ASK FATHER: Secret marriage to avoid … government.

From a reader:

My __ year old father and his woman friend would like to get married but not go through the government with a marriage lisence. Are there any patriotic priests who would help them? I found protestant pastors but as they are Catholic they would appreciate the sanctity of a Catholic church….dad is a widower and she is a widow both had long happy marriages.


The Church teaches that marriage is not just an agreement between two people, but is a public covenant. The Church has long cooperated with civil governments with regards to marriage, since marriage between one man and one woman is something that is to be valued both by the Church and the State.

In some places, the State has moved to distance itself from the Church and has ceased that cooperation. In France and Mexico, for example, the State does not recognize marriages celebrated in the Church as having any civil effect. In the United Kingdom, the State did not recognize Catholic marriages until 1836. The faithful in these places would need to exchange matrimonial consent twice – once for civil effect, and once in the Church truly to marry each other.

For now, these United States and the Catholic Church are still cooperating in the sphere of marriage, though as state after state changes the definition of marriage to include agreements that are NOT marriage, the time may come soon when that cooperation will have to cease. But… for now … the state authorizes priests and deacons to act in two capacities at a wedding.  First, they act in their religious role as official witnesses of the Church to the exchange of matrimonial consent.  Second, they act as agents of the State officiating at a wedding of two persons.

That said, the Church reserves the right to permit the celebration of “secret marriages” or “clandestine marriages”, that is to say, marriages that are not recognized by the State in certain circumstances.  Canons 1130 – 1133 of the Latin Code (and can. 840 of the Eastern Code) provide the parameters.

A secret marriage can only be permitted by the local ordinary (i.e., the diocesan bishop, vicar general, or an episcopal vicar), the parties involved must observe secrecy (only the priest, the couple, and two witnesses should be present at the wedding), and the marriage is recorded only in a special register in the secret archives of the diocesan curia.

“But Father!  But Father!”, you are probably saying by now, “Why would anyone enter into a clansted… clantstine… secret marriage?  You surely hate Vatican II.”

Some reasons for secret marriages would include situations where the state law on marriage is unjust or contrary to natural law (e.g., in places where it was once illegal for a man and woman of different races to marry, or a free person to marry a slave, etc.).  For example, when in its fourth term the Obama Administration makes it illegal to marry a Catholic, we will have more clandestine marriages.  The local ordinary will have to see if the reasons for a marriage without a state license are justifiable.

These days there are two reasons normally given for wanting a secret marriage. First, one or both parties are undocumented immigrants and, next, one or both parties are senior citizens and concerned that marriage would affect a pension payment.

There may, possibly – but only possibly – be some justification for granting permission in the first situation, especially if there are children involved.  I am not convinced that our current immigration laws in these USA are that unjust. In the second case, I do not see a justification for permitting a secret marriage. The terms of the pension are normally clear. To marry without a civil license merely to circumvent the pension contract is pretty dodgy.

The Church should be very careful in permitting secret marriages, because doing so puts the priest or deacon who officiates at such a wedding in danger of civil prosecution. A priest or deacon who officiated at such a wedding without permission of the local ordinary would acting illicitly, and be subject to civil and ecclesiastical penalties. It would also cast aspersion on the character of the other priests who are obeying both the civil and ecclesiastical law.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Phil_NL says:

    And I wouldn’t recommend shopping (civil) jurisdictions for one where a religious marriage has no civil effect either (The Netherlands is another, by the way): in those countries, conducting a marriage without subsequent (or sometimes prior) civil marriage tends to be a criminal offense.

