ASK FATHER: If 50% of marriages are invalid, how do I know if my marriage is valid?

12_07_10_marriage_01From a reader…


If approximately 50% of current “Catholic” marriages are actually invalid, how do I know if my marriage is valid? I was a cafeteria Catholic at the time of the wedding, husband was unbaptized. We got a dispensation from the bishop to marry. Husband has since been baptized and confirmed and we are practicing Catholics. Do we need to do something else to “validate” our marriage?

I am tempted to tell folks like this (and Tribunals around the country are getting calls like this over and over) call Pope Francis and ask him.

But instead…

Canon 1060 is an important canon. It states that marriage enjoys the favor of the law (matrimonium gaudet favore iuris). A shorthand phrase often used by canonists states that marriage has “the presumption of validity.”

The Church maintains that, unless proven otherwise, a marriage that is properly celebrated is precisely what it appears to be: a marriage. Only after considerable evidence provides moral certitude that there was something invalid at the start, is this presumption of validity overturned.

Sadly, a number of ecclesiastics who should know better have recklessly spouted their personal beliefs about the demographics of marriage and invalidity.

Whatever their beliefs, the position of the Church remains that marriage is a binding institution, lasting for life, contracted by a man and a woman capable of doing so, who exchange consent according to the proper form of marriage.

You can rest assured in the Church’s belief in the validity of your marriage.

If you have a significant reason for doubting the validity of your marriage, then contact your diocesan marriage tribunal and ask to speak to a canonist. After you explain your situation, if indeed there is something to be concerned about canonically, the canonist at the tribunal will be able to direct you to a good priest who can help you with anything that needs some work.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Fr Z, my cousin (a Catholic) married a non-Christian (a hindu) in her local Catholic Church, with the proper permission from the bishop.

    The priest they went to for instruction is not someone whose opinion I automatically trust. The couple had a Hindu marriage service as well as the Catholic marriage service in the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Catholic marriage service took place during a Mass and the priest spoke (as did the prayers) of them participating in the Sacrament of Matrimony.

    I was quite disturbed by what was said and by what took place, because, with my cousin’s husband being a Hindu, their wedding was a ‘natural’ not a ‘sacramental’ one. I don’t think either of them thought anything was out of place, which might seem to suggest they didn’t ‘really’ know what was going on? I was concerned for quite some time whether there was a defect of form which might affect the marriage’s validity, but my concerns were alleviated when I realised there is a presumption of validity. They now have a little girl, and as far as I know are happy and will continue to be.

    Do you think I should be concerned about the status of their marriage? In your view, could there have been a defect of form which would affect the validity of their marriage, such that it could be declared null were they to separate and seek a declaration?

    I would appreciate your opinion. Thank you.

  2. Back pew sitter says:

    In case it wasn’t clear – the Hindu marriage service took part in the Hindu temple, not in the Catholic Church!

  3. Gerard Plourde says:

    The circumstance described by the questioner is covered by Canon 1086 and Canons 1125 and 1126. It appears that if the norms of those canons were carried out her marriage has been vaild from the beginning.

    Because she was marrying an unbaptized person, Canon 1086 requires that the conditions of canons 1125 and 1126 must be met in order for a valid marriage to be entered.

    Canon 1125 states that a dispensation can be granted by the local ordinary upon the fulfillment of three condtions:

    1. the declaration of the Catholic party that he or she will remove dangers of defecting from the faith and that he or she will do all in his or her power to ensure that all offspring are baptized and raised in the Catholic faith

    2.that the non-Catholic party be fully informed of the obligations the Catholic party has declared he or she will adhere to

    3. both parties are instructed about the purposes and essential properties of a Catholic marriage

    Canon 1126 requires the conference of bishops to establish the process by which canon 1125 is implemented.

  4. albizzi says:

    If my marriage is proven invalid, am I living in a sinful way?

    [For you to be culpable for a sinful act, you have to know it is sinful and intend to do it anyway.]

  5. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    Back pew sitter – and others – I would be very careful getting into the question of whether someone else’s marriage is valid or not. The Code of Canon Law gives the right to challenge the validity of a marriage only to three people: the two spouses, and, in special circumstances where there is public scandal, to the promoter of justice (canon 1674). And only a legitimate, competent tribunal (and, after December 8, the diocesan bishop) has the ability to rule on whether a marriage is invalid.

