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Real Marriage—Both “in the Church” and Out

by Deacon Jim Russell

There is so much confusion today about what marriage really is. Even faithful Catholics will often struggle to understand the fundamentals of marriage itself. For example: marriage is a Sacrament, right? Well…the better thing to say is that sometimes marriage is a Sacrament and sometimes it is not.

Huh? If you’re confused by that, here’s the simplest path to the truth: when marriage takes place between a man and a woman who are both baptized, it’s a Sacrament. Otherwise, it’s not. There are many, many valid but non-Sacramental marriages out there—between spouses who aren’t both baptized.

But this doesn’t mean non-Sacramental marriages are not important, and it doesn’t mean that they are not both recognized and valued by the Church. And while Sacramental grace may not be present in a non-Sacramental marriage, God still offers other avenues of grace in non-Sacramental marriages. I can speak to this directly because my parents were in a valid non-Sacramental marriage for about 25 years. My Mom was Catholic, but my Dad wasn’t baptized.

Get this—Mom and Dad were “married in the Church” but their marriage was not a Sacrament. See, this is how our language can sometimes get confused: some folks mistakenly believe that getting “married in the Church” and having a “civil marriage” are just two different kinds of “real” marriage. One is just “Sacramental” and the other is not. But that’s not true.

Still confused? Just stick with this truth: whether a marriage is a Sacrament has nothing to do with whether your marriage is “in Church” or not—it has everything to do with baptism.  Are husband and wife both baptized? It’s Sacramental. Even if one (or both) of the spouses is not Catholic. Even if two not-Catholic-but-baptized persons marry only with a civil witness, and not “in Church.”

For a Catholic, however, there is one more complication: a Catholic is obligated, unless a dispensation is received, to get married according to the Catholic “form” of marriage. Any Catholic attempting to marry civilly or in a non-Catholic religious ceremony (without dispensation) is automatically, invalidly attempting marriage—it’s not really a marriage at all. Some may mistakenly believe that this amounts to really getting married first civilly, and then later the couple might choose to get married “in the Church” Sacramentally.

However, as is hopefully clear by now, that’s not the case. Marriage is only one thing, and it is vitally important that we Catholics understand this. This one thing that is marriage happens between a man and woman who simply consent to this one thing that is marriage. If they are free to consent to marriage, then they can enter into a valid marriage, regardless of whether that consent is in witnessed “in the Church” or in the courthouse. In all cases, it is Baptism that determines whether the marriage is a Sacrament or not. It is consent that determines whether it is a real marriage or not.

Let me drive home this point by finishing the story of my Mom and Dad—their non-Sacramental marriage automatically became Sacramental 25 years after they married “in the Church.” This happened the moment my Dad received the Sacrament of Baptism. I not only witnessed that great day, but I got to be my Dad’s godfather on that day, ironically! Meanwhile, Mom and Dad, after 25 years of blessings and other forms of God’s grace, experienced the Sacramental grace of Matrimony when my Dad experienced the Sacramental grace of Baptism.

Make sense? If we can keep our categories clear, then this vital connection between Baptism and Matrimony becomes a beautiful example of God’s amazing grace at work in us. How sweet the sound!