  2. Pater Raphael says:

    In most of Europe it is the case that marriage is completely seperated between the State and the Religious body someone belongs to. In the German speaking countries this is a result of the “Kulturkampf” in Germany between the then Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck and the Catholic Church, during the late 1800’s. But the result is that everybody who wants a “legally recognised” marriage must do it at the Standesamt (registry office), but the Church does not recognise this as a marriage. A Church wedding however, (or other religion / organisation) is not recognised by the state. So, normally people marry first in the Standesamt and then afterwards go to Church for the real marriage. BUT, in the case of your questioner, it is perfectly normal here for retired people, who are financially secure not to care what the State thinks and if they want to remarry after the death of a spouse, marry just in Church. Afterall the state recognition is only important for questions of taxes and status before the law, which for older people are no longer of any particular importance.
    Pater R.

  3. Imrahil says:

    Is it not possible for a US American to marry an illegal immigrant, then?

    I do not think even a sinful immigration should bar two loving Catholics willing to promise all the marriage promises from marriage.

    (Though couldn’t they just 1. move back 2. marry, the other part on a tourist visum if need be, 3. reimmigrate, legally this time, as the beloved spouse of a natural born citizen?)

    As for switching jurisdiction, there’s Germany (since 2009), as has been mentioned.

  4. Stephen Matthew says:

    With (relatively easy) no-fault divorce, divorce and remarriage, unnatural marriage, and all sorts of other oddities having crept in, I think it is about time for the Church to at least partially part ways with the state on marriage in these USA. It seems to me a civil marriage should be viewed as an optional element of a Catholic marriage, not some sort of necessary controlling element, especially not when the Church and state each have very different ideas of marriage. Likewise there should be a presumption against the natural validity of US civil marriage attempted by anyone, as the current American idea of marriage is at odds with permanence and openness to children.

    While I should prefer first that the state should set its marriage laws into agreement with the Natural Law, as a second best option I should like to see the state get out of the marriage business all together (instead people may draw up such contracts as they may find mutually beneficial without any ridiculous notion that the state has power to define what marriage is, I should favor calling these “cohabitation contracts” or “mutual dependency agreements”).

  5. Rachel K says:

    Stephen Matthew, “While I should prefer first that the state should set its marriage laws into agreement with the Natural Law, as a second best option I should like to see the state get out of the marriage business all together”
    This is a retrograde step, as Fr Z points out, it is the teaching of the Church that marriage is a civil issue too- we need to be encouraging try state to uphold (true) marriage, otherwise, social chaos will ensue, if it isn’t doing already with the new “definitions” of marriage.

  6. markomalley says:


    In regard to your comment, Second, they act as agents of the State officiating at a wedding of two persons.

    This is one thing that is of grave concern with me and, at some point in time, may be the method that the homosexualist lobby uses to force the Church to perform homosexual “weddings.” Since the clergymen act as agents of the State, I can picture somebody bringing up equal access, public accommodation arguments to claim that they are being discriminated against in being provided a public service, stating that a wedding is not merely a religious service but a public, state function.

    For that reason, I tend to agree with @Stephen Matthew that the Church should “divorce” Herself from the State process.

    In regards to civil marriage, I would also encourage everybody to review Leo XIII’s Arcanum. He has some very interesting thoughts on civil marriage. While it primarily condemned civil marriage / civil divorce, one could easily substitute “homosexual unions” in there and it would seem very timely to me.

  7. Wiktor says:

    There is a tiny problem with current marriage practice in Poland. This may also apply to other countries where Catholic marriage is recognised by the government.

    Because, as part of the “event”, some legal documents must be signed.
    This is understandable.

    Now, there are two “rites” of signing those papers.
    Sometimes it is done in the sacristy before the ceremony, which is good in that it hides the paperwork from public view.
    But what if something prevents the marriage at this late point? We’ll have a legal problem with documents being already signed.
    More often, the documents are signed in the church at the end of the ceremony. This is good that it certifies that marriage actually took place. But where do you find a convenient desk in the church? AAaarrgghhh….

  8. jbas says:

    In Tennessee, we sometimes struggle with marriages between two foreign citizens without visas. Some county clerks require valid/recognized ID to get a marriage license, which means we sometimes have to tell these couples they will simply have to remain unmarried.