    The rest of us can play parlor games and speculate, but that is generally unhelpful, certainly presumptuous, and possibly sinful. When becoming concerned about whether someone else’s marriage is valid, the proper response is to pray for the couple, pray for any children born of the union, and pray that truth and justice will prevail – and then, back away and relegate the matter to the Lord.

  6. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    One of the most pastorally inconsiderate things I have ever heard from a cleric’s mouth. No matter who actually said it. [Do I hear an “Amen!”? Imagine! Sewing doubt in people’s minds like that.]

  7. Back pew sitter says:

    Fr Timothy Ferguson:

    Many thanks for the advice. I haven’t spoken about my cousin’s marriage with anyone – and certainly not to family members, as whether my concerns were or were not legitimate I thought it would create unhelpful and probably unnecessary tension and trouble. It helped me when I realised that there is a presumption in favour of the validity of a marriage unless proven otherwise. However, I wasn’t sure whether it was because I didn’t really want to be the cause of any tensions that I preferred to say and do nothing about my concerns, or whether I had no business to say or do anything anyway. I am happy to accept your advice to back away, pray for the couple and leave the matter to the Lord. Thank you for responding.

  8. Phil_NL says:

    A distinction is in order:

    Discussing the validity of a specific marriage, especially one where the parties want it to be valid but might be vulnerable to doubt as not all i’s were perfectly dotted and the t’s crosssed (or even if they were, but required dispensation to get there, etc.) sounds like a very bad idea indeed, a disservice to all.

    Discussing whether current marriage practice is such that, in general, it results in a substantial amount of invalid ‘marriages’, is I think highly opportune. Yes, it’s a difficult discussion to have, but ignoring it is a disservice to the Church and the world as well.
    For starters, marriage is marriage if it is intended to be permanent. As I’ve argued here before, a great many weddings outside the Church – especially in the West – may not have this feature anymore. ’till death do us part’ may or may not be spoken, but all parties understand it to mean ’till death do us part, or the divorce lawyer, whomever comes first’. Any marriage outside the Church (as the Catholic Church is roughly the only main church still upholding insollubility) is therefore suspect. I see not recognizing this problem as a major contribution to the divorced-but-remarried issue, as many of those marriages were outside the church, without parties realizing the possible effects, as they were playing by a different rulebook.
    Secondly, add to this the one-man-one-woman characteristic that’s required. Now in the eyes of the Church, any marriage that fails this, is no marriage at all. Yet society more and more thinks otherwise. If you look at what people in general call marriage, there is a greater need to filter out same-sex marriages and polygamous marriages these days. The battle on the definition of the word ‘marriage’ was long lost. Best to get our heads out of the sand.

    Now, these factors are, of course, not particularly relevant to those married in the Church; the assumption there would be that the parties intend marriage according to the Church teachings, as signaled by the decision to seek a Catholic wedding.
    So speculation on marriages within the Church is probably also not very productive. But marriages outside the Church? My first thought at the 50% remark was “optimist!”…

  9. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If you know that people went to the trouble of getting permission from the bishop and the pastor, and if they are staying married, what more do you want? Angels carrying a banner in 72 point font?

    The Church does not demand that ordinary laypeople have a theologian’s knowledge of Sacraments in order to make the Sacraments valid, for which I thank God. How could one have a valid Communion if God expected us to fully understand? We will not know fully what we do until we get to Heaven. Of course good catechesis and continual learning is desirable, but many great saints and martyrs were people who only knew and were stubborn about the bare basics.

    If people get married and stay married, they clearly get the gist of what marriage is about. Maybe not everything, but better than many. And if a marriage of crazy kids turns into a marriage of faithful Catholics, then you got a blessing from God, and St. Paul is cheering you on! Catholic women converting their husbands was something he liked!

    Nor are we called to have the same knowledge of our fellows that we will have at the General Judgement. For which I am grateful to the Lord.

    That said, you can say to yourself that something about a marriage was imprudent or not the best plan, and still acknowledge validity. There is no need to put on a happy face about everything, while still being glad that the couple did some things right.

  10. The Masked Chicken says:

    Thank you, Fr. Timothy Ferguson, for your admonishment. It is really easy to stick ones nose in other people’s business, especially with social media. I still maintain, however, that many problems in contemporary male-female relationships are front-loaded and occur long before marriages are attempted. My plea has always been for better Catholic education.

