ASK FATHER: Baptized Catholic but never practiced: do marriage laws apply?

From a reader…


I have two younger brothers who are close in age and who were both baptized Catholic as babies. Very early in their life, when they were around 1 and 3 years old respectively, our mom left the church and has since attended a Methodist church. Since canon law requires permission for the validity of a marriage for those baptized as Catholics, would my brother’s marriage be valid since he never had any conscious time being raised a Catholic? I know two baptized Protestants who have never been Catholic validly and sacramentally marry, but former and current Catholics who are baptized do not validly marry outside the church or without her permission.

The Church operates under the ancient dictum:

Semel Catholicus, semper Catholicus.

Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Or, if we want to be technical: Semel baptizatus, semper baptizatus.   You can’t change the fact that a) you were baptized and b) that baptism happened in the Catholic Church.  (Mine happened in the Lutheran Church, a fact I would change if I could, but I can’t, anymore than those baptized in the Catholic Church can change that fact.)  We will leave aside attempts to “defect” from the Church by a formal act rather than by negligence or laziness, which doesn’t figure into this entry.  Besides, the Church’s law about that was changed in 2009.  HERE

Being a Catholic is not like joining a club.  In a club, if you fail to pay your annual dues, or you stop attending, or even make a fuss and shred your registration card you can be kicked out. Or you can voluntarily leave.

Not so with the Church.

Once you’ve been baptized Catholic, your only choices are to be a practicing Catholic, or a lapsed Catholic.

Even excommunication, despite what some think, doesn’t kick you out of the Catholic Church. Instead, it’s more like you’re put into the penalty box until you come to your senses, reform your life, ask forgiveness, and come back.

You don’t get re-baptized, you just get absolved. You get your penalty lifted, and you’re back in the pew with the rest of us, praying, and struggling, and trying to get to heaven.

To turn the sock inside out, think of it this way: The bonds of the baptized Catholic and the Catholic Church run in both directions.  The Catholic might stray but the bond is there anyway.  The Church wants you, dear Catholic, to be in the Church and she won’t let go of you if you are simply running about doing silly things and not practicing your Faith.

And so, all Catholics are bound by the laws of the Church, even if they’re not aware of them.

That means marriage laws too.

Catholics who marry outside of the Church, and who don’t obtain a dispensation to do so, aren’t really married.  This includes those who were baptized as Catholics while infants but who never practiced their faith after that.

Dura lex, sed lex.

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  1. jhayes says:

    Catholics who marry outside of the Church, and who don’t obtain a dispensation to do so, aren’t really married.

    That means that your brothers could divorce their current wives and marry new wives in a Catholic church wedding.

    If I recall correctly, Dr. Peters has argued that the current requirement of canonical form for validity should be done away with because it rewards Catholics who marry outside of the Church.

  2. APX says:

    It’s not even possible to formally defect from the Church anymore. Pope Benedict put an end to that in 2009 (or 2010, I can’t remember exactly).

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Wow, I actually knew that once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But, children not raised Catholic even after baptism then need to choose when they are capable of doing so, correct?

  4. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Oh dear, there are SO many issues here. Let me challenge just one point: “Semel Catholicus, semper Catholicus. … Or, if we want to be technical: Semel baptizatus, semper baptizatus.” Those are NOT equivalent assertions. [No, they are not. That’s why I also added: “You can’t change the fact that a) you were baptized and b) that baptism happened in the Catholic Church.”]

    Yes, canonical form is a mess, yes, the formal defection ruling of 2006 was a mess, yes, the formal defection derogation of 2009 is a mess, but, before anything else, we must be clear “baptism” and “Catholic” identity are not the same things. Treating them as identical breeds ALL SORTS of problems.

    [Since, as I pointed out, I was baptized in the Lutheran Church, and that I am now a Catholic priest, I will confirm that.]

  5. JabbaPapa says:

    APX :

    It’s not even possible to formally defect from the Church anymore.

    Rare cases of baptismal annulment do exist, principally when infant baptisms are attempted under false pretenses, even though of course the Divine Sacramental Graces of the Baptism itself cannot be vanished away by anyone.

    No Confirmed Catholic can legally cease to be Catholic.

