"Part of what a successful marriage requires of a couple is to be mature, responsible, and free. Christian marriage requires that the dimension of faith also be present in a couple's relationship. Since each couple is unique, there is no single, objective standard by which one can judge a couple's readiness to marry, nor guarantee the success of their marriage. However, specific, identifiable special circumstances may be present which indicate a need for further assessment and growth before the final decision is made to proceed with the marriage" (Chicago).
Some impediments (such as mixed religion) are resolved simply by obtaining the proper dispensation from the local ordinary. Other impediments, such as a previous marriage, may take months or years to resolve. The following list of special circumstances is drawn from various diocesan policies. Most dioceses mention most of these. No diocese lists all of them. Typical commentaries are listed under each category with special attention to mixed religion and previous marriages since these are the more complicated and sensitive issues.
Many policies ground their discussion of special circumstances in the 1983 Code of Canon Law that states "all persons not prohibited by law can contract marriage" (c. 1058) and "before marriage is celebrated it must be evident that nothing stands in the ways of its valid and licit celebration" (c.1066). It does, however, empower the local ordinary to "prohibit marriage, but only for a time or a serious cause and as long as that cause exist[s]" (c 1077). In addition to canonical requirements, the policies usually emphasize the increased pastoral care and attention the Church desires to give the couple so that their marriage will be as strong as possible. Most policies make provision for appeal to the bishop if a couple disputes a decision to delay or deny a marriage.
(abuse, addictions, age, pregnancy, mental illnesses, immaturity, brief courtship, marriage on the rebound or as rebellion, lack of financial support)
As serious as all of the above issues are, the resolution is similar for all of them. The priest refers the couple to a professional for assessment and treatment if necessary. The professional's role is to advise the couple and the priest, not to make a final decision on whether the marriage should be delayed. The burden of that decision rests solely with church authority.
Age usually refers to young couples where at least one partner is a teenager. State laws vary as to the legal age for marriage, but for the Church's purposes, most policies simply refer to teens. Maturity varies with the individual and many couples past their teens are not ready to take on the commitment and responsibilities of marriage and would benefit from similar extra attention. In addition to professional assessment, discussion facilitated by a premarital inventory can help such couples to recognize their need for more time. Many policies include parents in this discernment process. The policies of St. Petersburg and Wisconsin have extensive resources for meeting with parents.
Age, however, can also apply to older couples. Despite the tendency to believe they need less preparation because of their presumed maturity, many policies note the special issues that are unique to older couples that merit discussion, i.e., previous relationships (especially for divorced or widowed men and women), finances, the transition from a single lifestyle to a marriage partnership, and obligations to family members (Cincinnati).
Pregnancy is always treated as a caution to marriage as opposed to a reason to speed up a wedding, since it may interfere with a person's free consent. If the couple only started to discuss marriage following the pregnancy, then the issue of undue pressure to marry needs to be explored. On the positive side, "In light of our Church's consistent witness to the sanctity of human life, the couple's choice to embrace the pregnancy should be affirmed by the pastoral minister" (New Jersey).
(ecumenical, interfaith, non-practicing Catholics)
Policies differ on what terms to use for what the Code of Canon Law calls "mixed marriages." Most policies no longer use the term "mixed marriage" but instead use:
- Ecumenical (or interchurch): marriage between a Catholic and a baptized Christian
- Interfaith: marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian
- Interreligious: a more generic term that includes ecumenical, interfaith, and marriage with someone of no religious belief. The Church recognizes all duly performed marriages and recognizes ecumenical marriages as a sacrament.
The confusion over terms is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interreligious marriages, with over 15 different combinations of "Catholic and 'other.'" Despite the complexity of combinations, canon law and liturgical rites are specific about what dispensations and rites are needed. Policies range from one to over 40 pages. Many policies put the details for interreligious marriage in an appendix. (Cincinnati, Chicago, Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Harrisburg treat these details extensively.) What is common to the policies is the admonition to acknowledge the issue. Partners are also urged to learn about their future spouse's faith; not for the purpose of conversion but for understanding and family harmony.
Historically, perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of interreligious marriage has been the promise that Catholic partners must make to raise their children in the Catholic faith (canon 1125). The promise is made in the following or similar words:
I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and, with God's help, intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and reared as Catholics.iv
This promise can be made orally or in writing. The non-Catholic partner is to be informed of the promise so that he or she is aware of the promise and obligation the Catholic partner has made. The non-Catholic partner no longer has to make a promise or sign a statement.
