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Anne wrote:

Hi, guys —

My sister-in-law and her husband, married only 3 years, had a fight and are already talking about getting a divorce which greatly worries me and my husband. Some of our Catholic friends, however, are telling us it was probably not a valid marriage in the first place.

Here are the circumstances:

  • At the time of marriage, he was a baptized but not a practicing Catholic.
  • She was a baptized Southern Baptist.
  • They were married by a Baptist minister.
  • There are no children.

I thought, but I may be wrong, when two baptized Christians marry, the Catholic Church recognizes it as valid and sacramental.

My friends say, No — He should have obtained permission from the bishop and, if he didn't,
the marriage wasn't valid and so a civil divorce would be perfectly acceptable.

  • Can you give me some clarification on this issue so I may better counsel my
    sister-in-law, and in doing so, perhaps bring her into communion with the
    Catholic Church?

Thank you,


  { Under what circumstances is a marriage valid [and/or] sacramental? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Anne —

Your friends are pretty much right. When two baptized non-Catholics marry, the Catholic Church recognizes it as valid and sacramental, and when a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic Christian marry, with the permission of the local [ordinary|bishop], it is recognized as valid and sacramental, but a Catholic who gets married outside of the church (as in this case) does not validly contract a marriage.

I would not be cavalier about the marriage saying that a divorce would be perfectly acceptable. Certainly an attempt should be made to rectify the marriage situation, including reconciliation and convalidation . . . (bringing it under the laws of the Church so it is recognized).

On the other hand, if it [the marriage] is going down, I would be reluctant to consider getting it convalidated. I would also say that since it is not a valid marriage, they should not exercise their conjugal rights until things are straightened out (as such relations would constitute fornication).

We can't advise you on how to counsel your sister-in-law but these are the relevant facts.

Any baptized Catholic, lapsed, non-practicing or not, unless he has defected from the Church by writing a letter to that effect to his local bishop, must, for validity, marry in the Church (which includes getting permission to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony) to a Catholic or, if not to a Catholic, again, get permission of the bishop.

  • Baptized non-Catholic Christians, when they marry each other, are not under the authority of the Church and so do not need proper form (as it is called) to have a valid, sacramental marriage.
  • Non-Catholic, non-baptized people can also have a valid marriage without the Church, though it is not sacramental.


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