QUAERITUR: marrying in the state of mortal sin

From a reader:

If a couple marries in a Catholic Church in a state of mortal sin, is the marriage still valid or not?

Assuming that everything else is in order, namely, both of the couple are free to marry, they are baptized, they understand and accept the essentials of the sacrament and intend to live by them, they follow the proper form, etc etc., then – yes – such a marriage should be valid.

Validity of sacraments does not depend on the state of grace of the recipient.

Baptism and Confession and Anointing all can forgive the mortal sins of the one who receives them.

The Eucharist can be confected by a priest in the state of mortal sin, though if received… well… see St. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor 11).  But the state of soul of the recipient does not affect the validity of the Eucharist.  It is a heresy of the highest order to suggest that Christ is not truly present in the Eucharist unless the recipient believes or is in the state of grace.

Confirmation, Holy Orders, Matrimony are validly received in the state of mortal sin. 

That is to say, the sacrament is truly conferred.  A man ordained in the state of mortal sin is truly ordained, the confirmand is confirmed, the member(s) of the couple, truly married.  The state is conferred. 

In the case of baptism, confirmation, priesthood, the ontological change to the person’s soul takes place, and they will forever be baptized, confirmed or ordained… even in the eternal punishments of Hell if they die in mortal sin.  Matrimony ends with the death of one of the couple.

However, in all these cases (with the exception of baptism and, in a way, penance) the sacramental graces of the sacrament are not truly theirs until they return to the state of grace (the newly baptized is in the state of grace, as is the newly absolved, provided his confession was a good one, is absolved).  Even though there is an ontological change with some sacraments, it is as if those sacraments slumber until they wake up and become effective in the person’s soul with the state of grace.  We don’t know how God may give prevenient (forerunner) graces through those particular sacraments to help the person, inspire the sinner, to repent and seek absolution.  Sacramental graces are actual graces.  We receive them when we are in the state of grace.  God in love and mercy gives another kind of actual grace which urges the sinner to repentance.

So, if someone in the state of sin gets married, he or she is truly married… they are married.  But the advantages of sacramental graces which flow from the sacrament of matrimony will not be theirs until they are in the state of grace.  

Think about the nobility, but difficulties, of the married state.  The couple receives the gift of this vocation so that they can help each other to salvation.  They can be tremendously helpful to each other.  They can be horribly damaging to each other.  Married people need all the supernatural helps they can get!  It seems to me a first duty of a married person to love God more than the spouse and to seek always to be in the state of grace for both their sake.

If person marries in the state of sin, he or she should probably confess disrespect for the sacrament received, improperly approaching such an important moment which God offers to help the person to salvation.  If the person married in the state of sin received Communion during the Nuptial Mass, he or she must confess that sacrilege as well. 

That said, God is rich in mercy and love.  His forgiveness is ours for the sincere asking.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Oneros says:

    “Sacramental graces are actual graces. We receive them when we are in the state of grace. God in love and mercy gives another kind of actual grace which urges the sinner to repentance.”

    It should also probably mentioned that Sacraments properly so called don’t just give actual graces, but also an increase in Sanctifying Grace itself.

    “Baptism and Confession and Anointing all can forgive the mortal sins of the one who receives them.”

    Though I think Anointing requires confession first unless the person is unconscious or otherwise unable to speak (the situation it’s sin-forgiving powers seem designed for). [Thus the “can”.]

  2. doanli says:

    Thank you for answering this, Father.

