Counseling Through the Marriage Laws of the Catholic Church
Confusion is the most common element when it comes to the Canon Law of the Catholic Church concerning its marriage laws. Especially for counselors who hope to counsel those through it. Protestant counselors in this regard can release a sigh of relief in
that they are not concerned with such legalistic matters, however, Catholic counselors will need some education in the confusing and murky waters of the Church and its marriage laws.
In studying these legalistic issues, one should not be too intimidated, these rules only caused Henry VIII to break from Rome and is also the cause for most Catholics in leaving the faith! With such pressure of properly interpreting these ideals, the Catholic counselor should have a firm understanding of these regulations. If any Protestant counselors wish to also attempt to understand these rules, buckle up for this crash course in Canon Law.
There are two primary premises of Catholic Theology regarding marriage and maybe understanding this can somewhat help others at least understand why the Church is so protective of matrimony. First, the Church believes in the unbreakable union of marriage. Echoing in the back of this theology is Christ’s words that “what God has joined together, no man can put asunder”. Christ even emphasized that if a man put away his wife and take another, he commits adultery. With such scriptural references, the Catholic Church has always defended the vow of marriage. The second premise of Catholic theology regarding marriage is the sacramental nature of the vow. In the Catholic Church, marriage is considered a sacrament. Christ at Cana elevated this social
contract to a holy union between a man and woman. As a vow before God, a sacred covenant is permanent. The nature of a vow and its sacredness and indissolubility are characteristics that make a vow permanent. Hence divorce or a breaking of a valid vow is impossible within Catholic Canon Law.
While divorce is permissible in Protestant circles, it is strictly forbidden in Catholic circles. Hence as a Catholic counselor, one cannot encourage the remarriage of any person bound by a legitimate sacramental bound. Any marriage thereafter would be considered adultery and illegitimate, even if conducted in another church.
While this idea is simple enough, Catholic ideas on marriage become more complicated as different situations arise that surround the nature of vows and intent. The subjective element of one’s intellect and will can play a major role in the validity of the vow and hence the entirety of the sacrament’s validity. With these things in mind, what is necessary for a vow? Obviously to make any vow, a person must be free from cohesion or outside pressures. They must have a full understanding and comprehension of the nature of the vow and the competency to carry it out. Furthermore, in a vow such as marriage, there must be full transparency of intents between both parties. These subjective elements would include a variety of examples that could nullify a vow. For example, if someone was forced to marry against their will or a person made false promises or hid their true identity. In these cases, the vow is not “pure” and the sacramental nature of the vow cannot manifest. Keep in mind, these subjective elements are all preliminary to the vow and not after it. For example, when one makes the statement for “better or worst”, one refers to incidents after the vow and not prior. To nullify, invalidate, or annul a sacramental vow, the deficiency must be a priori. The seed of the issue must exist prior to the making of the vow. This is the primary reasons annulments are granted for people who discover dark unknown secrets after the vow. Full disclosure was not given or true intents were not shared prior to the marriage.
However, if bad things occur after the marriage, such as a moment of weakness via infidelity, the Church will not grant an annulment; Of course, if that infidelity can be tied to prior unknown feelings, it could be used as grounds for an annulment but not if it was merely a moment of weakness or a mistake that was never intended or anticipated. However, this does not entail that one must continue to live with such a person. In cases of infidelity, a person may indeed separate but not remarry. A more serious issue would be abuse. Usually cases of abuse, however, are granted because abuse is usually a seed prior to the vow and not something that developed after the taking of the vow. In cases of abuse, the spouse is encouraged to leave the abuser at all costs.
Hence an annulment is not a divorce. An annulment is merely an a priori deficiency before the vow that invalidates it. Hence in all reality there was no sacramental marriage contract. While this may seem like a loop hole to some, it actually represents a thorough understanding of the subjective element of man and also the requirements of a vow.
In addition to these regulations, there are also cases of invalid marriage prior to sacramental marriage. In these cases, the man and woman are not seen as married in the eyes of the Church and hence eligible to marry within the Church after civil divorce to another person. The reasoning behind this is that the Church does not consider certain marriages to be valid. Within this circle, one can find any civil marriage without a religious figure. If a man and woman are married before a justice of the peace, then that marriage is considered invalid. In fact, the Church would view such a marriage as merely living together in sin.
Other examples include unbaptized individuals who may marry, or if a Christian married an unbaptized non-Christian. In these cases, the sacramental form cannot manifest and the marriage is invalid. Non Catholics who are Christian who may marry within their own denomination, however, are considered valid unions in the eyes of the Catholic Church. In some cases though, if a Protestant man divorced his wife and sought to marry a Catholic woman, the Catholic Church would forbid such a union because they would consider the man to be married to the previous woman. Of course, this union is until death, in which case, if the one of the spouses died, then remarriage is again possible.
In regards to Catholics, a Catholic can marry a baptized person of another Christian denomination with permission from his or her bishop. In which case a dispensation is granted that ensures the spiritual guarantee that the Catholic spouse will remain Catholic and all
children will be raised Catholic. If this is not agreed upon or approved by the local bishop, then the marriage would be invalid. Also if a Catholic wishes to marry in a non-Catholic Church to a Protestant spouse, one again can gain permission from the local bishop but without this permission, the marriage would be invalid. Finally, if two Catholics marry outside the Catholic Church, the marriage is always invalid. This is even the case, if the Catholic leaves the Catholic Church.
As one can see, there is a host of situations that canon lawyers and the tribunal deals with on a daily basis regarding Catholics and re-marriage. However, it is critical especially if a Catholic counselor, to understand the teaching and rules of the Church when counseling people who are seeking marriage or remarriage.
If you are interested in Christian Counseling Educational Courses, please review the program.
Mark Moran, MA, GC-C, SCC-C