ASK FATHER: Lied to the priest. Is our marriage valid?

From a reader…


Many years ago when my wife and I got married we were not serious Catholics. We cohabitated before we were married, and I think we even may have lied to the priest about it but I’m not sure. I can’t remember. We went on to be very serious traditional Catholics and I’m wondering if the marriage is actually valid seeing as we were in a grave state of mortal sin when we received the sacrament. Thank you and God bless.

One of the challenges the Church faced after the first great age of persecution was the question of the validity of sacraments conferred by sinful ministers. Some held that sacraments were invalid if the minister was in a state of sin. The Church firmly ruled against this heretical notion (called Donatism after its primary proponent, Donatus, bishop of Carthage) and has maintained the orthodox teaching that sacraments do not require the minister of the sacrament to be in a state of grace. Sacraments operate “ex opere operato” not “ex opere operantis”, that is, the grace of the sacrament comes from the work that is worked, not from the worker of the work.  Christ is the ultimate minister of sacraments.  We depend on His holiness, not that of the human minister.

What does this have to do with marriage? In marriage, the Latin Church understands that the husband and the wife are themselves the ministers of the sacrament. The priest (or bishop, or deacon) is there as the official witness for the Church, but the sacrament is effected by a man and a woman exchanging their consent (plighting their troth, to put it more eloquently).

Whether or not you were in a state of grave sin at the time of your marriage, your exchange of consent brought into existence a real, valid, sacramental marriage. The graces of the sacrament appear to have opened you both up to the even more graces of returning to the active practice of your Catholic faith.

Nothing more than a good, cleansing confession is required for you to return to receiving Holy Communion again.  Be joyful about the additional graces God will bestow upon your marriage, so that it will be a fruitful and blessed means for your salvation.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Just so long as the husband and wife didn’t exchange their vows before an SSPX priest though, right? [Yep. You got one right! The marriage would lack proper canonical form.]

  2. Truthseeker says:

    Either I’m missing a bit of context or the previous comment may be a jibe of sorts. But strangely enough my question does somewhat align with the previous comment.

    I’m very curious about the validity of sacraments by ministers (latin rite priests) who don’t profess a faith that is aligned with that of the church and Christ. I’m not worried about a priest who is sinful. Sin is very human and Christ vanquished sin with his death and resurrection.

    But if a priest holds that same-sex marriage is valid and the contraception and abortion are not sinful what is the impact on the sacraments provided by said priest? For instance would the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of the holy Eucharist provided by such a priest be valid? Can someone who holds views very contrary to the church baptize someone?

    I struggle to reconcile scriptural statements regarding how intrinsic our faith is to our salvation and to Christ’s action on our lives with priests who are profess something very different from Christ and Christs’ church. What if they profess that Christ wasn’t divine for instance?

    At what point are a priests faculties disabled by their heretical statements and actions? And what if the congregation professes the same beliefs?

    Also, why would it require a bureaucratic organization (some tribunal) to actually disable those faculties? I’m fine with a tribunal formally declaring the faculties as disabled but I can’t see them being removed by a group of bureaucrats.

    Thank you again for all your insight!

  3. Giuseppe says:

    On the other hand, if this couple decided to separate, could the lie to the priest help if they pursued an annulment? It wouldn’t be sufficient, I’m sure, but it seems like it would be a start if a case were to be made.

  4. Worm-120 says:

    I thought that when a Priest held heretical views and had his faculties(?) removed that he lost the right to say mass publicly, but still had the right to say mass privately (alone)? Doesn’t he retain the ability to perform the sacraments, but is simple bared from public ministry?

  5. dans0622 says:

    What is the difference between the graces of the Sacrament of marriage (which a Christian couple in a state of mortal sin would not receive, even if the marriage is valid) and the Sacrament of marriage itself (which this sinful couple would “confect” if the marriage is valid)?

