The Sacrament of Marriage is the only One of the Seven Sacraments that existed, albeit in the form of a human institution, before Our Lord came to earth. 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 1O55 of the Code of Canon Law) Christ established the Church to be the custodian of the Sacraments, and therefore Catholics are bound 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 1055.2)
The Canon Law of the Rowan 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 Himself 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 parries 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 reaches. 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.
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