ASK FATHER: Convert ponders consequences of parents’ invalid marriage.

From a reader…


I’m a convert to Catholicism, with a Lutheran mother and baptized and confirmed Catholic father. My dad fell away from the Church after college, as he married outside of the Church and all us children were nominally Lutheran. Given how his entire family hasn’t practiced their faith since before my birth, it’s something I struggle to internalize. But, it finally dawned on me that my parents’ marriage is invalid in the eyes of the Church. Now, I’m struggling with various questions I know will arise down the line: Do I acknowledge their wedding anniversaries? Should I let my parents share a room when they visit? What should my husband and I tell our children in the future, if anything? Any guidance would be appreciated.

These are tough situations for families who strive to live according to the teachings of the Church.

Yes, it is likely that your parents’ marriage is invalid due to a lack of canonical form to which your father, by virtue of his Catholic baptism, was bound. The Church reserves making that determination of validity or invalidity to herself. We can all look at the facts and draw conclusions, but in the end, the Church only has the authority to say, “this is an invalid marriage.”

Canon 1060 reminds us that marriages are presumed to be valid until they have been proven otherwise.

They are also still your parents, which makes you subject to the obligation of the Fourth Commandment.

Ideally, you can share with your parents your new-found Faith and help your mother into and your father back into the fullness of the Church. They could then seek to have their marriage sanated, which would retroactively validate their matrimonial consent. They could join you in practicing the Catholic Faith and reception of the sacraments.

Ideally. Yet, we often find ourselves in situations that are less than ideal.

It is possible that your father entered into a marriage outside of the Church because of ignorance on his part. That would lessen his culpability for having done so. It would not make the marriage valid, but it could lessen his responsibility for entering into a marriage outside of the Church.

You could still show your fourth-commandment respect towards your parents by sending them an anniversary card and permitting them to share a room when they visit. Your Catholic Faith also obliges you to pray, fervently, for their conversion and the regularization of their situation. Perhaps, instead of a simple store-bought anniversary card, have a Holy Mass offered for their intention and send them a Mass card.  That way the proper respect is shown, and the grace of a Mass is applied to their benefit.

As for telling children in the future, instruct your children in the teachings of the Church, including the Church’s teaching on marriage and the respect to be shown to their parents and their grandparents. I wouldn’t bring up their grandparents’ less-than-ideal marriage situation until and unless the children themselves ask about it. At that point, be honest.  Lay out the issues and invite them to pray for their grandparents, just as you have been doing.

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, Hard-Identity Catholicism, One Man & One Woman, Our Catholic Identity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Militans says:

    I think you have handled this very well Father, with love and respect both for the Truth and for the individuals involved.

    Of course, if we were to be armchair canonists we could go round stating that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was arguably invalid because of a refusal to consummate it.

  2. St Donatus says:

    That brings up another question. Is this question of culpability why many priests don’t bother telling or teaching about contraception, divorce, homosexual acts, fornication, etc. Again, when it comes to culpability, would I be better off not teaching my children the faith at all since they would not be culpable for their sins?

  3. ByzCath08 says:

    That was handled very well Fr. Z.

  4. Federico says:

    Fr. Z,

    Your reader could petition for a radical sanation of her parents’ marriage without their knowledge. The local bishop would not be able to do it unless the conditions of c. 1125 are met, but he could ask (on your reader’s behalf) the Holy See. The Holy See will likely grant such a request, coming from a diocesan bishop and for pastoral reasons.

    @militans: consummation is not required to make a marriage. Consent of the parties is all that is needed. Consummation makes the marriage indissoluble and “cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (c. 1141). Ratified and non-consummated marriages are real and sacramental. They can be dissolved during the life of the spouses only by the power of God exercised vicariously by the Holy Father (which, appropriately, cannot be delegated). History of this perspective dates to Innocent III and the decretal Quanto personam but see the allocution of St. John Paul II to the Roman Rota of 21 January 2000 for additional information (also addressed whether the Holy Father’s vicarious power might extend to ratified and consummated marriages: no).

