ASK FATHER: Why is a baptismal certificate so important for annulment process?

From a reader…


Trying to get an annulment. Can’t find his baptismal record. Why is it so important?

Well! That was pithy.

There is a Latin adage from ancient Rome: Verba volant, scripta manent… Words merely spoken fly away, but words written down remain.

Baptismal records are wonderful things. When they are properly tended, they record all of the sacraments we receive in life. These written records are to be kept at the parish of our baptism. When a baptismal record is issued, it will have notations on the back listing the dates and places of all the sacraments we received. These records are our sacramental biography. And they supplement memories which can be inexact… for one reason or another.

With regards to a declaration of nullity, the tribunal needs the baptismal certificates for the parties for a number of reasons. Baptismal certificates establish whether the parties were baptized Catholics (and therefore bound by law to observe the Catholic form of marriage). They indicates the ritual Church to which the party is ascribed. For example, if one party is, say, a Maronite and she marries a Presbyterian in the Catholic Church, that marriage might be invalid because of a lack of jurisdiction.

The marriage which is being challenged ought to be noted on the baptismal certificate, if the records were properly kept. When there is a church wedding, the pastor or person in charge of that church is obliged by law to notify the parish of baptism of both parties so that the pastor of that parish can duly make the notations in their baptismal records. If it is not noted in the baptismal record, there may be a case of a lack of canonical form. There may also be other issues discovered in the baptismal record, such as a prior marriage, religious profession, or ordination. If these are noted on the certificate they will impact the decision of the Tribunal.

Most parishes, often through the diligent work of attentive parish secretaries, keep good records. Some, sadly, do not. Fie on them!

Every Catholic ought know where his baptismal certificate is. That said, these days there are lots of mergers and closures. If the parish one was baptized in has closed or merged, the records ought to have gone to the new parish, or they may be in the safe keeping of the diocesan chancery. If one was baptized in a hospital, or orphanage, or private residence, the records may be with that institution or they may be in the keeping of the territorial parish. If one was baptized in a non-Catholic church and then converted to Catholicism, one’s record will be kept at the Church where one made one’s profession of faith. That is what happened in my case, since I am a convert. When I was ordained, I had to produce, among the many documents required, a sacramental record from my parishes Baptism Registry. My record is in the Baptismorum Registrum Ecclesiae Sanctae Agnetis, Urbe Sancti Pauli, Minnesota, Vol. XIV, p. 31. It has the dates and place of my baptism, the names of my parents, sponsors, minister, an indication of my reception into the Catholic Church, when, where and by whom, the date, place and minister of Confirmation… and to that was added diaconate and priesthood.  It’s all written down.

These records are to be kept in a secure place, even a fire-proof vault. Some places make sure there are backup copies, perhaps at the chancery archive. After all, Jesus saves, and so should we!

Sometimes it is impossible to obtain a baptismal certificate. In that case living memory of witnesses can substitute to an extent. However, I have written about that in other places.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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10 Responses to ASK FATHER: Why is a baptismal certificate so important for annulment process?

  1. Simon_GNR says:

    When I was received into the Church nearly 30 years ago (Diocese of Portsmouth, England) my Anglican baptism was taken entirely on trust. I told the parish priest that I had been validly baptised as a baby and he accepted that. Both of my parents and my eldest brother could have testified that I was baptised but no evidence was requested. No baptism certificate was asked for – I don’t even know if one exists. Obviously my Anglican confirmation was not accepted as valid, Anglican Orders being invalid, so I was confirmed when I was received. I do remember when I was married in my current parish a few years after I was received the parish priest wrote a letter to the parish where I was received so that they could update their records.
    I do remember seeing on the television news, just after Pope John Paul II was elected, film of the parish priest of his home parish in Poland adding to Karol Wojtyla’s baptismal record his becoming Pope. It was quite a long record with three ordinations already on it and the elevation to the papacy was squeezed in in very small handwriting.

  2. Gregg the Obscure says:

    Great stories, Simon!

    Now as to St. Karol Wojtyla, I wonder if his beatification and canonizations were added. And if being named a Doctor of the Church could be added.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    Should institution to the ministries of lector and acolyte (subdeacon) be added? I believe ordination to the subdiaconate was added in the old days…

  4. Volanges says:

    There should be a manual created for parish secretaries. I only found out, after I’d been secretary for a few years and responsible for issuing certificates, how important that “no notation of marriage” was when the certificate was needed for marriage purposes. That had never been mentioned to me.

    The problem in my parish is that the only marriages entered in the baptismal records were those for which a notification of marriage had been received from another parish; when the marriages of our parishioners occurred in our own parish they were only entered in the Marriage Register not the parishioner’s baptismal record and that even though more than 90% were recorded by the Pastor of the day, not by a secretary. Once I found that out, each time I had to issue a certificate I had to first check the marriage registers from the time they became old enough to marry in the Church until the day of issuance to see if there was a marriage recorded.

    From the day I found out I made sure that any marriage in our parish was also recorded in the parishioner’s baptismal record if applicable and I went through as many of the historical records as I could so that I could note marriages in the Register of Baptism. I know I didn’t get them all, since there were over 50 years of records to go through, but I tried.

  5. Gregorius says:

    For some odd reason, to this very day the records at my parish has a box that for either recording marriages, religious professions- or ordination to the sub-diaconate. Don’t know why it’s still there, but it is, in the official Latin.

  6. kittenchan says:

    Considering that procuring one’s baptismal record is a requirement before getting married in the Church, it seems to me that several of the examples of grounds for nullity given in this post ought to have prevented the marriage in the first place. Maybe I’m too cynical, but perhaps part of the solution to stemming the tide of annulments would be to tell the happy couple sorry, you can’t get married, rather than sure, you can always get an annulment later because of this loophole that we didn’t close ahead of time.

  7. Volanges says:

    kittenchan I very much doubt that in most of the situations listed the priest would have gone ahead with the marriage — except perhaps for the Maronite one if he wasn’t too aware of the Eastern Rite rules. Then again, when a couple answered “No” to “Will you accept children?” during the ceremony in our parish the priest, who was here filling in for a few months while we were between Pastors, blinked and kept right on with the ceremony. The seminarian who was present couldn’t believe his eyes and ears. “What exactly could I do?” was the priest’s response to the seminarian’s questions.

  8. Chon says:

    I’m a bit puzzled. Maronites are Catholic, so what do you mean by a lack of jurisdiction?

  9. Giuseppe says:

    Padre, when you are given the title “Monsignor”, will that be notated on your Baptismal certificate?
    It’s time — Washington DC (a.k.a. Hell) has frozen over…

  10. kittenchan says:

    Volanges, if the hypothetical priest would *not* have gone along with the hypothetical marriage, then these hypothetical grounds would have stayed grounds for not permitting the marriage. They would not have had the opportunity to progress to grounds for annulment. Which is precisely my point. If priests (or at the very least, the office staff responsible for checking the baptismal certificate and other REQUIRED documentation) would say, “Sorry, we’ve got a serious impediment here; we van either postpone until it’s fixed, or if it can’t be fixed, I wish you the best of luck in life” (can’t think of anything better because I’m not terribly pastoral :P ), then a swath of decrees of nullity would be headed off at the pass. Otherwise why even have reasons why two people can’t get married, if we’re just going to let them all have a wedding anyway?