  6. TWF says:

    I agree with Dr. Peters that this particular law should be reformed. As I understand it, prior to Trent, Catholics who attempted marriage outside of the Church did so validly but illicitly. It is tragic that people who were baptized Catholic but not raised Catholic (who may not even know they were baptized Catholic) are forced to life a life of objective fornication thinking they are married before God and men. As another poster said above, such individuals could cast aside their “wives” for any cause at any time with absolutely zero canonical consequences and marry Someone else upon reconciliation with the Church. Makes it pretty convenient.

  7. APX says:

    If I recall correctly, Dr. Peters has argued that the current requirement of canonical form for validity should be done away with because it rewards Catholics who marry outside of the Church.

    I don’t think it does, and, FWIW, nobody is rewarded by divorce.

  8. MarylandBill says:

    Could it really be said to reward Catholics who “marry” outside the Church? Yes, it means there is no impediment to their marrying if their relationship breaks up, but that is because they are not really married now… and therefore are 1. living in a sinful state (i.e., simulating a sacrament) and 2. are depriving themselves of the sacramental graces that come from a sacramental marriage.

    My follow up question to the original post is what if the children do not realize that they ever were Catholic? If they sincerely desired marriage, would that be enough to effect a natural marriage, even if not a sacramental one?

  9. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    btw, I agree with Pater’s other main points here, including his point about excommunication, which almost everybody else gets wrong. I just insist on the Semel baptizatus distinction.

  10. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “If I recall correctly, Dr. Peters has argued that the current requirement of canonical form for validity should be done away with because it rewards Catholics who marry outside of the Church.”

    Well, I oppose canonical form chiefly because it (nowadays) unnecessarily burdens marriage itself and, accidently, rewards bad Catholics, but all of this is for somewhere else.

  11. Elizabeth D says:

    The questions I have found more confusing relate to a baptized but uncatechized and nonpracticing Catholic who is for instance a nonbeliever or a professing protestant, and marries a Catholic in the Catholic Church. It seems like there are various ways in which the validity of the consent could be a problem. I don’t understand this subject area very fully and it makes me wonder about the validity of some marriages of friends. The practicing Catholic party in those unions however is in the two cases I am particularly thinking of, very sincere and prays for the conversion of the spouse.

  12. Phil_NL says:

    Call me the odd one out, but regarding the “makes it pretty convenient” part, as TWF puts it, I think that’s actually a good thing.

    Look at it from this perspective: a fallen away Catholic is likely to make some pretty bad decisions in life, especially if the first of those was an active decision to cease the praxis of the faith. These bad decisions tend to correlate with each other, and accumulate. There’s a big likelihood his or her later ‘marriage’ was among them as well. It’s quite possible the marriage breaks down, civil divorce follows, and also quite possible that at a later stage in life this person comes home. Then he should be very grateful indeed for the fact his first ‘marriage’ was invalid. A lifetime of celibacy as a consequence of earlier stupidity is a pretty steep penalty.
    Especially if, as I maintain is true with just about any marriage outside the church, the intentions of those marrying outside the Church aren’t the same as those marrying inside. ’till death do us part’ is just shorthand for till death do us part, or the divorce laywer, whoever comes first’ in the rest of society.
    I actually feel sorry for those who make the same mistakes, but as protestants (and therefore liable to the same lack of graces and bad decisions) but are confronted by the fact that conversion to the True Faith also makes their earlier vows mean something different from what they thought they signed up for.

    And if you hold that invalid marriages would endanger the couple based on the fact they are objectively fornicating: well, then there are two approaches. Either God counts only the sins, and in that case it’s a near certainty that there’s a long laundry list of other matters these people need to confess as well before there’s any hope, or one trusts in Gods mercy, in which case behavior consistent with what they honestly held to be right at that time will be treated with mercy.

    I think it’s actually high time to raise the bar, and require canonical form for all marriages before we presume them to be valid. Society has moved beyond natural law, it’s time we stop kidding ourselves. Defending marriage is great, but defending marriages that share only the name with proper marriage but not the intentions is futile.

  13. Imrahil says:

    Allow me to question with tongue in cheek that this particular lex is not necessarily very dura.

    They aren’t really married, yes, and in itself that is hard, yes; but they appear married in the eyes of State; they appear married in the eyes of Society; and they have a good case that may appear (by ignorance, but not by a culpable one) appear married in their conscience to themselves. (Which would mean they are not even, subjectively that is, sinning against the sixth).

