The Basics of Being Married in the Catholic Church

By Rev. Raymond L. Harris, Jr.
Life is shaped by the commitments that we make and by our ability to maintain them with the help of the grace of God. A vocation is a way of life that is offered to God because God has given us the opportunity to live it. Among the distinctive vocations in the Church is married life.

The purpose of this article is to provide basic information for Catholic Christians who want to be married. Some of the information is repeated in different sections to minimize the possibility of confusion. Further information is available from your parish clergy or diocesan chancery (i.e., the tribunal and/or another office that addresses marriage and family life). The reader should not rely on this article alone.

While this information is taken from the Code of Canon Law, I will not cite every relevant canon for the sake of simplicity.1 Canons regarding the responsibilities of the clergy in this matter are beyond the scope of this article.

What does the Catholic Church teach about marriage?
The Catholic Church teaches that it is a matter of divine revelation that God has established the institution of marriage between one man and one woman. A sacramental marriage is between the baptized. Otherwise, it is considered a natural marriage, whether it is: (1) between a baptized person and a person who has not been baptized; or (2) between two persons who have not been baptized.

The matrimonial covenant, by which a man or a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of the sacrament between the baptized. (canon 1055 §1)

The understanding that marriage is an unconditional covenant between one man and one woman is part of the “natural law” (i.e., it binds all persons regardless of whether or not they believe that God exists). The mutual giving and receiving of the consent by persons lawfully able to do so establishes a marriage. (canon 1057 §1)

Of course, love motivates them to establish this covenant. A loving relationship provides acceptance, affirmation, and affection for those who benefit from the relationship. In a relationship, parties accept each other for who they are and not what they perceive the other can do for them. They affirm what is for their well-being and salvation. They show affection, expressing care and concern appropriately, respecting their emotional and physical boundaries. However, the affection of the “one flesh” union is uniquely expressed between a married couple in the conjugal embrace. Quoting from the first book of the Torah, our Lord Jesus Christ taught,

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate. (Mark 10:6-9)

What is the “canonical form” of marriage?
A Catholic is bound to have his or her marriage recognized by the Catholic Church. This is not an arbitrary requirement. As the result of many years of pastoral experience, the Church has put together a framework to protect the rights and promote the responsibilities of the parties to a marriage.

A Catholic is required to be married according to “canonical form.” Most Catholics of African descent in this country are members of the Latin Church sui iuris (i.e., a Church in its own right). A Catholic should be married in the presence of the Catholic pastor of the parish in which the liturgy is celebrated (or his delegate, either a priest or deacon) and at least two witnesses. Usually, a Catholic is married in his or her parish. If a Catholic wants to be married in another parish, then he or she should obtain the permission of the pastor.

There are twenty-one Eastern Churches sui iuris that are in communion with the Pope. The blessing of a bishop or priest is required for the validity of the marriage in these Churches. Space is not available to expand on this matter.

When should the couple contact the parish?
Before meeting with the reception hall or caterer, the couple must meet with a member of the parish clergy first. They should always check the parish bulletin regarding the diocesan and parish requirements. It is usually necessary to contact parish clergy from several months to a year before the desired wedding date. This ensures that the couple will have suitable time for their immediate preparation to enter this lifelong commitment.

Prior to setting the wedding date, the parish priest or deacon needs to know if the parties to the prospective marriage are lawfully able to marry. He needs to know whether or not the couple intends to mutually establish an unconditional covenant with each other that will last for life. He needs to know if they entering this marriage with . . .

•”the freedom to marry (i.e., they are not bound to another person in a previous marriage or by any impediments).
•”a free will (i.e., no person or circumstance is forcing them to marry against their will).
•”the intention of living together in a mutually exclusive relationship of lifelong fidelity. This also includes: (1) not placing any conditions to their marriage consent; and (2) not hiding anything from their intended spouse that might affect their willingness to marry.
•”the intention of mutually contributing to a fruitful relationship (i.e., sharing life together in its many facets, including receiving children lovingly as a gift of God and raising them in the practice of the Faith)?
If the answer is negative in any category, then the situation will have to be clarified and/or corrected before setting the wedding date. There are several typical scenarios to consider from this point.

What if I have been married before?
If one of the parties to a marriage has a previous marriage bond, then it must be investigated to establish if the party is free to marry now. This includes any previous marriage, whether it was celebrated in a Catholic Church or not.

The person may have to go through the so-called, “annulment process.” A wedding date cannot be set until the process has concluded and a decree of nullity has been granted.

The “annulment process” is conducted by a diocesan tribunal that is competent to conduct the investigation. Did a sacramental or natural marital bond exist between the parties at the moment of the exchange of consent? It does not make a judgment about any other aspects of what the parties viewed as a marriage. For example, if a decree of nullity is granted, any children of the parties are not viewed as being “illegitimate.”

