Marriage discipline and Christian unity

UPDATED: Edward Peters weighs in here.

Pope Francis’ marrying aboard the papal plane a couple of flight attendants who had been married civilly in Chile in 2010 reminded me of what was perhaps among the biggest obstacles to a decision to become Catholic by many Anglican and Continuing Anglican clergy, as well as many parishioners: the marriage discipline of the Catholic Church and its stance on denial of the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion to those who were divorced and “remarried” without a Decree of Nullity.

Those of us who decided to enter the Catholic Church either had no marriage irregularities, or resolved to get them straightened out at the local diocesan marriage tribunal beforehand.   Some people I know personally found this too high a price to pay.

In other words, we were required to “go by the book,” and just as entry into the Catholic Church required, among other things, proof we were already baptized, and that our spouse was also baptized and that our marriage was valid.

For all of us who entered the Catholic Church, a sacramental confession was required prior to our reception, and this for all mortal sins of our whole life, even though many of us were already going to confession at our parish.

Though I had been married 25 years, it was “irregular” and had to be validated. Preparing for that was similar to applying to citizenship in a new country.   A lot of official documents were required, and, because I was not able to find a Baptismal certificate, affadavits from witnesses were necessary.   (The Orthodox church the priest came from had had a fire, so they had no records of it).

As far as I know, it is not permissible for a Catholic to marry civilly without a sacramental wedding in a Catholic Church as well.  Some countries, like France, require a civil marriage ceremony in addition to a church wedding.  In other countries, the Church also registers the marriage with the state.  Interestingly, from what I understand, if a Catholic were to marry civilly, divorce, then want to marry someone else in the Church, in a sacramental marriage, the first marriage would have already been considered invalid through “defect of form.”  Canon lawyers, that’s right, no?

While many are applauding the Pope’s spontaneous move as a gesture in support of sacramental marriage, what could possibly go wrong with this?   What if neither are found to be baptized?  Or one or both were married before in the Church to someone else?

Back when I had to go through the process of getting all my paperwork in order. I complained to my spiritual director about feeling like a bookcase of legalism was falling over on me.  He explained, “The Church has to protect Her sacraments,” and that perspective helped me a great deal.

Pope Francis has spoken of how he doesn’t want the Church to act like customs officials at the border, blocking a pastoral need.   

In a 2013 CNA story, Pope Francis is quoted:

Pope Francis also used a more modern example by describing an encounter of a young couple with a parish secretary.

“‘Good morning, the two of us – boyfriend and girlfriend – we want to get married,’” the couple says.

“And instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’ They say, ‘Oh, well, have a seat. If you want the Mass, it costs a lot … .’ This, instead of receiving a good welcome – ‘It is a good thing to get married!’ – But instead they get this response: ‘Do you have the certificate of baptism, all right … .’ And they find a closed door,” the Pope said.

So, the marriage on the papal plane should not come as a surprise.

I am not for legalism or hurdles, but that ‘bookcase of legalism’ I experienced proved to be filled with profound blessings and spiritual growth that I might have missed had everything been easy.  It represented an obstacle that required me to make that assent to what the Church teaches —an assent that all people who desire to enter into the Catholic Church should make.

Otherwise, I could have stayed a happy evangelical.








3 thoughts on “Marriage discipline and Christian unity

  1. In my case of nullity the Church was largely unhelpful, and at times, harmful, to reconciling me to full communion. My situation was different than yours, Deborah, but every situation comes with its own intricacies.

    In any case, and setting aside whatever happened on the plane, the Church could use a far more efficient process, if not making it “easier.” Having it be challenging, difficult, and poorly administered to someone needing ministry, did not result in my reflecting back on it as “worth it.”

    Thankfully, the process was completed long before we helped to form an Ordinariate community, and I (and my formerly Anglican wife!) are reconciled to the Church.

    But my heart hurts often for those who find themselves entangled in their own sins or ‘misfires’ in life, and for my beloved Catholic Church that has yet to reconcile Herself fully to Her Master.


  2. Deborah,

    First, with regard to your specific question: “Interestingly, from what I understand, if a Catholic were to marry civilly, divorce, then want to marry someone else in the Church, in a sacramental marriage, the first marriage would have already been considered invalid through “defect of form.” Canon lawyers, that’s right, no?

    Yes, such “marriage” would be both sacramentally and canonically invalid due to defect of form, but it historically would have gone through a tribunal of first instance and an appellate tribunal to obtain a sentence to that effect. The new canons instituted by Pope Francis permit any diocesan bishop having jurisdiction over the matter to declare such marriages to be null with no need for tribunals to hear the case.

    With regard to canon law as it pertains to the reported marriage in flight and the commentary to which you added a link, we must not forget that the pope, as the giver of canon law, has absolute power to grant dispensations from its norms as he deems appropriate. Canon law also gives diocesan bishops and those who are equivalent in law (ordinaries of the ordinariates, for example) very broad powers in this regard (1) for all present within the territory of their respective dioceses and (2) for their subjects anywhere in the world.

    Unfortunately, your experience — both personal and that of your former fellow parishioners — is barely the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the problem that irregular marriages pose for ecumenism. It’s not realistic to expect Christian denominations that have followed radically different practices than that of the Catholic Church to abandon their members who are in irregular marriage situations as part of the cost of reconciliation. If we are to have any hope of restoration of Christian unity, as the popular song of the big band era says, somethin’s gotta give. It is, of course, up to the magisterium to discern how best to handle this situation without compromising doctrinal truth regarding either the sacrament of marriage itself or the validity of past attempts at marriage.



    • Yes, how to “handle this situation without compromising doctrinal truth” is key. It is why there is such reaction to Amoris Laetitia and the wide-ranging interpretations to its Chapter 8. My personal view? I hope the Church does not —in fact I believe She cannot—change this teaching, which goes back to the words of Jesus Christ on divorce—and make lowest common denominator compromises for the sake of ersatz unity.


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