Can Catholics married outside the church take Communion?

Q: My son is dating a Protestant girl. If my son married outside of the Catholic Church, is he not permitted to take the Eucharist? I am praying that the girl consents to have a Catholic matrimony, but that is uncertain for now.

A: For the most part, Catholics who do not abide by the church's marriage laws are not permitted to receive holy Communion. But there are a lot of considerations involved in interfaith marriages, and so the upshot is that your son's life of faith within the church is certainly not a lost cause due to his current relationship.

For general background, Catholics and only Catholics are required by canon law to be married in a Catholic ceremony, what canon lawyers refer to technically as "marrying according to canonical form" (See Canon 1117 of the Code of Canon Law). A person is bound by this uniquely Catholic obligation if they were ever Catholic at any point, since the rule of thumb is "once a Catholic, always a Catholic." So, if a person was baptized Catholic as an infant but later drifted away, and even if they eventually committed to practicing another religion, they would still be considered bound to canonical form.

Canonical form is an important concept to understand and be aware of because if a Catholic does not marry according to canonical form -- say, if a Catholic decided to get married by a justice of the peace -- this marriage would be considered not only illicit, but also invalid.

However, it is possible in some circumstances for a Catholic to receive a "dispensation from canonical form" in some situations. This is a special concession from the local diocesan bishop which allows a Catholic to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony, typically due to serious pastoral concerns involving a non-Catholic spouse-to-be (See Canon 1127, 2).

Very strictly speaking, canon law technically requires Catholics to marry only other Catholics (See Canon 1086, 1 and Canon 1124).

Still, it's common knowledge that Catholics do sometimes marry non-Catholics. If a Catholic is seeking to marry a non-Catholic who is nevertheless a baptized Christian (for example, a Christian baptized in a Protestant denomination that uses a Trinitarian baptismal formula, such as an Anglican or Lutheran), in canon law this is called a "mixed marriage." A Catholic would need permission from the bishop for a mixed marriage in order to marry licitly, even in a Catholic ceremony. Similarly, if a Catholic seeks to marry a non-baptized person, this situation is called a "disparity of cult." A Catholic would need a dispensation from disparity of cult, once again from the local bishop, in order to marry a non-baptized person validly.

All of this might sound rather complicated, but typically this can all be discussed and worked out with the Catholic party's parish priest during Catholic premarital preparation. Parish priests usually take care of requesting whatever dispensations or permissions might be necessary, and in the United States the paperwork involved in these kinds of issues is very routine for most diocesan chancery offices.

Circling back to your son's case in particular, let's assume for the sake of argument that he and his girlfriend do eventually get engaged, and your son appropriately consults his parish priest about his upcoming wedding. Further assuming that your son's Protestant fiancée was validly baptized, the priest would request permission for a mixed marriage on the couple's behalf. If the fiancée was willing to marry in a Catholic ceremony, there would be a discussion of whether a Catholic wedding service outside of a Mass might be more appropriate and pastorally sensitive. But if the bride had strong feelings about having a non-Catholic service, the possibility of a dispensation from canonical form would likely be considered.

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.