The Decree on Ecumenism, no. 3 clarifies that "to do all in one's power" recognizes the religious convictions of the non-Catholic party and implies that a decision is reached that respects those beliefs. It does not mean an absolute promise at the risk of jeopardizing the marriage itself.
As the Michigan policy states, "The possibility also exists that, despite their best efforts, Catholics will be in a situation where some or all of the children are brought up in the religious tradition of their spouses. In such circumstances, the obligation of Catholics to share the Catholic faith with their children does not cease, but should take the form of prayer, good example, witness to the faith in word and deed, and maintaining a Christian or religious atmosphere in the home."
The Church recognizes that the non-Catholic party may feel a similar obligation to his or her religious commitment.v Despite the challenges of ecumenical and interfaith marriages, they do provide extra motivation for couples to nurture prayer in the home in a form that is common to both spouses.
The Wedding Liturgy
While it is standard for Catholic/Catholic weddings to use the Rite of Christian Marriage Within a Mass and for ecumenical weddings to use the Rite of Christian Marriage Outside a Mass, policies differ as to whether exceptions can be made. See Wedding Liturgy Policies for more detail on wedding liturgies.
To address this perplexing issue, many policies quote Pope John Paul II: "The faith of the person seeking marriage in the Church can exist in varying degrees. It is the primary duty of pastors to facilitate a rediscovery of this faith, nourishing it and bringing it to maturity. But pastors must also understand the reasons that lead the Church to admit to the celebration of marriage, those who are imperfectly disposed" (Familiaris Consortio, 68).
While some evidence of faith is required for the reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony, the level of faith is not the question. Engaged couples must be accepted and instructed at their actual level. "As for wishing to lay down further criteria for admission to the ecclesial celebration of marriage, criteria that would concern the level of faith of those to be married, this would above all involve grave risks" (Familiaris Consortio, 68).
Non-practice is different from a direct rejection of the Catholic faith. Several policies offer helpful sections on assessing and fostering the faith of the Catholic. The Archdiocese of San Francisco states: "We do not start with the premise that the couple must prove their faith. Rather, we are looking to find ways to help them express what faith may actually be present." Is there a willingness to participate in catechesis, share the faith with children, share in some worship, and share moral values" Is there some basic agreement on the part of the couple with Christian values". For example, do they share any common ground with us and our desires for social justice, peace, racial equality, support of human life"? Several dioceses refer to John Westerhoff's four stages of faith (Will Our Children Have Faith, Seabury Press, 1976) as a basis for exploring faith with the couple. Michigan has a well-developed "Faith Inventory." Wisconsin and Allentown have developed curricula for use with non-practicing Catholics.
Place of marriage
Policies follow canon law in saying that, with the proper permission, weddings may be held in the place of worship of the non-Catholic partner (canon 1118). Similarly, a minister of another church may witness the vows, or be present at the Catholic Church. In the latter case, only the Catholic minister received the vows in the name of the church.
(divorce, annulment, death, convalidation, children from a previous marriage)
The complexities of interreligious marriage are probably surpassed only by those of couples who seek to marry after a divorce. Yet one of the first steps in marriage preparation, after hospitality, is to determine the couple's freedom to marry so that the process can continue. Most dioceses have special programs for couples marrying after an annulment. A few have programs for widowed couples and still fewer have special programs for validations. For those dioceses that do not have the numbers to justify a group program, often a mentor couple approach is recommended. In this situation, a few trained lead couples make themselves available to mentor others who share a similar marriage history.
All policies make the point, however, that couples entering a second marriage need special attention to help them understand how the dynamics of a previous marriage will impact their new marriage. Due to the increased risk of divorce, more rather than less preparation is beneficial. If a special program for second marriages does not exist and the couple is older or has children, Marriage Encounter is often recommended as a supplement. In addition to the standard marriage preparation issues, marriage ministers should address the resolution of grief from the previous relationships, freedom to marry, role shifts and step-parenting, and establishing new traditions.
Divorce and annulment
For pastoral and practical reasons, all policies emphasize that no wedding date, even a tentative one, should be set for couples if one or both parties are still going through the annulment process. The use of a premarital inventory that addresses remarriage issues is often recommended. In order to discourage marrying on the rebound or without having understood how the partner contributed to the difficulties of the previous marriage, some dioceses recommend that three to five years be taken to work through these issues, although a specific length is always left to pastoral discretion. Some policies remind the priest to check whether there is a vetitum (prohibition) or monitum (warning) attached to an annulment which might require further counseling prior to entering into a marriage in the church.
