Monday, 5 May 2008

Is anyone validly married these days?

Canonist Edward Peters has blogged on a matter that is depressing on several levels, namely Canadian Autumn Kelly’s defection from the faith.

According to media reports, Ms Kelly has become an Anglican in order to marry Peter Phillips (son of Princess Anne) without him losing his place in the succession to the throne of Great Britain and Australia (he currently stands at no. 11 in line).

You can read Dr Peters' analysis here:

Depressing first that anyone would ditch the true faith in order to please her fiancé.

Depressing that anyone would care so much about being eleventh in line to the British throne as to persuade his fiancée to take such a drastic step .

Depressing that in this day and age, marrying a Catholic (or being one) is still a bar to being King or Queen of Australia. The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had in fact promised to abolish this law - but has backed down in the face of pressure from anti-catholic forces in Scotland and England.

It is times like these when the case for a Republic starts looking pretty strong.

Or perhaps we could invite one of the British royals who have become catholic to come out here and establish a genuinely Australian monarchy....

But will Autumn Kelly's marriage be valid?

But in fact the really peculiar twist in this story is the canon law angle. Because it seems that Ms Kelly’s announcement that she has become an Anglican may not be enough to constitute ‘defection from the faith’ under Canon 1117.

And if she hasn’t properly defected from the faith, then her attempt to marry Mr Phillips will be invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church for want of canonical form.

Canon 1117 was an innovation in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Basically, it says that for anyone baptized as a catholic to validly marry, they have to observe canonical form (ie get married in the catholic church unless properly dispensed), unless they had formally defected from the Church.

It did not, however, specify what formal defection actually meant.

Canonists generally agreed it had to be a juridic act which could be publicly proven, and whose effect was intended to separate the person from the Church.

So for example, undergoing 'baptism' by immersion as a fundamentalist or receiving confirmation in the Anglican Church might seem to fit the bill.

Dr Peters, however, points to a ruling of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts in 2006 which seems to require a lot more than this.

First you have to decide to leave the Church in an act of heresy, apostasy, or schism. Then you have to actually do it. Then send a letter to your bishop or priest telling them about it. And then get them to agree that you have in fact left the Church.

So those people you thought were married really aren't...

Just think about the consequences of this for a moment.

The Church accepts marriages of protestants as valid and sacramental. It accepts the marriages of non-Christians as valid 'natural' marriages.

But it doesn't accept as a valid marriage that of all the people around today who have been baptized as catholics but received little or no instruction in the faith, and thus weren't married in a catholic church.

Some of those probably aren't practicing any faith at all. Others though, have consequently joined some other ecclesial community and were 'married' in them, alongside others whose marriage we do recognize.

And what about all those ex-catholics who have joined some other ecclesial community and proceeded – they thought – to get validly married in the eyes of their current and former communities?

So the surely unforeseen consequence of this legislative ruling is to render invalid thousands and thousands of marriages. Now at one level perhaps one shouldn’t have much sympathy for those who have defected from the faith de facto if not de jure.

But at least some of these people - though not perhaps Ms Kelly - surely suffer from what looks awfully like invincible ignorance to me, and in those cases at least, deeming their marriages to be invalid seems pretty tough. Frankly, it seems a rather perverse result for the laws of a Church that believes in and tries to promote the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage.

On the plus side, if any of those quasi ex-catholics revert, the divorce will be easy…

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