    Plus, they can easily get a real marriage, even (I guess, but I am no canon lawyer) a sanatio in radice, should it ever actually occur to them that they don’t have one as yet.

    If, however, their “marriage” would seem to “not work out”, then if one of them becomes Catholic, their annulment is a matter of formality and they are free to marry anyone else.

    One might say with even more tongue in cheek that (with some probability, that is, if they aren’t subjectively guilty for fornication) they get all the bonuses of a marriage – but without the burden of having an actual marriage.

    If the lex is dura, it is rather dura to the other ones: the ones not Catholically baptized, whose denomination may even have quietly dropped any expectation of marriage being for life (and certainly does not teach it to be a Sacrament), who when coming home to the Catholic Church suddenly find out that they conferred a Sacrament upon each other and are now hold by the Catholic Church to the promise they exchanged outside of the said Church.

  14. FranzJosf says:

    In the old Fortesque, he writes something like the following:

    Everyone who is baptized becomes Catholic at that moment, even if baptized by a grandmother in the bathtub or by a Presbyterian minister. The child of Presbyterian parents, say, incurs excommunication, So, when he wishes to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, he has to repent of heresy. Or something like that.

    I like that idea. Is that the pre-Vatican II understanding of baptism? (I have no idea upon what authority Fortesque writes that, but I imagine that that was the commonly held view of the average parish priest.)

  15. Imrahil says:

    Dear FranzJosf,

    it seems to have been the usual answer to a complicated question (“there are no Protestants below the age of seven”, was that Abp Sheen?).

    However, it is complicated, in my view, by the question precisely when the assent to heresy (or schism) would set in. There are only canonical penalties for distinct criminal actions, and the crime (as opposed to the state) of heresy (or schism) probably in many cases doesn’t occur at all, and if it does can hardly be located, leastways not latae sententiae without some due ferendae sententiae process.

    In any case, the Church has chosen to impart these rules on the category of “Catholics” and has chosen not to include those baptized, in the colloquial manner of speaking, outside her into that term.

  16. un-ionized says:

    FranzJosf, there is only one baptism, presuming it is done validly. So people who are baptized outside the Catholic faith yet baptized validly are called “separated brethren.” When they enter the Church they are considered baptized and only need to be confirmed, which involves a statement of faith. This was the case with me, I was baptized when I was attending a Mennonite church and their baptism is considered valid as it uses poured water on the head and is done in the name of the persons of the Trinity.

  17. John Detwiler says:

    I have family in a similar situation to the Quaeritur. I have no doubt that the Catholic in the party is acting wrongly by not seeking the permission of the Church.

    The question I have is whether my family member will or will not be married — that is, whether, when referring to them, it will be fair to call them “husband and wife,” or whether I’ll need to constantly discreetly avoid any reference to their relationship in family company.

    So, to put the question most concisely: what is the difference between “invalid marriage,” and “no marriage?” If an invalid marriage is the same as no marriage, why is there a distinction in terms?

  18. Titus says:

    it seems to have been the usual answer to a complicated question (“there are no Protestants below the age of seven”, was that Abp Sheen?).

    That was Msgr. Knox.

    The incongruity here is real, of course. There is only one baptism, meaning baptism, in and of itself, only does one thing: it makes one a Catholic, sacramentally and metaphysically, if not always juridically. The distinction between the juridic effects of baptism performed according to a Catholic rite (Or does the subjective intent to render the candidate a Catholic suffice? What is the juridic effect of an emergency lay baptism by a Catholic?) and that performed otherwise is a feature of the Church’s positive law.

    The Church utilizes bright-line rules here, presumably because they make for easy decisions on topics where good evidence of other facts might not be readily available: a Catholic rite makes one a Catholic, juridically speaking. Does the bright-line rule, especially when combined with the bright-line rule about canonical form, yield some odd results? Well, yes. But the alternative (apart from abolishing or modifying the rules about canonical form, which would be easier) would make it difficult to ascertain who is and who is not a Catholic for juridic purposes.

    The disjunction between the juridic and the sacramental is unfortunate, but probably necessary if the Church’s laws are to be administered by men rather than angels.

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