  3. Fr Z, Tanqueray himself could not have explained it better. While the theological concepts of EX OPERE OPERANTIS and EX OPERE OPERATO explain why sacraments are valid even if received while under the yoke of mortal sin, many Catholics confuse the two and some erroneously think Marriage and Holy Orders work like sacramentals. I fear a form of neo-Lutheranism has filtered its way into some Catholic minds where the human act of faith becomes the center of activity rather than the act of grace given by God. People claim to have ‘lost faith’ in their spouse, and feel it is OK to divorce and remarry. Catholic doctrine teaches that a valid marriage ends only in death. Validity does require at the moment of consent (wedding) that BOTH bride and groom INTEND to enter a FAITHFUL, PERMANENT and God-Willing FRUITFUL union. Infidelity at the very beginning would invalidate the sacrament but not subsequent infidelity. Likewise, the Real Presence is still operative whether the congregation or God-forbid the priest believes otherwise. Once validly confected, the Sacrament remains until its accidents are changed (decay or decomposition). Even a few priests have contended that they ‘lost faith’ and therefore leave the active ministry. They cannot leave the priesthood, however, since the ontological change (like the one which took place at baptism) is never undone or erased. Trent clearly taught that the minister of the sacrament only needs to INTEND to DO what the Church DOES. It is not necessary that the minister INTEND what the Church INTENDS, however. That would be better and preferred, of course, but some of our ordained brethren were taught poorly, learned heterodoxy or have embraced dissident theology. Deo gratias, they are still able to validly confect the sacraments as long as they still employ valid matter, form and intention. But going back to the idea that many Catholics have been tainted by a neo-Lutheranism, ask any parish priest and he’ll tell you likewise. Some of his people believe in the sacraments and others simply use them; some believe in the necessity of the Church and her sacraments, and others see them as merely convenient or helpful.

  4. Black Biretta: Tanqueray himself could not have explained it better.

    I thank you for this compliment, which – given your integrity and reputation – I am sure was not ginned up. It is a tonic for the soul.

  5. prairie says:

    So two non-Catholics, both in a state of mortal sin, get married. I’m not sure if it makes a difference, but let’s say they’re Protestant and have a religious wedding (though not a Catholic wedding), rather than just a civil ceremony. One becomes Catholic, receives absolution through baptism or reconciliation. Does the person who is now in a state of grace receive the graces of sacramental marriage? Does the non-Catholic spouse receive graces through the Catholic spouse? Is this what St. Paul was talking about when he said the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife? Or does the marriage have to be recognized by the Church first?

  6. If the couple is sinning gravely, but doesn’t know or understand the sin is a mortal sin, it’s not a mortal sin is it? I think that few people marry who are committing mortal sins with full knowledge, will and understanding, but many are sinning gravely. Am I wrong, here?

  7. michelelyl says:

    A sacramental marriage is recognized by the Church as between two baptized persons. A good and natural marriage is between two unbaptized persons. If the form of marriage was correct for them at the time of the marriage, before either became Catholic, they do not get ‘remarried’ in the Catholic Church because the marriage was valid for them at the time. Two unbaptized who marry civilly, one converts and is baptized Catholic, do not need to receive the Sacrament of Marriage because the marriage form was valid at the time of the marriage. It’s more about the validity of the marriage for non-Catholics who convert, instead of the Sacrament of Marriage. Catholics on the other hand, who marry outside of the Church never have a valid marriage, even if they marry another Catholic civilly. They can ‘con-validate’ or receive the Sacrament of Marriage, which then makes the marriage valid, and sacramental. The Church presumes all marriages are valid if the form was correct at the time of the marriage, which is why an annulment is still required if a non-Catholic or unbaptized person marrys and divorces another non-Catholic or unbaptized person and wishes to marry a Catholic.

  8. prairie says:

    Thanks, michelelyl.

    So what makes the form correct or incorrect? And is the marriage between non-Catholics sacramental? I guess that’s the question I’m getting at. Valid =/= sacramental, right? Should married converts have their marriage convalidated so it’s sacramental, even though it was always valid?

    I’m visualizing grace like water (correct that analogy as needed) and wondering how it flows in the marriage if only one spouse is in a state of grace. I’m not suggesting it can’t or doesn’t – just trying to understand how it does.

