ASK FATHER: Invalidly married woman enrolls in RCIA

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

My next door neighbor (unbaptized) has enrolled her 5 year old daughter in CCD classes at a local parish to have her baptized and receive her first holy communion.  She decided to also enroll herself in RCIA and be received into the Church simultaneously with her daughter.  However, she hit a snag in that she was informed that in order to proceed, her husband (not religious but supportive of her decision to become Catholic) would need to receive a declaration of nullity for his first marriage.  His first marriage ended in a very ugly fashion with him getting custody of his two older sons because their mother was verbally abusive.  Being that her husband did not himself decide to become Catholic and not wanting him to have to resurrect some very painful memories going through the annulment process, she instead dropped out of RCIA but has kept her daughter in CCD.  I spoke with a deacon I know well who said the parish was wrong to tell her that her husband’s first marriage must receive a declaration of nullity.

Who is correct here?

The deacon is wrong. The parish is right.

The deacon should be informed that he is wrong, lest he continue to spread error.  He probably means well, but he is wrong.

Marriage is a covenant involving two people, a man and a woman. It’s either wholly correct or wholly incorrect. It can’t be correct on the part of one spouse, and incorrect on the part of the other. To be married, a man and a woman have to be capable of marriage. To be capable of contracting marriage, both parties must be free to marry; neither one can be married to another.

In this case, because the non-religious husband is already married to his first wife, the Church starts with the presumption that that first marriage is valid. When he and his first wife said, “I do, until death do us part,” we presume they meant it. Since he is already married, he cannot enter into a subsequent marriage. Civil divorce has no power to overturn a valid marriage.

For him to be married validly to the next door neighbor woman in the query, the Church would have to determine that his first marriage was somehow invalid. Only if that can be established and the presumption of validity overturned could this second marriage been considered a valid one.

Were the next door neighbor in this case to be baptized and confirmed, she could not be admitted to Holy Communion. She is currently living in an irregular marriage, which is an objective state of sin.

We don’t welcome people into the Church halfway.

Her marriage situation will have to be rectified before she could be admitted, wholly and entirely, into the Church.   This doesn’t mean that she is forbidden to go to Mass or other parish events.  But, she does so as a non-Catholic (i.e., no Communion).

Marriage choices have consequences, deep and lasting consequences. We can’t simply wish away difficult situations. Nor can we, in the name of being “pastoral”, ignore the hard truths that some situations present.

Lying to folks about their situations does not bring them closer to the Lord, who is the God of Mercy and Truth.  No Truth… no Mercy.

We all can hope and pray that the husband in question loves his second wife enough that the discomfort of investigating his prior attempt at marriage will be a sacrifice he is willing to make.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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16 Responses to ASK FATHER: Invalidly married woman enrolls in RCIA

  1. Fr_Sotelo says:

    Is it possible that the divorced husband in question was previously married to a Catholic, and that they did not observe the Catholic form of marriage?

    If this was an issue, and the deacon knew about it but the parish did not, that means the husband’s previous marriage would not have needed a formal process of annulment, but a simple process of nullity based on lack of form.

  2. rwj says:

    These situations with marriage and divorce happen rather often with RCIA inquirers.

    Perhaps I’m rusty on the law, but is it possible that if the woman seeking to become Catholic refrained from the marital act (‘living as brother and sister’), she could be admitted to all the sacraments of Initiation?

  3. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    The scenario Fr. Sotelo points out is possible, but I would lean on trusting the parish which has had actual interaction with the parties in question rather than a deacon who is outside of the picture. In either case, the presumption right now is that the man’s first marriage is valid and binding, and that presumption would need to be overturned (either by finding out that there was a flaw in the form of the marriage, there was an overlooked impediment to marriage, or that there was an invalid act of consent posited by either party) to make him free to marry.

  4. fishonthehill says:

    Thanks Fr. Z, for raising this perennial issue. Often enough other parties who hear stories of this kind hear only half the story. Priests ,worth their salt, interview inquirers to the faith and then proceed as necessary. I know that I am not looking to create more work for myself or make someone’s journey to the faith more difficult. People need to hear the whole story before offering an opinion! Thanks for making this individuals story clear and understandable, and for offering the correct advice.

  5. lairdangusmcangus says:

    @Father Z. (or anyone with canonical knowledge, really):

    I have to admit, I didn’t realize this! Of course, I am a relatively new Catholic myself, having gone through RCIA just 5 years ago.

    Would it be possible, at least in theory, for a Pope to set aside this requirement (i.e., as a special dispensation in a Year of Mercy, for example)? [No.]

  6. kittenchan says:

    I have read from other commenters that the process of investigation does not require that the purported spouses interact at all, and that if precautions are needed to avoid things like an abusive or revenge-oriented party, recourse is available. Is that true? Maybe this should be more publicized.

