Child of Unmarried* Parents

The media are apparently making a big deal of the fact that one of the 30+ children baptized by the Pope yesterday belongs to parents who are only civilly married, i.e., not married in the Church (even though they apparently should be, at least one of the spouses being Catholic – we don’t really have all the info).

I don’t know if this is the couple in question, but in any case, this is an image from yesterday’s baptisms. Anyway, how cool would it be to go to a baptism in the Sistine Chapel?

Oh em gee! Yet another example of the fact that Pope Francis is changing everything!!! Right!?

Slow down.

First of all, I have baptized a number of children in these circumstances. Church law does not require that the parents of the child to be baptized be properly married. What Church law does require is that there be a “founded hope” that the child to be baptized will be raised in the Catholic faith (see canon # 868 § 1 n. 2). I think it is extremely reasonable to conclude that the Pope took care of determining that this founded hope existed.

I won’t get into what “founded hope” means here; but suffice to say that it permits of a rather broad interpretation, even allowing (under special provision, at various times in history) for the child of two Muslims to be baptized a Catholic! There are certain assurances that need to be in place for there to be a “founded hope”; but in any case it is clear that life offers all kinds of interesting circumstances, and the Church’s law aims to secure justice for all.

Second point. Why the scary asterisk in the title of this post? A clarification about what “marriage” means. As I alluded to in the first sentence, when at least one of the spouses is Catholic, they are bound by what is called “canonical form” – the minimum required by Church law for contracting marriage validly in the Church – and this, even if they are not practicing Catholics, and even if they couldn’t care less about what the Church says. “Canonical form” basically means getting married in a Catholic church, before a Catholic minister (bishop, priest, or deacon) who possesses the proper faculties to witness marriages in that church, before two additional witnesses, using a legitimate formula to express the vows, etc.

So, two people, at least one of whom is Catholic, who go to City Hall and get married do not technically get married. They contract a civil marriage that has civil effects, but in the eyes of God, since they have not followed the Church’s legitimate laws, they do not contract a valid marriage. In other words, morally, they enter into an adulterous relationship.

(When one of the parties is, for example, a Protestant or a Jew, it is often possible to obtain a dispensation from the local Bishop, so that the wedding may be held in the Protestant church or Jewish synagogue instead. But it is almost unheard-of for a Bishop ever to dispense the celebration to a City Hall. And it is important to remember: if the couple goes ahead and marries in the Protestant church or Jewish synagogue, without first obtaining the dispensation, then the marriage is invalid – it only has civil effects, and even if we speak of it as a “marriage” in common parlance, it is not so in the eyes of God or the judgment of the Church.)

I don’t have the time to open all the cans of worms that could be opened here – others have opened some of them, in any case. But I just want to clarify a few things that you are not likely to find in the common breathless news article whose sole aim is to demonstrate that Pope! Francis! Is! Changing! Everything! Isn’t! It! Great!.

The proper response to this current situation is to pray that this couple get their marriage straightened out in the Church (if they haven’t already), with whatever that might entail. For example, it could be that one of them had a previous marriage and needs to go through the marriage nullity process to determine if that marriage was valid or not, and thus, whether they are free to enter into the subsequent marriage. It could be that they just need to make an appointment with their local priest and arrange to celebrate their Church marriage. There are various possibilities, and we lack all the pertinent information.

Whatever the case may be, the best thing for this new Catholic child, freshly baptized, is to be in a loving household of practicing Catholic parents, who are able to set an example of faith for that child so that the faith roots deeply in his or her soul. We give thanks to God that the child was baptized; and we give thanks to God for his grace that is at work in the souls of the child’s parents, nudging them towards baptism and towards a closer relationship with the Church.

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