Historically, priests often accepted abbreviated preparation for couples who had happy marriages and were marrying after the death of a spouse. That is no longer the case, although the form of marriage preparation should be adapted to the age and circumstances of the couple. Mentor couples can help the engaged discern where they are in the grief process and how they will deal with issues such as merged finances and obligations to children from the previous marriage.
Convalidation (sometimes referred to as validation) can be performed in instances in which a couple who was civilly married acknowledges that they are not in a valid marriage and seeks to regularize their union within the Church. A convalidation is not simply a renewal of the previous intention to marry but the creation of a valid marriage in the sight of the Christian community. (See the Chicago, Dallas, Ft. Worth, Galveston-Houston, Omaha, and Springfield-Cape Girardeau policies for specialized convalidation programs.)
Children from a previous marriage
Even though children from a previous marriage do not become illegitimate after an annulment, this is usually reaffirmed in policies lest this fear is an obstacle to a person seeking an annulment (canon 1137). The primary concern is that the parent recognizes his or her responsibility to support children from a previous relationship both financially and emotionally. Becoming an instant step-parent, whether custodial or non-custodial, also strains a new marriage; thus specialized marriage preparation is especially important. Thirty-seven dioceses note that they have a program specifically designed for second marriages.
(cohabitation, choosing not to have children, abortion)
All policies emphasize the delicate balance that the Church must strike on the issue of cohabitation. Policies urge the priest or deacon to be welcoming and to see this as an opportunity for evangelization; at the same time, he must uphold the Church's teaching on the nature of the sexual commitment made in marriage. Faithful to Each Other Forever warns against two extremes: (1) immediately confronting the couple and condemning their behavior and (2) ignoring the cohabitation.
Many policies quote John Paul II, "Pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation" ( Familiaris Consortio, #81).
Cincinnati observes: "The pastoral challenge for the minister is to invite the engaged couple to consider living separately and chastely."
Most policies suggest these steps for dealing with cohabiting couples:
- Approach the couple with sensitivity and welcome.
- Explore with them the reason that they are now approaching the Church for marriage (as with pregnancy, the risk of divorce is lessened if the decision to marry was made prior to the cohabitation)
- Help the couple to understand the wisdom behind the Church's teaching on sexual intimacy within the sacrament of marriage.
- Encourage the couple to live separately and chastely before their marriage as a spiritual preparation for marriage (exceptions are made for those with children).
Many policies end with the statement, "Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation" ( Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples).
Below are core questions and responses given in Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples.
- If a couple is cohabiting, can marriage be denied or delayed?
Cohabitation and/or premarital sex are not canonical impediments to marriage. A couple may not be denied a wedding for these reasons alone, although additional time might be needed to address the issues raised by cohabitation such as the impact of cohabitation on the couple's freedom to marry and their understanding of the Church's teachings on marriage and sexuality. Absolute moral rectitude is not demanded for sacraments to be celebrated.
- Should cohabiting couples be encouraged to separate prior to the wedding?
Yes, but the couple is not to be refused marriage if they fail to separate.
- Is a simple wedding ceremony most appropriate for cohabiting couples?
Not necessarily. Canon law gives no special consideration for marriages of cohabiting couples but states that couples should have a "fruitful liturgical celebration of marriage" (c.1063).
The Wilmington policy cites these research findings:
- Serial cohabitation is more harmful than single instance cohabitation.vi
- Those who cohabit at least a year before marrying are more likely to divorce than those who cohabit less than a year.vii
Some policies include discussion questions to guide the pastoral minister in exploring this area with the couple. Wisconsin, the Province of Michigan, and Bismarck have extensive discussion guides. Many policies include the USCCB statement, Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples, as an appendix.
Choosing not to have children
A decision by the couple or one party to permanently exclude children invalidates a marriage. New Jersey gives ideas for a pastoral response to this issue.
Although few policies address the issue of abortion directly, those that do explain that having had an abortion requires special pastoral care. Referral to Project Rachel is recommended. Chicago and Cincinnati offer pastoral guidance for discussing abortion during the preparation sessions.
