From a reader….
In what status does the Church consider the marriages of non-Catholics/Catholics to non-Catholics and marital relations within such marriages? I ask due to a couple I know of where neither spouse is baptized and the husband is showing interest in the Church. There has been some uncertainty among acquaintances because one couple (both cradle Catholics who fell away and only recently returned to the Church, both with previous – annulled – marriages) were apparently instructed to maintain a Josephine marriage for a period of time, though they have not clarified the specifics of the timing. They are under the impression that Catholics married to non-Catholics (or at least non-Christians) are not permitted to engage in marital relations. I’ve tried to help, but this is an area of Church law with which I am totally unfamiliar, and there’s so much confusion regarding marriage matters in the Church I’m not sure I’d trust most internet research anyway.
GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE: Fr. Tim Ferguson
Marriage is marriage is marriage. Sacramental marriage is sacramental marriage. Not all marriages are sacramental. Only valid marriages between two baptized Christians is sacramental – only the baptized can receive a sacrament. So, if a baptized person is validly married to an unbaptized person, it’s not a sacrament, but it is a marriage.
A marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic is not ideal, but can be permitted by the Church. For a Catholic to marry a baptized non-Catholic, the local bishop needs to give his permission, which he will generally grant freely, as long as the non-Catholic party is aware that the Catholic party has the obligation of remaining faithful to the obligations he (or she) accepted at baptism, and that includes the obligation of sharing the faith – especially of sharing the faith with any children that may be born to the marriage. For a Catholic to marry an unbaptized person, the bishop needs to give, not just permission, but a dispensation of the law.
Now, in the situation given to us, the marriage took place between two unbaptized persons. Check – presumably valid marriage. One of the parties is thinking about becoming Catholic. Hooray! When he is baptized, he brings his marriage with him. It’s still not sacramental, because you can’t have half a sacrament, but it’s a real marriage. There is no requirement that he abstain from intimacy with his legitimate spouse, no requirement that the marriage be a Josephite one (not a Josephine marriage, but a Josephite marriage). As I understand it, a Josephine marriage is when a French general civilly marries the widow of another French general and the husband later becomes First Consul and agrees to marry in the presence of the Pope as a condition for the couple being crowned as Emperor and Empress of France. It’s pretty rare.
In any case, curiosity about the goings-on of other people’s marriage is best kept to a minimum, if at all. Let them work out those details with their pastor, wish them all sorts of happiness, and then turn the conversation to sports, the weather, politics, or early 19th century French history.