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Unregistered weddings, or cohabitation with a religious blessing, are a legal minefield

I am pretty sure that a wedding without any civil registration is illegal from the point of view of canon law

By on Monday, 7 May 2012

For a real eye-opener of an article, from the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, do have a look at this.

What Muslims get up to in their mosques and in their Sharia councils is, of course, completely up to them, but this story does have some important resonances for us Catholics.

When you get married in a Catholic church, the priest or some other person acts as an “authorised person” and registers the marriage in a marriage register provided by the local registrar of marriages. These registers have to be kept in a secure place, so that unauthorised people do not get their hands on them and falsify the records. The same goes for the certificates of marriage. Every now and then you read in the papers of dodgy clerics who do weddings of convenience, mainly for would-be immigrants. When caught, these clerics get sent to jail.

As far as I am aware, it is illegal for a Catholic priest to conduct a wedding service for a couple who are already married. When a couple, married in a registry office, wish later to marry in church, then the Church does provide for what is termed “convalidation”, but these services are done in private.

Now, it is logically possible, I suppose, for a Catholic priest to marry a couple in a purely religious ceremony, and I have heard of this happening in France. Let’s say an elderly widower wishes to marry; under French law his wife would then stand to inherit a set portion of his fortune. In order not to damage the inheritance prospects of his children (and if the prospective bride is herself a woman of means) he may choose to marry in church only, which of course would have no standing in law.

Funnily enough, I was once asked to marry a couple in a religious ceremony only. They were both on benefits and stood to lose their benefits (or some of them) if they married. For an unrelated reason I was unable to marry them, but I am pretty sure that this sort of wedding – religious only, without civil registration – is illegal from the point of view of canon law.

The whole thing is a bit of a minefield.

Sara Khan’s article highlights the problems of what is effectively cohabitation with religious blessing but no state sanction. If you have a religious wedding only you are not married in the eyes of the state and do not benefit from all the advantages that the married state brings. Incidentally, this was the case in penal times, when Catholic marriages were not recognised. That is why when Mrs Maria Fitzherbert married the Prince of Wales, she did so before an Anglican vicar: thus her wedding was completely legal, and the Hanoverian authorities later went out of their way to destroy the evidence for it.

It is not entirely fanciful that we may return to those days when Catholic weddings are no longer recognised by the state; but in that case, what would happen is that we would have the French and Belgian system: Catholics who wanted to marry would have to undergo two separate ceremonies, one civil and one religious. Whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing, I am not sure. I have heard some priests say they would welcome it.

Incidentally, there is nothing to stop mosques being registered for weddings, and imams becoming authorised persons; nor for that matter is there anything to stop Muslims getting married in registry offices either before or after their religious marriage ceremonies – except of course in cases of polygamy. As I say, the whole thing is a minefield. And one has the idea that it is going to get more complicated in future.

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    I’ll be honest with you, Father ALS, I ‘d much rather see the Church withdraw the requirement for a civil registration of religious marriage. Of all the canonical reforms I would like to see that surely tops the list.

    It made sense when governments upheld and promoted marriage, but it makes no sense whatsoever when governments have gone out of their way to destroy marriage so that in effect what is officially recognised by law is something entirely different to marriage itself. Furthermore, it can be a sign of civil disobedience if religious folks refuse to participate in the civil registrations.

    Of course, it would mean that we’ll lose the legal benefits that come with marriage, but few of these are exclusive to marriage anymore anyway, and surely it would be a small sacrifice worth making.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Under your proposed reform people in a Catholic marriage would be able to have a civil marriage with someone else at the same time. They could leave their Catholic spouse at any time, with no legal obligation to them at all. Is that really such a good idea?

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

     Furthermore, you’re wrong to call religious unregistered weddings
    “cohabitation with a religious blessing”, because that implies that
    that civil registration is somehow needed to effect marriage.

    It is rather so that (nowadays anyway) civil marriages are
    cohabitation with registrar blessing – and the cohabitation part
    even seem to be optional.

    You bring up a good point though, and one that’s no doubt going to
    crop up a whole lot more.

    It’s good that you keep writing thought-provoking articles.

  • Frweatherby

    Convalidations do not need to take place “in private” and so far as I know never do.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I was once told you had to close the church doors when doing a convalidation……..

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Civil marriages between unbaptised people who are free to marry are valid marriages and it is wrong to say that they are cohabitation with registrar blessing.

    In most Catholic parishes in England there are very few marriages nowadays. The sacrament of matrimony, like the sacrament of penance, seems to be in terminal decline.

