Cohabiting Brides and Grooms

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Cohabiting Brides and Grooms

ROME, 15 JULY 2008 (ZENIT)

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

Q: Many Catholic brides and grooms acknowledge themselves as "living together" right up to the time of a sacramental marriage, and/or they admit that they have not followed the precepts of the Church (Mass on Sunday, Easter obligation, etc.). They decide to have a "Catholic wedding." Their marriage preparation lacks the requirement that they attend the sacrament of reconciliation to place themselves in a state of grace. Must a Catholic bride and/or groom be in the state of grace as they enter into matrimony in order for them to receive the grace of the sacrament? Is their marriage valid if they are not in the state of grace? — M.T., Bloomfield, Connecticut

A: The present state of social mores is a source of frequent consternation to priests, deacons and others involved in preparing couples for marriage.

Many pastoral agents feel caught between Scylla and Charybdis, fearing that demanding the couple's separation before marriage might dash any hopes of re-evangelizing them during the marriage preparation course. For this reason some might be tempted to turn a blind eye to cohabiting couples.

Here the Latin adage "Suaviter in forma fortiter in re" (gentle in form, firm as to principle) comes into play.

When a couple request a Catholic wedding it is necessary to inquire as to their motives. When the motives are genuinely, even if imperfectly religious, it should be gently but firmly explained that being married in the Church, more than a pretty social event, is a lifelong binding pact between them and God. It thus requires serious spiritual preparation, and the couple should be encouraged to take the commitment fully aware of what is required.

Any diocesan policies should be explained right from the beginning. While the Church is almost always willing to conduct a sacramental marriage so as to at least give the couple the opportunity of returning to the sacraments, many dioceses and pastors are wont to refuse cohabiting couples the full panoply of a religious wedding and insist on a discreet private service.

This is done out of respect for, and to emphasize, the essentially religious nature of the sacrament of holy matrimony so that it is never reduced to the social sphere.

While marriage preparation courses have several goals in preparing the couple for married life, it is gravely incumbent that the couple reach a clear understanding of the commitments toward fidelity, permanence and openness to children. These commitments are essential to celebrate a valid wedding in the Catholic Church. Otherwise the wedding should not proceed, since no pastor should ever risk witnessing a probably invalid marriage.

It is also of very great importance that the couple prepare for marriage by living the state of grace. Cohabiting couples should be gently but clearly told that their situation is not conducive to an adequate preparation for a Catholic wedding. Cohabitation also risks the future stability of their life together, as has been shown by both pastoral experience and formal scientific studies.

Marriage, just like confirmation, Eucharist, holy orders and, whenever possible, anointing of the sick, require the state of grace for their fruitful reception.

With respect to validity, however, someone who is married while in a state of mortal sin may be validly married (as they would be validly confirmed, ordained, or validly celebrate Mass). But he/she would not receive the grace proper to this sacrament and indeed commits a further grave sin of sacrilege and renders the sacrament objectively illicit.

Such a state hardly augurs well for future marital bliss. It is therefore of utmost pastoral concern that couples be prepared in such a way that they clearly understand the beauty of Catholic teaching regarding pre-nuptial chastity, sincerely repent of any sins they may have committed, and seek the sacrament of reconciliation so as to enter into marriage in the state of grace.

The challenges are immense and certainly exceed the possibilities of this column to enter into details. This is why we have limited ourselves to enunciate some basic guiding principles.

* * *

Follow-up: Cohabiting Brides and Grooms [7-29-2008]

Pursuant to the question relating to cohabitating couples (see July 15), several readers asked questions as to what weddings a Catholic should not attend.

This is a very delicate question and one which sometimes sparks bitter division among families, especially as relatives often instinctively allow the heart to rule the head when faced with clearly erroneous choices made by loved ones.

It is necessary to point out that there are no specific Church norms governing this practice. A generalized lack of catechesis combined with a sometimes aggressively pluralistic society have made necessary a loosening of stricter pastoral practices that would have reigned just a generation ago.

There sometimes is no simple answer, and persons with doubts about particular situations should consult their pastor before making a final decision.

One general principle could be that a Catholic should not attend a wedding in which the person is entering into an objectively irregular state. This would include cases where a Catholic enters into a second union after having divorced a living spouse, and without having received an annulment.

Certainly, concrete situations can be hardest to evaluate, and God alone is the final judge of each person’s heart. Yet, a Catholic cannot approve of an action by which relatives deprive themselves of the possibility of benefiting from the sacraments.

True love for our relatives must embrace concern for their eternal salvation and cannot be limited to their temporal happiness.

In making clear that in conscience they cannot support their relative’s decision by their presence, they should strive to retain human affection and support and avoid a breach in social relationships.

Other cases, while serious, might require less radical reactions. For example, if a relative decides to be married in a civil, Protestant or non-Christian ceremony. The Church considers the wedding invalid, since all Catholics are obliged to observe the canonical form or at least be granted a dispensation from the bishop.

Although the wedding is invalid, Church law has several means of subsequently validating it provided there are no other impediments. This is not the case with our earlier example, even though the second union may be sanctified after the death of a legitimate spouse or after a definitive decree of annulment has been issued.

In deciding how to react, Catholics should take into account their relative’s level of catechesis and practice. It is very different if the relative is making an incorrect choice out of ignorance or fully aware that he is disobeying Church laws. The relative's degree of faith knowledge also influences the possibility of his understanding a loved one's refusal to attend the ceremony.

The Catholic should also do all that can reasonably be done so that their kith and kin marry in good standing. They are often ignorant of the fact that, for a good reason, the bishop can dispense from the Catholic ritual so that a wedding according to the rites of another faith is considered as valid in Catholic eyes. This dispensation is rarely granted in the case of civil marriages, but it is always possible to hold a private ceremony later that validates the marriage.

If the Catholic party has done all that is possible and there is obstinate refusal to at least ask for a dispensation, then the Catholic loved one should refrain from attending the ceremony.

If one sees that it is simply ignorance, and nothing but bitterness is to be gained by refusing to attend the celebration, or at least the reception, then one could attend while making one's disapproval clear. But this kind of case is best discussed with one's pastor ahead of time.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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