QUAERITUR: Priest denied me absolution, because I, a convert, am married to a non-Christian

From a reader:

I converted to the Catholic faith years ago from a Muslim background.
My husband was also Muslim at the time. He is atheist/agnostic now and I don’t see him ever converting. A priest denied me absolution a month ago because I’m not in a proper marriage because I’m not married to a Catholic. Nobody said anything to me about my marriage when I was in RCIA. I haven’t received sacraments since, I really need a canon law reference in hand to give to the priest. Or I could forget what he said and go to someone else, but then I won’t have a convincing answer when this topic ever comes up. Also, I think it’s a catch-22 situation, basically a married person cannot convert from a non-Christian background unless their spouse converts with them? Can you help? Thanks in advance.

Though the information you gave in your email is a little sparse, I think you can rest assured that you are in a valid marriage.

At the time you married, you were not bound to observe canonical form. Thus, your shared act of consent with your husband brought about a true, valid and binding marriage (cf. canons 1055, 1; 1057; and 1060). When you became Catholic (welcome to the Church, by the way), you came in with your valid marriage.

Since your marriage now only involves one baptized person (you), it is not a sacramental marriage (canon 1055) but it is a valid, binding and true marriage.   The term usually used for this is a “natural marriage” rather than a “sacramental marriage.” All of the properties and elements of marriage (permanence, exclusivity, partnership…) are there in your marriage as well.

The priest who denied you absolution for the reason you mentioned made a mistake.  A pretty big mistake.

I suggest that contact your local marriage tribunal.  Ask for a canonist.  Lay out your situation.  Tell the canonist that you were denied absolution because the priest said you were in an invalid marriage. The canonist may be able to contact the priest and correct him quietly.  If there have been other problems with that priest confessor, the canonist may determine that a stronger step is required, such as notifying the local diocesan bishop.  Let’s hope that your experience was an aberration, just a mistake on a bad day, rather than part of a pattern of mistakes.  He may have simply misunderstood your situation.

In the meantime, seek out another confessor.   Don’t let this experience put you off going to confession!

Furthermore, would you be willing to pray for the priest who withheld absolution ?

Pray for your husband, of course.  That is one of the obligations of spouses, whether they are in sacramental or natural marriages!  Many people we don’t think will ever convert, do so because of the intercession of their loved ones.

Finally, thank God for the gift of Faith!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Prayers for a just resolution to this. Also, a warning to anyone involved with RCIA (participants or facilitators)–find out marital situations and their ramifications as soon as reasonably possible. If there is any question or confusion, don’t be afraid to talk to the priest or call the diocesan office.

  2. tzard says:

    The confessional is not the best place to sort out someone’s marriage situation – it is complicated simply because marriage is ordained by God and has both sacramental and natural aspects. All the differences can (and do) fill a book – which is why dioceses have marriage tribunals and canonical experts to help sort out situations. Normally, things like this are assumed to be valid unless he knows something difinitive (or mis-hears something).

    That said, the priest also has the grave duty to make sure the penitent is properly disposed to receive absolution. Which puts him in a bit of a bind.

    So as suggested, pray for the priest in his difficult work. And next, go to the experts at the dioscean tribunal to put your mind at ease. **if** something’s amiss, you can find out how to make it right. But It doesn’t sound like that’s the case.

  3. pberginjr says:

    @JohnE – Thanks for that link, I am going to seriously consider adding this to my devotional life.

  4. anilwang says:

    I think the priest must have been confused. If you had been Catholic when you were married but got married married to a Protestant in a Protestant church or civil registry without dispensation, then your marriage is valid but not licit, see Can. 1124 .Priests will deny you reconciliation until you sort that out, even if it will take a lot of time because your spouse is anti-Catholic and does not want the marriage to be convalidated (i.e. made licit). This is true even if you were fallen away at the time because your honestly thought there was no difference between a Catholic and Protestant church because your parents, school, and priest said as much. You belonged to the Church at the time, so you needed to follow the rules.

    But in your case, canon laws clearly state that your marriage is valid and because you didn’t “belong to the Church” at the time of the marriage, the Church places no sanction on you.

  5. Orlandu84 says:

    As a young priest, my guess is that the confessor in question asked either too many or not enough good questions. As several older and much wiser priests have stressed to me, one must be very careful with what questions you ask in the confessional. If the confessor in the above scenario simply asked the question, “Did you get married in the church?” without asking “When did you enter the Church?” he would have the erroneous impression that the penitent is in an invalid marriage. Unless someone told me in the confessional that he was a convert, it would never occur to me ask the penitent when he entered the Church.

