ASK FATHER: Invalidly married niece coming to visit with husband. What to do?

From a reader…


First, great blog, thanks for all your hard work and sharing your insights and knowledge!

Second, I have a question for you re: my niece and her new husband. I’ll be as brief and organized as I can.

  1. My niece (age 26) is a baptized Catholic and occasional mass and confession goer.
  2. She just married another baptized Catholic who is also an occasional mass and confession goer.
  3. They just got married in Hawaii 2 weeks ago.
  4. However, they did not get married in a church and did not attend any pre-Cana courses.
  5. Instead, they were married by a native Hawaiian outside near the beach, I think he might have been justice of the peace with a ministry degree. Not a Catholic deacon or priest.

So in short, would the church recognize this as a valid marriage? If not, what are the responsibilities of my niece’s Catholic relatives, what should we do if they come to visit and stay overnight in our house?

Separate bedrooms, don’t invite them in the first place? If this is not a valid marriage, do you recommend we tell them that straight out – and if so, what should we recommend they do; attend pre-Cana courses and get married in the Church?


If the parties are baptized Catholics and they got married by someone other than a duly delegated priest, deacon, or bishop and did not get a dispensation for doing so (and since this is two Catholics, the dispensation would have to come directly from the Pope), no, this would not be seen as a valid marriage.

What are the responsibilities of the family should this couple come to visit? Nothing in canon law provides an answer, so we turn to our good friend, moral theology. I would – if you have the space in your living quarters – provide two rooms for them in which to stay, or couches on two separate ends of the home.

What do you say to them? That’s entirely a matter of prudential judgment. What’s your relationship with her (them)? Have you spoken to her about religious matters in the past? Do you think that saying something would spur them to regularize their situation? Did they marry outside of Church because of ignorance? – sadly, a lot of Catholics have not had the advantage of hearing clear and consistent teaching from their pastors about marriage.

If you’ve not had discussions about your faith before, it would probably be quite awkward for your first conversation to be about how your niece has made a terrible mistake and gotten married outside of the Church. If, on the other hand, the family regularly talks about how much Christ, the Church, the guidance and intercession of the Saints means to them; if the family regularly prays together (more than just a rushed grace before the Thanksgiving meal); if there has been family discussion about moral norms before, then a conversation about one disregarding the teachings of the Church on marriage might be fruitful.

If it’s the first talk where the subject of Jesus Christ’s love for His Church as symbolized by the sacramental marriage of a man and a woman comes up, it’s just going to sound like judgmental busybodyism, which has seldom spurred anyone to return to the regular practice of the faith.


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  1. Justalurkingfool says:

    I agree with what Father Ferguson has told you.

    Last week, I visited friends of ours and their daughter(K) was home for a short visit. She is living with her significant other with no marriage, civil or otherwise. I have known her all of her life and she knows, well, of my circumstances as an abandoned spouse who has lived faithful to our vows, since before she was born. She is a brilliant and beautiful young woman. It is increasingly difficult in America these days to maintain the traditional ways. Both inside and outside of the Catholic Church there is mostly confusion, for numerous reasons.

    I chose not to address the issue because she knows, exactly, what I would say, as I am certain her own excellent parents have told her, from the “git go”. She also knows that I love her. Although we are not blood, to her, I am Uncle Karl. I was “adopted” by her parents when my spouse abandoned our marriage. Her parents’ witness is unmistakable, but, I doubt that she even goes to Church anymore, she has been so taken by science and worldly(from the current prevailing secular/liberal views) things, when the family prays she no longer blesses herself or prays, but sits quietly. It is sad, indeed.

    Our oldest daughter(H), who had been in touch with them, the un-marrieds, and who, also has known K all of her life, had been in contact with them, since K and her significant other, had mentioned that they were moving down near H when they came back to the states from their trip around the world. H offered her home as a place for them to stay, although separately in different rooms, while they settled. They declined. They remain in contact, however, so it was NOT a relationship destroyer.

    Gently and lovingly, stand your ground.


  2. aliceinstpaul says:

    I would gently suggest to the aunt and uncle that they consider the alternative: a bride and groom who have never held to any church teachings as adults, who, say, practice conctraception, or don’t believe in mortal sin, or don’t believe the Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and Divinity of our Lord, or who may not even believe in God, getting married in a Catholic wedding. Which causes more scandal? Which causes more misunderstanding of Church teaching? Which is more an affront to the Lord? To lie before God or lie to a priest, just to have a Church wedding to please you?

    And ultimately, which is more likely to bring them to encounter the Lord, the aunt and uncle who suddenly don’t recognize their civil and legal marriage, but didn’t mention it during their dating and engagement, or an invitation to pick them up at their motel Sunday morning and bring them to church?

  3. BrionyB says:

    The trouble is that many of us in invalid marriages (often entered into while lapsed from the Faith, as in my case) know very well what a “terrible mistake” we have made, but lacking a time machine to go back and do differently, resolving the situation is not always straightforward, especially when the other partner is non-Catholic and/or not interested in regularising the marriage.

    Personally I believe that my marriage is in some sense morally valid and binding on me (one man, one woman, no impediments, committed to each other for life, open to children; and marriage existed long before there was any such thing as canon law), though I accept I am in a sinful and irregular situation and cannot receive Holy Communion or absolution. So I attend Mass (the TLM as it happens!) every Sunday and make a spiritual communion, and pray my Rosary every day, asking Our Lady not to let me die without the sacraments. I hope you will pray for me, Father.

