Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Time to Raise the Bar on What the Church Recognizes as "Marriage"?

I minister in the poorest town in Indiana.  We have a wonderful woman who is in RCIA to join the Church.

She's been married 5 times.

The Amoris Laetitia debate taking place about whether the divorced and remarried without an annulment while the first spouse is still living...this debate seems MUCH less important than what I'd like to discuss below.

First of all, I'm not a canon lawyer, but (I think I'm right in saying this) there are essentially 2 levels to marriage.  First of all, a marriage even of the unbaptized can be VALID because we currently consider the consent of the couple to be what typically makes it valid.

LEVEL 2: In addition to a marriage being valid, it can ALSO be sacramental if it is between 2 baptized persons

The discussion we need to be having, in my mind, is "has the state of marriage OUTSIDE the Church changed so drastically as to warrant us reexamining what makes a marriage valid?  Also, has the state of marriage changed so drastically OUTSIDE the Church as to warrant us examining what makes a marriage sacramental?"

1) you don't even have to be baptized to have a valid marriage.  Two people, not baptized, who get married at the courthouse - we presume that is a valid marriage (not sacramental, but valid, thus needing to go through the annulment process if they have remarried and wish to join the Church)

2) We automatically say that two baptized people who exchange consent are presumed to be sacramentally married.

Said negatively - the only marriage we know, ON THE SURFACE, is not even a valid marriage is when a Catholic gets married OUTSIDE the Church without the Church's permission.  ALL OTHER MARRIAGES ARE PRESUMED VALID, AND NEED TO AT LEAST BEGIN THE ANNULMENT JOURNEY

But, in my mind, the entire landscape has changed, punctuated by our nation's embrace of same-sex marriage.

Here's what I'd like to throw out there: I am proposing, for arguments sake, that we say for a marriage to be valid, you need to either be married

1) In the Catholic Church or

2) In a Church that is on our approved list of churches that we believe do adequate marriage preparation/formation etc. AND have the SAME understanding of what marriage is that we as Catholics do.  Perhaps, like we did with baptism, we get together with other Christian denominations and issue some kind of joint statement on what we all believe about marriage, and the groups that don't sign on - getting married in their Church is not sacramental nor valid.

3) You receive proper permission from your bishop to marry a non-baptized person or some Christian that isn't on the list of approved Christian denominations.

Here's why I say this:
1) Our secular society literally has enshrined and recognizes marriage to be something that people of the same sex can enter into
2) Some denominations are literally preaching that two people of the same sex can "marry" each other.

We have, as a Catholic Church, done something similar with baptism. We don't recognize other Christian denominations' baptisms, unless they meet criteria that we have laid out and are on our "approved list of Christian denominations that properly confer baptism"

As an example, we accept Lutheran baptisms, but not Mormon baptisms

I'm just wondering whether we set some new standards about what we accept as marriage, given the shifting landscape outside the Church.

I have had people tell me they don't remember their marriage very much because they were both high when they walked into the courthouse to get married.  Is that marriage?  Now some will say "this stuff will get uncovered during an investigation for an annulment, and perhaps it would be declared null" but I'm saying it seems ridiculous at this point to think of these marriages as marriages - it seems off, in my mind, to even presume that these things are valid marriages

People might also just say, "you just don't want to work with your parishioner to get 5 annulment processes going" but I would say that situations like these are becoming more normal.  This situation that I describe is, sadly, not nearly the exception anymore.

I have a town FULL of poor people who have been married multiple times and who would be interested in the Church but even being gently led through the marriage regularization process of the Church just seems to crush so many of them.

In the Amoris debate, again, everyone is upset and arguing about Catholics who have remarried without an annulment.  I think the far more important question that can be tackled is

"Does the absolute implosion of what marriage has come to be in Western civilization warrant a redrawing of the lines for the Church's laws on marriage (not on who can receive Communion but on which and what types of marriages we recognize)"


  1. Yes. I think it does.

  2. Another related though inverse problem is the fact that we assume as invalid marriages of a baptized Catholic that are outside of the church, whether or not they currently are in the church or ever were at any time after their baptism. They are bound by the canonical form of marriage within the church, by the church's authority over them as baptized Christians, even when they submit no authority to the church. They can have every right idea about the permanence of marriage and freely consent to the marriage, and it be in another church. These families might regularly practice their Protestant Faith, pray regularly, yet we must say they are not actually married. The church, in fact, not only denies them the sacramental grace of marriage to make it work, but cast them into a ongoing state of fornication by binding them to the canonical form of marriage. Ed Peters has some interesting articles where he proposes the canonical form of marriage be abolished or changed to a great degree. I tend to agree.