    The Chicken

  11. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    In the seminary, it was made clear that a priest should refuse even to converse about the subject of an annulment in any particular case unless there had already been a divorce and there was no possibility of a reconciliation.

    Which supports what Dr. Peters said.

  12. Stipulating that I understand why people would think the original comment was unhelpful…

    If marriage is the objective reality we, as Catholics, say it is, then I think it’s fair to say that if a non-Catholic is in an objectively invalid marriage, they know it on some level. They know something isn’t right. Perhaps they cannot put their finger on the reason, but on some level they know the truth. This was my experience. Before I was a Catholic, I knew something was wrong with the form/structure of the marriage, but I could not have articulated it like that at the time.

    What they may not know is that their marriages can be made whole, and that perhaps a divorce isn’t necessary.

    If non-Catholics DO know the truth about their marriages on some level, and if the figure really is 50%, then is the Church reaching out to those people to help them get their marriages on track? I don’t think so, but I might be wrong about that. It seems that the Church has a “hands-off” approach. The Church presumes validity, and that makes sense, especially when most marriages ARE objectively valid. But if there are truly so many objectively invalid marriages, one wonders what can be done to help those marriages. Is limping along the best we can hope for? Except that people won’t limp along any more–they bail out quickly, creating a disaster for their children.

    Can, or should, Catholics help non-Catholics heal their objectively invalid marriages?

  13. THREEHEARTS says:

    I rarely read all the comments so perhaps this may have already been pointed out. First I must warn you the lady with the pink gun has already written me and called me a Manichean for my views. All I asked was this. If a boy is homosexual and practicing, goes to the seminary and still acts this horrible habit out and although the vocation director at the ceremony knows he has not repented but he is still ordained is he a priest. What does the Church in its glorious eternity say in the case of practicing sin and the acquirement of merits. Merits a part of the Doctrine of Grace no one teaches and very few know. The Church knows and used to teach that we do not lose any merits we earn even if they are not applied right away. It was revealed to a visionary one time that on judgement day Christ the Just Judge will hold up the scales of Justice and place all our acts of charity (merits) in one scale and our sins in the other. Let us hope our charity outweighs our sins. The Church also teaches that priests even in mortal sin can offer our sacrifice and it is for many of us our sacrifice not the priests not yours but mine for all us personally. May the Lord accept the sacrifice etc. Although I have a very personal wish we say, “My sacrifice from your hands”. Now it was written and I forget where that once we go to confession and are freed by the mercy of God from our sinfulness all those graces written in the Book of Life flood back into our souls. Therefore upon truly being faithful and practicing our faith the way the Church teaches, many things or actions become valid in the eyes of God. I cannot speak for the satisfaction that we should give to Perfection Himself I mean how this is affected. But this does not matter go to confession, go and make a Holy Communion say the prayer before the crucifix, fulfill the conditions for a plenary indulgence and peace off mind and joy of heart will return I mean again the supernatural love and sanctifying grace of an indwelling of the Holy Ghost

  14. Nineteento20 says:

    I think what people are worried about might be that unmarried sex is a grave sin. The good news though is that there must be full knowledge and complete consent that something is a grave sin for it be a mortal sin so people that are unknowingly in invalid marriages won’t go to hell for it.

  15. Nineteento20 says:

    If I should presume that all Catholic marriages are valid then would a marriage between two homosexuals done in a Catholic Church by a liberal Catholic priest have to presumed valid until some tribunal can point out the obvious invalidating factor? [Don’t be absurd. There is no such thing as marriage (in other than the fictional/civil sense) between two people of the same sex.] I hope this canon will eventually get exceptions for at least the well-known and obvious invalidating reasons.

  16. Magash says:

    I have to agree with Phil_NL. The state of any particular marriage is providence of those involved and the Church and none of my business.
    However the state of marriages in general, and our lack of appreciation for the problems inherent in treating what society calls marriage with what the Church has determined is marriage (both natural and sacramental) is part of the problem.
    A great number of marriages sent for review of validity to the tribunals in the United States have been for marriages between people who were not Catholic when they were married and divorced. It is becoming more and more clear that their intentions when married were not anything close to what the Church intends in marriage. It about time we admit that and revisit the presumption of validity that was formed when civil and Protestant marriage really did conform to marriage as understood by the Church, a situation that no longer obtains.

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