ASK FATHER: We thought we had a valid marriage…

From a reader…


My wife and I are both converts to Catholicism, and to the best of our knowledge (we even consulted our RCIA people and a priest) we thought we had a valid marriage. Having had her doubts renewed by something on EWTN, my wife and I talked to a different priest who thinks we need a convalidation and we think we understand where the earlier miscommunication occurred; my question to you is: if we need a convalidation, do we need to confess for having had marital relations and/or taking Communion outside of a valid marriage when we, to the best of our non-Catholic-formed knowledge, were doing nothing wrong? (I tried a quick check of your archives, but found nothing that seemed to pertain.)

If the situation is so confusing that different priests have given different answers, then you should call the diocesan marriage tribunal and talk to a canonist.   It could be that that will elicit a third answer.  It is still a good idea to call them.

If there were a need for a convalidation of the marriage, you would not need to confess engaging in marital activity during the time when you – assured by the priest who received you into the Church – thought you were married.  God does not levy the guilt of sin on the souls of those who truly do not know that they are sinning.  Guilt for sin depends on your knowing that you are sinning.  And, in this case, authority had informed you that you were okay.

Again, check with an expert before proceeding…

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. byzantinesteve says:

    My understanding is that convalidation is only required when one or both of the spouses had been Catholic and proceeded to marry outside of the church. I would think that the questioner and his wife, being converts, would have had a valid sacramental or natural marriage prior to their conversion. Am I wrong on these points?

    The only thing I can conceive of that would throw a wrench into this is if one or both had been previously divorced and the parish improperly allowed the questioner to convert without a declaration of nullity. In that case, I’m not sure how the church would proceed.

  2. Depending on the exact situation, there may be another option for this couple. That is what is called a “radical sanation.” What is that?

    That is a favor granted by the bishop, in which, when asked and presented with a sufficient reason, he chooses to recognize the consent given in the first place as having been valid. It means that, with this act of recognition, the marriage is undoubtedly valid from the get-go. Hence, it is “healed” at the root, which is what the Latin, sanatio in radice means — and translated, “radical sanation.”

    When I meet with a couple that is in a marriage that is not deemed valid, but could be — and thus there can either be a convalidation or a sanation — I ask them: when do you believe your marriage began? Did it begin back on such-and-such a date when you gave your vows, however out of order? Or do you believe it will begin when you give your vows in a convalidation? This is important, I think, because if you have a couple that genuinely believes they were “really” married all along, then there are a couple of bad choices for the priest. First, he can try to convince them why they weren’t. Or, we can all do a wink and a nod and say, OK, you really weren’t married until this coming ceremony, but you don’t really believe that, and after this I won’t bring it up again.

    As far as I know — and that ain’t much I admit — a radical sanation is not reserved just for those cases that merit it. In other words, a couple who knew they were entering into an invalid marriage are granted them.

    So now we come this case. The couple, it seems, acted in good faith all along, and genuinely believed they were properly married. It would seem a perfect application of the radical sanation.

  3. I meant to add: I don’t know why this isn’t talked about more, but it could be that a sanation has to be petitioned for, whereas the priest can go ahead with the convalidation.

  4. byzantinesteve says:

    Thanks for the explanation of radical sanation. Upon further reading, this process would apply in situations when there is a potentially invalid marriage. However, I’m unclear on how anyone can convert to the Catholic faith (as the questioner and his wife did) while in a potentially invalid marriage. Can someone please describe a circumstance when this could be the case?

  5. Josephus Corvus says:

    byzantinesteve – I wonder if the “granny loophole” could be an example. That’s where parents have their child baptized only because grandma insists on it and then they never darken the door to a Catholic church again. However, because the child was baptized Catholic, he is bound by the rules of the Church. If he were to grow up and find religion – say, joins a mainline Protestant community and gets married there, that marriage could be said to be invalid, because as a Catholic he did not get the necessary dispensations. If someone were in that situation, I could see them converting to the Church (because they see themselves as Protestant) and nobody even recognizing that the original Baptism could be an issue. By the way, it’s called the “granny loophole” because it is sometimes used in the opposite way. After the Protestant marriage, he gets divorced before (re)joining the Catholic Church. When he wants to get married again, the annulment is easier due to the “invalid” argument described above, versus if granny never insisted, in which case the first marriage would have been most likely valid between two non-Catholic Christians.

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