  3. This is an interesting proposition and it makes sense, especially when we mostly get into the valid marriage issue when someone wants to come into the Church, get married in the Church or request an annulment.

    Then again, does it matter, because Pope Francis doesn't seem to think adultery is even an issue anymore and he doesn't seem to care about gay clergy, so maybe he doesn't care about gay marriage? Hmmm.

  4. Yes! And with it a plan to catechize all the young people, and their parents, of the responsibilities of a valid Catholic marriage.

  5. These are very valid considerations. Thank you for raising the issue.

  6. We are currently obligated to err on the side of presuming a marriage is valid. Canon 1060 says "Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven." Of course, the laws can be re-written (which is what I think you were suggesting), but marriage is a more complex issue than Baptism because it touches not just the law of sacraments, but natural law as well. Thus the Church presumes that marriages contracted by non-baptized persons are still valid marriages. For these marriages to be invalid, there would have to be an obvious defect, such as inability of one party to consent, etc. The homosexual unions that you mentioned would be invalid under natural law; a marriage contracted by two persons in an inebriated state would probably be declared invalid, but given the force of natural law, I doubt the Church will ever declare, "Unless your marriage was contracted in Church X, Y, or Z, it is presumed invalid." Just because Episcopalians conduct invalid marriages by attempting to wed two men or two women together, this does not mean that their heterosexual marriages are ipso-facto invalid. I understand the need to streamline the process for the difficult cases you are mentioning, but if we switch the burden of proof to the other end, & begin with the presumption that many marriages are invalid (based on a demominational listing or something), then we risk undermining the Church teaching about the natural law basis of marriage.
    Or, was your argument that, even though we might presume a natural law marriage from some of these wacky denominations, we can't call their marriages "sacramental" even if the two parties have been baptized, because their understanding of marriage is so warped? That could be a possibility, although to fall back on the Baptism analogy, the Church generally does not demand a full understanding of the graces of that great first sacrament in order for it to be valid. For example, I was baptized by a minister in the Assemblies of God using a Trinitarian formula, but that particular ecclesial body does not believe in baptismal regeneration. However, my baptism is still valid because the minister intended to do what the Church does when she baptizes (though he didn't properly understand what the Church does when she baptizes). For a sacrament to be valid, one must have proper form, matter, intention, & disposition. The only two that I could think of that might invalidate some of these Protestant marriages as sacramental would be improper intention or improper disposition. & it could get to the point where those could go out the window even in "church" weddings. e.g., if polyamory takes such hold that wedding vows no longer even include a promise of conjugal exclusivity, that would be akin to a grave defect in intention &/or disposition. But generally I don't think we're there yet. There's still a basic assumption that fidelity will be the rule, though it is (sadly) often not lived out in reality. As for natural law marriages, I'm not sure how the Pauline privileges would work for an unbaptized person--Do you go back to the first spouse, give the invitation of the Pauline privilege per Canon Law, etc? I think the best we can do is to pray for those considering the Church, that they will have enough hunger & thirst for Christ in the Eucharist that they will commit to whatever it takes, even if it means perfect continence in their current relationship, in order to gain Christ. This touches me personally because I have many close family members who would not be able to join the Catholic Church (or start communicating again, for Catholic who are away) without either obtaining an annulment or developing a brand-new habit of living in perfect continence.
    Anyhow, Father, just trying to maybe get some clarification, not trying to argue. Thanks for all that you do.

  7. I wish the Church could hold its ground about marriage (that is, adhere to the traditional definition); but as you point out, the landscape has shifted. I would not rank marriage as the Number One Concern of the Church, as important as it is.

    I would rank abortion as Number One, for it is permanent; no amount of forgiveness will bring the baby back to this life.

    I would rank sexually active priests and the Church hierarchy that has covered up abuse (abuse being worse than consensual sex) as the Number Two because of the scandal it causes (both among Catholics and non-Catholics).

    As a pew-sitter with a checkered past (two annulments), I know now that I wasn't ready for marriage until about age 50 (yeah, a late bloomer). How to minister to those who have not obtained annulments is a very good question. I think, if I wore a collar, I would ensure that regular folks understood the Church's teaching. But, being in your position (ordained), could you then marry a man and a woman? No, I don't think you could. "Marriage" between other than a man and a woman being impossible.

    Keep the Faith, Father. I do pray for priests; and will be eternally thankful (literally) that GOD has always made a priest available to me.