Is My Marriage Valid Before God?
Question: Do I, as a convert or returnee to the Catholic Church, need a convalidation of my Protestant or other non-Catholic marriage for it to be recognized by the Catholic Church?
Answer: What does convalidation do? It assures the Church — and you — that your marriage is indeed valid before God. A marriage’s validity according to civil law is an entirely separate matter and is not being considered here. The Catholic Church is only interested in what is needed to preserve marriage as a holy Christian sacrament and the spouses as morally upright Catholic Christians.
In itself, a convalidation says nothing about the prior validity of the marriage, although the usual reason for the ceremony (which is a repetition of one’s marriage vows before approved witnesses and an official clergy representative of the Catholic Church, according to an official rite of the Catholic Church, providing assurance of full, valid and voluntary consent, even if this had been given before) is that the prior validity of the marriage is in some way doubtful according to the laws of the Catholic Church. According to these laws, to continue to live as husband and wife when the validity of the marriage is not secure is sinful, being the equivalent of a casual union. (Remember, this is the position of the Catholic Church, not the civil authorities. They are two separate sets of law and must not be confused.) Therefore, if one or both of the spouses are Catholic or are becoming Catholic, convalidation can be seen as a protection against moral failure of the spouses with regard to the union itself.
Now, assuming that neither spouse has been married before and both were validly baptized Christians at the time of the wedding, then:
1. If neither spouse has ever been Catholic, the marriage is usually accepted as valid as it stands. One or both of the spouses can become Catholic and receive the sacraments without convalidation. Note, however, that the bishop may require convalidation of marriage for converts and returnees anyway, to make sure that nothing has been overlooked. He has the authority to do this.
2. If either spouse is now or has ever been Catholic, then:
a. If the marriage took place under Catholic auspices, it is assumed valid unless proven otherwise;
b. If the marriage took place anywhere else without a dispensation for the Catholic (or previously Catholic) party, this is a violation of the Church’s law regarding the Catholic party, and the marriage must be convalidated before proceeding. Note that this is true even if the formerly Catholic party no longer considered himself/herself Catholic at the time of the wedding.
If, however, either or both spouses have been married before, none of the above applies, and both spouses (not just the converting spouse) will need a declaration of nullity for each previous union and a convalidation of the present union. (See below for particulars.)
In a marriage where one or both parties are not validly baptized Christians, if one or both of the parties become Catholic, convalidation will be required.
I Was Married Before
Question: Either I or my spouse, or both, have been married before. Is this an impediment to my becoming Catholic or returning to the Catholic Church? How can the situation be remedied?
Answer: Let us lay out the “bottom line” summary first, then look at the considerations that led to it.
If either spouse has been married before, and the other party of that marriage is still living, the Catholic Church presumes that marriage, and not the current one, to be the valid and legitimate marriage unless the previous marriage has been proved to be invalid by a tribunal process in the Catholic Church. This means that a tribunal process concerning the validity of the first marriage is the first item that needs to be addressed, followed by convalidation of the current marriage.
If there has been more than one previous marriage, each of them, for each spouse of the current marriage, must be proved invalid before the current marriage can be convalidated and recognized.
Yes, a convalidation of the current marriage will be necessary in every case involving one or more previous marriages, for it to be recognized as valid. The Catholic Church takes the business of divorce and remarriage very seriously, because according to the Bible as well as Church tradition, doctrine and law, it is not permitted. Note also that not every case of previous marriage can be proved invalid. It depends on the individual circumstances of that particular marriage. In what follows, various points bearing on the above summary will be touched on, and at the end of the article, a bibliography is attached for further reading.
First the background: Due to the advocacy of ideologies and practices opposed to the Christian moral principle of lifelong marital fidelity, divorce and remarriage is a very common phenomenon in the world today, affecting approximately half of the population in English-speaking areas of the world. Because of its understanding of the nature of marriage and God’s requirement that it be a lifelong commitment to one person, the Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce as a true dissolution of the marital bond. The death of either of the spouses, of course, dissolves a marriage in a natural manner. With a certificate of death, the surviving spouse is, barring other impediments, free to marry.
