QUAERITUR: I am unsure about whether my marriage is valid.

From a reader:

Can ones marriage be valid if it is clear that impediments listed in
Canon Law were present at the time of the marriage (and continued to
be as well) ? If not valid, then can the couple agree on continence
and focusing their attention in their growth in holiness and the
proper rearing of Catholic children – and be in the state of grace?

You don’t give me much to work with here.

My best advice is, if you have the slightest doubt that your marriage is valid, seek out your parish priest right away and explain your concerns.   If it is necessary, the parish priest/pastor can help you deal with the impediments there may be, or at least provide you with clear knowledge so that you can take the correct next step.

If there are children who depend on you, you have a natural responsibility to their rearing.  In that case, if there is a problem with your marriage, you can remain together, but in perfect continence, until such time as the difficulties with your marriage are solved or your children are grown to a point where you can separate if necessary.

The point is: Don’t sit and wonder about this.  Go to the parish priest and explain what your concerns are.  Find out what can be or must be done.

This is a matter of your immortal soul and that of your spouse.  The overriding purpose of marriage is to help you both get to heaven.  Don’t put that in jeopardy because you are hesitant or embarrassed.  It is awful not knowing what the situation actually is.

It may be that you are imagining problems that are not really there.  There may be real problems.  FIND OUT.

If your parish priest is lies than concerned to deal with your questions, or tries to brush off real problems as if they were not important, or tells you that something you know is wrong is not a big deal, or he is just moron, then find another priest or inquire from the bishop what you should do.   But if he can explain the situation and tell you your situation really is okay, and what he says sounds kosher, don’t insist that there is a problem when there isn’t one.  You can always ask for a second opinion, but usually the priest, if he isn’t a dope, will give you the right information to begin with.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Federico says:


    At the risk of blowing “my kind’s” own horn, sometimes canonists are better positioned to help with matters like this. We spend more time looking at the complexity of matrimonial law, and we are generally better trained than priests in assessing the status of marriages and what corrective paths there may be (dispensations, convalidations, sanations, etc.)

    I would recommend this individual consult with a good and orthodox canonist. I’ve seen way too many priests (excepting those who are also canonists) give erroneous advice or not think of solutions that are available — all in perfectly good faith.


  2. I am assuming your correspondent was not married outside of the Church – if they were, the following does not apply.

    I think it is important to remember that marriage enjoys what is known as “the favor of the law.” If you are married in a Catholic Church (and yes, non-catholics in non-catholic ceremonies, but just keeping to the narrow issue), you can safely and morally presume your marriage is valid. Any doubts you may have on any possible impediments (even if you happen to be a canon lawyer) does not enter into it.

    The correspondent says that it is “clear that impediments listed in Canon Law were present at the time of the marriage.” Given that a church-appointed marriage tribunal uses a process involving a (hopefully) rigorous investigation, and their findings must be reviewed by an appellate court before they can be sure a given impediment is “clear” (this is even true for impotence, the most easily “provable” impediment), I think your correspondent might give his/her marriage the benefit of the doubt.

    If a situation occurs where a married couple becomes aware their marriage is, in fact, invalid – they are supposed to remove the impediment, and convalidate the marriage.

    If is very, very difficult to get married in a Catholic Church and have it be “clearly” invalid, unless one of the parties lied about being previously validly married, or being ordained or under solemn vows.

    Sometimes people get very, very confused about what makes a marriage invalid, because they here that a marriage can be invalid for a number of easily misunderstood reasons. For example,

    1) “exclusion of the good of children” invalidates. Stating “you don’t want to have children,” or using contraception does not, in of itself invalidate
    2) “exclusion of permanence” invalidates, but having a prenuptial agreement does not in of itself.
    3) “exclusion of fidelity” invalidates, but not neccessarily having affairs, even if they are early or often.
    4) pyschological incapacity invalidates, but even schizophrenics can marry.

    In other words, most grounds of annulments require very strong proofs, which can be challenged in an ecclesial court.

    If a marriage is later PROVED invalid, the couple will not have been “retroactively sinning”, and would have nothing to confess. They would have been in a putative marriage, which enjoyed the favour of the law, and would have been living out married life in good faith.

    I agree with you about talking to the local priest about any anxieties, but the priest will not be able to fully investigate any claims of invalidity. The Church only investigates a marriage when a party petitions a Tribunal for a petition of nullity. This petition can only be made if the marriage has irretrievably broken down. So in this case, as it seems, no such action can be taken, since both parties wish to remain in the marriage, which the Church presumes valid.

    This does not mean there can signs of stress and strain on the marriage which the priest might see, and, in fact, if he thinks there might be a possible impediment, is job is to try and remove it, and, even, if he feels necessary, convalidate it (even in the internal forum). But at the same time, the couple has the right to live fully the married life (including sexual relations) until the Church, by formal judicial decree, states they are not, in fact, married.

    What I am saying, is that couples are safe in presuming their Catholic marriage are valid.

  3. Federico says:


    The favor of the law is a legal presumption, not a moral one. If a couple discover that they are, for instance, consanguineous to an invalidating degree, they have a moral obligation to seek the guidance of the Church; they can’t just say “well, we just found out we’re first cousins, but we can presume the validity of our marriage and ignore it.”


  4. Philangelus says:

    We discussed this on my Catholic parenting forum recently. In our case, we presupposed that the couple had an impediment that would have led to the annulment of the marriage had they divorced and sought an annulment (ie, they married in the church only because Dad wouldn’t pay for it otherwise; they had emotional immaturity and an unwillingness on either party’s part to really believe the marriage was permanent–ie, both believed they’d “just get a divorce” if things “didn’t work out.”) But in our fictional couple’s case, over time they both responded to God’s grace and grew up a bit and realized the truth of the church’s teaching on marriage. They became emotionally mature and now, at this point, believe that their marriage is permanent.