  5. APX says:


    Mary and Joseph weren’t bound by Canon Law at the time.

    However, if I understand correctly, an unconsummated marriage is a valid marriage, but since it hasn’t been consummated, it can be desolved by the Church. The Church does permit the Josephite Marriage.

  6. mamajen says:

    St Donatus,

    No, you would not be better off at all. In fact there’s a high chance you’d wind up in Hell, since it’s our duty as parents to raise our kids in the faith. It’s frightening to think of a priest making the conscious decision you describe.

    And the kids are not better off, either. The Church’s laws aren’t just a bunch of game-like rules that we can use to reach Heaven. They’re wise and beautiful and can contribute to health and happiness here on earth as well. Maybe without culpability people aren’t sinning, but that doesn’t prevent the unhappy consequences of poor decisions. People who love others tell them the truth, even when it’s tough, even when it’s risky.

  7. Jerry says:

    re: Militans – “Of course, if we were to be armchair canonists we could go round stating that the marriage of Mary and Joseph was arguably invalid because of a refusal to consummate it.”

    We could, but it’s not a good idea. Even if the conclusion were correct, the reasoning is not: even if the 1983 Code of Canon Law had been in effect 1984 years before its promulgation, it would not have applied to Joseph and Mary, who were Jews at the time.

    Even a Catholic couple marrying today mutually intending to maintain a non-consummated marriage do not marry invalidly: not that canon 1067 describes this state as ratum et non consummatum (valid and not consummated). Note that the recourse is to receive a dispensation, not a declaration of nullity. The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, in the commentary on can. 1699 sec. 2, notes that “[b]ecause the dispensation is always a favor freely granted by the pope and not a right demanded by the parties, the pope enjoys broad discretion regarding these criteria.” The commentary for can. 1061 states: “A valid marriage between two baptized persons is said to be “ratified” (matrimonium ratum. Ratified marriages are always sacramental and enjoy the essential properties of unity and indissolubility. (emphasis mine) Nevertheless, for a just cause, the obligation of a merely ratified can be dispensed from, or it can be dissolved at the request of one of the spouses.

    It is also worth noting that can. 1061 requires that for a marriage to be consummated the conjugal act must be performed after a valid marriage, in a “human fashion” and must be ” suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh” (i.e., vaginal penetration and deposit of semen must occur – intercourse using a condom does not count unless the condom fails), and must be a voluntary and willful act of both parties.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Again, when it comes to culpability, would I be better off not teaching my children the faith at all since they would not be culpable for their sins?”

    That would be culpable negligence on your part, which, in itself, is sinful. Those, who, through no fault of their own, do not know the law will get off with fewer stripes. If one has the chance to know the truth, it must be reasonably offered.

    As for the original poster, this is a classic example where tolerating an evil should be applied. One tolerates an evil, for a time, in the hopes of a better good being realized. If both mother and father knew and understood the Church’s position and vehemently refused to listen to it, that would be a different story. Cultural conditioning (Lutheran mother) or invincible ignorance (Catholic father, perhaps) can diminish culpability and tolerance should be reasonably applied.

    The Chicken

  9. Phil_NL says:

    St Donatus,

    It might make life easier on your children (or not, as they would not strife to avoid sins and their associated problems either). But I reckon that at the Last Judgement any person not teaching their children the faith for this reason would have some explaining to do, as there is also such a thing as duty, and this person would not only have failed at his, but also rejected his duty.

    As for the topic in general:

    I get the feeling we tend to treat problems related to marriage with too much emphasis on the ‘public nature’ of maritial status – we could, up to a point, determine as outsiders whether or not a marriage is valid and tend to draw conclusions based on that. It’s too easy to interfere – and that may not we always a wise thing to do. Especially if you have filial obligations to boot.

  10. dans0622 says:

    St Donatus: maybe that is a rationale. It’s similar to the question “should we evangelize? If we do, the people might reject the faith and be condemned. If we don’t, they can’t reject it and might more likely be saved.” But, it is always better to do good than to do evil and instructing the ignorant is a work of mercy. I know some foods are better than others. If I neglect to teach a child what I know, sure, he’ll be blissfully ignorant…as he gains weight, gets addicted, gets sick, and dies. Prudence dictates how that instruction is to be carried out. Some situations are very delicate.