    In any case I think that the above situation is an excellent example of why great prudence must go into questions asked in the confessional. Please, pray for your confessors. Sometimes we need a good nudge from the Holy Spirit in order to do our jobs well.

  6. VexillaRegis says:

    @anilwang: I don’t think you’ve got the facts quite right. My understanding is that, if a catholic marries a protestant in a prot. church or civil registry without any dispensation, that marrige is INvalid. If the spouse is very anti-catholic, you may apply for a radical sanation, which is not necessarily a long process.

    Correct me if I am wrong :-) !

  7. APX says:

    I too believe Anil is incorrect. If a Catholic marries a Protestant, Non-Christian, or anyone else who would require either a dispensation or disparity of cult, without the proper paperwork/permissions, etc the marriage is invalid in the eyes of the church. The same is true between two Catholics who marry outside of the church in a civil ceremony. Though, I can understand the confusion of this, as it seems many bulletins I read from parishes regarding “Catholic couples wishing to have a Catholic Wedding must contact the parish priest” thus making it seem optional for Catholics to even have contact with the church regarding marriage.

  8. Volanges says:

    APX, Anil has it wrong, but you also have it a ‘little bit’ wrong. A mixed marriage that occurs in the Church without the appropriate permission, in a diocese where the Bishop has reserved it to himself to grant, (many simply give their priests the faculty to give permission), is illicit, not invalid.

    A disparity of cult marriage is invalid without a dispensation.

  9. o.h. says:

    My children’s godmother – a convert, whose husband didn’t convert – was similarly at first denied permission to stand as godparent because the parish forms required that the godparents must have had a Catholic marriage. No amount of polite appealing to the secretaries or even to my parish priest to look at the actual canon law did any good. After much begging, our priest at last agreed to consult the Tribunal at the eleventh hour before the baptism and was set right. It was frustrating to be openly accused of being a cafeteria Catholic who was trying to have a Bad Catholic stand as godparent, and to be offered not the slightest apology afterwards. (Nor could anyone be convinced to alter the wording on the forms; I gathered that the secretaries thought that they were still right but that somehow I had gotten the Tribunal to make an exception for me.)

  10. o.h. says:

    Sorry for the double post – my point being that even good and intelligent priests can misunderstand the rules of marriage, particularly in the context of conversion.

  11. frjim4321 says:

    The priest who denied you absolution for the reason you mentioned made a mistake. A pretty big mistake.


    But it is also good advice to find a competent priest and have him conduct a thorough review of all past marriages. The info in the short email is insufficient, but on the face it seems like this would be a valid marriage.

    If it was invalid, my impression is that we can still confer absolution in periculo mortis.

  12. anilwang says:

    Mea culpa. If you do a google search on ‘mixed marriage “valid but not licit”‘ you’ll find many references, including on EWTN’s FAQ and some canon law sites like “http://canon-law.blogspot.ca/”.

    But if you look at the articles of canon law on mixed marriages http://www.intratext.com/IXT/ENG0017/_P40.HTM , it just says its prohibited without dispensation. It doesn’t directly state it is invalid, but Can. 1127 makes it clear that marriages between an Orthodox and Catholic without dispensation is invalid but lawful, so a mixed marriage with a Protestant could not be valid even if lawful (?). I’m not a canon lawyer so I don’t know what the difference is between lawful, licit, and valid, or any other such distinctions.

    Regardless, such Catholics are hindered from taking communion or receiving absolution until the marriage is cleared up. Objectively speaking, such a Catholic is in a bad place regardless of what technical term is applied to the state of their marriage.

  13. Giuseppe says:

    My grandmother’s family thought she had a mixed marraige.
    She was a Catholic, and she was Polish; he was a Catholic, and he was Irish.
    Their churches were 4 blocks apart.
    Despite the obstacles, the marriage lasted nearly 60 years.

  14. Jerry says:

    @anilwang – your research is incomplete. The conditions specified in your first response were “got married married to a Protestant in a Protestant church or civil registry without dispensation”; thus you must also consider the requirement for canonical form in addition to the required dispensation for a mixed marriage.

    Understanding the canonical meaning of terms such as lawful, licit, and valid is essential (but certainly not sufficient) to interpreting canon law. You may wish to contemplate the prudence of posting opinions on such matters without a much better grasp of the fundamental subject matter.

  15. Phil_NL says:

    First of all, a big welcome to the Church for the person who asked the question.

