ASK FATHER: Marital relations in marriages of non-Catholics or Catholics to non-Catholics

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.


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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Thank God for a sense of humour. But the sad thing, with this post and the equally funny/absurd previous one “ASK FATHER: If Francis isn’t the real Pope, then do the priests of the SSPX still lack faculties to absolve sins?” is the monumental lack of formation which these, and countless daily question from friends in our parish, evince.

    And I write as a layman, a perfectly ordinary laymen. Before the tear of laughter are dry, the tears of sadness well up for all that we have lost – these good people’s parents would never have asked these questions. Pray without ceasing.

    (Mind you, there’s a great deal of good stuff on the internet, let alone in books, and a degree of intelligence about discerning what is good and what is bad is not unreasonable to expect, especially among readers of this blog. We are capable of forming ourselves in the basics with some modest application. We cannot expect Fr Z to spoon-feed us all the time! To some of St Peter’s questions, “Fr Z never told me that” won’t wash as a defence.)

  2. Fr. Reader says:

    All this Josephite and Josephine thing reminds me about me in my childhood reading Bible stories and wondering how come Joseph was sold to the Egyptians by his brothers, then married the Blessed Virgin Mary, and then went back to Egypt with Jesus.

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