|ROME, 15 JULY 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Many Catholic brides and grooms acknowledge themselves as "living
together" right up to the time of a sacramental marriage, and/or they
admit that they have not followed the precepts of the Church (Mass on
Sunday, Easter obligation, etc.). They decide to have a "Catholic
wedding." Their marriage preparation lacks the requirement that they
attend the sacrament of reconciliation to place themselves in a state of
grace. Must a Catholic bride and/or groom be in the state of grace as
they enter into matrimony in order for them to receive the grace of the
sacrament? Is their marriage valid if they are not in the state of
M.T., Bloomfield, Connecticut
A: The present state of social mores is a source of frequent
consternation to priests, deacons and others involved in preparing
couples for marriage.
Many pastoral agents feel caught between Scylla and Charybdis,
fearing that demanding the couple's separation before marriage might
dash any hopes of re-evangelizing them during the marriage preparation
course. For this reason some might be tempted to turn a blind eye to
Here the Latin adage "Suaviter in forma fortiter in re" (gentle in
form, firm as to principle) comes into play.
When a couple request a Catholic wedding it is necessary to inquire
as to their motives. When the motives are genuinely, even if imperfectly
religious, it should be gently but firmly explained that being married
in the Church, more than a pretty social event, is a lifelong binding
pact between them and God. It thus requires serious spiritual
preparation, and the couple should be encouraged to take the commitment
fully aware of what is required.
Any diocesan policies should be explained right from the beginning.
While the Church is almost always willing to conduct a sacramental
marriage so as to at least give the couple the opportunity of returning
to the sacraments, many dioceses and pastors are wont to refuse
cohabiting couples the full panoply of a religious wedding and insist on
a discreet private service.
This is done out of respect for, and to emphasize, the essentially
religious nature of the sacrament of holy matrimony so that it is never
reduced to the social sphere.
While marriage preparation courses have several goals in preparing
the couple for married life, it is gravely incumbent that the couple
reach a clear understanding of the commitments toward fidelity,
permanence and openness to children. These commitments are essential to
celebrate a valid wedding in the Catholic Church. Otherwise the wedding
should not proceed, since no pastor should ever risk witnessing a
probably invalid marriage.
It is also of very great importance that the couple prepare for
marriage by living the state of grace. Cohabiting couples should be
gently but clearly told that their situation is not conducive to an
adequate preparation for a Catholic wedding. Cohabitation also risks the
future stability of their life together, as has been shown by both
pastoral experience and formal scientific studies.
Marriage, just like confirmation, Eucharist, holy orders and,
whenever possible, anointing of the sick, require the state of grace for
their fruitful reception.
With respect to validity, however, someone who is married while in a
state of mortal sin may be validly married (as they would be validly
confirmed, ordained, or validly celebrate Mass). But he/she would not
receive the grace proper to this sacrament and indeed commits a further
grave sin of sacrilege and renders the sacrament objectively illicit.
Such a state hardly augurs well for future marital bliss. It is
therefore of utmost pastoral concern that couples be prepared in such a
way that they clearly understand the beauty of Catholic teaching
regarding pre-nuptial chastity, sincerely repent of any sins they may
have committed, and seek the sacrament of reconciliation so as to enter
into marriage in the state of grace.
The challenges are immense and certainly exceed the possibilities of
this column to enter into details. This is why we have limited ourselves
to enunciate some basic guiding principles.
* * *
Follow-up: Cohabiting Brides and Grooms
Pursuant to the question relating to cohabitating couples (see July 15),
several readers asked questions as to what weddings a Catholic should
This is a very delicate question and one which sometimes sparks bitter
division among families, especially as relatives often instinctively
allow the heart to rule the head when faced with clearly erroneous
choices made by loved ones.
It is necessary to point out that there are no specific Church norms
governing this practice. A generalized lack of catechesis combined with
a sometimes aggressively pluralistic society have made necessary a
loosening of stricter pastoral practices that would have reigned just a
There sometimes is no simple answer, and persons with doubts about
particular situations should consult their pastor before making a final
One general principle could be that a Catholic should not attend a
wedding in which the person is entering into an objectively irregular
state. This would include cases where a Catholic enters into a second
union after having divorced a living spouse, and without having received
Certainly, concrete situations can be hardest to evaluate, and God alone
is the final judge of each person’s heart. Yet, a Catholic cannot
approve of an action by which relatives deprive themselves of the
possibility of benefiting from the sacraments.
True love for our relatives must embrace concern for their eternal
salvation and cannot be limited to their temporal happiness.
In making clear that in conscience they cannot support their relative’s
decision by their presence, they should strive to retain human affection
and support and avoid a breach in social relationships.
Other cases, while serious, might require less radical reactions. For
example, if a relative decides to be married in a civil, Protestant or
non-Christian ceremony. The Church considers the wedding invalid, since
all Catholics are obliged to observe the canonical form or at least be
granted a dispensation from the bishop.
Although the wedding is invalid, Church law has several means of
subsequently validating it provided there are no other impediments. This
is not the case with our earlier example, even though the second union
may be sanctified after the death of a legitimate spouse or after a
definitive decree of annulment has been issued.
In deciding how to react, Catholics should take into account their
relative’s level of catechesis and practice. It is very different if the
relative is making an incorrect choice out of ignorance or fully aware
that he is disobeying Church laws. The relative's degree of faith
knowledge also influences the possibility of his understanding a loved
one's refusal to attend the ceremony.
The Catholic should also do all that can reasonably be done so that
their kith and kin marry in good standing. They are often ignorant of
the fact that, for a good reason, the bishop can dispense from the
Catholic ritual so that a wedding according to the rites of another
faith is considered as valid in Catholic eyes. This dispensation is
rarely granted in the case of civil marriages, but it is always possible
to hold a private ceremony later that validates the marriage.
If the Catholic party has done all that is possible and there is
obstinate refusal to at least ask for a dispensation, then the Catholic
loved one should refrain from attending the ceremony.
If one sees that it is simply ignorance, and nothing but bitterness is
to be gained by refusing to attend the celebration, or at least the
reception, then one could attend while making one's disapproval clear.
But this kind of case is best discussed with one's pastor ahead of time.