Let us be very clear about the difference between divorce and a declaration of nullity (often called an “annulment”): There is no such thing as divorce in the Catholic Church, and a declaration of nullity is not the equivalent of divorce. Divorce is a process in civil law that presumes to sever or dissolve the bond of matrimony, freeing the parties to marry another should they desire to do so. Christ did not recognize divorce (see Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18); the so-called “exception clause” in the passages from Matthew is, in the view of the Catholic Church, not an exception at all. The Ignatius Study Bible’s commentary explains:
This [exception] view fails to interpret Jesus’ statement in light of its immediate biblical context. The disciples’ response to Jesus’ statement on divorce (“it is not expedient to marry” [19:10]) demonstrates that, in their understanding, Jesus was leaving no room at all for divorce and remarriage. In fact, they viewed celibacy as a preferable alternative to marriage precisely because Jesus’ teaching on this matter is so strict — far more so than that of any of his Jewish contemporaries. The disciples’ incredulous response to Jesus thus confirms the Catholic Church’s constant teaching on the indissolubility of sacramental marriage.
The Catholic Church has not defined Jesus’ exact position here. The commentary therefore goes on to expound three viewpoints that have been offered by Catholic theologians. The first is that Jesus did allow for separation “in cases of serious sexual sin such as adultery, but he never permitted remarriage after divorce.”
The second follows the Jewish Torah’s prohibition of incest, seeing in the “exception clause” a reference to marriages invalidated by consanguinity. There may also be other grounds for invalidation not pronounced in the Torah, and this is the view of the Navarre Bible commentary: that Jesus is referring to a marriage not properly consented to by each party, either by a defect in the consent itself or by an external impediment invalidating the consent, making it actually the same as the Catholic Church’s canon law concerning the validity of marriages: “The reference, then, is to unions radically invalid because of some impediment.… Therefore, this phrase does not go against the indissolubility of marriage, but rather reaffirms it.”
The third viewpoint offered by the Ignatius commentary is that “because Jesus is revoking the Old Testament concession on divorce, he brackets the whole issue and sets it off to the side as irrelevant.… He is not clarifying or reaffirming Moses’ permission, he is abolishing it.” This is basically the same thing that he does with a number of other precepts of the Torah: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” (cf. Matthew 5:21f, 27f, 31f, 33f, 38f, 43f).
The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches have a sacrament (called a “mystery” in the Eastern Churches, both Catholic and Orthodox) which serves to bless and deepen the Christian marriage through the infusion (“pouring into the soul”) of divine grace; for two baptized Catholics marrying, reception of this sacrament is necessary for a marriage to be valid. Additionally, in the Catholic Church, a distinction is made between a civil marriage (which may be contracted before a government official) and a sacramental Christian marriage (covenanted in a Catholic church). A person may be legally married (civil marriage), but not married as a Christian in the eyes of God (sacramental marriage).
Some non-Catholic Christian marriages are recognized as sacramental by the Catholic Church, but others are not because of impediments such as a previous marriage. Marriages entered into by Catholics without the benefit of the sacrament of matrimony are universally invalid, but those marriages must be declared null by a Catholic tribunal or local bishop before a new and different marriage can be contracted. This is because Catholic law presumes a marriage valid until proved otherwise. Thus, if the first marriage is valid, a subsequent one cannot be valid; it would be bigamy.
The Catholic Church does not presume to dissolve the marriage bond, as if a declaration of nullity were equivalent to a divorce; instead, it merely investigates the facts involving the manner in which the marriage came to be and recognizes the marriage as either valid or invalid on the basis of the facts.
In Catholic jurisprudence, marriage enjoys the favor of the law; therefore, a marriage of persons who were free to marry each other is considered to be valid until proved otherwise. Where divorce and remarriage is concerned, the first marriage will continue to be recognized under Church law as the only valid marriage unless and until it is proved invalid (“null”) through the Church tribunal process. This means that, in such cases, the current marriage cannot be recognized as valid because one or both parties to the current marriage were not free to marry.
In other words, if either spouse refuses or fails to submit each previous civil marriage to a Catholic tribunal for adjudication of its religious validity, a declaration of nullity is by that fact impossible and the former marriage(s) will be presumed still valid, making recognition or convalidation of the current marriage impossible. The spouses would then be required to separate in order for one or both of them to be Catholic and eligible to receive the Catholic sacraments.
Furthermore, because the validity of a previous marriage depends on the facts as they existed at the time of the wedding for that marriage, it is sometimes not possible for a tribunal to issue a decree of nullity. In other words, not every petition will be successful; the facts of a case do not depend on the will of the petitioner, but on what actually happened.
