From a reader…
I’m a convert to Catholicism, with a Lutheran mother and baptized and confirmed Catholic father. My dad fell away from the Church after college, as he married outside of the Church and all us children were nominally Lutheran. Given how his entire family hasn’t practiced their faith since before my birth, it’s something I struggle to internalize. But, it finally dawned on me that my parents’ marriage is invalid in the eyes of the Church. Now, I’m struggling with various questions I know will arise down the line: Do I acknowledge their wedding anniversaries? Should I let my parents share a room when they visit? What should my husband and I tell our children in the future, if anything? Any guidance would be appreciated.
These are tough situations for families who strive to live according to the teachings of the Church.
Yes, it is likely that your parents’ marriage is invalid due to a lack of canonical form to which your father, by virtue of his Catholic baptism, was bound. The Church reserves making that determination of validity or invalidity to herself. We can all look at the facts and draw conclusions, but in the end, the Church only has the authority to say, “this is an invalid marriage.”
Canon 1060 reminds us that marriages are presumed to be valid until they have been proven otherwise.
They are also still your parents, which makes you subject to the obligation of the Fourth Commandment.
Ideally, you can share with your parents your new-found Faith and help your mother into and your father back into the fullness of the Church. They could then seek to have their marriage sanated, which would retroactively validate their matrimonial consent. They could join you in practicing the Catholic Faith and reception of the sacraments.
Ideally. Yet, we often find ourselves in situations that are less than ideal.
It is possible that your father entered into a marriage outside of the Church because of ignorance on his part. That would lessen his culpability for having done so. It would not make the marriage valid, but it could lessen his responsibility for entering into a marriage outside of the Church.
You could still show your fourth-commandment respect towards your parents by sending them an anniversary card and permitting them to share a room when they visit. Your Catholic Faith also obliges you to pray, fervently, for their conversion and the regularization of their situation. Perhaps, instead of a simple store-bought anniversary card, have a Holy Mass offered for their intention and send them a Mass card. That way the proper respect is shown, and the grace of a Mass is applied to their benefit.
As for telling children in the future, instruct your children in the teachings of the Church, including the Church’s teaching on marriage and the respect to be shown to their parents and their grandparents. I wouldn’t bring up their grandparents’ less-than-ideal marriage situation until and unless the children themselves ask about it. At that point, be honest. Lay out the issues and invite them to pray for their grandparents, just as you have been doing.