  9. robtbrown says:

    In 1980 one of my best friends went to Fontgombault to get married. Of course, they first had to see their parish priest, obtain documents, etc. Going through pre Cana was interesting–the lay people running it told everyone to pay no attention to Humanae Vitae. My friend told them they didn’t have a clue.

    And I completely disagree with the notion of the Church separating herself from civil marriage. The Church claims jurisdiction and not just of Catholics, thus the authority to dissolve civil marriages. And inheritance claims are adjudicated by civil law, not canon law.

    Though it may be said that the Church acts as an agent of the state in US marriages, nonetheless, it is not as a necessary agent. That is why there is refusal to marry people whose first marriages have been dissolved civilly.


  10. cheezwiz says:

    In the Commonwealth of Virginia:
    § 20-28. Penalty for celebrating marriage without license.

    If any person knowingly perform the ceremony of marriage without lawful license, or officiate in celebrating the rites of marriage without being authorized by law to do so, he shall be confined in jail not exceeding one year, and fined not exceeding $500.

    (Code 1919, § 4542.)
    Similar laws in other states?

  11. Cafea Fruor says:

    I guess I’ve always wondered just what the point of a secret marriage is, considering that the woman very well could conceive as soon as the marriage is consummated (wedding night babies are not impossible). The arrival of a child on the scene kinda undoes the secrecy of the secret marriage, does it not?

  12. Henry Belton says:

    I was not aware of the Canon Law regarding the need for “public” marriage.

    I had actually thought that of burning our New York State marriage license as an act of civil disobedience.

  13. I was asked to do this once by an older couple. I can’t recall if they actually admitted it was to enhance either their social security benefit, or tax deductions, or if something they said pointed in that direction. I politely but firmly refused.

    As much as I favor lower taxes, as a priest I absolutely cannot cooperate with anything like this. It would be wrong.

    If, on the other hand, I was talking to a couple who–as our genial host pointed out–had a natural right to marry, but whose rights were being unjustly constrained by the law, then the matter would be entirely different. Then I would defy the law with a clear conscience.

  14. I haven’t seen anyone else comment on this yet, so I wanted to make a remark about this part:

    “…as they are Catholic they would appreciate the sanctity of a Catholic church…”

    This couple should under no circumstances go to a Protestant pastor for this (even if the pastor will help them “avoid” the government). As Catholics they *must* be married by a priest who has the appropriate faculties – otherwise the marriage is no marriage at all.

  15. AVL says:

    His “fourth term”! Stop it, you are scaring me….

  16. Gail F says:

    In a novel by Fr. Andrew Greeley (SO SUE ME), a priest gets permission from his bishop to marry a young (but adult) couple in secret because the girl’s father is controlling and abusive and otherwise they would have eloped. In fact they do “elope” — but after the wedding. I always wondered if that were plausible.

  17. joecct77 says:

    I think Fr. Fox is spot on. If they get married in “public” it is quite probable that pension checks, Social Security would decrease.

    I’ve seen where elderly couples live in sin until they reach the age where the pension/SS reductions no longer apply.

    It is a hard life to be Catholic at times. We are a Church of inconvenient truths.

  18. James Joseph says:

    The problem is this.

    The Marriage License in the United States is a product of the eugenics movement. [?!?] If a kingdom is not converted to the Catholic Faith, then it is none of that government’s business to know to whom I am betrothed.

    Now, if I lived in Hungary or maybe Russia that would be a different story.

