"I, John, take you, Jane, for my lawfully wedded wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and health..." So begins the exchange of marriage vows for Catholics. There are three vows every person desiring to be married in the Church must accept: 1) to be married until death, 2) to be faithful, 3) to be willing to have children. These three vows are integral to the validity of a marriage. Rejection of one or more of these vows at the time of the ceremony would invalidate the marriage. Let’s look at each of these vows.
To Be Married until Death
In the Gospel of Mark (10:2-12), Jesus rejects the Jewish practice of divorce and states emphatically, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Once a man and a woman validly marry in the sacrament of marriage, no earthly judge can separatewhat God has joined together. Even if a civil divorce is obtained, the couple is still married in God’s eyes and their vows are still in effect. That is why Jesus says it is adultery to attempt another marriage after divorce. If a couple were to divorce, they are not free to romantically date (they can have friends) or attempt marriage. A Catholic may never date or marry a divorced person. If a divorced Catholic attempts re-marriage (i.e., enters into a second marriage without Church approval), he or she can no longer receive Holy Communion, or even go to Confession, until the second marriage is ended, validated (following the death of the first spouse or an annulment granted by the Church), or the couple ceases to live as a married couple. It is a serious sin for any Catholic to attempt marriage without the Church’s blessing.
Divorce has reached epidemic proportions in our nation, more than 50% of marriages now end in divorce. One of the most statistically verifiable factors which reduce the divorce rate is whether or not a couple attends Church regularly. Couples that attend Church each Sunday, have a national divorce rate of less than 17%. A Catholic who is divorced can continue to receive the sacraments provided he/she does not attempt remarriage and lives a moral life (1 Cor. 7:10,11).
To Be Faithful
Husbands and wives explicitly promise sexual fidelity, entering into an exclusive sexual relationship with each other. Husbands and wives exchange rights over each other’s body resulting in what used to be known as the marriage debt. Except for serious reasons, sexual relations should not be withheld for an extended period of time from one’s spouse (1Cor. 7:3-5). Violations of this vow of fidelity include not only the physical act of adultery, but even unchastity in the heart (Mt. 5:27, 28). Sexual infidelity does not invalidate a marriage, in and of itself, but it may result in the decision to separate.
To Be Willing to Have Children
Marriage, by its very nature, is ordered to the begetting and rearing of children. Marriage is a vocation to family. Inability to conceive a child (sterility) does not invalidate a marriage, but the refusal to have children, or the inability to have sexual relations (impotency) would (if the condition existed at the time of the marriage ceremony). The Church does not prescribe a set number of children a couple should have, but rather reminds them of the need to be generous in this undertaking since they are bringing forth children made in the image and likeness of God who will become His children, and who will be a blessing to God’s family on earth, the Church. The Church is not opposed to family planning, so long as the method(s) involved in spacing children or limiting their number is moral, and is not motivated by selfish concerns. Natural Family Planning is the surest moral method available (99% effective). The Archdiocese of New York conducts NFP classes for all interested engaged/married couples. It has been statistically demonstrated that married couples who have a child within the first three years of marriage have a greatly reduced rate of divorce. Also, couples who use NFP rather than artificial contraception have a divorce rate of less than 1%.
Form of Marriage
For a Catholic to marry validly, he/she must be married in a Catholic ceremony, or with the permission of the Bishop, before another religious leader who represents the non-Catholic spouse’s religion. With the Bishop’s permission, a Catholic may marry a non-Catholic in a synagogue, mosque, or Christian church. In a mixed marriage (different religions), the Catholic party must promise to raise the children Catholic; the non-Catholic spouse must be made aware of this promise and not object to it. In the Archdiocese of New York, marriages are never permitted outdoors. If a Catholic marries without the blessing of the Church, that Catholic remains unmarried in the eyes of the Church and God, and can no longer receive Holy Communion or Confession until the union is regularized or ended. If that union ends in divorce, the Catholic is free to marry. An annulment is granted because of lack of form. Catholics who have been married civilly, may have their marriages blessed in the Church, if they are free to marry, and return to the sacraments.
Sacramental and Non-sacramental Marriage
The Church recognizes the ability and right of all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation, to contract valid marriages. If a non-Catholic marries according to his/her church’s belief (and both parties are free to marry), that person has entered into a valid marriage. The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of this union. If a Catholic desires to marry a non-Catholic who was previously married, the non-Catholic must obtain an annulment from the Church, even though the non-Catholic’s church may permit divorce.
Only a sacramental marriage, i.e., marriage between two baptized persons, is indissoluble, i.e., unable to be dissolved. Once a sacramental marriage has been validly contracted and consummated, the Church cannot undo the marriage bond. However, the Church does have the authority to dissolve non-sacramental marriages. This is called the Pauline Privilege(two non-baptized persons) and the Petrine Privilege (one baptized, the other not baptized) and is based on St. Paul’s teaching (1 Cor. 7:15).
After a divorce has taken place, a Catholic (or non-Catholic) may begin a process to obtain an annulment. A Church annulment (different from a civil annulment) is the determination made by the Church’s Tribunal (court) that a marriage was never valid from day one, i.e., it is null. Annulments are granted under two categories: 1) the inability to live in the married state due to emotional/psychological factors which one or both spouses suffered from; 2) insincerity in taking the vows at the time of the marriage ceremony, a non-acceptance of one or more of the three vows. Once an annulment is granted, a Catholic is free to marry. Annulments do not make children illegitimate; they remain legitimate since the spouses had acted in good faith. Though no one can buy an annulment, there are fees associated with the process. No one is ever denied an annulment for lack of money.
I took this opportunity to explain in detail these various factors regarding marriage because there seems to be a widespread ignorance among Catholics regarding the Church’s teachings. If anyone has any questions of a theoretical or personal nature in regards to marriage, please call me at 845-331-0301 so we can sit down and chat.
Marriage is one of the most, if not the most, important institution for the Church and for secular society. The future of the Church and society goes by way of the family. Today, let us thank the Lord who established this most rewarding and beautiful way of life. Let us thank the Lord for the gift of our families. And, let us pray for the grace to live the vocation of marriage well, so that individuals, families, and society will all be richly blessed.
Yours in the Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph,