Dear Friends in Christ,
Marriage is one of the seven sacraments given by Christ to His Church, but it is also a natural bond that exists between men and women of all religions and no religion. Moreover, marriage is also a contract acknowledged – and in some ways regulated – by civil authority in every nation on earth. All three of these dimensions can exist together or be separated into parts according to the circumstances. So, for example, when two baptized Christians marry each other for the first time, they bring into being by their exchange of consent the sacrament of matrimony, the natural bond of spousal love, and the civil contract all at the same time. And as long as they stay married to each other while they are both living, things remain simple and clear. It is when the civil contract of marriage is dissolved by a divorce decree from a civil court that things get confusing.
Because of the clear teaching of the Lord Jesus, Catholics believe that the sacramental bond of matrimony, once it truly comes into being, can be broken only by the death of one or both spouses. So long as they both shall live, however, no power on earth can break that bond. A civil divorce may allow the spouses to live separate lives, and in most countries those who are civilly divorced are now free to marry again in a new civil contract. But such re-marriage after divorce does not and cannot constitute the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and that fact is often obscured in our time both by the great number of remarriages after divorce and by the equivocal use of the word “marriage.”
So, that no misunderstanding may exist among the people of St Mary’s, please remember that Catholic Christians must be married in the Church according to canonical form, which means that after their freedom to marry is established and the couple are properly prepared for the duties of marriage, they exchange their vows before a priest or deacon in their proper parish. A Catholic who marries anyone outside of the Church and without canonical form is “married” only in civil law and does not participate in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. And for this reason, such a Catholic may no longer receive Holy Communion or go to Confession until and unless he or she can exchange marital consent in the Church and bring into being the sacramental bond of Christian marriage.
There are many reasons why Catholics get married outside the Church and place themselves in impaired communion as described above. And all Catholics have a duty to accompany those who are living in such irregular marriages with love, patience, and understanding. But we also all have a duty to help those who may be married outside the Church to try to find a remedy for their situation by making use of the time tested means developed by the Church for this purpose. So, if you know a Catholic who is married outside the Church, please encourage them to approach their pastor to find a way back towards full communion with Christ and His Church. And anyone with questions about a particular situation is most welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.