Jesus restored a proper understanding of the permanence and fidelity called for in Marriage, and He elevated the marriage contract to a sacramental bond. (Mt 19:3-6; cf. Canon 1055 of the Code of Canon Law) Christ established the Church to be the custodian of the Sacraments, and therefore Catholics are bounded by the Marriage laws of the Church even as they have a right to the Sacrament of Marriage. For Catholics, indeed for any two baptized persons, we cannot speak of a merely "natural union" since the marriage contract and the Sacrament of Marriage are inseparable. (CIC 10552)
The Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church applies to all baptized Roman Catholics. As such, the law indicates that three things are necessary for a valid sacramental marriage: the man and the woman must be free to marry, they must exchange their consent, and they must be married according to proper canonical form, i.e. two baptized persons, two witnesses, the priest, and the liturgical rites of the Church. (CIC 1057) Those Catholics who are marrying a non-Catholic are also bound by these things, although they may request permission from their bishop to be married outside their parish.
Given the above, Catholics cannot be validly married in either a civil ceremony or in a religious ceremony outside their parish when the proper permission was not obtained. Catholics who do attempt marriage this way are not excommunicated (as is often believed), but they are nevertheless living in a way contrary to God's law (i.e. the Sixth Commandment) and they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1385, 1650) Although the Church realizes that the parties involved may indeed love each other very much and may even have children together, it cannot consider such a union to be anything other than "irregular" because of what Our Lord himse1f taught. Marriage, like all of the Sacraments, belongs to God, and in fidelity to the Lord, the Church cannot modify the essential elements of the Sacrament no matter how difficult or compelling an individual case may be.
For those joined in a civil union where both parties are free to marry (i.e. not bound by a previous marriage), the solution is relatively easy: see the parish priest to arrange to have the marriage blessed," or more accurately, "validated." In those cases where one or both parties are previously married, the first step remains the same: see the parish priest. Of course, like those who desire to be joined in a valid marriage, the priest himself is bound by what the Church teaches. Therefore, he must proceed carefully to investigate the circumstances and, he is not free to go beyond what the Church teaches. In the meantime, Catholics in this condition should continue to attend Mass (though without going to Communion) and to pray for perseverance in doing God's will.
What you have just read in the previous paragraphs pertains to the mind of Christ concerning marriage. It is a holy event and Christ wanted each couple to be part of this holy event. What you have just read might sound complicated, but a lot of the mysterious questions can be resolved if you contact your local parish priest. The local parish priest can help you realize what the mind of Christ is concerning marriage and can help you take part in the most sacred event of your life - the sacrament of matrimony as instituted by Jesus Christ.
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