While most Catholics marry other Catholics, they may celebrate a valid sacramental Catholic marriage with a baptized Christian of any denomination, although doing so requires obtaining relatively routine permission from a local bishop. Catholics may also seek permission to marry an unbaptized person, although even when this permission is granted, the marriage is considered nonsacramental, although still recognized by the church as a valid Catholic marriage.

Before a Catholic seeks permission to marry a non-Catholic, the Catholic party to the marriage must formally promise to make his or her best efforts to raise any children in the Catholic faith. The non-Catholic party does not need to make this promise formally, although the clear expectation is that the couple will have discussed this question and arrived at a mutual understanding.

Catholics who marry either a Catholic or a non-Catholic in a non-Catholic setting (without advance formal church permission to do so) are in an “invalid” marriage. As such, they are considered to be restricted from participation in the sacraments, including the eucharist, and (for example) from acting as a sponsor or godparent. In practice, this ban on sacramental participation by the invalidly married is not consistently observed, although some dioceses and parishes make it a practice to publicize and impose it more strictly.

Catholics may seek convalidation (often called a sacramental “blessing”) of their invalid marriage at any time, although convalidation requires both spouses to have had any previous marriages annulled. Despite the growing percentage of Catholics who are married outside of a church setting, very few (5 percent, according to a CARA study) ever seek convalidation and sacramental recognition of their marriage, even if there are no major obstacles to doing so. The reasons for this are not definitively clear although they probably include widespread lack of awareness of the opportunity for convalidation and the process for seeking it; a lack of perceived necessity for having an existing marriage established validly and sacramentally by the church; and the need to resolve any previous marriages through annulment before convalidation can take place.

This is the second of four explainers in our reading list on Catholic marriage today.

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Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal

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