Catholic Marriage

Marriage in the Catholic Church, also called matrimony, is a "covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring. [It] has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptised."[1] Matrimony, from the Latin mater ("mother") and monium ("status") is the creation of the status of mother.[2] In the Roman Rite, it is ordinarily celebrated in a Nuptial Mass.

Present-day Catholic canon law regulates the celebration of marriage in canons 1055–1165 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and canons 776-866 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. While allowing for exceptions, it normally recognizes marriages of Catholics as valid only if contracted before the local bishop or parish priest or a priest or (in the Latin Church only) a deacon delegated by them and at least two witnesses. At earlier times, validity was not made dependent on fulfilment of this condition.

Marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics ("mixed marriages") are opposed by the Catholic Church, as they are looked upon as degrading the holy character of matrimony. However, permission for such marriages is more readily granted in the circumstances prevailing over the past century.

In the Latin Catholic Church, marriage may be celebrated during Lent even within a Nuptial Mass; however, it is considered inappropriate to have such a celebration during Holy Week and impossible during the Easter Triduum. In principle, no day of the week is excluded for marriage.[3] Some Eastern Catholic Churches do not allow marriage during Lent.[4] In earlier times, while the Latin Church allowed marriage to be celebrated at any time, it prohibited the solemn blessing of marriages during Advent and on Christmas Day, and during Lent and on Easter Sunday.[5]

History of marriage in the Catholic Church

Early period

Marriage is acknowledged in the New Testament scriptures. The first recorded miracle by Jesus is at a wedding feast in Cana, and the Catholic Church believes this signifies his approval of the institution of marriage as well as his recognition of the importance of the public celebration of a wedding.[6] Furthermore Jesus forbade divorce and indicated that in the state of marriage "the two become one flesh". The Letter to the Ephesians, traditionally attributed to the Apostle Paul, draws upon this to express one of the most often quoted descriptions of the proper behavior of spouses in the ideal sacramental marriage.

At the time of Jesus marriage was considered a necessary passage into adulthood, and strongly supported within the Jewish faith. The author of the letter to the Hebrews declared that marriage should be held in honour among all,[7] and early Christians defended the holiness of marriage against the Gnostics and the Antinomians.[8] At the same time, they prized the celibate state higher from the example of Jesus, and the concern about the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God; particularly because of the exhortation by Jesus to avoid earthly ties. Paul recommended celibacy but recognized that not all have the ability to live such a life: "Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion."[9] Some writers interpret this as suggesting that marriage be used only as a last resort by those Christians who found it too difficult to exercise a level of self-control and remain chaste, not having the gift of celibacy.[10] As a consequence of the higher value they placed on celibacy, to a significant degree early Christians "placed less value on the family" and saw celibacy (not marrying) and freedom from family ties as a preferable state for those capable of it.[11]

As the Church developed, it thus introduced into the ancient world this new idea that the celibate unmarried state was preferable and more holy. It directly challenged the social norms regarding marriage and the buying and selling of women into marriage, and defended the right of women to choose to remain unmarried virgins for the sake of Christ. The stories associated with the many virgin martyrs in the first few centuries of the Catholic Church often make it clear that they were martyred for their refusal to marry, not necessarily simply their belief in Jesus Christ.

The teaching on the superiority of virginity over marriage, already expressed by Saint Paul, was accepted by the early Church, as shown in the perhaps 1st-century Shepherd of Hermas and by Justin Martyr who, in the middle of the 2nd century, boasted of the "many men and women of sixty and seventy years of age who from their childhood have been the disciples of Christ, and have kept themselves uncorrupted". Virginity was praised also by Saint Cyprian (c. 200 – 258) and other prominent Christian figures. Philip Schaff admits that it cannot be denied that the doctrine of the Council of Trent that it is more blessed to remain virgin or celibate than to be joined in marriage" was the view of the whole of early Christianity. Yet the Church that so highly valued virginity and celibacy forcefully condemned anyone who would "condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven]".[12]

In the view of Robert Markus, "the superiority of virginity and sexual abstinence was generally taken for granted. But a dark undercurrent of hostility to sexuality and marriage became interwoven with the more benign attitudes towards the body and current as late as the second century. Attitudes diverged, and mainstream Christianity became infected with a pronounced streak of distrust towards bodily existence and sexuality. This permanent 'encratite' tendency was given powerful impetus in the debates about Christian perfection at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth centuries."[13]

