Dear Friends in Christ,
A paragraph is printed in our Mass booklet each week which explains who should and should not receive Holy Communion, and among the Catholics who should not receive the Holy Eucharist are those who are married “outside of the Church.” But what does this mean? For many centuries Catholic Christians have been bound by the Church’s law to observe what is called the “canonical form of marriage,” which means that they must exchange their marriage vows in the presence of a priest or deacon and two witnesses. And before being permitted to exchange vows in this way, they must also fulfill the requirements for marriage preparation which are specified by canon law, the local bishop, and the parish pastor. These requirements include, among other things, demonstrating that one is free to marry, that one understands the nature and obligations of marriage, and that one is entering the sacrament of marriage freely and with the proper intention. Finally, if a Catholic intends to marry a non-Catholic, then the Catholic party must also promise to raise any children born of the marriage in the Catholic Church.
A Catholic who for any reason marries in any way other than that described above has married “outside the Church” and is by that fact alone impeded from receiving any sacraments of the Church, including the Holy Eucharist and Penance. The only exception to this rule is made for Catholics who request from the local bishop permission to be dispensed from canonical form in order to marry a non-Catholic in the religious tradition of the future spouse, but this dispensation must be sought before the marriage and must be given in writing. Absent these conditions, any Catholic who is married by a Protestant minister or a judge is not married in the Church, and while the union is a civil marriage acknowledged by the state, it is not a sacramental marriage and therefore a Catholic in such a marriage is in a condition of impaired communion in the Church.
The most common reason Catholics marry outside of the Church is that they or their intended spouse have been married before, have not obtained an annulment from the Church, and are therefore not free to marry. Other reasons include going through a period of not practicing the faith or of thinking that because marriage is personal it is therefore private and so the Church should have nothing to say about it. But marriage is a public state of life and a sacrament of Christ and the Church, and any Catholic who has been married outside the Church may not receive Holy Communion or go to Confession until the situation is resolved by a Tribunal of the Catholic Church and the convalidation of one’s civil marriage. If you are married outside the Church and want to explore the possibility of being restored to the sacraments, please contact Timothy Nielsen, our Director of Christian Formation, to make an appointment. And remember that those Catholics who are impeded from the sacraments by being married outside the Church should still come to Mass each Sunday and seek a spiritual communion with the Lord Jesus even as they work towards being able to marry in the Church.