Is my friend 'dead' in Christ due to her irregular marriage status?

June 12, 2024 at 8:10 a.m.
Photo from Freepik.com
Photo from Freepik.com

By Jenna Marie Cooper, OSV News

Q: John 6:54 states the following: "Jesus said to them, 'Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.'" I just met a sister in Christ who has a problem. She has a common law spouse and children, but only she has come to the faith. The others (especially her husband) are atheist. There is no holy matrimony in sight. She attends Mass but does not receive the holy Eucharist. She loves the Church and is devoted. But she feels ashamed, and claims that in the eyes of the Church she is dead, based on the above Scripture. Could a priest or bishop allow a dispensation where somebody like my friend could receive the holy Eucharist? If not, is she "dead?" I've just met her, and am trying to help her out of the "I'm dead" realm. (Connecticut)  

A: Practically speaking, the best advice you can give your friend is to encourage her to find a local parish priest with whom she feels comfortable sharing her situation.

Scenarios like your friend's will not seem surprising or scandalous to a parish priest, or to the many non-priests who serve in other forms of pastoral ministry. While your friend might feel a little nervous about approaching a priest, you can remind her that there really is no reason for her to feel "ashamed." The Church is always happy when someone seeks a closer relationship with Christ in the sacraments, no matter what roadblocks might need to be resolved.

There are ways to work out complicated irregular marriages so that a person can regain a full sacramental life in the Church, but every situation is unique and comes with its own set of concerns and nuances.

For example, was your friend baptized Catholic as infant, but is just now returning to a more fervent practice of the faith? Or is she a non-Catholic who wishes to become Catholic?

If your friend is not technically Catholic, and if her "common law marriage" is one that has secular civil effects, then it is possible that her marriage might already be considered a valid one in the eyes of the Church (though in that case she would still need to complete a process of Catholic initiation before receiving the Eucharist).

If your friend is Catholic but her common law husband is not, there could be other ways to regularize her marriage. For instance, perhaps your friend's legal husband might be willing to exchange matrimonial consent in a very quiet, simple Catholic ceremony. Or if there was already some sort of deliberate legal exchange of consent or marriage vows in their "common law" union, it may be possible to request something called a "radical sanation" from the local bishop, which is somewhat like retroactively declaring the marriage vows valid in the eyes of the Church.

But again, it is not possible to give your friend concrete advice without being there in person to get the whole story and clarify all the details – your friend would need to work all this out with someone who is familiar with the Church's marriage law and able to apply it to the specifics of her own situation.

Regarding the concerns about being "dead," the Church and sacred Scripture often speak in terms of life and death when describing the sacraments and the spiritual life. E.g., in baptism we die with Christ so as to share in his Resurrection; and serious sins are called "mortal" because they cut us off from God, the source of all life. But this sort of language does not mean to imply that the spiritually "dead" are dead in the sense of being beyond the Church's love and concern. Even if your friend does not yet enjoy the fullness of life found in the Eucharist, she is still precious and valuable in God's sight.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].


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Q: John 6:54 states the following: "Jesus said to them, 'Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.'" I just met a sister in Christ who has a problem. She has a common law spouse and children, but only she has come to the faith. The others (especially her husband) are atheist. There is no holy matrimony in sight. She attends Mass but does not receive the holy Eucharist. She loves the Church and is devoted. But she feels ashamed, and claims that in the eyes of the Church she is dead, based on the above Scripture. Could a priest or bishop allow a dispensation where somebody like my friend could receive the holy Eucharist? If not, is she "dead?" I've just met her, and am trying to help her out of the "I'm dead" realm. (Connecticut)  

A: Practically speaking, the best advice you can give your friend is to encourage her to find a local parish priest with whom she feels comfortable sharing her situation.

Scenarios like your friend's will not seem surprising or scandalous to a parish priest, or to the many non-priests who serve in other forms of pastoral ministry. While your friend might feel a little nervous about approaching a priest, you can remind her that there really is no reason for her to feel "ashamed." The Church is always happy when someone seeks a closer relationship with Christ in the sacraments, no matter what roadblocks might need to be resolved.

There are ways to work out complicated irregular marriages so that a person can regain a full sacramental life in the Church, but every situation is unique and comes with its own set of concerns and nuances.

For example, was your friend baptized Catholic as infant, but is just now returning to a more fervent practice of the faith? Or is she a non-Catholic who wishes to become Catholic?

If your friend is not technically Catholic, and if her "common law marriage" is one that has secular civil effects, then it is possible that her marriage might already be considered a valid one in the eyes of the Church (though in that case she would still need to complete a process of Catholic initiation before receiving the Eucharist).

If your friend is Catholic but her common law husband is not, there could be other ways to regularize her marriage. For instance, perhaps your friend's legal husband might be willing to exchange matrimonial consent in a very quiet, simple Catholic ceremony. Or if there was already some sort of deliberate legal exchange of consent or marriage vows in their "common law" union, it may be possible to request something called a "radical sanation" from the local bishop, which is somewhat like retroactively declaring the marriage vows valid in the eyes of the Church.

But again, it is not possible to give your friend concrete advice without being there in person to get the whole story and clarify all the details – your friend would need to work all this out with someone who is familiar with the Church's marriage law and able to apply it to the specifics of her own situation.

Regarding the concerns about being "dead," the Church and sacred Scripture often speak in terms of life and death when describing the sacraments and the spiritual life. E.g., in baptism we die with Christ so as to share in his Resurrection; and serious sins are called "mortal" because they cut us off from God, the source of all life. But this sort of language does not mean to imply that the spiritually "dead" are dead in the sense of being beyond the Church's love and concern. Even if your friend does not yet enjoy the fullness of life found in the Eucharist, she is still precious and valuable in God's sight.

Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].

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