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The Difference Between Sacramental and Natural Marriage

Tim Staples

Tim Staples answers a caller who wonders whether a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic is still valid, and whether that marriage could be ended by annulment.

Host: We go to Myra in Los Angeles, California, listening on iHeartRadio. Myra, you are on with Tim Staples.

Caller: Hi Tim, happy Lent to you guys.

Host: Thank you.

Tim: Thank you, Myra. And to you as well.

Caller: Thank you. My question is: can a marriage be blessed through the Catholic Church if one of the spouses is Catholic and the other is non-Christian?

Tim: Yes, yes it can, Myra, but okay, and what’s the follow-up?

Caller: The follow-up would be, if so, if it is blessed, then if a divorce would happen, would there be a need for an annulment or anything like that?

Tim: Right, great questions, Myra, and the answer to the first part of the question is yes. You have to get a dispensation, you have to get permission to marry someone that is not baptized. But the permission can be granted.

Now, if you do in fact marry someone that is not baptized, then that marriage would not be Sacramental. In order for a marriage to be sacramental, both spouses–husband, wife–must be baptized. If one is not, it cannot be sacramental. However, it would be valid, Myra. So if you are married with dispensation in the Church, even to someone that’s not baptized, that is a valid marriage, and that would be indissoluble.

We make the distinction in Catholic theology: that which is intrinsically indissoluble, and that which is intrinsically and extrinsically indissoluble. What that means, Myra, is: a sacramental and consummated marriage is both intrinsically and extrinsically indissoluble. That means no power on Earth, no power at all can separate that couple. Once you are validly, sacramentally, and you’ve consummated that union, that is indissoluble in a strict sense.

Now, a natural marriage–though as Pope Pius XII taught, and I’m trying to remember which encyclical that is, but it’s been taught by numerous popes–a valid marriage that is not Sacramental is still indissoluble, but it’s what we call intrinsically indissoluble. It can be dissolved by a divine authority, but can’t be dissolved by the partners. Partners can’t just say “Eh, you know what, I don’t like you any more. I’m out of here.” And that’s important to note, Myra. So on a natural level, a valid marriage is permanent, barring, as I say, divine intervention.

And by the way, Myra, and Cy, that’s the reason why Moses could permit divorce in the Old Testament, because that’s all they had, was natural marriage, right? And so because those marriages were not Sacramental, then Moses–he’s the divine authority–could permit the divorce, alright? Hopefully this is helpful for you, Myra. So when, in the New Testament, if you don’t have a Sacramental marriage you have a marriage that’s on the level of an Old Testament marriage, so divine authority can, theoretically, even dissolve that union.

But Myra, the bottom line is, you still would need an annulment, because you have a presumably valid union in the Church when you get that permission, so therefore you would need an annulment. They need to determine whether that union was indeed valid or not. Does that help, Myra?

Caller: Yes, tremendously. Thank you very much.

Tim: Ok, thanks so much for your call. God bless you.

For more on the indissolubility of marriage, see our tract.

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