless a dispensation has been obtained from this requirement.

What preparation is required for marriage?

Normally, at least some months should be set aside to prepare for the sacrament of Marriage. Having agreed on a date for their marriage, the couple make an appointment with a priest who begins to prepare them for marriage.

With the assistance of the priest, two sets of papers need to be completed and signed:

  1. According to the law of the Church (Canon law), the couple produce evidence of their Baptism and some other papers that the priest will explain. They sign a declaration of their intention to marry – a declaration that the priest will ask them to make during the ceremony.
  2. According to civil law, they need to present birth certificates (or ‘extracts’ – official documents based on birth certificates) and, in some circumstances, other official documents. They sign an application to marry, containing the information that will be included in the civil papers they will sign at the marriage ceremony.

The priest prepares the couple for marriage. He may also suggest that they take a marriage preparation course; such a course may be required by the bishop. Towards the end of the time of preparation, assisted by the priest, the couple plan the liturgy of their marriage ceremony: the prayers, readings, music, and the role of family and friends in the celebration. The best way for two Catholics to celebrate their marriage is during a Nuptial Mass.

What is the procedure when a Catholic wants to marry a non-Catholic?

During the time of preparation, a written request is prepared in which the Catholic seeks the permission of the bishop to proceed with a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. This is an inter-Church or inter-Faith marriage, popularly known as a ‘mixed marriage’. This request is readily granted provided the Catholic party reaffirms his or her faith and promises to do his or her best to raise the children as Catholics – to have them baptised as Catholics and ensure their religious education.

In a few cases of marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, the bishop may be asked to dispense the Catholic from marrying before a priest. If the bishop gives this permission, the marriage remains within the law and pastoral care of the Catholic Church.

Can a Catholic marry an unbaptised person?

Yes. The Church respects the natural right of everyone to marry. The same procedure is to be followed as set out in the answer to the previous question. There are some slight variations in
the ceremony.

Are marriages between two baptised non-Catholic Christians recognised by the Church?

Yes. The Church recognises as sacramental, hence valid, marriages between two baptised members of other Churches or Christian communities, provided each party is free to marry. When they make their consent, the same sacramental bond is established as when two Catholics make their consent.

What if two Catholics get married before a civil celebrant or a minister of another denomination without seeking permission from the Church?

If two Catholics who are free to marry make their consent before a civil celebrant or a non-Catholic minister of religion, this marriage is legal, but it is invalid in the eyes of the Church. It is not a sacrament. However, if the couple later approach a priest and are willing to prepare for marriage and give their consent in the normal way, this legal marriage can be raised to a sacramental level or ‘validated’. In these cases, the marriage ceremony is usually simple and private.

What if a Catholic and non-Catholic get married before a civil celebrant or the minister of another denomination?

Such a marriage is not recognised as valid by the Church. However, provided he or she is free to marry, a person who has married invalidly can later approach a priest, and through him the Marriage Tribunal, to obtain a declaration of freedom to marry. Then, after some preparation, the marriage can be validated, usually as described in the answer to the previous question.

Can a Catholic validly marry a divorced person?

No. The marriage of a Catholic to a divorced person is not valid. However, there are two basic exceptions:

  1. A Catholic could marry a divorced person, Catholic or non-Catholic, who has obtained a Declaration of Nullity from the Church and is deemed to be capable of entering marriage.
  2. A Catholic could marry a divorced person, Catholic or non-Catholic, who married invalidly in the first place, provided he or she had obtained a declaration of freedom to marry from the Marriage Tribunal of the Church. Note that these situations require advice, assistance and guidance from an expert in Canon law.

What is Nullity?

A Declaration of Nullity is not a divorce. The Church never grants the divorce of a consummated sacramental marriage. However, after careful investigation of an existing marriage, the Marriage Tribunal of the Church may conclude and then declare that the marriage never existed. In these cases, the Church finds that serious factors have made the marriage invalid from its very beginning. As stated in the first section of this guide, these factors usually relate to the way consent was made by one or both parties.

Are the children of Catholics who marry outside Church laws regarded as illegitimate?

No. Legitimacy comes under civil law. The same applies to all children born in a marriage that is later the subject of a Declaration of Nullity.