I always heard about the “privilege of [the] faith.” What is it and can it affect a divorced non-Catholic if they join the Church?
— Anonymous in the diocese
We keep in mind that Church authority can declare marriages null if one party to the marriage petitions and facts are presented proving nullity. There also exist dissolutions of marriage (we cannot begin to examine any such marriage until there has been a divorce).
For centuries, popes have dissolved marriages which were celebrated but never consummated. In the 20th century, American canon lawyers began to present to popes cases in which at least one party was certainly unbaptized for the duration of common life. They argued that if the pope can dissolve a sacramental marriage (both parties baptized) which has not been consummated, all the more can he allow dissolution of the so-called “natural bond” marriage — one in which at least one party was certainly an unbaptized person throughout the course of common life, and which is therefore, non-sacramental.
So began the granting of dissolutions of marriage “in favor of the faith.” This may refer only to the faith of the prospective Catholic spouse; an unbaptized party is not required to receive baptism. Such a dissolution is looked upon as a “privilege,” in contrast with the vindication of a proposed “right” to have a marriage declared null.
It is understood that this favor is granted personally by the pope. When we are between popes, these cannot be granted. We have to wait for a new pope.
The diocesan tribunal aids the petitioner in preparing a petition and the proving of the facts which must necessarily exist. The key fact is to prove that at least one party was an unbaptized person throughout the time that the parties lived together. We rely on witnesses. Parents are preferred witnesses, but other close relatives and people who have known a party a long time can so act. If the presumably unbaptized party ever attended a church, the tribunal asks that church whether there is a record of baptism. When the tribunal has gathered the necessary proofs, the file is sent to the Matrimonial Section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
A panel of three judges at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) reviews the file and, if they find that the necessary facts have been proved, the petition goes directly to the pope. I have been told that CDF officials have a weekly audience with the pope for this purpose. When the pope approves, the tribunal receives a document reporting that the marriage can be dissolved. The pope does not himself dissolve the marriage; it is understood that the new marriage dissolves the previous one.
So, yes, this sort of case is one way for a divorced non-Catholic to enter a new marriage according to the law of the Catholic Church.
Father Kevin Laughery, pastor of St. Jerome Parish in Troy and St. James Parish in St. Jacob, has been a judge of our diocesan tribunal since his priesthood ordination in 1983.