Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My fiancée would like to be married within the Catholic Church. She is an Irish citizen and I am American. We are planning to marry in Ireland, but because of immigration issues, we were thinking of having a civil ceremony in the United States and then later having the Catholic ceremony in Ireland. We were concerned that the civil ceremony would affect the Catholic recognition of the marriage. The full Catholic marriage sacrament is very important to us. We do not want to ruin it. Will the Catholic Church allow us to be civilly married before our wedding within the Church? -- E.U., Arlington, Massachusetts
A: A first principle to be observed is that the Church does not recognize the validity of civil marriage among two Catholics. All Catholics are obliged to follow the procedures outlined in canon law, although the bishop has the authority to dispense from some requirements in special cases.
The question of how civil marriage relates to the sacramental celebration depends on the laws of each country. Broadly speaking, there are two principal possibilities based on these laws:
One situation is where the Church wedding usually has civil effects. This would be the case in the United States, Ireland, Italy and several other countries. In each country there is a particular process to be fulfilled before the public authorities, but in the end there is only one marriage ceremony.
There are some cases in which the Church celebrates a wedding with only sacramental effects. An example would be a couple who entered a civil marriage and, at some later point, desire to regularize their situation before God. In this way they will be able to fully participate in the Church's life, especially by being able to return to reception of Communion.
In the above situations, where the religious celebration has civil effects, a civil marriage is not really a viable option for faithful Catholics. At the same time, a previous civil union is not, as such, an impediment for a couple to enter into a sacramental marriage.
A different situation arises in countries that grant no civil recognition to the religious celebration. In these cases there are usually two "wedding celebrations" -- a civil and a religious. This would be the case in many European and Latin American countries.
In most cases the civil celebration precedes the religious one. The interval can be as short as a few hours, several days or even longer. Since the Church grants no recognition to the civil celebration, faithful Catholics would not begin married life until the sacramental celebration has taken place.
In spite of not recognizing civil marriage, in some countries Church authorities do not allow a religious celebration until after the civil marriage is carried out. This is above all a pastoral measure to ensure the full legal protection of both partners, and the upkeep of any eventual children in the case of an unfortunate breakdown and separation.
If such a measure were not taken, then a man or a woman could find himself or herself bound in conscience to the marriage union but with limited means of legal redress regarding custody of children, property, or other shared responsibilities deriving from their marriage.
With respect to the particular case of our correspondent, I think that if he does his legal homework and completes the necessary paperwork, there is no reason why a civilly recognized religious wedding in Ireland would not be legally recognized in the United States.
If there are particular difficulties, then one can consult one's local bishop.
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