  6. eulogos says:

    Truthseeker, A priest with heretical beliefs is still a priest. Even if he had heretical beliefs when he became a priest, so long as he intended to become a priest when he was ordained, the ordination is valid. And then, he is ontologically-in being-always a priest. Forever. Neither his sins nor his heresies make him not a priest. His faculties can be suspended in a particular diocese, in which case he cannot absolve validly except if the penitent is in danger of death, and marriages he witnessed would not be licit. He can even be laicized, in which case he cannot celebrate any sacrament licitly, but he can still absolve validly if a person is in danger of death. I think that if he were illicitly to celebrate mass (and I have known a laicized priest who did so; I was invited and declined) he could still confect the sacrament. Any priest in good standing who uses the proper form for the sacraments celebrates them validly, no matter what crazy ideas he has. This is the wisdom of the Church, because otherwise we might all be in doubt as to whether we were really receiving Our Lord, or really being forgiven.
    As for baptism, even lay people can baptize validly-all it takes is the proper form and the intention to do what the church does in baptism. That doesn’t mean we should, under ordinary circumstances, but if a baby is being taken off for immediate surgery and there is no time to call the priest, a parent can baptize. Nurses in Catholic Hospitals used to be taught to do this. Even non Catholic nurses would carry a little card in their pockets containing the proper form for baptism, so they could be sure no baby died without baptism.
    Of course it is a terrible thing when a priest does not believe and preach what the Church teaches, but you can be assured that this does not invalidate the sacraments.
    Susan Peterson

  7. Heather F says:

    There is an analogy that I sometimes use with my RCIA class when talking about sin and confession. It’s not perfect, but it works well enough. Imagine you are holding a glass. There is a fountain of grace that comes from God that fills up your glass. If you are careless with it through bad habits and venial sin, you start to slosh some of it out and put little chips and cracks in that glass, making it more fragile and you more likely to break it altogether. If you commit a mortal sin, then you don’t just spill and chip it, you throw the glass away, smashed beyond repair. The fountain of grace is still there, but now you don’t have anything to collect it with so it doesn’t do you any good. You’re cut off from it. And that’s why we have to go to confession, because that’s how God gives us a brand new glass (and as we grow in faith and virtue, that glass gets bigger and stronger so we are less likely to break it in the future).

    So the couple who were validly married, but in a state of mortal sin, the “marriage graces” get added to their personal fountains of grace but they don’t have a metaphorical glass to collect it in so they can’t benefit from them. As soon as they receive their absolution, they get their shiny new grace collecting glasses and can now get filled up with all that grace including that from their sacramental marriage.

  8. Janol says:

    Truthseeker above inquired “But if a priest holds that same-sex marriage is valid and the contraception and abortion are not sinful what is the impact on the sacraments provided by said priest? For instance would the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of the holy Eucharist provided by such a priest be valid? Can someone who holds views very contrary to the church baptize someone? ”

    I hope Fr. Z will devote a post to the first question as I saw it stated on a Catholic blog the other day that such a priest’s Masses would not be valid. Apparently this idea is going around.

    As regards baptism: “In case of necessity, any person can baptize provided that he have the intention of doing that which the Church does and provided that he pours water on the candidate’s head while saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1284, see also CCC 1256)

  9. Janol says:

    I probably should have quoted CCC 1256 instead where it states that even the unbaptised may baptize:

    ” 1256 The ordinary ministers of Baptism are the bishop and priest and, in the Latin Church, also the deacon.57 In case of necessity, anyone, even a non-baptized person, with the required intention, can baptize58 , by using the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The intention required is to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes. The Church finds the reason for this possibility in the universal saving will of God and the necessity of Baptism for salvation.”

    I’ve read that even atheists, given the indicated conditions are fulfilled, may baptize.

  10. In regard to baptism, one of the requirements is ‘to intend as the Church intends’.
    Its true that in an emergency, anyone can baptize. But its just that, an emergency, a last resort. If the requirements of form, matter, and intention are not met, the person is still not baptized.
    This is why the Church used to conditionally baptize [not re-baptize, conditionally means just in case the first one didn’t take] ALL converts, no matter from whence they came.

  11. Giuseppe says:

    Just to clarify, If the questioner wanted to end the marriage described, would the circumstances described be helpful in the annulment process?

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