Not quite. The church teaches that a marriage between a baptized man and a baptized woman is a SACRAMENT. When a person who’s baptized marries another who is not, the Church recognizes the marriage. But it doesn’t consider the marriage a sacramental union.
Please understand this teaching doesn’t pronounce judgment on the quality of a relationship. It simply defines what a sacramental marriage is. If you inhabit a realm outside the sacramental orbit, the marriage doesn’t fit the criteria.
Because sacramental living is central to Catholic identity, official church teaching prohibits the marriage of a baptized Catholic to an unbaptized (non-Christian) person. (Canon 1086) Obviously, in our modern interconnected world, many such marriages take place. This impediment to marriage can be—and generally is—dispensed by the local bishop who issues a “dispensation from the impediment of disparity of worship.” In order to receive this dispensation, the unbaptized person must be made aware of the Catholic person’s obligation to practice the faith, as well as to raise any children under the same obligation. The unbaptized person must agree not to object to the Catholic spouse’s obligations, nor to impede the fulfillment of them. The marriage may then be celebrated in a Catholic ceremony—however, not in the context of a Mass (Eucharist being a sacrament). In fulfilling these stipulations, the couple is considered married by the Catholic Church. But not sacramentally.
Canon Law offers requirements for a Catholic sacramental marriage as follows:
- The couple must be a male and a female.
- The proposed marriage must be legal in the state where it is celebrated.
- The couple must produce a valid marriage license issued by the local civic authority.
- The couple must produce proofs of baptism by certificate or affidavit.
- Neither party can be bound to a previous marriage.
- Both parties must be capable of natural intercourse.
- The couple must be aware, or be made aware, of Church teaching regarding marriage as a bond broken only by death, and open to welcoming children. The couple must agree to these teachings.
- Neither party can be ordained or under the vow of religious profession.
- The couple must complete the preparation requirements of the parish or the diocese.
As with any teaching, church law regarding marriage continues to evolve. A fair amount of local discretion can be exercised pastorally for the good of the couple.
Scripture: Genesis 2:18-24; Tobit 8:5-7; Matthew 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; 1 Corinthians 6:16; 7:1-16; Ephesians 5:21-33
Books: 101 Questions and Answers on Catholic Marriage Preparation, by Rebecca Nappi et.al. (Paulist Press, 2004); A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family, by Julie Hanlon Rubio (Paulist Press, 2003)