  4. Charlotte Allen says:

    I have a strict rule about not allowing unmarried people to cohabit in my house. But if I know there’s been a wedding of two members of the opposite sex, I don’t claim to be an arbiter of who’s validly married and who isn’t–for example, are divorced and remarried non-Catholics validly married or not?

    And I never give unsolicited advice, because it will simply be regarded as busybody-ness. (I deeply resent unsolicited advice given to me.) Perhaps, for example, the Hawaiian shaman marriage in this case was later blessed by a priest.

    Perhaps it’s because my own nominally Catholic family is filled with baptized people who are definitely not married in the eyes of the Church, but my attitude is: If they’ve gone through a ceremony of some kind (and believe me, some of those ceremonies have been pretty off the wall), they can share a bedroom in my home. Otherwise, no. I know, I know, I’m no Bridey Flyte, and maybe I’m too accommodating of living in sin, but that’s where I draw my line–and it’s a bright line that doesn’t require inquiries into the complexities of canon law. And of course, if any of them ever sought my advice, I’d advise them strongly to straighten things out with a priest pronto. But they never do.

    Same-sex marriages are another story. Same-sex marriage is an oxymoron, in my opinion, and my gay friends who are “married,” know my position on that. So gay couples who want to stay with me are going to have to find a motel.

  5. Toan says:

    BrionyB, I’ll pray for you. Also, if you haven’t done so already, do speak with your diocesean HQ about possibly getting a “radical sanation” of your marriage. Google the term to see what I mean.

  6. Imrahil says:

    I think the old principles about the “enabling” and the like operated on the principle that the unmarried would get help in their chastity by removing possibilities of being unchaste. “Virtue is the lack of opportunities”, as the sniding remark said; sniding, but as we know that the lion wanders around roaring, etc., and humbly acknowledging our weakness, there is some good Catholic sense to it.

    Only this is a world we may long for, but do no longer live it. People who want to have sex will get their chance to have sex, wherever it is. So I do not think it can be stated any longer that whoseever roof this happens under is an accomplice, especially if he did nothing to encourage the sin and invited them for a quite different reason, such as kinship or friendship.

    After all, is a baker who also sells coffee, when some of the guests he hosts on a Sunday morning may be Catholics but not have been to the Saturday Evening Mass, an accomplice of breaking the third Commandment?

    So much generally.

    In this case here now, I cannot but feel that the choice is between having them visit, cohabiting, in good conscience, and – not the most theoretically sound manner of things, but – having them visit, cohabiting, and Confess it afterwards for safety. [In which latter case, you would of course rather tend to see to it that the situation does not arise.]

    Sorry, but if you say to a little-but-somewhat practicing Catholic heterosexual couple “no, I know you even consider yourself married and so does the state, but that isn’t valid in God’s eyes, hence under my roof you aren’t sleeping with each other”, then that’s temptation to repudiance of the Faith, hatred of the Church and her (in their eyes) bigotry which is (in their eyes) tearing families apart, and as hard a temptation as you could possible think.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    “My niece (age 26) is a baptized Catholic and occasional mass and confession goer.
    She just married another baptized Catholic who is also an occasional mass and confession goer.”

    This indicates poorly formed consciences, which, in turn, indicates poor catechesis. For this, one may blame the bishop of the places here they grew up.

    Might one not, accidentally, leave a copy of, say, Catholic Answers magazine or Crisis magazine lying around the house during their visit? There is so much good catechetical material available for adults that it boggles the mind that younger people are given pablum and situational ethics for their formation. Most adults, when they read a real apologetics or catechetical book reply with, “I never knew…”

    One may tolerate an evil for a short period of time if there is a hope of conversion. The problem, here, is that the couple needs to be introduced to correct Catholic teaching on other topics, first, with the hope that they will, eventually, get curious about the Catholic teaching about marriage.

    There are two sly ways to approach this:

    1. Say, innocently, “Darling, a friend of mine was married in the Church, but her husband left her and she got a civil divorce and had the marriage annulled. She met a really nice guy and they plan to get married in the Church. She asked me if she could wear white. What should I tell them? Could you help me look up the answer?” Bats eyelashes.

    2. Say, innocently, “Honey, can I drink coffee before Mass?”

    You need some hook to get them looking up answers on other Catholic topics. It won’t be long before they discover a situation like theirs on the Internet with the advice for confession and sanation. It could be that they simply don’t understand or know Church teaching about marriage. I am reasonably certain that they did not include a priest in their marriage preparation. One wonders why an occasional Mass and Confession-goer would not think to include a priest in the conversation about marriage. Going to Confession means they have some sense of sin, although how deformed that is is hard to tell. In any case, something doesn’t seem right about this scenario to take religion so lightly. Might there be other factors involved that we don’t know about? Did they live together before marriage or sleep together?

    The Chicken

  8. Imrahil says:

    Frankly (seconding to something the dear Chicken wrote),

    I was rather surprised to read that such a thing as an “occasional Mass and Confession goer” exists. I had been thinking that once you are a Confession goer at all, even an occasional one, then you will be a regular Mass goer (perhaps not yet without all sin regarding the Sunday Mass obligation, but certainly regular enough to be called regular.

  9. JesusFreak84 says:

    If you have your own children in the house, I do think not causing scandal to them “trumps” the feelings of the niece and her non-husband. The warnings our Lord gives to those who scandalize children are grave and for good reason.

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