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How the Church Convalidates Civil Marriages: Couples who are not married Catholic often want their union recognized by the Church at a later date.

Catholic Church law ordinarily requires baptized Roman Catholics to marry before a priest or deacon. Unless they requested and received a “dispensation from canonical form,” Catholics who exchange marriage vows in the presence of only ministers from other religious traditions or authorized civic officials are not considered validly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Later, those couples may seek to have their union officially recognized by the Church. In technical Church terms, this is known as convalidation of a marriage.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation called On the Family. Among other items in this groundbreaking document, he outlined practical suggestions for pastors and pastoral leaders when dealing with couples not married “in the Church.” The pope cautioned that each situation should be examined case by case. He instructed pastors and pastoral leaders to make “tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation.”

Reasons for not marrying before a Catholic priest or deacon vary. Many couples judge either that it was impossible to wed in the Church because of their circumstances or that the tribunal process would be too costly or lengthy. Other couples indicate that they simply were in a hurry or felt stressed by various factors. Marriage in the Catholic Church seemed to be an additional complication.

Some couples comment that they had not been active and practicing Catholics when they married outside the Church. A Church marriage was not, therefore, a significant priority for them. Some dreaded a scolding by a priest because they had not been practicing their religion.

To obtain the Church’s blessing of a marriage that was not Catholic can be relatively easy. Here are the basic steps required for a couple to validate their marriage:

  1. Contact the local parish for an appointment with the pastor or his delegate to discuss the situation and determine what must be done.
     
  2. Obtain a new copy of the baptismal record for the Catholic party (or for each person, if both are Roman Catholic). Make that request to the parish where the person was baptized, indicating the name of the individual (as well as the names of the parents), date of birth and approximate date of the Baptism. Since this is a standard procedure for Catholic parishes, the copy should be forthcoming almost immediately.
     
  3. If necessary, seek a Church declaration of nullity for a prior marriage.  A favorable decision is needed before a convalidation can be scheduled.
     
  4. Complete the necessary sacramental preparation (marriage investigation, Engaged Encounter, inquiry form or premarital document) with the pastor or his delegate.
     
  5. Determine the date, time and most suitable type of service.

At San Bernardino Catholic Engaged Encounter, we generally have anywhere from 2 to 5 couples on each weekend who are in the process of validating a prior civil marriage. Each year, we have one weekend (generally in November) where there is a special focus on convalidation, in which we invite couples experiencing a similar journey to experience the weekend together. Due to the focus on sacramental preparation, the other particulars of the weekend – accommodations, timing, and content – remain the same.

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