I want to underscore that this principle also applies to a non-Catholic party to a prospective marriage. It does not matter whether he or she was married to another non-Catholic party in a non-Catholic ceremony. Remember my earlier comment about understanding the permanence of the marital bond as part of the “natural law,” which applies to every human being regardless of his or her religious affiliation.

I am Catholic and my fiancé(e) is not Catholic. Are there any issues for us to consider?
The Catholic Church has two concerns. First, does the Catholic intend to remain in communion with the Church? This is not an insignificant question. He or she was incorporated into the Church when baptized. Second, in light of the Catholic understanding of marriage, will the Catholic make a sincere effort to baptize and raise his or her children as Catholics?

The Catholic party is asked to make a commitment to positively address these concerns, which is stated as follows:

I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and with God’s help intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and reared as Catholics.2

The non-Catholic party is informed about the commitment of the Catholic party. He or she is not required to make the same commitment. If the Catholic party makes this commitment, then the parish will request the diocesan bishop to grant permission for a marriage of “mixed religion.”

Regarding the second commitment, consider the phrase, “all in my power.” The Catholic party should make a sincere effort to work things out with his or her intended spouse. What is not acceptable is to wait until the child can make a decision. Parents do not draw this conclusion regarding other issues of child rearing. It is also not acceptable to “split” the religious ceremonies for the child (e.g., baptism in the Catholic Church and Holy Communion elsewhere).

This can be a delicate matter for the couple. In the final analysis, the indissolubility of the marriage and the stability of family life are the paramount concerns. Couples intending to marry in the Catholic Church should not hesitate to talk about these matters with their parish priest or deacon.

Note that the Catholic Church does not permit a couple to have two wedding services (i.e., in the respective churches of each party). The exchange of marital consent must take place in one worship service, according to one ritual, and is received by one minister.

Presuming that all is in order, what else should we keep in mind?
(1.) Marriage between two Catholics
Marriage must be celebrated according to canonical form, usually within the context of Holy Mass. It must be celebrated in a church building because it is the consecrated place where the People of God worship.

(2.) Marriage between a Catholic and another baptized person
Marriage must be celebrated according to canonical form in a church building, outside the context of Holy Mass. If the non-Catholic party would like his or her minister to participate in the Catholic liturgy, there are some options to consider (e.g., proclaim a Scripture lesson or offer a blessing). However, only the Catholic cleric receives the exchange of vows.

If the couple wants to be married in the church of the non-Catholic party, the Catholic party still makes the aforementioned commitment. The couple continues to participate in the Catholic marriage preparation process. The parish will request the diocesan bishop for the couple to be dispensed from canonical form. If the dispensation is granted, then the presence of a Catholic cleric is not required at the non-Catholic ceremony. However, the Catholic party may desire it. In this case, only the minister of the non-Catholic party may receive the exchange of marital consent.

Either way, the parish will request the diocesan bishop for permission for a marriage of “mixed religion.”

(3.) Marriage between a Catholic and a person who is not baptized
This category includes Catholics who want to marry someone who is not a Christian. However, it may include Catholics who want to marry someone who professes to be a Christian but is not baptized. Baptism is not practiced in some denominations.

A Catholic is still bound to be married according to canonical form, and it will be outside the context of Holy Mass. There could be some options for a minister to participate in the Catholic ceremony. However, only the Catholic cleric receives the exchange of marital consent.

If the couple wants to be dispensed from canonical form in order to be married before a minister of the non-Catholic party, the conditions mentioned in the previous section apply. The wedding should occur in a sacred space. A couple would not be permitted to marry before a justice of the peace.

Either way, the parish will request the diocesan bishop for a dispensation of the impediment of “disparity of cult (or worship).”

(4) All must participate in a marriage preparation program.
Regardless of the scenario, the couple is required to participate in a marriage preparation program led by members of the clergy and trained married couples as mentors or teachers. My experience as a parish priest and university chaplain shows that many couples have not sufficiently discussed important matters prior to marriage (e.g., role of faith, rearing of children, involvement of families, finances, etc.). The preparation program helps to facilitate these conversations.

There are other considerations but space prevents further examination here. The purpose of this article is to provide basic information for Catholic Christians who want to get married. Further information is available from local parish clergy or the diocesan chancery.

Rev. Raymond L. Harris, Jr. was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1994. He is studying for a licentiate in canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

1.The canons are quoted from: Codex Iuris Canonici auctoritate Ioannis Pauli PP. II promulgatus. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1983. English translation from Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition: New English Translation. (Washington, D.C.: Canon Law Society of America, 1998).
2.Apostolic Letter on Mixed Marriages, no. 7; Statement on the Implementation of the Apostolic Letter on Mixed Marriages, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (Washington, D.C.: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 1971).

The National Black Catholic Congress