A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Civilly Married Couples

ROME, 14 OCT. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe, Ireland, once said that cohabiting couples must not receive Communion (see ZENIT, Jan. 23, 2006). I have two related questions: 1) Are civilly married couples considered cohabiting if not married in church? 2) If a civilly married couple, never married in church, divorce and one or both eventually want to get married in church with a different partner, will they be allowed to? F.N., Coquitlam, British Columbia

A: The answer would depend on several circumstances and on the religious status of the couple.

If at least one member of the couple is Catholic, then the Church would not recognize the civil marriage as valid and the couple's status would be practically the same as a cohabiting couple.

This is because positive Church law ties the validity of a Catholic wedding to following the proper canonical form. Since this is positive and not divine law the local bishop has the authority to dispense from the canonical form. This is usually granted if for some serious reason a Catholic wishes to marry according to a non-Catholic religious ritual. The dispensation is rarely, if ever, accorded when a Catholic wants to marry according to a civil ceremony.

If a couple of civilly married, baptized non-Catholics were to become Catholic, then their status would depend on whether their former community recognized the validity of civil marriage or not. If their civil marriage was recognized as valid, then, in the eyes of God and the Church, that marriage would also be sacramental. This is because the Church considers that all valid marriages between baptized persons are automatically sacramental even in those cases where the particular religious community does not number matrimony among the sacraments.

If a civilly married couple receive baptism, then the baptism itself transforms their valid civil marriage into a sacramental marriage and this fact is noted on the baptismal register.

In both of the above cases if there is some well-grounded doubt as to the validity of the original bond (for example, if the terms of the civil wedding created a presumption against making a lifelong commitment), then the couple should be wed on entering the Catholic faith.

Addressing the second question, we can say that if a Catholic had entered into an invalid civil wedding, and later divorced, in principle he or she could marry someone else in the Church.

It is possible that the same rule would apply in the second situation mentioned, but each case would have to be examined on its own merits to determine the sacramental validity of the previous Christian marriage. In general the law presumes the validity of such a marriage until the contrary is proven (Canon 1060).

The previous civil bond of someone who divorced before baptism would not usually constitute an obstacle to being married in the Church. If necessary, the previous marriage could be dissolved in virtue of the Pauline privilege (Canon 1143).

It is important to note, however, that marriage in all of the above cases require the permission of the local bishop, especially if the person has civil obligations toward the spouse and children arising from a previous bond (Canon 1071).

Likewise, before any of these weddings can take place, Canon 1085.2 requires that "the nullity or dissolution of the prior marriage is established legitimately and certainly."
 

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