Synod will discuss marriage, but just what is marriage

Many Catholics don’t understand what the Church teaches about marriage, writes Kieron Wood

This month’s Rome synod on the “challenge of family in the context of the new evangelisation” will include 253 presidents of bishops’ conferences, members of the Roman Curia, the heads of Eastern Catholic Churches and 26 members appointed by Pope Francis.

One of the first items they’ll discuss at the synod from October 5-19 will be the concept of Christian marriage. But what is marriage?

It’s essential to grasp that, in most countries, there are two elements to marriage: the civil and the religious.

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, a valid marriage between two baptised Christians is for life. Unless one of the spouses dies or the Church grants an annulment (or ‘decree of nullity’) confirming that the marriage never existed, it is not possible for a spouse to take a new spouse while the former spouse is still alive.

The other element of marriage is the civil element. But in Ireland, a Catholic priest can also be the solemniser of a civil marriage, and that’s where the confusion arises.

On the civil side, there are three possibilities when a marriage breaks down: separation, divorce or nullity. After decrees of nullity or divorce, either spouse is entitled to remarry, but only in a civil ceremony.

To remarry in church, it’s necessary for one spouse to die or for the Church to grant a decree of nullity. This may not be expensive (compared to the civil courts) but it can take several years to finalise.

However, even those who do obtain a decree of nullity from the Catholic Church may not marry again in a civil ceremony. To do that, they must obtain a decree of civil nullity or divorce, or one spouse must die. (A judicial separation is not sufficient.)

It’s important to realise that, even though a couple may have been ‘married’ for many years or even have children, they may still be entitled to a decree of nullity – from the Church or from the State – if they have, for example, not followed the rules for marriage, if they are under age or (most commonly) if they were ‘unable to enter into and sustain a marital relationship’ at the time they said “I do”.

Divorced Catholics may already receive Communion, as divorce itself does not constitute a sin. However, validly married Catholics who divorce and then remarry in a civil ceremony (or who live with a partner while not remarrying) may not go to Communion.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Catholic Church could never admit anyone to Communion who was validly married, divorced and then “remarried”.

“Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church,” said Cardinal Müller. “The doctrine of the Church will never be the sum total of a few theories worked out by a handful of theologians, however ingenious they may be.

“In the case of a de facto break-up of a valid marriage, another civil ‘marriage’ is not permissible. Otherwise we would be facing a contradiction, because if the earlier union, the ‘first’ marriage – or, more precisely, the marriage – really is a marriage, the other later union is not a ‘marriage’. In this regard, I think we are playing with words when we speak about a first and a second ‘marriage’.

“For a Christian, it is not lawful to contract a new marriage while the first spouse is alive, because the legitimately contracted bond is perpetual.”

To contract a valid civil or religious marriage in Ireland, North or South, you must:

l          have the capacity to marry each other;

l          freely consent to the marriage; and

l          observe the process required by Church or State law.

Marriage by civil ceremony is a civil contract, but marriage in the Catholic Church is also recognised by civil law as being a civil contract.

To marry in the Republic of Ireland, whether in a religious ceremony in church or a civil ceremony, you must give at least three months’ notice. Normally you need to be over 18, unless you have Court permission to marry.

For a Church marriage, you should contact the priest in your local parish and arrange to meet him, even if he is not the priest who will witness your marriage.

To prove that you have been baptised and confirmed, you need to bring to the meeting a long-form baptismal certificate and a separate certificate of Confirmation (if this is not recorded on your baptismal certificate).

You also need to prove that you are free to marry by producing letters of freedom from all the parishes where you’ve lived for six months or more since you were 18. Alternatively, a parent or somebody who has known you all your life may write a letter stating their relationship to you and confirming that, to the best of their knowledge, you’ve never been married religiously or civilly in any jurisdiction.

You and your spouse-to-be then both complete a pre-nuptial enquiry form with your local priest, stating when you were baptised, the date of your Confirmation and the fact that you are over 18 and free to marry.

The form also confirms that you understand the nature of marriage and accept the duties and responsibilities of married life (including the procreation of children). If you are a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic Christian or marrying somebody who is divorced or not baptised, you should inform the priest of the unusual circumstances.

The rules for civil marriage in the Republic of Ireland were changed radically in November 2007. You and your spouse now need to make an appointment to meet the civil registrar personally at least three months before the wedding and obtain a ‘marriage registration form’ (MRF). Without that form, you cannot be married.

When meeting the civil registrar, you should take the following:

l          Passports (current)

l          Birth certificates (specially stamped if not Irish)

l          Your PPS numbers

l          €200 fee

You will both be asked to sign a ‘declaration of no impediment’, confirming that you are free to marry. If you or your spouse-to-be has been divorced or had a previous marriage civilly annulled, you must bring the original final decree or court order. If either of you is widowed, you must produce the death certificate of the previous spouse and the civil marriage certificate for the first marriage. Other documents may also be needed, so check with the registrar.

Before you meet the registrar, make sure that you know the name of the priest (or ‘solemniser’) who is going to celebrate your marriage. The priest should be on the HSE list of solemnisers but if, for example, you plan to have a priest come from abroad to marry you, he can arrange to be put on the list temporarily.

You and your spouse also need to make a verbal declaration of ‘no civil impediment’ not more than two days before your wedding. You should show the MRF to your local priest to make sure that the details agree with what you have told him.  The signed MRF should be returned to any civil registrar within one month of the wedding.

In Northern Ireland, couples (both of whom must be aged at least 16) need to give between 14 days and one year’s notice of plans to marry. You must obtain two ‘notice of marriage’ forms from the local registrar in the district where you plan to marry, and at least one of the forms should be completed and brought to the local registrar.


You should collect the marriage schedule (which you sign on the day of your marriage) from the local registrar. The schedule – which cannot be issued more than 14 days before the marriage – should be brought before the wedding to the priest (or ‘registered officiant’) where the marriage is to be celebrated.

No marriage can take place without this schedule. The signed schedule should be returned to the local registrar within three days of the wedding.

If you breach any of these civil rules, your marriage may not be valid and you may be entitled to a civil decree of nullity. This entitles you to remarry in a civil service, but not in a religious ceremony.

If you choose to remarry civilly without a decree of Church nullity, you may currently not go to Communion (though you can still go to Mass and may make a spiritual Communion).

That is unlikely to change following the synod. However the grounds of Church nullity may be widened, allowing many more Catholics to seek an annulment of their ‘marriage’.

If they are successful, they can marry in church and become once again full communicating members of the Catholic Church.


Kieron Wood is a barrister and author of  Family Breakdown, A Legal Guide (2014, Clarus Press, €45).