What happens if a priest attempts to solemnize a marriage without an annulment?

I am not referring here to a “lack of form” procedure, where, if I am understanding matters correctly, a priest can go ahead and collect the proof (previous marriage attempted outside the Church, e.g., by a justice of the peace), and not “hold up” the marriage if there is a pressing reason to go ahead and marry the couple. That’s not the norm, but I believe I am correct in understanding that this can be done, if there is indeed some grave reason to do so.

No, I am referring to putatively valid Catholic marriages (or other such marriages presumed to be either naturally or sacramentally valid as the case might be) for which the only proofs of invalidity would be subjective ones, yet there is no annulment in place, nor might one even have been applied for in the first place.

Are there canonical penalties, or any other kinds of penalties? If so, what are they? And if not, what would be done about something like this?

I hope I don’t run afoul of CAF guidelines by suggesting this possibility. If so, I hope the moderators will exercise their prerogative of deleting the thread.

1 Like

Well that would depend I would think on; is the priest in question aware that there are impediments for the marriage to take place.
If he is aware then we need the opinion of a Canon lawyer, and I am neither one nor I play the part on TV.


No, I am referring to a priest who knows there is a valid canonical marriage in place (or at least one that is to be presumed valid until proven otherwise in a tribunal), but goes ahead and performs the second marriage anyway, even if only as a civil ceremony.

Priests, and other religious ministers, don’t officiate “civil only” marriages. Unless maybe they had a side job as justice of the peace or captain of a ship and married the couple in their secular capacity, but that seems highly unlikely. If a priest were a justice of the peace, his job would require him to constantly marry couples whom his other job as priest would not permit him to marry. Makes no sense.

1 Like

I believe it would be up to the Promoter of Justice to bring a case before the Tribunal and from what I remember this would fall under the dereliction of simulating a sacrament. Don’t quote me on that, but that’s what I remember without looking through class notes.

Under canon law this dereliction calls for “a just penalty” (can 1379). What the “just penalty” is is not spelled out, but for a member of the clergy this would often be suspension.

I know as deacons we were told that attempts to solemnize a marriage without a proper rescript would likely result in immediate loss of faculties. For a pastor it might require a canonical trial before anything like that occurred.

If there is an occult impediment it may be corrected privately. If the impediment is public then it requires public correction such as a simple convalidation or a radical sanation. However, some impediments cannot be dispensed so there may need to be an annulment.

Hmm… never heard that one, before.

For the priest who knowingly attempts to celebrate an invalid sacrament? Yes, it’s my understanding that he runs the risk of a canonical penalty.

No; as Tis mentions, a priest cannot – by definition – perform a “civil only” ceremony. That would get him in hot water!

Can. 1066 Before a marriage is celebrated, it must be evident that nothing stands in the way of its valid and licit celebration.

If the decree of nullity is eventually finalized the marriage is valid, but illicit.

If the decree of nullity is not issued, the marriage attempt would be invalid.

Well, that depends on the bishop. He has wide latitude in how he handles it.

Sections VI and VII of canon law apply, sanctions in the church and processes.

1 Like

I had in mind a situation where the priest makes no attempt to perform a sacramental ceremony, but for whatever reason, is willing to be the witness for a civil marriage — which is certainly allowed by the civil authorities, they couldn’t care less about sacramentality or what kind of “ceremony” is involved. He might say “well, I can’t administer a sacrament, because you have no annulment, but I don’t think your prior sacramental marriage was valid, so I’ll marry you civilly and sign the marriage license”.

While in Canada and the US those documentary cases usually go to the tribunal, it’s not that way everywhere. In at least one case, our previous bishop just had on priest document everything and go ahead with the wedding.

Catholic ministers may not perform “civil only” marriages.

They also would not attempt to witness a marriage of persons not free to marry.

Deacon Christopher


The issue is that the ceremony really has nothing to do with the sacramentality of marriage. In my state two people can get married by signing the license in front of a witness; no minister, judge or justice of the peace required. If those two people are baptized (non-Catholics or Orthodox) we would still consider it a sacramentally valid marriage until proven otherwise. That means a priest that just signs the marriage license is still simulating a sacrament even if there is no religious ceremony involved because they are saying they are confirming as a witness that a marriage is taking place that they know is not validly happening.

Yes the state might not care, but all Catholics are bound by canon law. We cannot just set aside our obligations under canon law and say from A to B time I am Catholic, and from Y to Z time I’m a purely civil being. Clergy especially have a duty to fully integrate themselves and not fall into the trap that they are only doing God’s work if they are wearing the collar and once they take it off they are just a private citizen.

Please excuse my ignorance but what is “a proper rescript”?