  • theroadmaster

    Marriage as understood in sacramental terms within the Catholic Faith, is the consecration of the natural union between one man and one woman before God and predates the foundation of modern states by thousands of years.  The civic version of marriage lacks this profound insight and is susceptible to external forces that can force changes to it’s significance and meaning at a whim.  The Church should keep a respectable distance from the state with regards to reciprocal arrangements for marital registrations as these can lead to legal entanglements and civic interference where it is not warranted.  But the positive side of state registrations of marriage can be seen in the British Muslim context where a lack of such provision is seriously undermining the dignity and status of women in terms of human rights.

  • chiaramonti

    Maria Fitzherbert’s marriage to the then Prince of Wales was illegal under English Law (and therefore not recognized) because he did not have royal permission to marry. (Royal Marriages Act 1772). Permission had not been sought and they married in secret. Had it been, it would have been withheld because she was a Roman Catholic. Had the Prince somehow obtained permission, he would have been excluded from the succession under the Act of Settlement. I cannot imagine any Catholic priest in England or Wales agreeing to officiate at a marriage which did not involve the parties becoming a married couple according to the law of the land. In the event of “gay marriage” becoming possible in English law (God forbid), the only practical solution will be for the state to require all couples to marry in a civil ceremony and for any religious ceremony to be conducted thereafter in accordance with the rules of the particular religious denomination. Otherwise, mischief makers will bring legal proceedings against parish priests who refuse to “marry” members of the same sex. A civil ceremony for all will ensure that the Church can maintain its doctrinal requirements and officiate only at such marriages that are in accordance with Church doctrine. The Church could also continue to refuse to recognize marriages of catholics that did not include a religious ceremony.

  • Parasum

    “In the event of “gay marriage” becoming possible in English law (God forbid)…”

    ## Roll on the day.

    “A civil ceremony for all will ensure that the Church can maintain its
    doctrinal requirements and officiate only at such marriages that are in
    accordance with Church doctrine. The Church could also continue to
    refuse to recognize marriages of catholics that did not include a
    religious ceremony.”

    ## Provided that is all the case – what is the problem for the CC ?

    “X is a legal minefield” is hardly a reason not to do what needs to be done: there are always good reasons for not doing what needs to be done. Changing the Act of Succession is or was a legal minefield – or does that plea lose its force only if it makes like difficult for Catholics ? If so, the argument is really nothing but an excuse to deny rights to others of whom Catholics happen to disapprove. Very pretty ethics.

  • Parasum

    “They could leave their Catholic spouse at any time, with no legal obligation to them at all.”

    ## A lot of them do so anyway. Sacramental marriage may be nice and pretty, but it has zero to do with whether married life lasts, or is free of violence, adultery, desertion, etc. The sacramentality of a rite does not affect marriage in *that* way. If the spouses are pond-life, they remain pond-life, sacrament or no sacrament. What counts is what sort of people they are, that, & nothing else.

  • Adam Thomson

    I agree that the consequences to which you draw attention are not a good idea. However, I also feel strongly the force of LocutusOP’s argument that “what is officially recognised by law is something entirely different to marriage itself.’ If the Prime Minister has his way, what the state will register is not marriage but a partnership which may or may not happen to be marriage. And I am by no means sure that Christians are under obligation to register their marriage on those terms. At present I don’t know how to resolve the dilemma – apart from praying that it won’t be forced upon us at all.

  • Elizabeth

     Father, since priests cannot marry people who are already married, if the Church became unable to perform legal marriages and we all had to get civilly married first and then marry in the Church, would all Catholic weddings become convalidations?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Well, I am not sure. I reckon not, as the civil wedding between Catholics is not a marriage. The reason this is tricky is because the Catholic Church recognised civil weddings between non-Catholics as effecting a proper valid marriage.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    There is nothing in Catholic marriage law that can force a husband who deserts his wife to look after her financially. Removing the civil registration of Catholic marriages would be excellent news for “pond-life”. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_T66SMPJX2FB34SAS4GD7SDVE4U Richard

    Sara Khan’s article highlights the problems of what is effectively
    cohabitation with religious blessing but no state sanction. If you have a
    religious wedding only you are not married in the eyes of the state and
    do not benefit from all the advantages that the married state brings. 

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_T66SMPJX2FB34SAS4GD7SDVE4U Richard

    “Sara Khan’s article highlights the problems of what is effectively cohabitation with religious blessing but no state sanction. If you have a religious wedding only, you are not married in the eyes of the state and do not benefit from all the advantages that the married state brings.”

    Words fail.  I can’t believe that any Catholic could write this.
    Let alone a presbyter.
    Let alone a “Doctor of Moral Philosophy”.
    The Sacrament of Matrimony entitles a Catholic man and woman to live together in the state of grace whereas otherwise they would be living in a state of sin, and heading for Hell. This is fundamental and immutable.
    The arrangements the Church makes with the State are secondary,prudential,changeable and incidental, though important in their sphere.
     

