Is my mother-in-law really excommunicated?

My Mother In Law is 77 years old. She was born and raised in Argentina. She and her family immigrated to the US in 1954 and is now a citizen of the US. She was raised as a Roman Catholic in a practicing family.

She married a non-catholic in Argentina. As a result (the story goes) her father was publicly excommunicated for allowing the marriage. I don’t know if she has claimed she was also excommunicated. She subsequently stopped practicing being a Catholic and raised her family in the US as Protestants.

Her daughter is now exploring her way to the Catholic Church. I would like very much for my wife and my mother in law to be freed from this burden they have been carrying all these years. I would like to convince my mother in law to begin her reconciliation with the church. The experience with the Church in Argentina has left her bitter and anti-catholic.

Do you believe the story? Do you have a suggestion for approaching her and providing a nudge to begin the journey home?

There are two issues that your mother-in-law needs to consider – the status of her excommunication and the validity of her marriage.

First, let’s look at the status of her excommunication. The 1917 Code of Canon Law (CIC), which was in force at the time of her wedding, did indeed impose the penalty of excommunication on Catholics who married outside the Church through non-Catholic ministers. However, marriage laws have changed and the penalty of excommunication in this regard was abrogated in 1970. Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter Matrimonia Mixta (MM) states, “The penalties… are all abrogated. For those who have already incurred them the effects of those penalties cease” (MM 15). The current (1983) Code of Canon Law confirms this: “If a later law abolishes a law or at least the penalty, the penalty immediately ceases” (1983 CIC 1313.2).

Next, let’s consider the validity of your mother-in-law’s marriage. The 1917 code forbade Catholics from marrying non-Catholics (1) without dispensation and (2) outside the Church through non-Catholic ministers. Since she failed to observe the proper form of marriage her marriage is not valid. Provided there are no other obstacles (such as prior marriage attempts) she needs to have her marriage regularized (convalidated). She should contact a parish priest for this.

You mother-in-law will also need to go to confession prior to receiving the Eucharist. Welcome back to the Church!

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