By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 21 May 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My fiancée would like to be married within the Catholic Church. She is an Irish citizen and I am American. We are planning to marry in Ireland, but because of immigration issues, we were thinking of having a civil ceremony in the United States and then later having the Catholic ceremony in Ireland. We were concerned that the civil ceremony would affect the Catholic recognition of the marriage. The full Catholic marriage sacrament is very important to us. We do not want to ruin it. Will the Catholic Church allow us to be civilly married before our wedding within the Church? — E.U., Arlington, Massachusetts
A: A first principle to be observed is that the Church does not recognize the validity of civil marriage among two Catholics. All Catholics are obliged to follow the procedures outlined in canon law, although the bishop has the authority to dispense from some requirements in special cases.
The question of how civil marriage relates to the sacramental celebration depends on the laws of each country. Broadly speaking, there are two principal possibilities based on these laws:
One situation is where the Church wedding usually has civil effects. This would be the case in the United States, Ireland, Italy and several other countries. In each country there is a particular process to be fulfilled before the public authorities, but in the end there is only one marriage ceremony.
There are some cases in which the Church celebrates a wedding with only sacramental effects. An example would be a couple who entered a civil marriage and, at some later point, desire to regularize their situation before God. In this way they will be able to fully participate in the Church's life, especially by being able to return to reception of Communion.
In the above situations, where the religious celebration has civil effects, a civil marriage is not really a viable option for faithful Catholics. At the same time, a previous civil union is not, as such, an impediment for a couple to enter into a sacramental marriage.
A different situation arises in countries that grant no civil recognition to the religious celebration. In these cases there are usually two "wedding celebrations" — a civil and a religious. This would be the case in many European and Latin American countries.
In most cases the civil celebration precedes the religious one. The interval can be as short as a few hours, several days or even longer. Since the Church grants no recognition to the civil celebration, faithful Catholics would not begin married life until the sacramental celebration has taken place.
In spite of not recognizing civil marriage, in some countries Church authorities do not allow a religious celebration until after the civil marriage is carried out. This is above all a pastoral measure to ensure the full legal protection of both partners, and the upkeep of any eventual children in the case of an unfortunate breakdown and separation.
If such a measure were not taken, then a man or a woman could find himself or herself bound in conscience to the marriage union but with limited means of legal redress regarding custody of children, property, or other shared responsibilities deriving from their marriage.
With respect to the particular case of our correspondent, I think that if he does his legal homework and completes the necessary paperwork, there is no reason why a civilly recognized religious wedding in Ireland would not be legally recognized in the United States.
If there are particular difficulties, then one can consult one's local bishop.
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Follow-up: Civil Marriage Ceremonies [6-04-2012]
In the wake of our May 21 comments on civil and religious marriage, a reader commented: "A few years ago, a young American couple wished to be married in Rome. The monsignor in charge in the vicariate [Diocese of Rome] recommended VERY strongly that they have a civil marriage performed in the U.S. before coming to Rome, and then have only the religious ceremony in Rome. The reason: the interminable lines and obfuscatory Italian red tape connected with civil recognition of religious marriage in Italy. They followed his advice and all went smoothly and joyfully, allowing them a genuine Roman holiday for their honeymoon instead of bureaucratic nightmares."
I worked in a Roman parish for 12 years and had several weddings of non-Italians. The red tape is real but not so dramatic, and most of it falls upon the parish itself rather than the couple. It must be said, though, that it is usually far easier to get married in the United States than in Italy.
As I mentioned before, the use of the instrument of a previous civil wedding depends upon the laws of each country. A very complicated path which could considerably increase time and costs could be considered a legitimate motivation for a civil wedding in the country of origin, and this was clearly the thinking of the monsignor in question.
On the other hand, every year several hundred Irish couples get married in Rome with relatively little hassle. This is a consolidated practice with a long tradition.
Another reader asked: "I read your reply to a question on civil marriage. I was moved when I read the mail. I want to ask, is it permissible and under what condition can a Catholic be allowed to go and wed a woman in another church (Christ Apostolic Church) and the wedding regarded as valid? Can the man be allowed to receive sacrament in the Catholic Church?"
The question of mixed religious marriages is different from that of civil weddings. The bishop may give a dispensation for a couple to be validly wed according to the rites of another Christian community or for the wedding according to Catholic customs.
In some countries where such unions are fairly common, there are even some special rites that allow for the presence of ministers of different traditions as witnesses.
The bishop may even permit a valid (but not sacramental) wedding between a Catholic and a non-Christian.
Such situations are examined on a case-by-case basis so as to ensure that the marriage will be valid insofar as both partners accept the Church's essential principles regarding marriage, such as openness to life, mutual fidelity and the exclusivity and indissolubility of the bond.