ASK FATHER: Priest hears confession of person with impediment to marry…

From a reader…


Around the lunch table a few days ago, myself and a few brother seminarians raised this question:

If a priest hears the confessions of a couple to be married the day before the marriage, and one of them has an impediment to marriage they confess, must the priest still carry out the wedding?

On one hand: the priest would be knowingly carrying out an invalid sacrament. That’s a no-no.

On the other hand: CIC 983.1 states “It is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason”, the prime words in there being ” or in any other manner “. It would seem that calling off the wedding would betray in some way, shape, or form. He could call it off but not mention the reason (lying about the reason of course not being an option) but that would still arouse suspicion. Furthermore, I have found that on Nov 18, 1682, a decree from the Holy Office stated that “confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in confession that would displease the penitent, even though the non-use would occasion him greater displeasure.”

Calling off a wedding would cause the penitent displeasure.

This is all of course assuming the priest’s own instructions in the confessional to the penitent presumably saying to call off the wedding themself were ignored.

Can you shed any light?

If a priest hears a confession wherein one party revealed an impediment the day before the wedding, and he went ahead and officiated at that wedding, the priest would not be “knowingly carrying out an invalid sacrament”. The priest’s job at a wedding is not to “carry out” a sacrament, but rather to act as an official witness to the couple who will be administering the sacrament to each other.

In dealing with some impediments, the priest has the authority to dispense from them in danger of death situations, or in “omnia parata” situations, wherein everything is prepared for marriage and the impediment has just now come to light. In such a situation, the priest might legitimately dispense the impediment and proceed with the wedding.

If the impediment is not something from which the priest can dispense, he is in a precarious position.

He should do all he can in the confessional to urge the party who is confessing not to go through with the wedding if there is an impediment. If the impediment is one of divine law, he could inform the confessee that proceeding with the wedding as planned places his or her soul in the most grave danger. Even if it’s an impediment that could later be dispensed and sanated, it would be unwise to proceed. Yet, in the end, that is on the conscience of the confessee, not of the priest who will be witnessing the vows.

The priest is not able to act on what he learns under the Seal.

Should the parties still determine to go through with the wedding, he should show up, smile, witness the exchange of consent, and make the appropriate notations in the appropriate books. Even if there remains an invalidating impediment, known only to the priest confessor and the confessee, the marriage now enjoys the presumption of validity until proven otherwise.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Thanks, Fr. Z! Priests can’t be faint hearted, that’s for sure.

  2. Random Friar says:

    These kinds of examples should give pause to those who insist that we can dispense with the Seal for certain criminal cases. Even to protect something as dear to us as the Sacraments, We. Don’t. Do. That.

  3. dominicop says:

    Hasn’t there been given pretty explicit instruction in this regards concerning the impediment of crime? I’m traveling now and so can’t access my commentaries, but I thought sure that there was some case law surrounding the development of the sanatio in radice which pertained to precisely this sort of scenario. Does this ring any bells for anyone?

  4. This is why I decided to stop doing something I thought was pretty spiffy: offer to hear confessions at the wedding rehearsal.

    This very problem occurred to me: what if I hear, in a confession from bride, groom, or wedding attendants, something like described in this letter?

    Father Z. is, again, quite right: the priest who hears the confession can do nothing with what hears. Nothing! (Nothing as in nothing!)

    So, I encourage couples to receive the sacrament before their wedding; but I don’t do them at the rehearsal any more.

  5. APX says:

    Also another good reason to stick to “anonymous” confessions whenever possible.

  6. Father, I know here in the Latin church that, like you said, the job of the priest “is not to “carry out” a sacrament, but rather to act as an official witness to the couple who will be administering the sacrament to each other”. However, I am curious to know as to how a priest from one of the Eastern churches would be affected by this, as the couple being married needs the priest’s blessing for the marriage to be valid (since the priest is the minister of the sacrament of marriage in the Eastern churches). [I generally write about the Latin Church.]

  7. jflare says:

    Curious: What impact would this have on the other intended spouse if the other doesn’t know about the impediment? I would think that such an impediment would render the marriage void. That would be quite a pickle: Marry someone, then years later, learn that your marriage had never existed sacramentally because your intended didn’t tell you something.

  8. jflare says:

    Perhaps I should also have said, it’d be interesting if the other intended never learned at all. Sounds a bit like a betrayal. Still, I guess technically, the other might not have incurred any sin.
    Ick. Talk about being messy….

  9. APX said:

    “Also another good reason to stick to ‘anonymous’ confessions whenever possible.”

    Amen, amen!

    The provision for “face-to-face” was a concession for the faithful, if they wished it. And, I admit, there are times when I wish I could see the person’s face, so that I could understand and respond better, inasmuch as a great deal of communication is non-verbal.

    Nevertheless, anonymous confessions relieve the priest of many burdens.

  10. Jflare:

    Of course, it is the same problem, whether the priest knows or not.

    This of course is often the basis of successful petitions for a decree of nullity (i.e., a so-called “annulment”): one of the parties had real hesitancy, but went ahead anyway; or felt pressured; or didn’t really intend either permanence, or fidelity, etc. Many times, there will be others who can affirm these things.

  11. priests wife says:

    Catholic Tech Geek- Byzantine info- The priest cannot break the seal of the confessional – and would most likely bless tha marriage because he cannot act on knowledge from a confession- just like in the Roman rite. And he could not testify at a future annulment hearing with information from that confession…. (could he pretend to get the flu and not perform the ceremony? he probably shouldn’t….)

  12. Ben Kenobi says:

    “What impact would this have on the other intended spouse if the other doesn’t know about the impediment? I would think that such an impediment would render the marriage void. That would be quite a pickle: Marry someone, then years later, learn that your marriage had never existed sacramentally because your intended didn’t tell you something.”

    Apparently according to Father Z, the priest is under no obligation to inform the spouse that the marriage they are attempting to contract is void. I’m sorry, I cannot see how this is right. [You need a remedial reading course. But I will let your distorting comment stand.]

    If the penitent is unwilling to inform his spouse, for example, of prior bond, then I cannot see how I as a priest, in good conscience could perform the wedding. Isn’t a priest justified in declining? Isn’t there some way the priest could warn the innocent party? [What part of SEAL OF CONFESSION was vague?]

    Personally, if this happened to me and I was the other party, I would probably never return to the Church again. Doing all the right things, trying to dot the I’s and in the end having my marriage nullified [The Church does not nullify marriages.] through something everyone knew but no one told me?

    [Go back and review and think before posting.]

  13. jflare says:

    Maybe I should’ve simply kept my mouth shut, so to speak. I commented on the idea that it seemed to me..difficult to comprehend..that a priest would have no choice but to allow someone to marry, lest he break the Seal. I will even say I find it quite troubling that he could be required to allow vows to be exchanged, even though he knows–because of the confession–that one party is ineligible.

    Perhaps it would help if I point out that, in this case, I’m assuming that the impediment is something that nobody knows about, except for the one whose soul bears the impediment.

    If you’re thinking that someone would be enraged by learning about something like this many years later, I would agree. I would feel exceedingly betrayed. On the other hand, we should remember that the betrayal would be something that had been committed by the intended spouse, not by the Church.
    In the end, I guess I would chalk this up to the idea that serious sin has serious consequences. If the intended spouse might be deeply wounded, think how deeply something like this would wound the person’s relationship with God. We can always hope that an intended spouse would repent of something like this and save everyone a great deal of trouble, headache, and heartache.

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