  11. anilwang says:

    St Donatus says: “would I be better off not teaching my children the faith at all since they would not be culpable for their sins?”

    No. If you read the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium paragraph 16, it explains the situation clearly. God doesn’t hold invincible ignorance against you if you are trying to follow him to the best of your knowledge. However, man has a tendency to be lead astray, so many do not follow God to the best of their knowledge and willfully blind themselves and harden their hards.

    Hardened hearts choose to harden their hearts further, and it can get out of hand very rapidly. As a culture, we’ve moved from contraception in rare cases to abortion being a right or even expected in some cases (see genetic counselors), euthanasia for both children and adults (in some countries) being allowed or even expected. And masses of pre-born babies being used in research and the production of some commercial items. When one’s heart is so hardened, how can one hope to expect that one can escape Hell, since Hell is the place of the hard hearted.

    As parents, we also need to heed scripture when it says in Ezekiel 18 “If [God] say[s] to the wicked, `You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood [God] will require at your hand. ”

    The upshot is that if you don’t teach your children the faith, both of you risk hardening your heart to such an extend that there is no room for God, and consequently seriously risk going to Hell (all the while thinking, you’re an outstanding member of the community).

  12. Gail F says:

    St. Donatus has a good point — do some priests and bishops not teach the church’s rules because so many people are already breaking them, and in theory they aren’t culpable if they don’t know the rules? This idea of course is famous from The Brothers Karamazov, with its famous “Grand Inquistor” story. A couple of years ago John Zmirac teamed up with an artist to do a graphic novel of his poem based on the story. The Grand Inquisitor says he has made everyone happy by letting them sin all they want to.
    Wasn’t that better than God not letting them sin but allowing them to want to sin, he says? A perpetual question. Here’s the book: HERE

  13. priests wife says:

    The next time someone turned up their nose at me for daring to read Fr Z’s blog, I’ll refer them to this post…true, pastoral, Catholic

  14. michelekc says:

    Interesting question, and excellent response, Fr. Z.

    @mamajen – couldn’t have said it better myself. This brings up a question I’ve always had about culpability. In the case of a couple who are obviously not practicing Catholics and are having a baptism to please a family member, but have absolutely no intention of raising the child Catholic, would it be better to not baptize the child because it would be worse for the child to be baptized and raised not knowing or practicing the faith?

  15. Priam1184 says:

    Nice Father. Well done.

  16. Suburbanbanshee says:

    In the case of Baptism, there’s often a difference between why people say they’re doing something and why they’re really doing it. Non-practicing Catholics may say “we’re doing it to please Grandma,” but they’re probably really doing it because they know it’s the right thing to do. They may not really understand why they have that gut feeling, but they know.

    Also, there’s a difference between “non-practicing” and “totally unbelieving.” Somebody who is non-practicing is one Mass away from practicing. Kids often are the reason people start practicing again.

    (Well, and they should go to Confession before going to Communion, obviously, but it’s usually Mass or a Tabernacle that draws people back first.)

  17. St Donatus says:


    Thanks for the answer, but I guess I am asking it from a theological point of view. I really do wonder what the possible reason that so few learn their faith, especially in sermons. The point I am trying to make is that I think culpability is a much higher standard than one might think. But then again, there is a reason most Catholics don’t seem to think it is important to evangelize, but a hundred years ago it was imperative.

  18. Fr. A.M. says:

    One should note that c. 1164 on ‘retroactive validation’ indicates that it is not to be granted (i.e. without the knowledge of one or both parties) ‘except for a grave reason’ (ne autem concedatur nisi ob gravem causam), because, ideally, both parties should be made aware of such a procedure. It is good administration and prudent. I think that the person who asked the question should seek the friendly advice of a canonist at his local diocesan marriage tribunal. I’m sure they would be glad to help.

