What constitutes a valid natural marriage? Sacramental marriage?

So here’s the situation that prompted the question: I know a woman who had a man she referred to as her fiance. I know that legally they were married, but held themselves out as engaged because they had not yet had a marriage ceremony with their families. They were living apart and not engaging in sexual relations.

My question in this situation: Are they married? What exactly does it take for them to be married?

If neither party is Catholic, what is required is an exchange of consent; both parties must consent to take the other as spouse, in a union that is permanent and indissoluble. Catholics must do this according to the form prescribed by the Church, unless the Church dispenses a Catholic from this obligation when marrying a non-Catholic.

It sounds to me like the couple did not intend to effect a marriage when they went through whatever legal procedure they went through to become legally married, and that they therefore are not truly married.

I would also add that two baptized Christians enter into the Sacrament of Matrimony by the very act of contracting a valid marriage; it is impossible for two Christians to be in a merely natural marriage. A natural marriage occurs when a valid marriage contract is entered two by two parties, at least one of whom is not baptized.

At least one of them must be Catholic or Orthodox. They got married civilly for a reason they haven’t shared with you. That means they are legally married but they know that a Catholic/Orthodox must be married in the Church for the marriage to be valid so they are waiting until they’ve done that live as man and wife.

Non-Catholics/non-Othodox do not have to be married in the Church for their marriage to be valid. Their civil marriage is presumed valid even if it happens at city hall.

Valid marriages fall into two categories:
Sacramental – both spouses are baptized.
Natural – at least one of the spouses is not baptized.

Yes, a couple that goes through a marriage ceremony is presumed to be validly married unless a Church tribunal investigates and decrees otherwise, but in this case, it seems that the couple deliberately withheld their consent from each other for some reason. Plus, we don’t know if one or both spouses is Catholic and therefore bound to observe Catholic form.

If they are Catholic or Orthodox that statement is only true if the marriage was celebrated in the Church.

The couple in the OP don’t consider themselves married until they marry in the Church. That doesn’t mean they’ve withheld consent, simply that they belong to a Church that doesn’t recognize the civil marriage of its members as valid. That means Catholic, with the exception of dispensations, or Orthodox. I know off no other religions that have that requirement but I could be uninformed.

We don’t know the religion of either spouse. And the OP said that they are living apart not for religious purposes, but “because they had not yet had a marriage ceremony with their families”. The original post makes no mention of religion at all. All we know is that for some reason, the couple chooses not to identify as married even though they have gone through a marriage ceremony.

You’re right, I projected something into my reading of the OP. I’m sorry.

Waiting for a religious ceremony seems like the most likely reason, but I hope the OP comes in to clarify (if he knows the information).

Neither party to the marriage was Christian of any form. I should clarify that the come from a non-Western background. My impression was that they did not consider themselves married because they hadn’t had an appropriate cultural ceremony involving both families. I believe they had hurried along the legal ceremony for immigration reasons, while putting off the family ceremony for lack of money. It didn’t seem to be a legal marriage just for the purpose of immigration though - they spoke of themselves as engaged and expressed a clear desire to be married.

Some faithful Hindus do not consider marriage complete without the religious ceremonies. I have no idea whether the Catholic Church would consider that religious ceremony necessary for validity.


It is an interesting scenario–one that is, I suspect, not that rare. Personally, I had to go through with a civil wedding “ceremony” of signing my name to something I did not understand (it was in another language). It’s not that I did not want to do whatever it is I was doing but I had no clear intention to do anything in particular, other than follow the instruction to “sign here.” Did I really consent to marry? I was Catholic so I clearly did not consider myself married and I, in fact, was not married. It resulted in “just a piece of paper” that left me with an unlawfully wedded wife. But, for your case, there are no Christians involved. That changes things.

The way the Church would look at such an “exchange of consent” is: did the parties mean what they said/did? In other words, did they have at least a virtual intention (a prior intention that caused them to do what they were doing but was not actually present in their will at that moment) to marry? Or, were they intending to not marry? This would amount to simulation (canon 1101). You have said that they do wish to be married. So, I would contend that the Church would consider their civil marriage to be binding even though they do not. The only exception would be for those who belong to a Church that can legislate requirements for the way marriage is contracted. Since they are not Christian, this would not apply. The competent authority for them is the civil government (and, of course, divine law but I don’t see any reason to get into that).

The bottom line is: if their government considers them married, so does the Church.

If their civil law requires some additional ceremony, they’d have to complete that process before the Church would consider them to be married.


What happens if a divorced Catholic marries another Catholic without getting an annulment and they have a civil ceremony? are they both able to receive the Eucharist?
How would the Church view their marriage? Would one of them be able to be a Eucharistic Minister?

The Church would view their marriage invalid, they should not be receiving Communion and neither of them should be allowed to be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. In practice, however…

Then they have an invalid attempt at marriage and are committing adultery.

No. Neither may approach the sacraments as long as they remain in this invalid marriage.

Invalid. Not a marriage at all.


that was my understanding also. my friend and her now husband had met with the priests over several months for marriage counseling and she said the priest said he didn’t blame them for going ahead with the civil marriage without the annulment which I found hard to believe. my friend will be taking the Eucharist to a senior citizens. she was a Eucharistic minister at one time, but she had a boyfriend and they were intimately involved (not the man she is married to now) and I think they told her she could not be an E.M. I told her before they married that I didn’t think they would be allowed to receive the Eucharist if they married before the annulment was finalized. she is a cradle Catholic and I am a recent convert, but at times I feel like I know more about the faith than she does. so I was surprised that they married in such a hurry.

Once upon a time I too would have found that hard to believe. Not any more.

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