    Conversion from a muslim background is something that can be quite hard, and may involve many crosses to bear, so especially in such a case one would hope that priests thread very carefully before taking such a big step as denying absolution (it would be reasonable that the priest asks all necessary qestions, doublechecking if need be and if still uncertain, getting in touch with a proper canonist, right? Postponement of the issue to get it right would be vastly preferable, I’d say). Getting it wrong, as seems to be the case here, sounds like a terrible burden for the person involved. I hope and pray this gets resolved soon.

  16. eulogos says:

    We had this issue when we had our first child baptized. My husband and I were married before either of us was baptized. We were married in a Unitarian Church. When I became Catholic, the priest carefully explained to me that our marriage was valid but not sacramental. But when I was having our first baby baptized, the form had three questions “Is the mother Catholic?” “Is the father Catholic?” and “Were the parents married in a Catholic Church?” In our case the answers were yes, no,no. So the form was filled out to say “Invalid Marriage” (only, in Latin, which I suppose I was not supposed to understand?) I protested, and the Brother filling out the form called the priest who was doing the baptism, who called another priest, the one who received me into the Church. That priest gave all of them a lesson about natural vs sacramental marriage. And they ripped up that form and filled out another one.

    We were over 30 years in a natural marriage until my husband was baptized. (He still isn’t Catholic; he is an Anglican in one of the conservative Anglican breakaway groups. ) My understanding is that when he was baptized our marriage became sacramental.
    Susan Peterson

  17. I want to offer my welcome as well to our relatively new Catholic. In reading the response and comments, a question that comes mind – was she or her current spouse in a previous marriage before entering this current union? This may be the missing key to the refusal. The few times I had to withhold absolution bothered me for days afterward; and as stated in another comment, the confessional is a poor place to sort out marital entanglements.

  18. Austin Catholics says:

    Serious question: how often does the priest hearing a confession even know the marital status of the confessor? They never ask me, and I would be surprised if they did so.

  19. Precentrix says:

    @Austin Catholics,

    I would hope that the confessor knows his own marital status! Whether he knows the status of the penitent is another matter. OTOH, it may be relevant background to the sins confessed, or it may be simply that he knows who the penitent is. Sometimes even the grille and the little curtain drawn across can’t disguise a person’s voice, you know ;-).

  20. Volanges says:

    southernpriest, this is the spouse to whom she was married when she converted. If the marriage was invalid due to a previous marriage she would not have been allowed to convert.

    Remember that the OP says she was denied absolution because she’s married to a non-Christian, not because she married outside the Church. I wonder how old the priest is? Isn’t it the case that a Catholic could not marry a non-Christian under penalty of excommunication under the 1917 Code of Canon Law? Maybe he’s not up do date on Canon Law & he got the order of her marriage and conversion wrong.

  21. Mariana says:

    Well, I hadn’t heard this one before! I’m now being completely self centred and not commenting on the ex-muslim lady’s plight, but as I am a convert, and my husband still a Lutheran, that means I am in a natural marriage, not a sacramental one? That sounds so….happy go lucky heathen-y. And also, my priest told me that the sacrament of marriage is something the spouses give each other (it is not conferred by the priest) with the priest officiating. Oh dear.

  22. Volanges says:

    I take it that you were both Lutherans and both baptized before you were received into full communion with the Catholic Church? That means that your marriage was already sacramental, because the valid marriage of two baptized Christians is always a sacrament.

    In the Latin Catholic Church the sacrament is considered to be conferred by the bride and groom upon each other, that’s why a Latin rite Catholic can be validly married by a priest, a deacon or a lay person — either in the Catholic Church where this is set up by the Bishop with Rome’s approval or, with a dispensation, by a non-Catholic clergy member or a judge.

    The Eastern Catholic Church has a different understanding of Marriage and its members must be married by a priest.

  23. Mariana says:

    “I take it that you were both Lutherans and both baptized before you were received into full communion with the Catholic Church?”
    Yes. Thank you!! What a relief!

  24. Hans says:

    First, welcome home to the lady questioner. I pray that your husband may convert as well, rather than revert. I have seen more than a few atheistic/agnostic Muslims revert to that faith and be all the more ardent for the guilt they feel for having been away.

    I think, Fr. Z., that your answer is an excellent one based on the information available.

    Leaving aside the specifics of this case, I saw several people referring to the need for a “dispensation” for a mixed marriage. That isn’t the case; a mixed marriage [a marriage baptized Catholic to another baptized Christian {redundancy for emphasis}] is foreseen within the law and requires only permission from the bishop. On the other hand, disparity of cult [marriage to someone who is not baptized, so not a Christian] is not foreseen within the law, so a dispensation [a setting aside of the law] is required.

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