Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Dear Father Tharp:
My son who is a Catholic was married in his wife’s church (Methodist) last year. Does the Catholic Church recognize them as being married, and when they have children will they be able to have them baptized in the Catholic Church? His wife feels that if their marriage is not recognized that she does not feel like going to Mass any longer. Up until recently, they have been alternating attending services between each others’ churches.

Name and Hometown Withheld

Sacraments are an essential element to the life of a Christian. They are conduits of grace and represent our participation in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. They are not just ceremonies for the benefit of the community; they are living encounters with the Risen Christ and a sharing in His Divine Glory. Hence, what makes up a sacrament is a critical consideration in addressing your question.

Let’s begin with a definition. Sacraments are visible signs instituted by Christ to confer grace. We can put this more formally by saying that sacraments have three components: form, matter, and intention. (We could also include the proper minister and what is required to fruitfully receive a sacrament as well.) Generally speaking, the form is the words that are spoken over the visible sign (the matter) with the intention of doing what the Church wants done in each sacrament. For example, at the Holy Mass, when the priest confects the Holy Eucharist, he takes bread and wine (matter) and speaks the words of institution over them (form). In this action, he intends what the Church intends, namely to make present the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. These same three elements are present in the Sacrament of Marriage.

In marriage, the matter of the sacrament is the consent expressed by the exchange of vows. When a person enters into marriage, he or she is making a faithful, permanent gift of self for the good of the other and for the good of children the marriage ought to bring forth. If a person doesn’t intend to make a faithful, fruitful, permanent gift of self when giving the vows, this can prevent the marriage bond from coming into existence.

The form of the sacrament concerns how the consent is obtained. For the Church, the proper form for marriage entails the exchange of vows by one man and one woman, who are free to marry, in the presence of the Church’s properly delegated minister (usually a priest or deacon) or duly delegated representative, in the presence of two witnesses. The intention of course is to live as a Christian husband and wife until death. Based upon what you have said in your question, I would have to conclude that the marriage is invalid. In not fulfilling the form of marriage, there is some question about whether a valid sacramental bond came into effect.
Your son had the obligation to follow the Church’s law concerning marriage. By not doing so, he has failed in a basic duty as a Catholic. In essence, looking at it from the outside, I would have questions about his intention to live as a Catholic. Is being Catholic simply a tie to a cultural dimension of his family background or is it the living well-spring of his knowledge of Christ?

Further, based on your question, it sounds like he is not regularly going to Sunday Mass. If the couple wants to have the child baptized, there must be evidence that the couple practices the Catholic Faith. If they are going back and forth between the Methodist church and the Catholic parish, then reasonably, one could infer that this couple doesn’t know what faith they are going to profess. Therefore, the child ought not to be baptized until such a time as this marriage can be regularized as well as question surrounding the practice of the Faith.

The good news is this situation is easy to correct. Assuming that there are no other impediments and that both spouses are free to marry, the couple could receive a convalidation of their vows. The act of convalidation euphemistically is called “having the marriage blessed.” In a convalidation, the couple seeks to fix anything which might leave the status of the marriage in doubt. In your son’s case, the lack of proper canonical form needs to be corrected. As I would see it, it could be a very simple ceremony in which the couple could fulfill the canonical form and thus bring their marriage into line with what the Church intends for the Sacrament of Marriage. If they are interested in straightening out this situation, their parish priest can help iron out any specific questions they may have.

With all that said, however, I would like to point out two things. On the one hand, from your question, I detect that this couple seeks to live in union with God and to know Him authentically. I think that needs to be praised and encouraged. On the other hand, I can’t help but notice a certain manipulative potential in your daughter-in-law’s statement. If she was really all that concerned with what the Church thought about her marriage, why were they married in the Methodist church in the first place? The statement about not feeling comfortable at Mass if the marriage isn’t recognized sounds vaguely like a threat. Implicitly, her attitude suggests that if you don’t like what I have done, then I am going elsewhere. As the Catholic who will, in all likelihood, serve as the bridge to bring her into the Church, you must avoid being sidelined by this sort of emotional argument. Regardless of how she feels about her relationship with the Church, there is an objective norm to these matters and she and her spouse didn’t follow it. If she is really interested in feeling comfortable at Mass, why not see into having the marriage blessed and take part in RCIA? In these two ways, she can truly taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

I appreciate how difficult this must be for you as a parent. It’s hard to see your kids turn away from the Faith that you worked so hard to encourage in them. Know that you and your family will be remembered in my prayers as your family works out this situation.


Blogger Paula said...

Why don't you post more often?

6:03 PM  
Blogger Seamus said...

I doesn't sound like this woman's son is much of a Catholic. Attending Sunday Mass and obeying the marriage laws of the Church of 2 of the 6 precepts of the faith. (e.g., the bare minimum requirements to be a Catholic)

8:20 PM  
Blogger Catholic Psychology said...

Father Tharp: I have been studying Catholic blogs. I especially like yours. It is so informative, and the writing is well done. The feedback you provide is so vital. I will continue to consult your site for my own educational needs and walk with Christ in the Catholic Church. Please take a moment and consider my site, as I seek to consider psychological perspectives in the Catholic Church. (Your contributions or feedback would be welcome there.) Jim H.

5:00 PM  

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