December 15, 2008
The last ground I want to look at is what is usually called “defective convalidation.” A convalidation occurs when a Catholic marries outside the Church without the required dispensation and then later has the marriage “blessed” by a priest. What happens many times is that the couple is not properly educated as to what is happening during this “blessing.”
A convalidation, properly speaking, is not a “blessing.” It is not a renewal of the marriage vows. It is, in actuality, the first time the couple is being married. Up to this point, they have only a civil union, which means very little to the Church. The ‘marriage’ is called ‘inexistent’ because it is the convalidation that actually makes the couple’s relationship valid. The previous consent has no validity in the eyes of the Church. Therefore, the couple is considered to be only living together, and the Catholic spouse cannot receive the Sacraments.
At the convalidation ceremony, the couple must make a new act of the will in consenting to marriage. This means that they understand that this is the first time they are actually getting married. Unfortunately, many times this is not how the couple feels – they believe that their civil consent is effective and the convalidation ceremony is merely what they have to do so that the Catholic spouse may receive the Sacraments again. If this is true, then the persons are not giving a new consent; instead they are merely confirming the original but inefficacious consent or they are simulating consent. In either case, the consent given at the convalidation is then defective.
In some cases where the couple has been civilly married for some time but is having difficulty in their marriage, the Catholic spouse may believe that having the marriage convalidated will “magically” make the problems disappear. This superstitious belief depicts a grave misunderstanding of the power of the Sacrament. It does not make problems vanish, but it can give strength and stability to the partners who will work at making their marital relationship better.
Defective convalidation can be very difficult to prove when a person comes to our office requesting we examine their marriage for validity. This is due to the fact that most of the witnesses, and the persons themselves, normally focus on the time prior to the first consent, and not the canonical celebration of the marriage. There is usually little information given concerning the reasons for the convalidation. The Petitioner has the responsibility to demonstrate to us that the consent given at convalidation was not a true act of matrimonial consent. However, even after we explain this to them, it can be difficult for him/her to understand what we are looking at and why. One of the questions we ask is: on what day did you celebrate your anniversary – that of the original civil wedding or that of the convalidation? If the answer is the first (and it usually is), we have some knowledge that the parties did not understand their marriage did not really occur until the day of the convalidation.
The best way to avoid the problem of a possible defective convalidation is for Catholics to marry according to the form prescribed by the Church. This means that they go through the pre-marital instructions, attend the Engaged Encounter weekend, request and receive any needed permissions for a marriage of mixed Christian religions or dispensation to marry a non-baptized person, and have their vows witnessed by a Catholic priest or deacon. A dispensation to marry in another Christian church may be granted if there is a good reason – for instance, the non-Catholic spouse may have a very strong attachment to his or her own minister.
Mary Tarver is a tribunal judge who was formerly employed by the Bismarck Diocese. She now works as a tribunal judge in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas.