Can Catholics married outside the church take Communion?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

OSV Question Corner

Q: My son is dating a Protestant girl. If my son married outside of the Catholic Church, is it correct that he is not permitted to take the Eucharist and receive the sacraments? I am praying that the girl consents to have a Catholic matrimony, but that is uncertain for now.

A: Catholics who do not abide by the church's marriage laws are not permitted to receive Holy Communion or other sacraments since they choose to put themselves out of communion with the Church. But there are a lot of considerations involved in interfaith marriages, and so the upshot is that your son's life of faith within the church is certainly not a lost cause due to his current relationship.

Catholics and only Catholics are required by canon law to be married in a Catholic ceremony, what canon lawyers refer to technically as "marrying according to canonical form" (See Canon 1117 of the Code of Canon Law) which means that a Catholic is required to be married by a Catholic priest or deacon with two witnesses. A person is bound by this uniquely Catholic obligation if he or she was baptized Catholic, since the rule of thumb is "once a Catholic, always a Catholic." So, if a person was baptized Catholic as an infant but later drifted away, and even if he or she eventually committed to practicing another religion, he or she would still be considered bound to canonical form.

Canonical form is an important concept to understand and be aware of because if a Catholic does not marry according to canonical form — say, if a Catholic decides to get married by a justice of the peace or a minister — this marriage would be considered not only illicit (unlawful) but also invalid.

However, it is possible for a Catholic to receive a dispensation from canonical form in some situations. This is a special concession from the local diocesan bishop which allows a Catholic to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony, typically due to serious pastoral concerns involving a non-Catholic spouse-to-be (See Canon 1127, 2).

Very strictly speaking, canon law requires Catholics to marry only other Catholics (See Canon 1086, 1 and Canon 1124) because of the danger of falling away from the faith.  In mixed marriages, Catholics sign a written promise to rear all children as Catholics while the non-Catholic spouse must be informed about that. 

Still, it's common knowledge that Catholics do sometimes marry non-Catholics. If a Catholic is seeking to marry a non-Catholic who is nevertheless a baptized Christian (for example, a Christian baptized in a Protestant denomination that uses a Trinitarian baptismal formula, such as an Anglican or Lutheran), in canon law this is called a "mixed marriage." A Catholic would need permission from the bishop for a mixed marriage in order to marry licitly, even in a Catholic ceremony. Similarly, if a Catholic seeks to marry a non-baptized or invalidly baptized person, this situation is called a "disparity of cult." A Catholic would need a dispensation from disparity of cult, once again from the local bishop, in order to marry a non-baptized person validly.

All of this might sound rather complicated, but typically this can all be discussed and worked out with the Catholic party's parish priest during Catholic premarital preparation. Parish priests usually take care of requesting whatever dispensations or permissions might be necessary, and in the United States, the paperwork involved in these kinds of issues is very routine for most diocesan Tribunals.

Circling back to your son's case in particular, let's presume for the sake of argument that he and his girlfriend do eventually get engaged, and your son appropriately consults his parish priest about his upcoming wedding. Further presuming that your son's Protestant fiancée was validly baptized, the priest would request permission for a mixed marriage on the couple's behalf. If the fiancée is willing to marry in a Catholic ceremony, there would be a discussion of whether a Catholic wedding service outside of a Mass but still before a priest might be more appropriate and pastorally sensitive. But if the bride had strong feelings about having a non-Catholic service, a dispensation from canonical form should be requested so that they may be married by a minister in her Protestant church and have that recognized as valid in the Catholic Church.  If a Catholic does get married out of the Church without the dispensation or permission, the Church does not close the door on them, and the couple may have a priest validate their civil union after they have completed all of the usual premarital instructions; this is a new act of consent and is their valid marriage in the Church.

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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].