  19. eulogos says:

    I have a lot of sympathy for two elderly people who would like to marry, but if they do, they will not be able to afford to live. If people did not work at high wage jobs their Social Security pension may be very small and may be all they have. Neither might be able to afford to keep his or her house. If they are able to live in one of the two houses and combine their SS pensions, they might be able to make it; if not, each will probably have to retreat to a sad apartment above a store without a yard, or in some places, to a single rented room. If they move in together without being married, they can live in a house with a yard and keep many of their treasured possessions. But if they marry, they won’t have enough income to pay the taxes on even one house. This is an antiquated rule which really devalues the woman’s contribution to her previous marriage by staying home and raising the children and maintaining the house. She should be just as entitled to keep that money as her husband would have been if he had been the one that lived and remarried. I wish the church would help couples in this situation. If it cant, at the very least, one should not consider their request “dodgy”, one should be sympathetic to their situation.
    Susan Peterson

  20. germangreek says:

    Well, having your pension or SS benefits affected as a result of getting marrried is not a punishment for getting married, so that’s not what’s hard about it.

    I’m actually beginning to think that our Social Security system is a case of the United States government forcing everyone to tear down their barns and build bigger ones so we can relax and take our ease, for we have treasure for years to come.

    Joke’s on us though; there’s nothing in those barns.

  21. Bender says:

    Public does not mean government.
    Public does not require government involvement.
    The couple did not ask about secret marriages. They asked about marriage without government interference. So all of that advice about secret marriges is irrelevant to the question.
    If they marry openly and have the usual wedding party with the usual invites to family and friends, then it is a public event.
    By the logic of public marriages = government marriages, then if the government were to cease to exist, then no one could get married. Which is absurd. People married — and married publicly — long before government and bureaucrats with their licensing rules.

  22. Johnno says:

    There are and will be many attempts to take advantage of the Church’s unwitting courtship with the State. In Canada, the Catholic Schools receive government funding so that they can teach and hire non-Catholics. The homosexualists have used this to infiltrate Catholic Schools and install gay clubs. The Catholic Schools, now filled with many non-Catholics, many who voted for this great progressive move, don’t have a choice. They could give up government funding… but Mammon is much nicer for their bottom line.

    Someday the State marriage registration forms will have a nice section where the couple signs stating that they will agree to respect and honor the State Definition of Marriage that recognizes homosexuality and polygamy without protest and shall agree to raise their children to be tolerant under this rule, otherwise risk the penalty of having all their rights and tax exemptions revoked, maybe even their children if Germany is an example.

    Are you Church/State harmony Catholics going to just sigh and go through with it?

    Get the government out of marriage! Get them out NOW, or be content to wait until they come back years later to bite us in the ass. The only State worthy of being involved in marriage is a Catholic Confessional State. Not a secular one.

    If Catholics want the legal benefits, then we can just go arrange those ourselves with a lawyer, and push government run institutions to agree with these legalities without requiring a civil marriage. After all… isn’t that what we’ve been telling homosexuals they should do without redefining marriage? It would look awfully hypocritical in their eyes if we aren’t willing to take our medicine for what’s right, and mark my words that that is precisely where they are seeking to put us.

    So if you’re not in the business of converting your country to a Catholic Nation, then for the sake of equal protection from government coercion get them out of the marriage business. That way there is no coercion to accept any definition of marriage, nor any coercion from going out there and converting people to proper views of marriage rooted on a vocation centered on God and Creation and Love rather than sexual gratification, legal tax benefits and state recognition. The only need for government to provide tax benefits would then be for the sake of children, so government should only recognize those who are the legal guardians of children. That way only those with the business of having and raising children will get benefits. Not just any drunk Vega Couple who enjoys them without the work. Of course there is indeed the risk of those looking to have children merely for tax purposes but care not for them. But that’s mainly of concern in countries where poverty is incredibly vast and by and large nobody cares if children wind up dead from neglect and starvation. I doubt we’ll see something like that occur in Western Nations, where for that certain segment it’s likely far more convenient to just not have children than have the tax benefits with children. Unless, of course an even greater depression hits us by surprise reducing us to the same state as third world nations.

    Don’t give secular government more power to define and register things they have no business being in.