Church Fathers

For much of the Church's history, no specific ritual was prescribed for celebrating a marriage: "Marriage vows did not have to be exchanged in a church, nor was a priest's presence required. A couple could exchange consent anywhere, anytime."[14]

However, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, writing around 110 to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, reflected the writing of Paul the Apostle when he exhorted, "[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust."[15]

The Church Fathers of the Catholic Church of both East and West upheld the sanctity of marriage, and at the same time taught a preference for celibacy and virginity.

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) spoke of Christians as "requesting marriage" from their priests and wrote of Christian marriage in these terms: "How shall we ever be able adequately to describe the happiness of that marriage which the Church arranges, the Sacrifice strengthens, upon which the blessing sets a seal, at which angels are present as witnesses, and to which the Father gives His consent? For not even on earth do children marry properly and legally without their fathers' permission. How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God's church and partake of God's Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other's company; they never bring sorrow to each other's hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the Sacrifice without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. They need not be furtive about making the Sign of the Cross, nor timorous in greeting the brethren, nor silent in asking a blessing of God. Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of their Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present; and where He is, there evil is not."[16]

On Tertullian's opposition to remarrying after the death of a spouse, see below Remarriage of widows and widowers.

Cyprian (c. 200 – 258), Bishop of Carthage, recommended, in his Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews that Christians should not marry pagans.[17] Addressing consecrated virgins, whom he exhorted to avoid extravagance in dress and such activities as attending bawdy wedding celebrations and going to the public baths with men, he wrote: "The first decree commanded to increase and to multiply; the second enjoined continency. While the world is still rough and void, we are propagated by the fruitful begetting of numbers, and we increase to the enlargement of the human race. Now, when the world is filled and the earth supplied, they who can receive continency, living after the manner of eunuchs, are made eunuchs unto the kingdom. Nor does the Lord command this, but He exhorts it; nor does He impose the yoke of necessity, since the free choice of the will is left."[18][19]

Pelagius thought Jerome (c. 347 – 420) showed bitter hostility to marriage akin to Manichean dualism,[19] an accusation that Jerome rebutted in his Adversus Jovinianum: "We do not follow the views of Marcion and Manichaeus, and disparage marriage; nor, deceived by the error of Tatian, the leader of the Encratites, do we think all intercourse impure; he condemns and rejects not only marriage but also food which God created for the use of man. We know that in a great house, there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earthenware. [...] While we honour marriage we prefer virginity which is the offspring of marriage. Will silver cease to be silver, if gold is more precious than silver?"[20] Elsewhere he explained: "Someone may say: 'And do you dare disparage marriage, which is blessed by the Lord?' It is not disparaging marriage when virginity is preferred to it. No one compares evil with good. Let married women glory too, since they come second to virgins. Increase, He says, and multiply, and fill the earth. Let him who is to fill the earth increase and multiply. Your company is in heaven."[21]

Jerome's preference for celibacy was drawn from

Jerome also argued that marriage distracted from prayer, and so virginity was better: "If we are to pray always, it follows that we must never be in the bondage of wedlock, for as often as I render my wife her due, I cannot pray. The difference, then, between marriage and virginity is as great as that between not sinning and doing well; nay rather, to speak less harshly, as great as between good and better." Regarding the clergy, he said: "Now a priest must always offer sacrifices for the people: he must therefore always pray. And if he must always pray, he must always be released from the duties of marriage." In referring to Genesis chapter 2, he further argued that, "while Scripture on the first, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days relates that, having finished the works of each, God saw that it was good, on the second day it omitted this altogether, leaving us to understand that two is not a good number because it destroys unity, and prefigures the marriage compact."