  • Jason Clifford

    It is not true to claim that someone could enter into marriage within the Church and be able to have a civil marriage to someone else. The Church specifically requires couples entering marriage to not have entered into any valid marriage to anyone else and there is an assumption that any form of marriage is valid unless it is specifically determined, on the facts of the specific case, not to have been.

    Were someone to seek to enter into a civil marriage to another person after entering into Christian marriage the Church would be powerless to stop them but that is a failure on the part of the state and the individuals rather than the Church.

  • Jason Clifford

    How is it tricky?

    The Church is clear that marriage is a Sacrament between Christians and that no Catholic can validly marry other than in accordance with the relevant Canons of the Church. Unless they have a dispensation to be able to do so no Catholic who has a civil ceremony is validly married.

    It’s fundamental to living our baptism.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    How would it be a failure on the part of the state? What could the state do if the Catholic marriage is not civilly registered? If a Catholic marriage is not recognised by the state then we cannot expect the state to intervene when it breaks down. If someone wants the law to offer protection to them if they are abandoned by their spouse then they need to have their marriage registered. 

  • Patrick_Hadley

    Mr Thomson, I am assume you are aware that the state registers as marriage the re-marriage of divorced persons and marriages involving baptised Catholics in registry offices. So every day what “the state will register is not marriage but a partnership which may or may not happen to be marriage.” There is nothing new about this at all. Is it really a dilemma? Catholics have been registering their marriages for hundreds of years even though we have a different understanding of marriage from that of the state. Whatever else the legalisation of gay marriage will do, it will not change the state’s idea of marriage from being the same as the Catholic idea of marriage.

  • PFO

    While living in Ireland in the 90s; I read the records of a Catholic Lay Congress held in Australia, circa 1910s.

    One of the most prominent topics of discussion was the coordination between religious sects to put pressure on the state to create a ‘marriage license’ to add at least a veneer of respectability to the then growing phenomenon of ‘cohabitation.’

    Before then, cohabitation was so rare as to be an anomaly. Yet the Church Fathers clearly saw the danger to society at-large as more couples opted out of marriage.

    So they eventually prevailed upon the state to enact a ‘marriage license’ law for couples unwilling to be subject to the Code of Canons and Morals of Holy Mother Church.

    Couples married by the priest-rabbi-imam were NOT required to have a ‘marriage license’, since the state recognized the church/synagogue/mosque/temple certificate and registry as adequate proof of valid marriage.

    In the century since the ‘marriage license’ has devolved from option to requirement with the horrors of “family-law courts” enforced upon the populace by the sheriffs gun.

    Since you can only appease cretins and tyrants for a while, it’s past time for the Church Hierarchy to:

    1.) Re-establish Metropolitan & Inferior Tribunals in all dioceses, adjudicating every section of the Code of Canons.

    2.) Release Clergy & Laity from any enforcement of state ‘marriage license’ laws.

    3.) Live the Roman Catholic Culture of Life and its traditional education/assistance/protection of families so they will not have to ‘sell-their-souls’ for any reason to the satanic state.

  • Adam Thomson

    I take your point, although I would personally see a great difference between the question of which particular persons are entitled to enter marriage, and the question of what marriage actually is. In the beginning, marriage was a life-long union between one man and one woman. But under the law of Moses, divorce and remarriage were allowed. (Our Lord expressly declared that this was “because of the hardness of your hearts”. Nevertheless God did permit it for a time.) But marriage between persons of the same sex has never been permitted at any time. So the recognition of “same sex marriage” is to my mind a much more fundamental deviation than anything that the law permits at present.

  • Alan

    Marriage has always existed in society, long predating the Church.  The confusion I have is this.  We all accept that abortion, for example, is a grave sin, regardless of whether or not one is a Catholic.  How is it, then, that a civil marriage is regarded by some as a “grave sin” for Catholics but not for anyone else? I would add in passing that a good friend of mine, a young woman, recently had a Church marriage ceremony having had a civil marriage 4 years ago (her husband is not a Christian). 

  • Jumpforjoy61

    you can take this a step further and totaly ignor any state or religious participation ,we could then decide as adults to concider ourselves to be married by self decleration ,it seems very patronising that two adults require some sort of concent from anyone or any authority in order to be concidered married simply becouse we are indoctrinated into the belief that others have or even should have any authority over us in the first place

    personaly i believe both churces and the state should recognise and respect the authority of the two individuals involved and not the other way round

    Paul