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Civilly Married Couples

Are civilly married couples considered cohabiting if not married in the Church?
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

Question: Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe, Ireland, once said that cohabiting couples must not receive Communion. I have two related questions: 1) Are civilly married couples considered cohabiting if not married in the Church? 2) If a civilly married couple, never married in church, divorce and one or both eventually want to get married in the Church with a different partner, will they be allowed to? -- F.N., Coquitlam, British Columbia

Answer: The answer would depend on several circumstances and on the religious status of the couple.

If at least one member of the couple is Catholic, then the Church would not recognize the civil marriage as valid and the couple's status would be practically the same as a cohabiting couple.

This is because positive Church law ties the validity of a Catholic wedding to following the proper canonical form. Since this is positive and not divine law the local bishop has the authority to dispense from the canonical form. This is usually granted if for some serious reason a Catholic wishes to marry according to a non-Catholic religious ritual. The dispensation is rarely, if ever, accorded when a Catholic wants to marry according to a civil ceremony.

If a couple of civilly married, baptized non-Catholics were to become Catholic, then their status would depend on whether their former community recognized the validity of civil marriage or not. If their civil marriage was recognized as valid, then, in the eyes of God and the Church, that marriage would also be sacramental. This is because the Church considers that all valid marriages between baptized persons are automatically sacramental even in those cases where the particular religious community does not number matrimony among the sacraments.

If a civilly married couple receive baptism, then the baptism itself transforms their valid civil marriage into a sacramental marriage and this fact is noted on the baptismal register.

In both of the above cases if there is some well-grounded doubt as to the validity of the original bond (for example, if the terms of the civil wedding created a presumption against making a lifelong commitment), then the couple should be wed on entering the Catholic faith.

Addressing the second question, we can say that if a Catholic had entered into an invalid civil wedding, and later divorced, in principle he or she could marry someone else in the Church.

It is possible that the same rule would apply in the second situation mentioned, but each case would have to be examined on its own merits to determine the sacramental validity of the previous Christian marriage. In general the law presumes the validity of such a marriage until the contrary is proven (Canon 1060).

The previous civil bond of someone who divorced before baptism would not usually constitute an obstacle to being married in the Church. If necessary, the previous marriage could be dissolved in virtue of the Pauline privilege (Canon 1143).

It is important to note, however, that marriage in all of the above cases require the permission of the local bishop, especially if the person has civil obligations toward the spouse and children arising from a previous bond (Canon 1071).

Likewise, before any of these weddings can take place, Canon 1085.2 requires that "the nullity or dissolution of the prior marriage is established legitimately and certainly."

* * *

Follow-up: Both Hands at Elevation of Host

About the importance of the priest using both hands for raising the host after the consecration, a distinguished reader commented on a possible variant.

He wrote: "There may be a case for using one hand when the other hand holds the vessel beneath the raised host, as I often do. In other words, at the consecration the whole paten which is usually large and flat is raised slightly and after the consecration the big host is raised above the paten or dish and shown to the people. Then the dish is in the left hand and the raised host in the right."

I would agree with our reader that this particular form would not lack reverence and decorum.

The only caveat I would have is that raising the paten is not foreseen at this moment. The rubrics, in directing the priest to take the bread ("accipit panem") and deposit it upon the paten after showing it to the faithful, seem to presuppose that he physically handle the bread itself and not the paten. This would be in continuity with the Roman tradition as exemplified in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.

Likewise, raising the paten during the showing of the host, while not forbidden, is not mentioned at this point, whereas the rubrics specify two other moments when the paten should be or may be raised.

Although the showing of the host and chalice after the consecration are central moments of the Eucharistic Prayer, liturgically speaking, the elevation of paten and chalice during the concluding doxology until the people have finished the final amen is of more importance. This is because it makes explicit the whole mystery of the sacred sacrifice's giving glory to the Father, through, with and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit, whereas the symbolism behind the showing after the consecration emphasizes above all the mystery of transubstantiation.

Raising the paten at the consecration might possibly make it harder to catechize the faithful regarding the full meaning of this moment of the Mass.

The other moment when the paten may be raised is during the "This is the Lamb of God." At this moment the celebrant has a choice as to present the remaining fragments of the large host to the faithful above the raised paten, or above the raised chalice. In this case it should never be simply presented to the people without the paten or chalice as is usually done in the consecration.

Several other readers pointed out that the celebrant's reverence, or lack thereof, toward the Eucharist at Mass is very often reflected in the behavior of other ministers and of some of the faithful. Above all they pointed out the effects on the liturgical and spiritual formation of children.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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