Augustine (354–430), whose views subsequently strongly influenced Western theology,[28] developed a theology of the sacramentality of Christian marriage.[29] In his On the Good of Marriage, of 401, he distinguished three values in marriage: fidelity, which is more than sexual; offspring, which "entails the acceptance of children in love, their nurturance in affection, and their upbringing in the Christian religion; and sacrament, in that its indissolubility is a sign of the eternal unity of the blessed.[30] Like the other Church Fathers of East and West, Augustine taught that virginity is a higher way of life, although it is not given to everyone to live at that higher level. In his De bono coniugali (On the Good of Marriage), he wrote: "I know what people are murmuring: 'Suppose', they remark, 'that everyone sought to abstain from all intercourse? How would the human race survive? I only wish that this was everyone's concern so long as it was uttered in charity, 'from a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned'; then the city of God would be filled much more speedily, and the end of the world would be hastened."[31] Karen Armstrong sees in this an apocalyptic dimension in Augustine's teaching.[19] Philip Lyndon Reynolds says that Augustine's comment on this wildly hypothetical objection by Jovinian may have been that the saintliness of a church in which all had chosen celibacy would mean that it comprised enough members to fill God's city or that the church would thereby gather souls to herself even more rapidly than she was already doing.[32]

In his youth, Augustine had also been a follower of Manichaeism, but after his conversion to Christianity he rejected the Manichaean condemnation of marriage and reproduction for imprisoning spiritual light within material darkness.[33] He therefore went on to teach that marriage is not evil, but good, even if it is not at the level of choosing virginity: "Marriage and fornication are not two evils, whereof the second is worse: but marriage and continence are two goods, whereof the second is better."[34] Augustine's name "could, indeed, be invoked through the medieval centuries to reinforce the exaltation of virginity at the expense of marriage and to curtail the role of sexuality even within Christian marriage".[19]

Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 636) refined and broadened Augustine's formulation and was part of the chain by which it was transmitted to the Middle Ages.[35]

Medieval period

The medieval Christian church continued to recognise matrimony as a sacrament, a term applied to it already by Augustine, as shown above. Although separation occurred from Oriental Orthodoxy in 451 and Eastern Orthodoxy in 1054, these too continue to consider marriage a sacrament.[36][37] In medieval times, the Church did not consider the sacraments equal in importance any more than it does today.[38][39][40] Marriage was never considered to be one of the sacraments of Christian initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) or of those that confer a character (Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders).[41]

With the development of sacramental theology, marriage was included in the select seven to which the term "sacrament" was applied. Explicit classification of marriage in this way came in reaction to the contrary teaching of Catharism that marriage and procreation are evil: the first official declaration that marriage is a sacrament was made at the 1184 Council of Verona as part of a condemnation of the Cathars.[42] In 1208, Pope Innocent III required members of another religious movement, that of the Waldensians, to recognize that marriage is a sacrament as a condition for being received back into the Catholic Church.[42] In 1254, Catholics accused Waldensians of condemning the sacrament of marriage, "saying that married persons sin mortally if they come together without the hope of offspring".[43] The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had already stated in response to the teaching of the Cathars: "For not only virgins and the continent but also married persons find favour with God by right faith and good actions and deserve to attain to eternal blessedness."[44] Marriage was also included in the list of the seven sacraments at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 as part of the profession of faith required of Michael VIII Palaiologos. The sacraments of marriage and holy orders were distinguished as sacraments that aim at the "increase of the Church" from the other five sacraments, which are intended for the spiritual perfection of individuals. The Council of Florence in 1439 again recognised marriage as a sacrament.[42][45]

The medieval view of the sacramentality of marriage has been described as follows: "Like the other sacraments, medieval writers argued, marriage was an instrument of sanctification, a channel of grace that caused God's gracious gifts and blessings to be poured upon humanity. Marriage sanctified the Christian couple by allowing them to comply with God's law for marriage and by providing them with an ideal model of marriage in Christ the bridegroom, who took the church as his bride and accorded it highest love, devotion, and sacrifice, even to the point of death."[46]

Marriages were by mutual consent, declaration of intention to marry and upon the subsequent physical union of the parties.[47][48] The couple would promise verbally to each other that they would be married to each other; the presence of a priest or witnesses was not required for validity.[49] This promise was known as the "verbum." If freely given and made in the present tense (e.g., "I marry you"), it was unquestionably binding;[47] if made in the future tense ("I will marry you"), it would constitute a betrothal. One of the functions of churches from the Middle Ages was to register marriages, which was not obligatory. There was no state involvement in marriage and personal status, with these issues being adjudicated in ecclesiastical courts.

Clandestine marriages

Early witnesses to the practice of intervention by the clergy in the marriage of Christians include Tertullian, who speaks of Christians "requesting marriage" from them,[50] and Ignatius of Antioch, who said Christians should form their union with the approval of the bishop.[15] By the 4th century it was considered obligatory for Christians to have their marriage blessed,[51][52][53][54] as was by then the established practice.[55] But until the 20th century, some marriages continued to be celebrated without observance of this obligation. Thus, for most of Church history in the Western or Latin Church marriage has been celebrated (as in traditions such as the Roman and Judaic) without clergy and was done according to local customs.[19] While in the East the priest was and is seen as the minister of the sacrament, in the West the two parties to the marriage, if baptized, were the ministers, and their concordant word was sufficient proof of the existence of a sacramental marriage, whose validity required neither the presence of witnesses nor observance of the law of the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council that forbade clandestine marriages and demanded publication of the banns of marriage.[56][57] The validity of such marriages even if celebrated under a tree or in a tavern or in a bed was upheld even against that of a later marriage in a church.[58] Even after the Council of Trent made the presence of the parish priest or his delegate and of at least two more witnesses a condition for validity, the previous situation continued in the many countries where its decree was not promulgated. It ended only in 1908, with the coming into force of the Ne Temere decree. However, even in the West, where marriages entered into without participation by the clergy were considered valid, a Romeo and Juliet marrying without consent of their parents would wish to have their union blessed by a priest. There are accounts of concrete religious nuptial services from the 7th century onward in the Eastern part of the then united Church,[59] but the first available written detailed account of a Christian wedding in the Western part dates from the 9th century and appears to be identical to the old nuptial service of ancient Rome.[19] The preservation of local marriage customs and ceremonies was enjoined by the Council of Trent, decreeing: "If any provinces have in this matter other laudable customs and ceremonies in addition to the aforesaid, the holy council wishes earnestly that they be by all means retained."[60] The same latitude is envisaged today in drawing up marriage rites or adapting existing ones.[61]

During the Middle Ages marriages were arranged, sometimes as early as birth, and these early pledges to marry were often used to ensure treaties between different royal families, nobles, and heirs of fiefdoms. The church resisted these imposed unions, and increased the number of causes for nullification of these arrangements.[62] As Christianity spread during the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the idea of free choice in selecting marriage partners increased and spread with it.[62]

In the 12th century, Pope Alexander III decreed that what made a marriage was the free mutual consent by the spouses themselves, not a decision by their parents or guardians.[63] After that, clandestine marriages or youthful elopements began to proliferate, with the result that ecclesiastical courts had to decide which of a series of marriages that a man was accused of celebrating was the first and therefore the valid one.[64][65] Though "detested and forbidden" by the Church,[66] they were acknowledged to be valid. Similarly today, Catholics are forbidden to enter mixed marriages without permission from an authority of the Church, but if someone does enter such a marriage without permission, the marriage is reckoned to be valid, provided the other conditions are fulfilled, although illicit.


In the 16th century, various groups adhering to the Protestant Reformation denied in different degrees the sacramental nature of most Catholic sacraments.[67] In reaction, the Council of Trent on 3 March 1547 carefully named and defined the Catholic Church's sacraments,[67] reaffirming[68] the teaching that marriage is a sacrament, already expressed authoritatively, as indicated above, in 1184, 1208, 1274 and 1439. Recalling scripture, the apostolic traditions and the declarations of previous councils and of the Church Fathers, the bishops declared that there are precisely seven sacraments, with marriage one of them, and that all seven are truly and properly sacraments.[68][69][69]

Diarmaid MacCulloch argued that this action was partly a response by Roman Catholicism to demonstrate that it was as serious about marriage and the family as the Protestants,.[70] Desiderius Erasmus had influenced the debate in the first part of the 16th century by publishing in 1518 an essay in praise of marriage (Encomium matrimonii). This had argued that the single state was, "a barren way of life hardly becoming to a man". The theologian Josse Clichtove working at the University of Paris interpreted this as an attack on chastity, but Erasmus had found favour with Protestant reformers who acknowledged the argument as a useful tool to undermine compulsory clerical celibacy and monasticism.[70]

