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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 28 May 2002

Christian Marriage QUESTION from Jeff April 10, 1999 It is my understanding that Catholics who marry not within the auspices of a Catholic ceremony are considered to be living in a state of sin-fornicating, assuming that they are exercising marital perogatives. I have several questions regarding the marriage of non-Catholics: since the Church holds the authority established by Christ to sanction Marriages, does she consider non-Catholics to be living in sin when they marry, naturally, outside the Church. What if a couple converts to Catholicism and there is a lapse between the time of their conversion and the blessing of their marriage? Are they considered to be sinning if they live as a married couple in the meantime? How is this issue handled (if, indeed, such a lapse is permitted)? Finally, since Catholic Marriage is a sacrament, is the blessing of an existing natural marriage a sacrament also?
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on April 15, 1999 Dear Jeff:
This area is not my area of expertise and it should be noted that Marriage laws in the Church can be rather involved. I will try to answer your questions to the best of my ability, but you will need to double-check with the Marriage Tribunal perhaps in your diocese.
I do not believe that Catholics, not previously married, who legitimately marry outside of the church are considered living in sin (i.e. fornicating). The Church recognizes civil marriage as a civil marriage. Such a couple would be legally married. But, the marriage would not be a sacramental marriage and thus such a couple could not partake of the Sacraments until such times as their marriage is blessed in the church. I may be wrong on this and probably am, so please double-check with your diocese.
As for non-Catholics in marriage, those persons are bound by the religion they belong and by civil laws. Their marriages are legitimate and thus they are not living in sin. Their marriages may also be sacramental regardless of whether their particular church believes marriage is a sacrament or not.
A Sacrament is not generally dependent upon the faith of the person (i.e. baptism of a child is based on the faith of the parents, consecration of the Eucharist is still valid even if the priest has doubts of about the Real Presence – the faith of the Church fills in).
If the couple has come to believe in the true nature of marriage their marriage can become sacramental even if it did not start out that way and even if the marriage was non-Catholic.
When I converted to the Catholic Church, I was already divorced. Since I wanted to pursue the potential of religious life, or the priesthood, or of marriage, I applied for a Nullity of Marriage. The Marriage Tribunal then investigated my marriage to see if it had been a sacramental marriage. This had to be done despite the fact that both my wife and myself were Protestants during our marriage. If the Tribunal had found that my marriage was sacramental, then I would still be married in the eyes of the Church and could not get married again, or be a priest, or a religious.
A couple who converts, as far as I know, is not under pain of sin, if there are not previous marriages on the part of either party, if there is a lapse between conversion and the blessing of their marriage. Again, one does not have to be Catholic to have a Sacramental Marriage. If there are previous marriage issues, however, I believe the couple should live as brother and sister until such time as the Nullities are granted.
Again, I caution you, I may not have reported this accurately. This can be a complicated subject. Please check with your diocese.
I would make one point. Some dioceses that are liberal may not apply the marriage laws as they should. The part about living as brother and sister, for example, tends to get lost among liberal clerics and dioceses.
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