Questions Answered

January 2014

  • What do you say to a non-Catholic man who received questionable advice from a priest about his marriage to a Catholic woman, and now wants to become Catholic as well?
  • How engaged should the priest be in the religious education of the parish?

Question: I have recently had a man inquire about converting to Catholicism. He and his wife, a Catholic, were married in the Church even though he was a Lutheran and divorced without an annulment. The priest at the time told him in the private forum that his first marriage was invalid but did not seek an annulment and married them in the Church anyway. Was the priest right to do this?

Answer: Before I answer the question about the priest, let me first address the situation of the couple. As they acted in good faith, and were given potentially false information by the priest, they suffer no moral consequences from the decision of this priest. Of course, their marriage may still be irregular, and they should be advised that they still need to ascertain if an annulment of the previous marriage is needed.

Because of the danger of scandal to them and to others, it might not be appropriate for them to have another marriage ceremony. Rather, quiet investigation could be made of the nature of the first marriage. Perhaps, some of the usual canonical testimony could either be abridged, or omitted, if the witnesses were nonexistent because of the passage of time, or if they stubbornly refused to testify. If it were clear that the first marriage was invalid, then since both parties wrongly believed their marriage to be valid, the impediment to their original consent could be removed in the form of a sanatio in radice or “retroactive validation.”

This “sanatio” revalidates the marriage from the time it is given because of the original consent which was rendered invalid because of the existing impediment of the lack of a decree of nullity.  Their original consent is then approved, and takes effect provided the parties still consent, and they are living what is publicly considered to be the married state. A simple renewal of consent is all that is needed, unless the impediment was public.

For many years, some priests have mistakenly granted private forum annulments from the confessional because they were personally convinced that the marriages in question were invalid but thought that the canonical case would be too hard to prove. This is contrary to Church law, and can be disastrous for the couple concerned. The role of the priest in the internal forum should be to help the person reach moral certitude about his/her own situation. The priest should never make a decision or “grant” an internal forum “annulment.” Also, any certitude reached by the layperson in the internal forum has no canonical effect in the external forum (e.g., a Catholic wedding service cannot be celebrated on the basis of what is popularly called an “internal forum solution”).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear about the parameters for private forum solutions of marriages which cannot be easily proven to be invalid. “Today, there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce, and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery”—the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise ecclesial responsibilities.  Reconciliation through the sacrament of penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.”  (CCC, 1650)

For a priest to knowingly grant absolution only in the confessional because he personally judges a former marriage to be invalid and, then, performs a marriage in the Church which allows the couple to engage in sexual activity completely, contravenes this teaching in pastoral practice. It can set up many future conflicts of conscience in Catholics who are in good faith, and is, therefore, not pastorally indicated.


Question: How engaged should the priest be in the religious education of the parish?

Answer: It is common Catholic doctrine that, within the family, the parents are the primary religious educators. This responsibility is shared by others who stand in loco parentis (in place of the parents). These would include the parish priest, those responsible for religious education in the parish, and the Catholic school.

In the parish, the pastor has the primary obligation for ensuring the proper religious education of the youth and, also, that the Word of God is taught and understood by the faithful. The parish priest is the primary religious educator of the parish. He has this office because of his further participation in the office of prophet, with the strengthening of the character of Christ in his soul, as a result of the ordination ritual. This conformity to Christ as prophet demands that he tell the truth, and instruct others in the truth.

The Code of Canon Law is quite specific as to the role and responsibility of the pastor, which includes not only the education of the youth or converts, but also the ongoing intellectual formation of the faithful. “The parish priest has the obligation of ensuring that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish. He is, therefore, to see to it that the lay members of Christ’s faithful are instructed in the truths of faith, especially by means of the homily on Sundays and holy days of obligation, and by catechetical formation. He is to foster works which promote the spirit of the Gospel, including its relevance to social justice. He is to have a special care for the catholic education of children and young people. With the collaboration of the faithful, he is to make every effort to bring the gospel message to those also who have given up religious practice or who do not profess the true faith.” (Code of Canon Law, 528, 1)

For a pastor to truly carry out this obligation in an efficacious manner, it is necessary for him to keep up-to-date on the latest theological literature, especially documents which come from the Holy See or the episcopal conference. Unfortunately, many priests seem to stop reading or studying theology after they leave the seminary. Some base their further thinking on the weekly press, even the secular media. This can hardly sustain an enquiring adult faith for themselves as priests, let alone be a proper source for the continuing catechesis of the faithful. At times, priests cite the example of someone like St. John Vianney as an example of someone who did not study and, yet, was a very effective parish priest. First, John Vianney did not do well in the seminary because he did not know Latin very well. When examined in French, he did well. He also had several hundred volumes in his personal library.

Though the priest may, of course, make use of trained laity or religious to aid him in his catechetical mission, it would be wrong to leave all the religious education, with the exception of the Sunday homily, to others. In RCIA, for instance, though the laity can be of great help in the instruction of converts, ultimately the one who must determine if converts have the proper intention, and sufficient instruction to live the Catholic faith, rests with the priest. He must, at least, participate at times in the RCIA program. The same would be true of the Catholic school, or the religious education program for the youth. The priest must have a hand in this teaching also.

Adult education is also of great importance. Many Catholics today are poorly formed in their faith. They get more from talk shows than from papal or episcopal instruction. It should be incumbent on the pastor to provide times for adult education,n either done by himself or by some competent outsider. For instance, in the pre-Cana conferences, it would be exciting to have a panel discussion in which a priest presents the theology of marriage, a couple tell of their experience with something like natural family planning, and a medical professional discusses the same topic from the medical angle.

Many people think that pastoral life is reduced to sacramental practice. Sometimes, pastoral practice is identified with parish activities like spaghetti dinners. Though these may be important, one should remember that the “Supreme Pastor” was also the “Supreme Teacher.” Teaching must, therefore, be a part of pastoral ministry.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
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