In some instances, it happens that one spouse of a marriage whose validity is questionable under Church law refuses to cooperate with the process of obtaining the proper recognition of the parties’ freedom to marry or the convalidation of the marriage. When this happens, and there is no possibility of reconciliation, there remains another possible remedy other than definitive separation: radical sanation. This is a process whereby the current union may be declared valid by way of a unilateral petition (just one party involved in the process). It is complicated and lengthy and, as with the process of petitioning for a declaration of nullity of a previous union, not always successful. But it is an option for those who have no other way to follow their conscience in becoming or returning as members of the Catholic Church.
Previous marriages affect both spouses in the current marriage, not just the one who was directly involved in the prior union. The reason is that marriage always involves two people, not just one. It is those two who become one in marriage; and if a person is already one with Person A, he cannot become one with Person B as well. For this reason, if someone (for example) wants to become Catholic, but his spouse was previously married to someone who is still living, the spouse’s previous marriage must be investigated and declared null before the prospective convert can proceed.
What makes a marriage invalid? It is not a question of adultery or cruelty; that is not the domain of nullity, but of dysfunction and sin. In every case, the validity or invalidity of a marriage comes down to the validity or invalidity of the consent given by the parties to the union in the wedding ceremony. If there was a defect in full and voluntary consent on the part of either or both of them, the marriage is invalid. If there was an impediment (such as a previous marriage that has not been declared null), this invalidates any consent given and the new marriage is invalid. This defect or invalidity of consent may be as simple as baptized Christians not bothering to make God part of their marriage through pronouncing their vows in a Christian ceremony, or as complicated as an ideological or psychological impediment to making an exclusive and lifelong commitment to a spouse for the proper ends of marriage. (The two ends of marriage, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2363, are “the good of the spouses and the transmission of life,” which “cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.”)
Catholics must accept all that the Catholic Church proposes for belief. When this precept is not followed, it can lead to invalidity in their marriage. “If it doesn’t work out, we can always get a divorce and find someone more compatible” is representative of an impediment wherein the recognition of marriage as a lifelong commitment to a single spouse is rejected. “We don’t want children interfering with our plans or lifestyle, so we will be using artificial contraceptives” is an example of an impediment wherein the procreation and rearing of children and the forming of at least a nuclear family as a fundamental purpose of marriage is denied. (Note that the Church does not deny the unitive aspect of marriage; rather, it proposes that there is more than one essential aspect to marriage, and the absence of any of them invalidates the whole. Nor does it deny that some couples are physically unable to have children; rather, it requires couples to be open to having children if God so wills.) “A few days before the wedding, it was discovered that one of the parties was involved in a liaison with a third party” is an example of a lack of intention by that party to be faithful within the marriage to be covenanted, thus denying the required vow of fidelity. These are but a few of many, many possible scenarios that can result in the invalidity of a Catholic marriage. This is why a tribunal is required to study the matter.
An annulment proceeding is a formal investigation by a tribunal. Every case is different. Depending on its complexity, the testimony of witnesses, and the availability of the people necessary to expedite it, the process may take only a few days, or it may involve several years of fact-finding before a declaration can be made. The people who do the work (office work with correspondence, scheduling and filing, as well as the actual work of the tribunal) do not work for nothing, so the diocese usually requires a fee. Nevertheless, the fee typically is less than the actual costs involved, and those who cannot pay will not be denied access to the process on that account.
Following are some reference materials that may help you to understand Catholic belief regarding the sacrament of matrimony, as well as whether a declaration of nullity for a previous marriage or marriages, and/or a convalidation of the current marriage, will be necessary in your specific circumstance and how to go about it. More information and help may also be obtained from your local Catholic parish or diocesan chancery.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the Catholic concept of the sacrament of matrimony. Continue to follow the pages from §1607 through §1666.
The Code of Canon Law Title VII, Canons 1055–1165 (scroll down) cover the topic of the sacrament and bond of marriage.
Annulments and the Catholic Church by Dr. Edward Peters, an expert in canon law and tribunal judge. This is one of the best popular treatments of annulment available in English.
Quaeritur – About Negative Judgments by Fr. Zuhlsdorf provides a look at the difficulties of understanding the force of reality and accepting a tribunal’s decision on the validity of a given union.