  23. cl00bie says:


    I have to take issue with your statement that the state values marriages. In the United States, I submit that it’s just the opposite. From the “great society” welfare programs that disincentivize marriage to no-fault divorces which are easier to get than getting out of a car lease to now gay “marriage”.

    Add to that the fact that I have the First Amendment freedom to practice my religion, and I should not be required to get permission from the state in the form of a “license” (no matter how “rubber-stamp” those licenses are) before I can receive a sacrament in my church.

    I agree that the state should get out of the marriage business, and if they want to provide a contract such as a “domestic partnership” that has all the legal benefits and responsibilites of marriage that is available to any two people, I don’t have a problem with that. Then you can get married and/or “domestic partnered”.

    But even in the church, I can’t remember the last time that shacking up was denounced from the ambo. Years ago, when my wife and I volunteered to present for Pre-Cana, the coordinating couple explained that they lived together before marriage and they were just fine, also another couple explained the blessing of their in-vitro fertilized daughter.

  24. TopSully says:

    cheezwiz said: “In the Commonwealth of Virginia:
    § 20-28. Penalty for celebrating marriage without license.

    If any person knowingly perform the ceremony of marriage without lawful license, or officiate in celebrating the rites of marriage without being authorized by law to do so, he shall be confined in jail not exceeding one year, and fined not exceeding $500.

    (Code 1919, § 4542.)
    Similar laws in other states?”

    Cheezewiz, I believe this is place to forbid a person not licensed to perform marriages from performing them, not forbidding a person duly licensed to perform a wedding of a couple without a marriage license. At least that’s how I’m reading it. I am however not a lawyer.

  25. Stephen Matthew says:

    Rachel K,

    The long established divorce-and-remarriage racket already makes the marriages of every state in the Union unnatural, and no-fault divorce is so firmly entrenched even the most ardent culture warriors in the Church have said not a word about it in my lifetime. Besides the maturity angle, the wider cultural views on marriage have so contaminated even the minds of Catholics that it is often quite easy to show a lack of intention for true permanence in tribunal cases.

    The battle for civil marriage conforming to natural is lost, and was lost before I was born, for the present time. The same-sex marriage battle is merely a rear-guard action of the last faithful remnant of a fled-for-the-hills army. Now I am not at all a defeatist, I fully intend for the Church to win this battle, but we must regroup, and stop fighting on terrain of the Enemy’s choosing. We must instead launch a full fledged counter-attack, and do so where our opponents are weakest. Step one in this plan is catechizing our own about the true nature of marriage. Step two is to take marriage away from the state, for the state sins gravely against God by sanctifying what God condmens, and that is a sin which those of us that permit it to continue share in. Yes, the “progressives” will likely win their battle to give some sort of legal benefits to same-sex couples, but denying legal benefits is not what this fight is about, let them have inheritance, hospital visits, survivor benefits, etc., we can permit that. What we can not permit is the state, or the wider culture and society, losing all sense of true marriage.

    The state has not only failed in its duty to protect the institution of marriage, it has become positively hostile to the institution. Do not look to politics and politicians to save marriage, they will not, rather they shall save their political fortunes. Do not look to the law to save marriage, it will instead corrupt and destroy it.

    Much like giving communion to those ill-disposed to receive, allowing marriage to remain in the hands of our present government is not a blessing for either us or them, it is rather something akin to sacrilege, a giving of what is holy to swine.

  26. AA Cunningham says:

    “First, one or both parties are undocumented immigrants(sic)”

    The correct term is illegal aliens.

    An undocumented immigrant is a resident alien who happens to leave their green card in their residence and not have it on their person as required by law.

  27. Imrahil says:

    Dear @Gail F, that has in fact (Anglicanly) happened, when Robert Browning eloped with his one-week-or-so wife Elisabeth (née Barrett). Chesterton wrote a biography about that.

