ASK FATHER: Son married in another church without a dispensation

From a reader…


My son left the Catholic Church And now belongs to the Church of England. he is getting married in C of E without a dispensation as he no longer considers himself a Catholic. I know he will not be married as far as the Catholic Church is concerned but will he be married in the eyes of God?

God Himself gave His Holy Church, the Catholic Church, the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 18:18).  The Church, with this God-given authority, has mandated that all those who are baptized into the Catholic Church are obliged to observe the Catholic form of marriage. That means that they are to marry in the presence of a duly authorized minister of the Church.

I don’t think God can be of two different minds on the matter.

That said, please don’t despair of your son’s condition. It is tragic that he has stopped practicing his Catholic Faith. Perhaps, in time, the loving example (and prayers – certainly prayers!) of his mother will draw him back.

The Church’s law might seem harsh, but is intended to bring about the good of all the faithful by upholding and protecting the integrity of matrimony, which is so under assault today.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    If he left the Catholic church by a formal act, renouncing the Catholic church in some way so as to formally enter the Anglican communion, would he not then have entered into a true marriage bond as a Protestant?

  2. jhayes says:

    Longinus, that would have been true before late in 2009, but Pope Benedict changed it then by his Motu Proprio Omnium in Mentum

    The Code of Canon Law nonetheless prescribes that the faithful who have left the Church “by a formal act” are not bound by the ecclesiastical laws regarding the canonical form of marriage (cf. can. 1117), dispensation from the impediment of disparity of cult (cf. can. 1086) and the need for permission in the case of mixed marriages (cf. can. 1124). The underlying aim of this exception from the general norm of can. 11 was to ensure that marriages contracted by those members of the faithful would not be invalid due to defect of form or the impediment of disparity of cult
    Therefore I decree that in the same Code the following words are to be eliminated: “and has not left it by a formal act” (can. 1117); “and has not left it by means of a formal act” (can. 1086 § 1); “and has not left it by a formal act” (can. 1124).


  3. jmoran says:

    Hooray for mother’s prayers! They brought me back.

  4. I am not sure, but I think the reason Pope Benedict made that change in canon law was to simplify matters when a Catholic leaves the Church, or simply wanders, gets married outside the church, and comes back. If that marriage is wrecked, the change he made in church law makes a decree of nullify very easy. The proper form was not observed, so it’s invalid. Under the prior law, it was…complicated. The problem being, what really counts as a formal act.

    That said, the new passage creates a new problem. In effect, it means lapsed Catholics cannot ever validly marry. And that poses real problems. Someone close to me got married recently. He was raised Catholic, but has, effectively, renounced the Faith. He married a Protestant. I would have been happy to witness his marriage, but there was no way. He would have had to make promises that were false for him.

  5. Gerard Plourde says:

    It does seem that the revision by Pope Benedict means that a formal renunciation is no longer required to exempt Catholics who leave the Church from her marriage laws. Consequently I think that the Church would view the Anglican marriage as valid and that in the event of a later divorce that a spouse seeking to remarry in the Catholic Church would have to seek a decree of nullity.

  6. jhayes says:

    Fr. Fox, here’s what Benedict said in his Motu Proprio about the reason for the change:

    Experience, however, has shown that this new law [1983 CIC] gave rise to numerous pastoral problems. First, in individual cases the definition and practical configuration of such a formal act of separation from the Church has proved difficult to establish, from both a theological and a canonical standpoint. In addition, many difficulties have surfaced both in pastoral activity and the practice of tribunals. Indeed, the new law appeared, at least indirectly, to facilitate and even in some way to encourage apostasy in places where the Catholic faithful are not numerous or where unjust marriage laws discriminate between citizens on the basis of religion. The new law also made difficult the return of baptized persons who greatly desired to contract a new canonical marriage following the failure of a preceding marriage. Finally, among other things, many of these marriages in effect became, as far as the Church is concerned, “clandestine” marriages.