A few policies advise the priest or deacon to help couples identify cultural assumptions that may not be apparent to their partner. Rapid City and Chicago offer more background than most policies and include discussion questions.
Marriage preparation for couples not from the dominant U.S. culture
Marriage preparation policies remain the same but need to be adapted to the couple's cultural background. When possible, programs should be offered in the native language of the couple and led by couples who share their racial or ethnic heritage. Many policies note that care should be taken when interpreting the various marriage preparation inventories in light of the culture of the respondents. Ten dioceses said that they offer marriage preparation programs in Spanish and one diocese (Chicago) offers a program specifically for African Americans. Brownsville and Miami have their policies in English and Spanish. Cultural adaptations for the wedding itself are treated in Wedding Liturgy Policies.
(unwillingness to participate in a program, long-distance preparation, non-registered Catholic, persons with disabilities, infertility, impotence, communicable diseases, citizenship status, prenuptial agreements, sexual identity)
Unwillingness to participate in a program
Policies consider unwillingness to participate in a marriage preparation program as a sign of lack of commitment to marry in the Church. Dioceses have a responsibility to provide adequate and varied options so there is no reasonable obstacle to participation.
Long-distance preparation, though not ideal, is sometimes necessary due to military service or other factors. Couples may reside in separate cities or at a distance from the place where they will be married. Military or college chaplains can often provide independent preparation but the presiding minister needs to coordinate the process. Inventories can be done independently, then discussed when the couple is together or via phone, letters, or e-mail. The couple should meet with the priest or deacon who will preside at their wedding even if most of the preparation will be done long distance. Separation is a challenge but not a reason to omit marriage preparation programs.
Canon law does not make parish registration a pre-requisite for marriage in the Catholic Church (canon 1115). Although a few policies require parish registration, most do not. They take the approach that since marriage takes place within a community of faith, it would be reasonable for the parish to suggest some commitment on the part of the couple who wish to be married in that community. Each situation has to be handled separately and delicately. The presumption of the Church is that people have a natural right to marry. The Church, therefore, is to provide a welcoming presence regardless of whether or not the couple is registered parishioners.
Persons with disabilities
"Realizing the unique gifts handicapped individuals have to offer the Church, we wish to address their need for their fuller integration into the Christian community and their fuller participation in its life" (Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities). Disabilities may be physical or mental. As with questions of readiness, the priest should utilize the counsel of professionals knowledgeable about the particular disability. Except for antecedent impotency, physical disability is not an impediment to marriage. Catholics who are deaf should be offered the opportunity to express their matrimonial consent in sign language. With mental disabilities, the priest needs to assess the couple's ability to give consent and to assume the essential obligations of marriage. The policies of Sioux City, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Rapid City, and Chicago treat this topic in more depth. See also Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities, USCCB, 1995.
Infertility and impotence
While infertility is not an impediment to marriage, it should be discussed with openness and candor if known in advance. Permanent inability to have intercourse nullifies marriage but where there is doubt, the marriage must not be impeded (c.1084). "Continuing medical advances make permanent impotence difficult to confirm and increase the possibility of the impotence being temporary" (Rapid City).
Sexually transmitted diseases
Policies generally treat this topic as one of self-disclosure. Pastoral counseling can be helpful. The Church understands Christian marriage to be a covenantal relationship based on openness and honesty. Both people entering marriage have a right to information that has major ramifications for their marriage. Policies that treat this subject indicate that it is the responsibility of the diocese to have a list of competent counselors/spiritual advisors to offer couples who are in this situation.
Situations that may affect a couple's ability to contract a marriage include: (1) marrying in order to remain in the U.S. or to gain citizenship, which impacts consent, and (2) couples who freely want to marry but one or both are in the U.S. illegally. Policies usually urge the priest to consult with the Chancery or Tribunal for legal clarification.
A prenuptial agreement is not automatically a cause of invalid marital consent but an evaluation of the agreement is necessary to determine if there are any conditions limiting consent. A sacramental marriage is based on enduring committed love and partnership of the whole of life which implies a comprehensive sharing of both spiritual and temporal goods. (Dallas and Cincinnati treat this issue in more depth.)
For a sacramental marriage, the presumption is that "a man and a woman asking to marry understand themselves as a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman. When either person expresses doubt or conflict about sexual identity or sexual orientation, careful attention must be given to both parties. If the couple has not dealt with this topic, further assistance by a counseling professional is strongly recommended" (Cincinnati).