    We said: is this licit marriage now valid?

    There were several respondents who cited Church documentation indicating that yes, once the impediment was gone, the marriage *was* just as valid as if the impediment had never existed. Obviously if there was a defect of form that wouldn’t be the case.

    If I can locate some of those sources, I’ll come back and update.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    In the canonical medicine bag of the Church is the wonderful instrument of “sanation.” A couple that finds its marriage to be invalid – like the situation Federico pointed to above where a couple discovers, sometime into the conjugal life, that they are too closely related by blood, can seek to have their union sanated. It’s generally just a matter of paperwork – although if the impediment was known to one or both of the parties at the time of the wedding and they kept it hidden, they’re often is some form of penance attached. The bishop, through a delegate, dispenses from the impediment, makes that dispensation retroactive to the time of consent, and sanates – or heals – the marriage bond.

    In certaine extreme circumstances, this sanation can be done in a hidden manner too, if one party is the cause of the marriage invalidity and the other party is either unaware or unwilling to participate (e.g., where a Catholic marries a non-Catholic outside of the Church and now is awakened to his or her responsibility to abide by the law of the Church, but the non-Catholic party is unwilling to have the marriage convalidated in the Church). This “occult sanation” (occult meaning hidden – not anything satanic or spooky) will only be done if there’s a good, solid reason for not informing the other party.

  6. Federico, I might be willing to concede your point on the cousins, in that if they find out they are first cousins after a Catholic wedding, then they should go to their priest and speak to him about getting their marriage convalidated (usually a dispensation would be granted in this case), but even then, I am not sure they would be sinning if they had sexual relations between finding out and talking to the priest. Again, this is much like a previous marriage or ordination (which I mentioned in my original post), which should have been found out in the prenuptial investigation. However, when most “lay folk” speak of impediments, they are really speaking of all grounds of nullity, usually those of a pyschological nature or involving partial or total simulation of consent, which are very hard to determine, including by the parties themselves.

    For example, Philangelus presents a case, where on the face of it, there are no real obvious grounds of nullity.

    The couple may have only gotten married in the Church for financial reasons, but, so what? They got married according to canonical form. As long as they exchanged consent in front of a duly delgated minister of the Church, they are married. They had “emotional immaturity”. The Church says 14 year old girls are presumed to be able to be married, so emotional immaturity is not really a ground for nullity.

    Both “believed they could get a divorce if things did not work out.” And they were right, according to the laws of the United States. Validly married people get civil divorces every day. Unless they truly excluded permanence from their consent, which is actually hard to do, they still consented to marriage.

    Now let’s look at Philangelus’s very astute statement “over time they both responded to God’s grace and grew up a bit and realized the truth of the church’s teaching on marriage.”

    If their marriage was invalid, then it never was. There would be no “grace” from the Sacrament, because there would be no Sacrament.

    But marriage is between two imperfect people who are marrying for imperfect reasons (there are no perfect people, and no one marries for perfect reasons). These two people responded to the grace of the sacrament, which they did receive, and grew holier!

    As for the removal of an impediment by itself “making a Sacrament valid”, that is a complicated subject, and I will leave that one to Federico, because there are internal/external forum issues which are very hard to explain.

  7. lacrossecath says:

    Can consanguinitas be dispensed, especially in the case with children present?

  8. Tim Ferguson says:

    yes – consanguinity can be dispensed except in the direct line (a mother can never be dispensed to marry her son, for example), and it is not given in the second degree of the collateral line (brother-sister).

  9. Philangelus says:

    Charley, non-married people can receive grace too. Those in a natural marriage receive the graces associated with a natural marriage.

    I couldn’t find the citations, but the thrust was that until the couple went through annulment proceedings, they were presumed to be sacramentally married. All marriages (without defect of form) are presumed valid until the Church rules otherwise.

    My mother’s marriage and my stepfather’s marriage were both annulled for reasons of emotional immaturity, so I think at least in the Brooklyn diocese, they’re using that as grounds for nullity.

  10. Dear Philangelus,

    The point, with regard to grace, is that people without the sacrament do not get the graces of the sacrament.

    In your second, you are talking about the “favor of the law” which has already been amply discussed on the thread.

    With regard to your third, I can only say that emotional immaturity so severe as to offer a ground for nullity, is about as likely to occur in nature as invincible ignorance, or lightning striking twice in the same place ‘ but lightning does strike twice.


  11. Philangelus says:

    Mr. Altieri, unmarried people convert. Married people convert. Catholics can renew their faith whether they’re married or not. I’m not talking about “favor of the law.” People sometimes experience metanoia because God called them to do so. That has nothing to do with the sacrament of marriage.

  12. Justalurkingfool says:

    I read the post and, although I have ceased posting here for quite awhile, feel compelled to comment in this regard.

    If this “impediment” involves having been married validly before and this has been subject to a solid canonical investigation(ending up in the Rota is all that I consider solid, in a non-lack of form case) which found nullity had not been proven, then I urge you to contact Federico. He is an outstanding canonist and Catholic gentleman.

    If such is the case, a valid marriage would be being violated and this needs to be addressed, yesterday. Ever more urgent would this be if that marriage was abandoned by one of those involved here and the abandoned spouse, remains faithful and open to restoration of the common life.

    The “good of the children”, does not justify the abandonment of a valid marriage.

  13. spock says:


    There is much philosophy/cannon law stuff in these threads.
    You know where to go to deal with this.
    Smash the uncertainty.
    Get ‘r done !


Comments are closed.