It was on 11 November 1563, more than 16 years after it had reaffirmed the sacramental character of marriage, that the Council of Trent condemned the view that "the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony".[71] And while Catholics upheld the supernatural character of marriage, it was Protestants who viewed it as not a sacrament and who admitted divorce.[72][73][74]

The decree Tametsi of 1563 was one of the last decisions made at Trent. MacCulloch says that the decree sought to impose the Church's control over the process of marriage by laying down as strict conditions as possible as to what constituted a marriage.[75] John P. Beal says the Council, "stung by the Protestant reformers' castigation of the Catholic Church's failure to extirpate clandestine marriages", issued the decree,[76] "to safeguard against invalid marriages and abuses in clandestine marriages",[77] which had become "the scourge of Europe".[78] In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council had prohibited marriages entered into clandestinely but, unless there was some other impediment, considered them valid though illicit. Tametsi made it a requirement even for validity, in any area where the decree was officially published, that the marriage take place in the presence of the parish priest and at least two witnesses.[79] This revolutionised earlier practice in that "marriages that failed to meet these requirements would from the time of the promulgation of the decree be considered invalid and of no effect" and required that the priest keep written records, with the result that parents had more control over their children's marriages than before. It also instituted controls over the marriages of persons without fixed addresses ("vagrants are to be married with caution"), "regulated the times at which marriages could be celebrated, abolished the rule that sexual intercourse created affinity, and reiterated the ban on concubinage".[80][81]

For fear that the decree would "identify and multiply the number of doubtful marriages, particularly in Protestant areas, where 'mixed' marriages were common", the council hesitated to impose it outright and decided to make its application dependent on local promulgation. In fact, Tametsi was never proclaimed worldwide. It had no effect in France, England, Scotland and many other countries[82] and in 1907 was replaced by the decree Ne Temere, which came into effect universally at Easter 1908.[76][83][84]

Conditions for a valid sacramental marriage

The Catholic Church also has requirements before Catholics can be considered validly married in the eyes of the Church. A valid Catholic marriage results from four elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they freely exchange their consent; (3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; and (4) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by church authority. The Church provides classes several months before marriage to help the participants inform their consent. During or before this time, the would-be spouses are confirmed if they have not previously received confirmation and it can be done without grave inconvenience (Canon 1065).

In addition to meeting the criteria for a valid Catholic marriage, the Catholic must seek permission from the local bishop to marry a non-Catholic. If the person is a non-Catholic Christian, this permission is called a "permission to enter into a mixed marriage". If the person is a non-Christian, the permission is called a "dispensation from disparity of cult". Those helping to prepare the couple for marriage can assist with the permission process.

The Church prefers that marriages between Catholics, or between Catholics and other Christians, be celebrated in the parish church of one of the spouses. Only the local bishop can permit a marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place.

The Catholic Church has further requirements for the form of vows, called the "canonical form". The canonical form of marriage must be followed (unless dispensed). The requirement for a canonical form of marriage began due to the reforms of the Council of Trent. With the decree Tametsi of 11 November 1563. Ne Temere promulgated by Pius X in 1907 added (and continues to enforce) further specifications.

Freedom to marry

The participants in a marriage contract must be free to marry and to marry each other. That is, they must be an unmarried man and woman with no impediments as set out by canon law.


Main article: Canonical impediment

A Catholic marriage cannot be formed if one or more of the following impediments are given,[85] although for some of these a dispensation can be given.