Thank you.

I am quite aware of all this. I just had in mind more a priest who might say “you have no annulment, but I think in the ‘internal forum’ you can consider yourselves free to marry, and I will go ahead and do this for you, because nothing else is possible without that annulment”. Or he might say “annulment or no annulment, that prior marriage wasn’t valid, I don’t care what anyone says, I’m going to go ahead and administer the sacrament, even though it will have no ‘official’ status”.

I am also well aware that the Church does not officially recognize the “internal forum”, and that this is a grave error many people are falling into, due in no small part to poor catechesis and finding someone who will tell them that this is OK. “Internal forum” is not a concept that the average Catholic in the pew would ever think of on their own, unless someone told them what it purports to be.

I still have no idea what this is. Some poster who has been banned from here multiple times once went on a rant at me that I was “interfering with her internal forum” and that was the first time I ever even heard the term. I’m glad to know the Church doesn’t recognize it so I can continue to ignore it, as the poster throwing the term around was very abrasive and disruptive (and like I said, now banned for about the third time).

What you are describing seems to be a priest who encourages people to sin or tells them it’s fine for them to do something wrong because he’s decided it’s okay. Such priests exist, but they’re simply sinful rogue priests. As for “what happens”, if he does this sort of thing enough then he’s likely to be reported to his bishop, who will decide what to do from there. If he does it only once, then maybe he’ll get away with it and the couple involved might go on their merry way or end up in a few years here on CAF starting a thread about “Our priest did X, is it okay and are we married.”

Right. I remember you saying that, in Canada, that ability has been delegated to priests. However, @HomeschoolDad seems to be asking a different question – whether, in the case of some sort of ‘emergency’, a priest can assert the right to give permission which would otherwise be reserved to the bishop. I think that this answer is “no”.

The document granting permission for the marriage. In the case of someone who’s been married validly previously, it’s necessary to get that permission from the canon law office (in my diocese, at least, IIRC).

No. A wedding takes place in the external forum, and therefore, must be addressed in the external forum; an internal forum ‘solution’ is insufficient.

He might say that, but he could find himself in a whole lot of hot water with his bishop, if he does so.

The things that you say in the confessional are “internal forum” – they’re private, and not to be revealed publicly.

A wedding, for instance, on the other hand, is external forum – it happens openly and publicly, and everyone knows about it.

(I have no idea what someone might mean by “you’re interfering with my internal forum”. Especially on an internet site, where the only way we know about things is if someone literally talks about it publicly (!), that doesn’t make sense. Maybe she meant that she thought you were prying for details that she wished to keep private?)

This! :+1:

1 Like

As Gorgias states, it’s essentially written permission to proceed with a marriage. In my diocese, as part of particular law (i.e. law specific to the diocese), a full marriage file must be submitted to the diocese to ensure that all aspects of particular law have been met (completing NFP classes, pre canna, et cetera).

Part of the reason for the rescript is that declarations of nullity can have a monitum (a warning) or a vetitum (prohibition) attached. Any conditions attached to either must be addresses either through pastoral counseling for a monitum or via discussions with the Judicial Vicar in the case of a vetitum.

1 Like

If a priest did so, I suspect he would be very quickly having an uncomfortable discussion with his bishop. It is not up to an individual priest to make those determinations; it is the reason that we have a tribunal process.

As I stated before, if he goes ahead and simulates the conferral of a sacrament, he is liable to canonical penalties for derelicts committed. If it is done knowingly and maliciously (i.e. with disregard for the law), suspension of faculties to perform any marriage would not be an unjust penalty.

1 Like

@Gorgias @Usige

Thank you for the responses. Couple more questions:

Is the rescript done for every marriage?

In the cases of nullity why would there be warnings and prohibitions? If there is a decree of nullity would that not allow the person to marry?

Thank you for your patience!


In my diocese, it isn’t necessary for marriages between two Catholics who have never been married before; the priest or deacon prepares the couple, assembles the documentation, and files it at the parish. However, if one of the two is non-Catholic, or if there have been any prior marriages, then it’s necessary to get permission or dispensation, and that requires paperwork to be sent to the canon law office for processing.

Yes, they’re free to marry. However, in particular cases, it may have been the judgment of the tribunal that a person – who, for instance, may have received the nullity on the basis of a finding of a lack of discretion – might need counseling (to ensure that he’s entering into this new marriage with full discretion and consent) prior to a subsequent valid marriage. Or, there might be a prohibition in place that must be addressed before proceeding with plans for a new marriage – for instance, if the person has children from the first marriage, it might be necessary to verify that they’re meeting those obligations and will continue to do so, prior to permitting a subsequent marriage.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.