  9. The Cobbler says:

    So, Father, if you don’t mind my pressing the question: why does the Catechism say, “To receive Confirmation one must be in a state of grace.” (1310)? I was taught about ex opere operato back in high school (good tutor my homeschool group found), and so when one day I was brushing up on what the Church officially says about Confirmation (a friend was having some scraps with her liberal parish over it), I found this and it genuinely confused me (and still does; I don’t know many people I’d trust to possible correct the Catechism).

  10. Cobbler: why does the Catechism say…

    The CCC statement is correct, but not complete. Of course it one “must” be in the state of grace. You “must” be in the state of grace to receive most sacraments. “Must” in the sense of “ought to be”. It is necessary, in a deep sense. But it not necessary for validity.

  11. The Cobbler says:

    I see; thanks. 8^)

  12. Marriage is marriage. If two baptised people get married, that marriage is a Sacrament. Only Catholics (and Orthodox) are bound by what is called “canonical form”. Therefore, if two Jews get married, it is a valid, but non-Sacramental, marriage. If two Methodists get married, it is a Sacramental marriage. If a baptised person marries a non-baptized person, it is a valid, but non-Sacramental marriage. All of these marriages are intrinsically indissoluable – However, all non-Sacramental marriages can be dissolved extrinsically, either through the Pauline or Petrine privilege (although such things are subject to Church authority.

    A non-Sacramental marriage becomes a sacramental marriage by virtue of the baptism of the second party. So if a Methodist marries a Jewish person, it is a valid, non-Sacramental marriage. If that Jewish person, after the marriage, gets baptised at the local Presbyterian Church, the marriage becomes a Sacrament at the moment of the baptism!

    And not to be nit-picky kinda guy, but a slight correction is due on black.birreta’s post: A couple does not have to “INTEND to enter a FAITHFUL, PERMANENT and God-Willing FRUITFUL union.” They have NOT EXCLUDE these properties from their marital consent. By “intending” to get married, they intend everything marriage is, even if they do not know all of the properties. The only way they could not intend the property of marriage is to positively exclude it. This is an important distinction.

  13. Prof. Basto says:

    Great explanation, Father.

    The reception of the Sacrament is valid even if the recipient is in a state of sin. If the Sacrament bestows a state, that state is bestowed.

    But the graces attached to the Sacrament will only be received once the person returns to the state of Grace.

    So, when one receives a Sacrament in the state of grace, the graces pertaining to the Sacrament are conferred at once, then and there.

    If however the person is not in the state of grace but in the state of sin, the Sacrament will in this case have the effect of a “title exigent of grace”, in the words of the theologians.

    The Sacrament being a “title exigent of grace” means that, once the obstacle to the actual reception of grace is removed (i.e., once the state of sin is removed), the person will receive the graces attached to that Sacrament.

  14. MargaretMN says:

    When I married an unbaptized, non-catholic, validly, licitly, etc. by a Bishop even, I seem to remember that the explanation was that it was sacramental for me, but not for him as he was not in the proper state. When he converted and was baptized and confirmed last year (finally!) the marraige became sacramental for him, ex post facto. It is better to do things in the proper order, (as here, confession before receiving a sacrament) but the Church usually seems to allow for people who make things right later. [This is a different situation than that described in the question.]

  15. robtbrown says:

    Black Biretta,

    I agree with much of what you wrote, with one exception.

    A few years ago I read a very good article by Opus Dei jurist Cormac Burke. He made the point that Fides, Proles, and Sacramentum were in the order of moral object (quid–what is willed), and the Consortium Totius Vitae was in the order of end (cur–what is intended). I agree with this distinciton

    Although generally both the moral object and end are acts of the will, the former terminates in concrete acts, the latter does not. And so the distinction is made (with the insistence of Thomists) between willing the object and intending the end.

    If moral objects are moved to the order of intention, the door to Gradualism is opened–and obligation begins to evaporate.

  16. robtbrown says:

    When I married an unbaptized, non-catholic, validly, licitly, etc. by a Bishop even, I seem to remember that the explanation was that it was sacramental for me, but not for him as he was not in the proper state.
    Comment by MargaretMN

    I cannot agree with that explanation. In so as marriage is a Sacrament, it is not only a natural union but also a Sacramental one. How can a Sacramental union exist between one Baptized and on unBaptized.