  • Antecedent and perpetual impotence.
  • Consanguinity to the fourth collateral line (1st cousin), including legal adoption to the second collateral line.
  • Affinity (relationship by marriage, e.g. a brother-in-law) in the direct line.
  • Prior bond (the bond of a prior marriage, even if not consummated).
  • Holy Orders (Permission to marry is only given to those ordained clergy who have been fully laicized (relieved of active ministry, and then dismissed from the clerical state, a process which is begun by the (arch-)diocese or religious order community and is finally granted by the Roman Curia at the Vatican subject to papal approval: either the Congregation for Bishops – if the cleric was a bishop, the Congregation for the Clergy – if the cleric was a secular, or diocesan, priest or deacon, or the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life – for those clergy who are members of religious orders or secular institutes or other, unvowed societies. Laicization is given only for serious reasons for deacons, for grave reasons for priests, and very rarely for prelates. However, permanent deacons who are widowed have received permission from their pastors and dioceses and the Vatican to marry after ordination without having to leave the clerical state, probably to better support their families. A transitional deacon seminarian, in a similar manner to other seminarians who leave the program of formation prior to priestly ordination, may be allowed to marry after a period of time and start a family, and, with the permission of the ordinary and the Vatican and the permission of his supervisor – his pastor or former religious superior – may continue to function as a secular, non-religious deacon).
  • Perpetual vows of chastity in a religious institute (It is harder to be excused from permanent, solemn vows as a religious than it is from the novitiate or from preliminary, initial vows, especially if the religious is ordained; it requires the permission of the local and regional religious superior, the knowledge of the local ordinary, and the permission – subject to final papal approval – of the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life).
  • Disparity of cult (one party not being baptised a Catholic, or at least into one of the Christian denominations; though there are many ceremonies where one party is not a Christian, or does not belong to any denomination; Catholic-Jewish weddings, to give one example, have become much more common, as have those with Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus; if the other party is not a Catholic, it requires the permission of the pastor, and the witnessing priest, deacon, or certified layperson; if the other party is a non-Christian or a member of no denomination, the local ordinary must also give permission; all weddings are inscribed into the parish registry, and cases requiring the ordinary's permission must be recorded at the diocesan headquarters).
  • Crimen (one party previously conspiring to marry (upon condition of death of spouse) while still married); also called "conjugicide".
  • Underage (at least 16 for males, 14 for females)
  • Abduction.

Mixed marriages

While marriage between a Catholic and any non-Catholic is commonly spoken of as a mixed marriage, in the strict sense a mixed marriage is one between a Catholic (baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it) and a non-Catholic Christian.[86][87]

The Catholic Church has from the start opposed marriage between a Catholic and any non-Catholic, baptized or not, seeing it as "degrading the holy character of matrimony, involving as it did a communion in sacred things with those outside the fold. [...] it was but natural and logical for the Church to do all in her power to hinder her children from contracting marriage with those outside her pale, who did not recognize the sacramental character of the union on which they were entering." The Church thus saw as obstacles to a Catholic's marriage what came to be called the two impediments of mixed religion (in Latin, mixta religio) and of difference of worship (in Latin disparitas cultus).[87]

Marriage with a non-Catholic Christian

From an early stage, Church councils forbade Catholic Christians to marry heretics or schismatics. Unlike marriage with a non-Christian, which came to be considered invalid, marriage with a heretic was seen as valid, though illicit unless a dispensation had been obtained. However, the Church's opposition to such unions is very ancient. Early regional councils, such as the 4th-century Council of Elvira and the Council of Laodicea, legislated against them; and the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon prohibited such unions especially between members of the lower ecclesiastical grades and heretical women.[88]

In 692, the Council in Trullo declared such marriages invalid, a decision accepted in the East, but not in the West.[89]

The advent of Protestantism in the 16th century renewed the problem of mixed marriages, and caused more stringent legislation. In those countries where the Council of Trent's Tametsi decree was promulgated, mixed marriages began to be viewed as invalid in the West, not directly because of being mixed, but because a condition for validity imposed by the decree was not observed, namely, that marriages be contracted before the parish priest or a priest delegated by him and at least two witnesses.[89] This decree required the contract to be entered into before the parish priest or some other priest delegated by him, and in the presence of two or three witnesses under penalty of invalidity. Even where the Tametsi decree had been promulgated, the Church did not find it possible to insist on the rigour of this legislation in all countries, owing to strong Protestant opposition. Pope Benedict XIV issued a declaration concerning marriages in the Netherlands and Belgium (1741), in which he declared mixed unions to be valid, provided they were according to the civil laws. A similar declaration was made concerning mixed marriages in Ireland by Pope Pius, in 1785, and gradually the "Benedictine dispensation" was extended to various localities. Pius VI allowed mixed marriages in Austria to take place in the presence of a priest, provided no religious solemnity was employed, and with the omission of public banns, as evidence of the unwillingness of the Church to sanction such unions. In 1869, the Congregation of the Propaganda further permitted such marriages but only under condition of grave necessity fearing the faithful "expose themselves to the grave dangers inherent in these unions". Bishops were to warn Catholics against such marriages and not to grant dispensations for them except for weighty reasons and not at the mere will of the petitioner. In countries where the decree was not promulgated, marriages otherwise contracted, called clandestine marriages, continued to be considered valid until the decree was replaced in 1908 by the decree Ne Temere of Pope Pius X, which revoked the "Benedictine dispensation".[87][90]

