Baptismal certificate function; annulments and hell

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: I am getting married, and the priest my fiancé and I met with said we need new baptismal certificates. Why can’t we just use the ones our parents got when we were baptized? (Portland, Maine)

A: Baptismal certificates aren’t a one-and-done kind of document. It is true that, when you are baptized, you (or your parents, if you were an infant at the time of your baptism) receive a paper certificate attesting to the fact that your baptism took place on a certain day at a particular place.

However, the official record of your baptism is not one piece of paper in a file, but rather an entry into a baptismal registry book. Your entry in the baptismal register in your parish of baptism then serves as the master record of your life as a Catholic. Baptismal registry books register the details of a person’s baptism, but also include room for subsequent major sacramental life events.

For instance, when a Catholic who was baptized as an infant later receives the sacrament of confirmation, this is recorded next to his or her name in the baptismal register of his or her parish of baptism. If the confirmation happens in a parish other than the one where he or she was baptized, then the parish of confirmation must take care to contact the parish of baptism to ensure that everything is recorded properly.

Other sacraments that must be recorded in a person’s original baptismal register include reception of holy orders and marriage.  Religious profession of vows, or a woman’s becoming a consecrated virgin are recorded in the baptismal register because even though they are not sacraments, they are impediments to marriage. If a marriage is declared null by a tribunal, this would be noted in the baptismal and marriage registers.

When Catholics request a copy of their baptismal certificate, the parish of baptism issues a brand-new hard copy based on the information in the baptismal register. This new copy will have a section called notations that relates all the sacramental details and profession of vows recorded over the years in the registry book.

So, if you are requesting a copy of your baptismal certificate as part of your marriage prep, a newly issued one lets the priest or deacon know about any previous sacraments, such as a prior marriage or previous reception of holy orders, which might present an issue or impediment with your upcoming wedding.

Q: My husband abandoned me years ago. I know that I am married and that I am called to live chastely, and I am doing that. But my friend told me I will go to hell since I don't have an annulment. Is that true? (Madison, Wisconsin)

A: I interpret your situation to mean that you are not married out of the Church or living together with someone.  Living chastely is what we are all called to do according to our state of life, whether divorced, single, married, or in religious vows or as clergy.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1855-1857) explains, “Mortal sin turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to Him.”  Mortal sin leaves open the possibility of hell unless forgiven through the Sacrament of Penance. It’s never good to start the marriage nullity process because of feeling rushed or pressured by third parties  If a Catholic is divorced and remarried out of the Church without an annulment or is living together with someone, a Catholic’s choice to live in that situation places the person outside of being in communion with the Church and prevents reception of the sacraments until the situation is resolved.  An annulment is first needed before having a civil marriage validated in the Church which means that a new exchange of consent with vows occurs; this is also required if a divorced Catholic is living together with someone.  Contact your priest who will assist you in petitioning the Tribunal for an annulment and with preparation for a new marriage in the Church so that you may receive the sacraments.

We are all required to live out the virtue of chastity. This means, essentially, that a person can only enjoy sexual intimacy with a person to whom he or she is married; marriage is between one man and one woman. Divorce in and of itself is not necessarily sinful, though the contributions of the spouses to it could be, and being an abandoned spouse is certainly not a sin. But -- as you correctly note -- even in cases of divorce, separation or abandonment, a divorced couple is still presumed to be married until potentially proven otherwise by a Catholic marriage tribunal. Because of this, a divorced Catholic would need a declaration of nullity if he or she wanted to marry another person (and it would be sinful to engage in acts proper to marriage with someone to whom he or she is not married).

But, if you are at peace living a chaste life as a divorced Catholic without seeking a new marriage, it’s perfectly fine to remain as you are.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].