    That having been said, God’s grace was manifest in your husband’s conversion

  17. Supertradmum says:

    In our understanding of RCIA guidelines and Canon Law, only a bishop can give permission for a Catholic to marry an unbaptized, non-catholic. So, MargaretMN’s marriage is valid and licit. As to the sacramental grace not being conferred until the spouse comes into the Church, the marriage would be considered “retroactive validation” for the unbaptized, from the time of the Sacrament being conferred. Canon Law 1161.1 and following. A priest cannot give this type of dispensation, only the Ordinary.

  18. robtbrown says:

    In our understanding of RCIA guidelines and Canon Law, only a bishop can give permission for a Catholic to marry an unbaptized, non-catholic. So, MargaretMN’s marriage is valid and licit.
    Comment by Supertradmum

    That does not mean that it was a Sacrament before her husband’s Baptism. As a natural bond, it was a valid marriage. Sacramental bond is another matter.

  19. Marriage is what marriage is. Christ raised “marriage” to a sacrament, but did not change what marriage, in of itself, is. There is no “retroactive validation” of the marriage. That same non-sacarmental marriage was raised to the dignity of a sacrament by virtue of the second party’s baptism. So when the marriage ceremony took place, no “sacrament” was being conferred – a natural marriage was celebrated – which, lets remember is in of itself a GOOD thing, willed by the creator, and very precious to him, even when not of the nature of a sacrament.

    So, Margaret, it was explained to you badly (and is often explained to people badly). Your marriage became a sacrament for both of you upon your husband’s baptism. However, it was a still a natural bond, and gave you the natural benefits willed by the creator for marriage (a sort of “natural grace”, but that term is so problematic to be completely incorrect, yet still, ironically, useful).

  20. MargaretMN says:

    So it was not sacramental for either of us until he was baptized? So it would be correct to say that I received the sacrament of Matrimony last year (the date of the baptism) and not previously.

  21. Alice says:

    As I understand it, you and your husband both received the sacrament of Matrimony at the moment your husband was baptized.

  22. I think the more correct stance would be you began receiving Sacramental grace from your marriage, which was raised to the dignity of a Sacrament with your husband’s baptism. You did not “enter” into anything new, but what you already have was lifted up to a Sacrament. [Down the rabbit hole we go!]

  23. Supertradmum says:

    That’s why I put the bit on “retoactive validation” in the text, robtbrown, and the Canon Law reference.

    Yes, it was a natural bond, but if according to Canon Law, the retroactive validation makes it both valid and legal, that is a valid sacrament and only the Bishop can ok this.

    Validity means legitimate sacrament. People seem to be confusing the natural marriage bond, which is mentioned in Canon Law 1055, with validity. CharleyCOllins, why do not accept the Canon Law definition of “retroactive validity”. The dispensation of MargaretMN’s marriage is rare, but valid.

  24. Supertradmum says:

    sorry “retroactive”, not spelling error

  25. Dear Supertradmum,

    My friend, Charley Collins, will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but…

    What you are missing is that the law governing “retroactive validity” is applicable only to people who were capable of entering into a canonically valid marriage contract at the time they attempted canonical marriage.

    I do not know what the law is, precisely, but I am fairly certain a Catholic needs the permission of the ordinary in which a marriage is to be celebrated, in order lawfully to marry an unbaptized person.

    In such a case, having obtained the necessary permission, the Catholic party would be entering into a canonically licit natural marriage: not the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, into which only two baptized persons may enter.

    Should the unbaptized party to the canonically licit natural marriage request and receive baptism, then all the graces inherent and attendant upon the sacrament would accrue to both parties.