Catholics are forbidden to marry non-Catholic Christians "without express permission of the competent authority",[91] but, if the other conditions are fulfilled, such a marriage entered into in despite of the prohibition is seen as valid and therefore, since it is a marriage between baptized persons, as a sacrament.

A condition for granting permission to marry a non-Catholic is that the Catholic party undertake to remove dangers of defecting from the faith and to do all in his or her power so that all the children are baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church; the other party is to be made aware of this undertaking and obligation of the Catholic party.[92]

Marriage with a non-Christian

The early Church did not consider invalid a Catholic's marriage with a non-Christian, especially when the marriage had taken place before the Catholic's conversion to the faith. It was nevertheless hoped that the converted wife or husband would be the means of bringing the other party into the Church, or at least safeguarding the Catholic upbringing of the children of the union. "This held even for Jews, though the Church was naturally more opposed to wedlock between them and Christians, even than with pagans, owing to the intense Jewish hatred for the sacred name of Christ."[87] With the growth of the Church, the need for such unions diminished and the objection to them grew stronger. More by custom than by church legislation, such marriages gradually came to be considered invalid and disparitas cultus came to be seen as an impediment to marriage by a Catholic.[87] There were also enactments on a local level against marriages with pagans (Council of Carthage of 397, and under Stephen I of Hungary in the early 11th century) and with Jews (Third Council of Toledo in 589).

When the Decretum of Gratian was published in the 12th century, this impediment became part of canon law. From that time forward, all marriages contracted between Catholics and non-Christians were held to be invalid unless a dispensation had been obtained from the ecclesiastical authority.[87]

A marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian (someone not baptized) is seen by the Church as invalid unless a dispensation (called a dispensation from "disparity of cult", meaning difference of worship) is granted from the law declaring such marriages invalid. This dispensation can only be granted under certain conditions.[93] If the dispensation is granted, the Church recognizes the marriage as valid, but not sacramental, since the sacraments can be validly received only by the baptized.[94][95][96]

Remarriage of widows and widowers

In his On Exhortation to Chastity, a later work written when he had come under Montanist influence, Tertullian argued that a second marriage, after someone has been freed from the first by the death of a spouse, "will have to be termed no other than a species of fornication".[97] Claiming to find in the Book of Leviticus a prohibition of remarriage by the priests of the Old Law similar to that for Christian clergy in the Pauline pastoral epistles,[98] he used it as an argument against remarrying even on the part of lay Christians, whom Christ made "a kingdom, priests to his God and Father":[99] "If you are a digamist, do you baptize? If you are a digamist, do you offer? How much more capital (a crime) is it for a digamist laic to act as a priest, when the priest himself, if he turn digamist, is deprived of the power of acting the priest! 'But to necessity', you say, 'indulgence is granted'. No necessity is excusable which is avoidable. In a word, shun to be found guilty of digamy, and you do not expose yourself to the necessity of administering what a digamist may not lawfully administer. God wills us all to be so conditioned, as to be ready at all times and places to undertake (the duties of) His sacraments."[100]

In his earlier Ad uxorem also, Tertullian argued against second marriages, but said that, if one must remarry, it should be with a Christian.[16] In other writings, he argued strongly against ideas like those he expressed in his On Exhortation to Chastity; and in his De anima he explicitly stated that "the married state is blessed, not cursed by God". Adhémar d'Alès has commented: "Tertullian wrote a lot about marriage, and on no other subject has he contradicted himself as much."[101] The teaching of the Catholic Church is that a married couple commit themselves totally to one another until death.[102] The vows they make to each other in the wedding rite are a commitment "til death do us part".[103] After the death of one, the other is free to marry again or to remain single. Some choose to become priests or religious. This path was chosen by some even in the early Christian centuries by people such as Saint Marcella, Saint Paula, Saint Galla of Rome and Saint Olympias the Deaconess.[104]

Ministers of matrimony

Latin rite

The husband and wife must validly execute the marriage contract. In the Latin Catholic tradition, it is the spouses who are understood to confer marriage on each other. The spouses, as ministers of grace, naturally confer upon each other the sacrament of matrimony, expressing their consent before the church.