  7. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    If Fr. Tim’s point is, some nullity cases are actually pretty easy, fine. Otherwise, “The deacon is wrong. The parish is right” sums it up nicely.

  8. lairdangusmcangus says:

    Are persons in an illicit situation of marriage denied access to *all* of the sacraments?

    Can they, for example, go to confession and receive absolution and penance? [You can only receive absolution for sins if you have a firm purpose to amend your life.]

    What about extreme unction? [Danger of death is a special circumstance. Even then, if a person is capable of expressing sorrow for sins, that is necessary. The Sacrament is to be received in the state of grace.]

    Or is it just full communion (with the understood invitation to the Eucharist) and the sacrament of marriage that are not available to them?

  9. I’m not sure this is 100% correct. If she is unbaptized it’s clear to me that she couldn’t receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil until her irregular marital situation is corrected (she could, however be admitted into the Catecuminate which is an important step and includes the right to the Christian burrial rites). [Bring her in “half way”. Not a good idea.] However, if she is already validly baptized [She’s not.] and so has no “need” for the RCIA process and can become a “candidate for full communion,” then I’m pretty sure, upon the discretion of the pastor, she could be received into full communion prior to attaining a declaration of nullity. Then, upon the reception of the decleration of nullity she could be admitted to the rest of the Sacraments of Initiation at a convenient time. So, if this is correct, the Parish is correct if she needs to be baptized, but I think the Deacon might be correct if she does not need baptism. Dr. Peters, Fr. Zuhlsdorf, am I missing something in the scenario I’ve described?

  10. jlduskey says:

    Reference: ” the Church starts with the presumption that that first marriage is valid. When he and his first wife said, “I do, until death do us part,” we presume they meant it. ”
    There are, in some secular marriages, and in some other ecclesial communities that are not Catholic, some variations in the marriage vows. In some cases, the couple themselves write up what they want to say in the marriage vows.
    And therefore, it looks like the Church would have to judge the marriage vows, as performed and as understood in other ecclesial communities, and in secular marriages. With the growing acceptance of divorce in places outside the Catholic Church, it might not be a good assumption, to think that the parties actually said “until death do us part” or that they actually meant it.

    [Until it can be demonstrated otherwise with proofs (documents, testimony, etc.), marriages are presumed valid.]

  11. knute says:

    I’m an RCIA director at a small parish and I am faced with a similar situation.

    Dad is unbaptized. Mom is Catholic and has a prior marriage that is most likely invalid due to lack of form. Because Dad is in an irregular marriage, would that mean he couldn’t be baptized, confirmed, or receive communion? Or is it different for the unbaptized? [You should be talking to your parish priest about this.]

  12. byzantinesteve says:

    Fr. Sotelo, this was my question that was submitted. No, the husband has never been Catholic and his first wife would likely not have been either. The deacon is not connected to this couple and would not be familiar with the details of their situation other than what I’ve told him.

    My question for the priests and canonists out there is how personally involved in the annulment process must the husband be? I now there’s a lot of paperwork but other than that, would he need to meet with anyone and discuss the details of his first marriage?

  13. dans0622 says:

    byzantinesteve: he has to be involved since he would be the Petitioner. The local (competent) tribunal should be consulted. There are differences in how various tribunals process cases, as far as using written/oral testimony, requiring meetings, etc. The case itself and what proofs are required can also bring up other variables.
    Dan

  14. Federico says:

    My question for the priests and canonists out there is how personally involved in the annulment process must the husband be? I now there’s a lot of paperwork but other than that, would he need to meet with anyone and discuss the details of his first marriage?

    As little or as much as necessary to assemble sufficient proof to establish with moral certainty that the marriage was invalid.

    Sometimes these cases are really easy and the defender is left with nothing (for instance: his wife had 5 previous marriages; he and his wife discovered they were adopted and turned out to be first cousins; his wife was actually a man with some kind of complete androgen insensitivity syndrome; etc. — yes, sometimes really weird stuff comes up).

    More often than not, cases are not easy and require a lot of questions, witnesses, expert opinions, etc.

    Again, the standard is moral certainty.

    My recommendation would be that, unless the case is trivial, a competent canon lawyer be consulted (I apologize to pastors everywhere, but I’ve been involved in trying to clean up enough botched proceses that I’d rather see things done properly in the first place and most pastors are just not equipped to assist and act as competent advocates in any but the most straight-forward situations).

  15. jhartne says:

    Concerning the paragraph that says:
    “Were the next door neighbor in this case to be baptized and confirmed, she could not be admitted to Holy Communion. She is currently living in an irregular marriage, which is an objective state of sin.”

    I am an annulment advocate in or diocese. In this diocese the woman in question could not be baptized or confirmed because she is living in an irregular marriage, which is an objective state of sin. She could not receive any of the Sacraments until her marriage was Convalidated in the Church and that includes baptism and confirmation.

  16. I think that the discussion has about run its course.