  7. jhayes says:

    Gerard Plourde, I understand the official position to be the opposite way – since 2009, if you have ever been baptized in the Catholic Church or been received into into it, you can only contract a marriage that the Catholic Church will recognize as valid by marrying before a Catholic priest or deacon*, or getting a dispensation (ahead of time) from the observation of canonical form

    Saying that you had left the Church at the time of the marriage will not make it valid in the eyes of the Church.

    *there are some exceptions, e.g. for people in places where no priest or deacon will be available for a significant time.

  8. HeatherPA says:

    Pray, pray, pray. And pray. As a mother of a daughter who is currently away from the Church, I feel for this mother. And advise a devotion to St. Monica and, of course our Blessed Mother.

    Remember, she had to stand silent, watching while her Son hung in agony on the Cross and she could do nothing to ease His pain. And she said nothing.

    She can certainly empathize with our pain as we get to the point where we must silently watch our children inflict disastrous wounds to their souls. It gets to that point where we do have to step back in anguish and stand silent, praying for them. Obviously they are not Christ, but the analogy is more that it is so hard to watch your child suffering, regardless of how they got to the point of suffering, and not say a word.

  9. Tim Ferguson says:

    Gerard Plourde,

    Actually, the motu proprio has the opposite meaning – it’s not that a formal renunciation is no longer required, it means rather that a formal renunciation no longer has any effect. We’ve returned to the understanding that prevailed before the 1983 Code was promulgated – “semel Catholicus, semper Catholicus” – once a Catholic, always a Catholic. Once a person has been baptized or received into the Catholic Church, one has assumed the obligation to adhere to the laws of the Church, including the laws regarding Catholic marriage.

    Now, great minds can justly argue whether the Church should alter her laws regarding the obligation to observe canonical form for marriage (and the Church certainly could alter these laws), but the fact on the ground today is that someone who is Catholic, remains Catholic, and for the purpose of marriage, must marry in the Church or seek a dispensation from form for the marriage to be considered valid.

  10. jhayes says:

    Tim Ferguson, initially I thought that but, after seeing the German bishops reaction to people who declared to the government that they were no longer Catholics and didn’t have to pay the Church Tax, I’ve realized that Omnium in Mentum doesn’t explicitly say that we are back to “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” What it does do is to repeal three exceptions to Canon 11.

    Can. 11 Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those who were baptised in the catholic Church or received into it, and who have a sufficient use of reason and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, who have completed their seventh year of age.

  11. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    In another recent post, Fr. Z wrote, “Prior to Canon Law being codified in 1917, the Church’s law was contained in a series of collections.” The past century has not only seen that codification, and the one of 1983, but such things as Pope Benedict’s Motu Proprio Omnium in Mentum of 2009.

    Tim Ferguson writes “great minds can justly argue whether the Church should alter her laws regarding the obligation to observe canonical form for marriage (and the Church certainly could alter these laws)” and jhayes notes both “some exceptions, e.g. for people in places where no priest or deacon will be available for a significant time” and the possibility of someone like the young man in the question having gotten “a dispensation (ahead of time) from the observation of canonical form”.

    Fr. Z, can you, or can anyone else, recommend good online resources for an outline of the history of what the Church has mandated in the course of the past century where marriage is concerned?

  12. Gerard Plourde says:

    Thanks to all who corrected my analysis of the revision. I wonder what the effect will be. On the one hand, it appears that it will make it easier for a Catholic who wed in a civil or a non-Catholic ceremony to obtain an annulment of that marriage. I would also hope that it heightens awareness of the essential difference between the Sacrament of Matrimony and non-sacramental religious and civil marriages.

  13. Matt R says:

    There is no essential difference between natural and sacramental marriages. The first marriage and all in the OT were natural marriages based on the Lord’s plan revealed in Genesis 2. Christ through grace perfected nature. The natural bond was raised to the dignity of a sacrament. If we do not defend marriage as a natural institution, we lose all chance of maintaining its definition.

    Not everyone actually wished to leave the church when refusing to pay the church tax in Germany. Whatever the case, it probably needs to go.

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