  19. dominic1955 says:

    I think the best people can do in these situations is to continue to recognize the legal/cultural marriage that has existed, and in this case, produced them. When one finds the Faith and joins the Church (Deo gratias!) that does not deputize them to be the ones to go back to all their family and “fix” everything for them. While the one has received the grace of conversion, that doesn’t mean the whole lot of your kinfolks or friends have as well.

    We catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It always strikes me funny when you see the parish dress committee getting bent out of shape because someone wore shorts or sweatpants or some girl wore a shirt with too low of a neck line or too short of a skirt and decide to go upbraid them. Now, the person in question might objectively be dressed in a disrespective way for the Mass or in an immodest way but short of something rather heinous, its not the end of the world. Show people how to dress with your own good example, help lead them to the understanding of what Mass is, and be charitable so that they actually want to follow your example and think you are worthy of following!

    Same with family and friends that do not share your faith or share it to the same degree. An invalid marriage is a canonical issue, not a personal one. I suppose if its a matter of someone marrying outside of the Church as a rebellion against it, that is one thing, but marrying outside of the Church decades ago because of apathy simply does not justify treating people as if they were two kids wanting to continue their shack up situation while they come over for a visit.

    Plus, I remember from Canon Law class in the seminary just how (relatively) easy it is to regularize most marriages that happen outside of the Church. While I can easily reconcile the apparent disjunction between such as easy fix for a rather serious problem, most non-Catholics or somewhat apathetic Catholics will only look at all the Canonical issues as so much legal mumbo-jumbo. In other words, again, if they can be convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith they will accept this as something necessary and not just silly hoops to jump through. If one approaches it in a “throw the book at them” manner, they will balk and will have a hard time understanding why you are making such a big deal out of something that can be “fixed” in “your” Church with a signature from some chancery official.

    Plus, we certainly do not live in a Catholic country. The whole getting married outside of the Church would be a much bigger deal if it happened in, say, 18th Century France. You’d have to find one of the few Protestant churches, and everyone would probably know what you are doing and how it would basically be an intentional smack in the face of the Church and society in general. These days, those situations do not apply. While invalid is still invalid, the response must be different. Back in the day, the full brunt force of family, local society and Church could be brought against anyone who would dare to flaunt the laws of the Church so most wouldn’t dare. Now, especially if you are a convert, you don’t have family, local society or even really the Church there to put that pressure on and you going at it alone only makes it seem that much more farcical.

    I think we’ve come to a point where we need to relearn how to convince with charity and example rather than societal force.

  20. ducinaltum says:

    Wow…it was bizarre to read the beginning of that letter because it mirrors my story exactly: as a convert to Catholicism with a Lutheran mother (though now ‘fallen away’) and a Catholic father who fell away (after high school? during? who knows). Though my parents divorced several years ago so there’s that. I remember realizing that my parents’ marriage was invalid several years ago and just today at mass was again praying for the conversion of my family.

    Oremus pro invicem!


  22. Daniel W says:

    This case illustrates an interesting aspect of what the Church means by “valid”.

    People in this situation, who can have their marriage “sanated retroactively” are in a marriage, it is not just a “putative marriage”, (which may not exist at all), but it’s a marriage still in formation. Something is lacking that stops their marital consent from taking full effect. The “marital acts” of “spouses” in this situation are also in “limbo”. They cannot be considered fornication, because once the marriage is sanated, they retroactively become marital acts!!!!!!!!!! In other words the acts are inchoate marital acts, not fornication….(as long as their is no contrary intention on behalf of the inchoate spouses).

    (Where I am from you can buy transport tickets that need to be “validated” before they come into effect. If the validating machine is broken, or the transport company does not make the effort to inform you that you have to validate the ticket, you can’t be to blame for not validating your ticket)

    Dr Ed Peters is way out of line in my opinion regarding the wisdom of the Church requiring canonical form. Requiring canonical form reduces the instances of Catholics entering a valid marriage without the appropriate disposition towards its sacramentality. It is true that requiring canonical form sometimes creates frustrating and complicated work for canon lawyers, but so be it.

Comments are closed.