  26. Supertradmum says:

    Sorry,I have just seen where I may have muddied the waters. [We have already strayed off topic… why not a little more?] Retroactive validation occurs when there was not a valid marriage in the first place. In MargaretMN’s case,the marriage was a valid sacrament from the beginning, because of the dispensation. Marriage is one sacrament which is trickier than the others. There is no “raising to a Sacrament” when your husband came into the Church. It was valid and legal,period. A sacrament is or is not-there is no such thing as an in-betwen state.

  27. Supertradmum says:

    I have pointed out three times, as MargaretMN said, that the Ordinary must give and in this case, gave permission,indeed performing the Marriage Rite. Validity is the issue, and I cannot see anywhere in Canon Law where this marriage was not only licit,but valid; that is, a sacrament.
    The sacrament confers grace. Whether we can receive that grace is another question, not the question of validity.

  28. It may be, stricto sensu, correct to say that a marriage is raised to the dignity of a sacrament at the moment in which both parties of a natural marriage receive baptism.

    The point is that the change is in level of dignity, not in nature or kind of union.

    Marriage is marriage.

    Otherwise, the gay marriage folks have a point.


  29. Supertrad,

    Once again: there is the sacrament of marriage wherever there is a valid marriage contract between two baptized persons.

    If there were not two baptized persons, their valid marriage contract did not confer the sacrament.


  30. Perhaps we can return to the actual subject.

  31. Supertradmum says:

    The point of the post was on the receptivity of sacramental grace when a sacrament had been conferred. The sacrament is valid, but the reception of the sacramental *grace* by the recipient of the sacrament is another matter, depending on their state of sin and (as Margaret brought up) the jurisdiction of the Church over them, ie, if they are Catholic and/or Christian. There seems also to be a confusion as to whether the term “validity” = “sacramental marriage” or whether “validity” = “natural marriage”. If the ordinary has given permission, and the marriage is carried out, there seems to be some kind of sacramental union. But again, whether or not either or both parties have the *grace* of that union is another matter.

    “The point is that the change is in level of dignity, not in nature or kind of union. Marriage is marriage.” – Chris Altieri

    In any case, this seems to be right.

  32. Dear Fr Zuhlsdorf,

    I am at your service.

    It seems that a person capable of receiving the sacrament of matrimony could validly contract a marriage while in the state of mortal sin, insofar as one can give and receive consent to marriage in a manner consistent with canonical form or with the proper dispensations therefrom – and these are the conditions for a valid sacrament: matter and form.

    It strikes me that the person who receives a sacrament validly, though without the proper disposition, e.g. marriage, in the state of mortal sin, would begin to receive the graces ceteris paribus available to him/her, upon being returned to a state of grace.

    Like you say, God is rich in mercy to those who ask it.

    Let me only add that I do not see how it was my friend, Charley Collins, who took us down the rabbit hole. The hole was well dug and beaten before his paws or mine trod down it.


  33. Marriage is different than all the other Sacraments. It is the only Sacrament which is not really a sign, it is what it is – i.e. the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, the water, symbol of cleansing, actually cleanses us of sin at baptism. While marriage IS marriage. If two Hindus get married, according to Hindu rites, because they are believing Hindus, they are really, and actually in a natural marriage bond. When the Methodist preacher comes to the village 20 years later, preaches the gospel, and baptises those two Hindus, THAT marriage, at the point of the second person baptism, is raised to the dignity of a Sacrament. There is no new rite necessary for them to receive the sacramental grace of Matrimony. They do not even have to get the marriage blessed. They are standing in line at the altar call, the first one gets baptised – nothing happens to the marriage. The second one gets baptised, and the marriage becomes Sacramental. Again, Marriage was RAISED to the level of a Sacrament, while the other Sacraments were INSTITUTED.

    And this is extremely important for the topic at hand – because people have a Natural Right to Marriage (subject to natural law restrictions, and it is a right they can forgo – for example, priests and religious). This goes for Hindus, Muslims, and, yes, Catholics. Your state of grace is not an issue – you are contracting marriage (which for baptised Christians, is raised to to the level of a sacrament). It is not like the other sacraments, in that no one has a “right” to the other sacraments.

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