  28. Imrahil says:

    For what it’s worth (i.e. not much), a private contract issued under certain terms might be a different thing but:

    If tax deductions or old-age pensions by social security
    – decrease on remarriage and
    – the State, as far as he is concerned, does not have the least trouble with sinful life,

    that is, if the State allows secret (or sacramental non-civil) marriages, already problematic. If he forbids them, he is breaking natural law and enticing people to non-marital relationships.

    As far as I consider, that rule does not oblige in conscience.

    (I freely admit that, as basic principles, I do not consider plain and obvious self-interest impure per se. It is true that there are sometimes hardships to bear for being a Catholic, but as we do not revel in the bearing of hardships per se other than in really voluntary sacrifices, we had better look twice if they really are there.)

    My two cents, or rather less.

  29. Marg says:

    Years ago I remember an older couple who got a civil divorce just so they could afford to stay in their home. So I suppose if you really wanted to you could get married in the Church and then get a divorce since in the Church’s view you are still married. That would bother my conscience unless I were in DIRE straights.

  30. Father Z,
    My Very Italian Canon law professor told us how they dealt with a similar case in Italy. This was a case of child benefits for deceased fathers. They do the marriage and sign the documents but don’t deliver them to the government so long as they remain together, or until the kids reach 18 where such benefits cease.
    Ingenious, but probably wouldn’t pass muster with American courts.

  31. cwillia1 says:

    This is ultimately a matter of policy. One can imagine a situation where the Church judges “civil marriage” to be so disconnected from natural marriage, that the Church either forbids “civil marriage” or treats “civil marriage” as an irrelevancy. As much as I would revel in the Church’s taking such an aggressive stand towards the state and the culture, I think we are far from the point where it would be prudent. There are two big considerations: the health of Catholic marriages and the hope that “civil marriage” can be restored for the sake of the broader culture.

    In the meantime two Catholic retirees whose finances will be harmed if they marry will pay a price that a couple who exchanges vows on the beach or simply cohabits will not pay. But I repeat, this is a matter of policy, which the bishops have the authority to set.

    BTW, googling “Catholic marriage in Mexico,” it seems that it would not be too difficult for American Catholics to marry in Mexico without marrying civilly in Mexico. Such a marriage would have no legal standing in either country.

  32. Uxixu says:

    Hmm two separate issues. I definitely don’t agree with use the Church to attempt to circumvent “rendering unto Caesar” what is his…

    That said, it seems clear that the government definition of marriage is no longer congruent with the Catholic Sacrament, nor has been for some time. I can easily see those wanting the Sacrament while not holding any value in recognition from the state or any care to obtain it’s permission or legal recognition. Then I ponder that as far as two people and their government benefits, it naturally begs the question of the consequences, if any if they “just” cohabitated instead of joined in civil union and what difference is from either versus a religious Sacrament without the legal standing. The secularlists simply don’t believe in what we Catholics call marriage.

  33. Bonomo says:

    In the matter of marrying “secretly,” that is, without registering the marriage with the state:
    My understanding is that two elderly people of the opposite sex on Social Security who wish to marry may suffer a loss of benefits, if they marry each other, such that they cannot survive on what is allowed. A Catholic priest who belongs to a US diocese cannot actually witness a marriage in a US state or territory (usually) without being legally obligated to register the marriage. People who have the means can go to (for example) Mexico and have a (Catholic) wedding there, as church weddings in Mexico are not recognized by the Mexican government, and, therefore, not by any of our US and state governments. However, many of the folks in this situation do not have the means to travel. I seem to recall reading in the Our Sunday Visitor a couple of decades ago that at least one diocese (no, I do not recall which one) in the US declared that the financial penalties associated with marriage in these cases warranted the invocation of Canon 1116 of the Code of Canon Law, and instructed people in such situations to marry privately without benefit of clergy (that is by exchanging the vows of marriage in the presence of two witnesses). The parties involved were to certify to the fact of the marriage in a letter that was to be submitted to the Diocese, where it would be kept in the secret archives. I have no way of knowing (of course) how often this was done.