This does not eliminate the need for church involvement in the marriage; under normal circumstances, canon law requires the attendance of a priest or deacon and at least two witnesses for validity (see canons 1108–1116).

Eastern Catholic rites

In Eastern Catholic churches that follow the Byzantine liturgical tradition (shared with the Eastern Orthodox Church), a priest (never a deacon) is the minister of the sacrament of marriage (see Catechism of the Catholic Church § 1623, 1992 edition) through the act of "crowning" the couple with a pair of crowns while proclaiming them received into the Kingdom of Heaven. The vows are exchanged well beforehand in the Byzantine ritual and are not required. They are a remnant of the Liturgy of Betrothal which had used to be done in a separate Liturgy. Thus it is known in the East as the Mystery (read: Sacrament) of Crowning as often as it is called matrimony.


Catholic theology teaches that a validly-contracted marriage is accompanied by divine ratification, creating a virtually indissoluble union until the couple consummate, after which the marriage is completely indissoluble. An unconsummated marriage can be dissolved by the Pope, as Vicar of Christ.[105] Once the marriage is consummated, only a separation is possible; the marriage bond cannot be dissolved. Therefore, the term "divorce" has no meaning in the context of Catholic marriage.

A marriage may be somewhat defective and yet still be valid; such a marriage is illicit. A marriage which was sufficiently defective as not to meet the required criteria is invalid, and the participants are considered not to have actually married. However, Canon 1137 states that children born to a "putative" marriage (defined in Canon 1061, sec. 3 as one that is not valid but was entered into in good faith by at least one spouse) are legitimate; therefore, the declaration that a marriage is null does not render the children of that marriage illegitimate.


The Catholic Church has consistently taken the position that, while dissolution of a valid non-sacramental marriage, even if consummated, and of a valid sacramental marriage, if not consummated, may be granted, a valid sacramental consummated marriage is indissoluble. There is no divorce from such a marriage. However, what is referred to as a marriage annulment occurs when two competent ecclesiastical tribunals hand down concordant judgements that a particular marriage was not in fact a valid one.[106][107]

Annulments are not restricted to marriages. A similar process can lead to the annulment of an ordination.[108][109]

An annulment is a declaration that the marriage was invalid (or null) at the time the vows were exchanged. Thus, an annulment is declared only when an ecclesial tribunal finds a lack of validity in the marriage at the time of the marital contract. Behaviour subsequent to the contract is not directly relevant, except as post factum evidence of the validity or invalidity of the contract. That is, behaviour subsequent to the contract cannot actually change the validity of the contract. For example, a marriage would be invalid if one of the parties, at the time of marriage, did not intend to honour the vow of fidelity. If the spouse did intend to be faithful at the time of the marriage but later committed adultery this does not invalidate the marriage.

Annulment and divorce, therefore, differ both in rationale and effect; an annulment is a finding that a true marriage never existed, whereas a divorce is a dissolution of marriage.

In canon law there are numerous reasons for granting annulments of marriages that were entered into invalidly.[110] These grounds MacCulloch presents as "ingenuity of Roman Catholic lawyers in deploying them in the historical context".[111] Requirements for the validity of marriage are listed in the Code of Canon Law under the headings "Diriment Impediments" (such as being too young, being impotent, being already married, being ordained),[112] "Matrimonial Consent" (which requires, for instance, sufficient use of reason, psychic ability to assume the essential obligations of marriage, and freedom from force and fear),[113] and "The Form of the Celebration of Marriage" (normally requiring that it be contracted in the presence of the parish priest or his delegate and at least two other witnesses).[114]

See also


External links

  • An authoritative summary of Church teaching on marriage, including the main requirements for the celebration of the sacrament of Marriage.
  • Order of a Catholic wedding during Mass, with links to official texts from the Rite of Marriage
  • Liberté plus haute… The canon law for dummies.
  • Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Christian Marriage
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