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Bernard wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • Is it possible to be married by the Catholic Church but not by the state?

Some jurisdictions like Washington State only recognize civil marriages in which papers are explicitly filed with the government and other requirements are met.

Let's assume that the paperwork is only required if you want to be considered married by the state and are not otherwise already considered married by the state, such as if you were married in another jurisdiction recognized by the state. Let's also assume that the state does not recognize the Catholic Church as such a jurisdiction.

  • If a marriage would be valid under that civil law and by Catholic law, but the couple choose not to make it valid to the state, by not filing the state paperwork (but not denying the marriage), can they still make it valid to the Church and be married by the Church?
  • What if the marriage wouldn't be valid under the civil law but is valid under Catholic law, for example if state age requirements aren't met?

Let's assume it's not illegal for the Church to do so in both cases, since neither are considered marriages by the state.

  • Also, how would one find out if someone is considered to be married by the Catholic Church (to verify what they say or if they can't be contacted)?



  { Is it possible to be married by the Catholic Church but not by the state? }

Fr. Jonathan replied:

Dear Bernard,

Marriage is a public event so the Church recognizes the civil law role in Marriage. Although State law differs, in general the priest or deacon is recognized by the States as serving also as the Justice of the Peace in the context of a religious ceremony, therefore, the couple is required to give the priest a Marriage License prior to the marriage and then he signs it after the ceremony and therefore the couple is validly married in the Church and it is recognized by the State.

Some couples ask the Church to just do the religious ceremony and not the State. When and if this happens they are validly married in the Church but the State has no record of it. Therefore the couple could not claim any civil rights of marriage with the State such as:

  • when one of the couple is sick
  • inheritance issues are involved, or
  • when social security issues are involved.

In my experience there are three main reason why couples ask for this from the Church:

  1. In other countries where the civil laws may be offensive to marriage there may be reasons not to involve the government.
  2. It can be requested when elderly couples get married and each one has separate Social Security checks and separate families that will inherit separate estates. Civil law marriage would force changes in their finances yet they don't want to live in sin so they ask for the Church marriage only.
  3. Some illegal immigrants who are afraid of being discovered by the government ask for this.

In my diocese, we would not authorize a priest to do this. Why?:

  • We do not want to hurt our relationship with the State concerning Marriage
  • It can be participating in fraudulent actions
  • We feel that Marriage is a publicly recognized institution not a private institution.

You said:

  • Also, how would one find out if someone is considered to be married by the Catholic Church (to verify what they say or if they can't be contacted)?

If a Catholic is married validly in the Church then it is recorded in their Baptismal Register, however, only officials of the Church have access to those records. Therefore, there is no official way for just anyone to see if their neighbor is validly married.

I hope this is helpful.

Fr. Jonathan

Bernard replied:


I appreciate the answers and what you're doing with this forum.

There's less pressure to ask questions this way.

Best wishes,


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