  34. bobk says:

    As I understand it, the origins of Christian marriage was the Roman civil marriage. A Christian couple, like any other, went to the land office and declared mutual consent. They were then married. Then they went to church on Sunday and received communion together, their marriage was blessed. It seems odd to cut off the current US government when they could tolerate the government of Rome. On the other hand a 1-4th century pagan Roman magistrate would have thrown out two men or two women who said they wanted to be “married”. They had standards, ours increasingly don’t. I had never hear before there were canons for secret marriage. Hard thing to keep under wraps I expect if a couple go to church at all!

  35. Ben Kenobi says:

    “not when the Church and state each have very different ideas of marriage.”
    People are quick to give up privileges that they themselves cannot use.
    Is it fair to your children and grandchildren? Is it fair to Catholics who are walking the path to deprive them of the legal benefits associated with civil marriage? No.

    We should not deprive ourselves of what has been difficult to win – especially in England. Do you not think the state desires to take this all away once again?

    I posted on this before, and I have the same response now. We should continue to bear witness to the law arguing that marriage is one man and one woman by not shrinking away from the present challenge. Let them take it from us. Let us force them to make the decision to bar recognition of Catholic marriage. Then we can decide where to go from there.

  36. Ben Kenobi says:

    “My understanding is that two elderly people of the opposite sex on Social Security who wish to marry may suffer a loss of benefits, if they marry each other, such that they cannot survive on what is allowed.”

    Yes, we should accommodate those who would rather marry in secret than suffer loss of benefits. Which is of greater importance, marriage or benefits? I would surmise that if you value benefits more than marriage, that you shouldn’t marry.

  37. Ben Kenobi says:

    “The battle for civil marriage conforming to natural is lost”

    It is interesting that older folks console the young not to fight battles they believe to be lost. Just because you’ve given up, doesn’t mean we will. You can either fight with us, or quit. Choose. You don’t get to decide whether we fight. I think civil marriage is a battle worth fighting, but then I’m also one who’s having to wait to do it right. I could just go in and get the license and carry on my business, but that’s not what the sacrament is all about. I’m trying to patch up mistakes made long ago for an outcome by no means certain.

  38. PaterAugustinus says:

    Okay, a few questions on moral theology for those who know better than I…

    First, hasn’t the Church always believed that “non-sacramental” marriages are still marriages? And hasn’t it been true that, for much of the Church’s history, couples were considered married even before they came (or even if they never came) to have the marriage solemnized in Church? I agree that the Church has always taught that marriage is a *public* matter, but it does seem that public need not equal (in fact, must not equal), government. If the government refused to recognize Catholic marriage, it obviously would not invalidate Catholic marriages. It would only invalidate the marriage if the couple did the wedding entirely secretly, with no witnesses (including the minister of the Church). Am I right or wrong on these points, and if wrong, how?

    Next, all of this leads me to wonder: would the couple not be considered married, in a real sense, if they swore marriage vows to each other before witnesses, even without the solemnization of a sacramental marriage in the Church? Thus, if there are legal questions that should make a priest hesitant to solemnize a sacramental marriage without informing the State of the fact, could the couple not simply swear vows before witnesses, without a priest, and still consider themselves to be non-sacramentally, but still truly and naturally married under the “common law?”

    Second, shouldn’t the Church feel free to solemnize sacramental marriages without equating “government” with the “public?” How is it acceptable to the Church, or to the USA (which has free exercise of religion), to criminalize our performance of a Sacrament without their being notified?

  39. I faced a situation like this in the early years of my priesthood (the late 1990s). Someone called the parish, asking for more information about Secret Marriages. He had an parent of advanced age, living out of state, a widow, who had informed him that she had fallen in love again and wanted to marry. He was upset because (apparently) he stood to inherit a decently-sized estate upon the death of this parent, and feared this marriage would mean the loss/lessening of the inheritance. He had been told by the parent that there were Catholic clergy at the parishes that serve these retirement communities who interpreted Canon Law in a way that would allow them to perform these secret marriages without the knowledge of the civil government (in this case, meaning the I.R.S. or the Dep’t. of Treasury). When I explained the purpose of this provision of Canon Law, as your blog article explains, this man was a bit upset. Apparently I wasn’t giving him the answer he hoped for. The bottom line is this: Apparently this is going on in some places as a way for retirees to reconcile cohabitation with the desire to keep their Social Security classification as a single person and to appease children who want to make sure no new spouse or step-children inherit anything. Sheesh!

  40. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    I hope someone knowledgeable addresses Pater Augustinus’s comment.

    Augustinus Lehmkuhl’s 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia “Sacrament of Marriage” article is very interesting. For example, “not only the marriage between Catholics, but also that contracted by members of the different sects which have retained baptism and validly baptize, is undoubtedly a sacrament. It matters not whether the non-Catholic considers marriage a sacrament or not, or whether he intends to effect a sacrament or not.”

    And, quoting the Encyclical “Arcanum” of Leo XIII, “t is clear that among Christians every true marriage is, in itself and by itself, a sacrament; and that nothing can be farther from the truth than to say that the sacrament is a certain added ornament, or external adjunct, which can be separated and torn away from the contract at the caprice of man.”

    And, “Of course, according to ecclesiastical law, the form prescribed for validity is, as a rule, the personal, mutual declaration of consent before witnesses; but that is a requirement added to the nature of marriage and to Divine law, which the Church can therefore set aside and from which she can dispense in individual cases.”

    And, he refers to “the expressions of the Fathers or in papal letters, which state that marriage without the priest is declared unholy, wicked, or sacrilegious, that it does not bring the grace of God but provokes His wrath. This is nothing more than what the Council of Trent says in the chapter “Tametsi” (XXIV, i, de ref. Matr.), namely, that ‘the Holy Church of God has always detested and forbidden clandestine marriages’. Such statements do not deny the sacramental character of marriage so contracted; but they do condemn as sacrilegious that reception of the sacrament which indeed lays open the source of grace, yet places an obstacle in the way of the sacrament’s efficacy.”

  41. Stephen Matthew says:

    Ben Kenobi,

    You seem to have the impression I am some sort of elder, which given what I understand your age to be is quite an odd position to take, as we are not so far apart in age.

    I do not think the battle is lost. I think the battle, as it has been fought up to now, on the particular terms we have been using, is lost for the moment. I think that means we need a change in tactics. I think for such a change in tactics to work we need to retrain the troops for a bit, shore up morale, etc. You may think doing more of the same of what we have been doing is going to work, I think that fits reasonably closely to the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over while expecting a new result.

    Also, I have no intention of giving up any benefits the Church has won, I do have every intention of depriving the state of privileges it has usurped. One of those unlawful usurpation is the authority to define marriage by positive law. The state has no such power. It insists on doing so, and doing so contrary to canon law, contrary to divine revelation, and contrary to natural law. It thus is no longer in the marriage business, it is now in the business of creating some other category of civil contract. It is necessary to revise the terms of the debate to conform to reality. I think we have a very narrow window of opportunity, and that window is closing. If we fail to strike now, and strike hard, it will be another generation before the opportunity comes.

    Souls are at stake in this. The law is a teaching tool of its own, among other evils it has helped teach society to accept divorce and remarriage. The law must first be made to do no harm, and currently it is teaching lies about marriage, and it will soon teach more and greater lies about marriage. We should deprive it, if possible, of the power to spread these lies. Depriving the state of the word “marriage” may seem mere symbolism, but in fact it can help to lessen the evil done by false laws if those laws speak less deceitfully and no longer claim any power over any sort of marriage.

    As to conditions in other places, I can not say, elsewhere the battle lines are drawn on different terrain, I only know the lay of the land as it appears from my present vantage point.

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