If a Catholic wishes to marry a baptized non-Catholic, there is an issue: canon 1124requires them first to obtain permission of their bishop. This issue was specifically addressed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” but in a nutshell, the Church will always want to make sure that the non-Catholic spouse will not hamper the Catholic spouse in the practice of the faith. This is the underlying reason for the requirement—the bishop is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the Catholic party to the marriage, and he has to do his best to ensure that it will not be directly endangered if the marriage takes place.
But when a Catholic wishes to marry a non-Christian, the Church’s concern is even greater. That’s why strictly speaking, marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person is, according to canon 1086.1, actually invalid! It can only take place in the Church if the bishop agrees to grant a dispensation from the law—a concept which was explained in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic,” already mentioned above. Many of us know of instances where such marriages have been permitted to take place in a Catholic ceremony, of course; these weddings were allowed only after the bishop granted the request for a dispensation.
While the Church isn’t particularly keen on Catholics marrying non-Christians, we can see that it often permits it. Keep in mind that when such a wedding takes place with the Church’s permission, it is completely legal, and the Catholic spouse in no way should be construed as doing anything wrong! Nonetheless, the marriage is not a sacrament—as we already saw above, it can’t be. It is referred to as a non-sacramental marriage. We have finally arrived at the answer to Ashley’s question.
There’s no denying that it might seem a bit strange to assert that in this situation, a Catholic is marrying in a Catholic church, in a Catholic ceremony, in accord with Catholic canon law… and yet does not receive the Catholic sacrament of matrimony. Still, as odd as the answer might seem to some, it’s the only logical theological rationale for what is happening.
While we’re on the subject, another question arises: what happens to the non-sacramental marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian, if the non-Christian subsequently chooses to be baptized? Faced with little alternative, the Church teaches that their marriage becomes sacramental, once the baptism takes place! Again, it may not sound like the ideal answer, but it is the Church’s position.
Canon law is complicated enough already, in those matters which pertain exclusively to Catholics—and as we can see, in those aspects of the law that touch upon non-Catholics (which usually concern marriage), some concepts become trickier still. It’s worth noting that this isn’t necessarily because law is always complex, in and of itself; rather, it’s due to the undeniable fact that everyday life can become extremely convoluted, when it involves trying to balance the natural rights of all human beings alongside the rules that specifically govern the Catholic faithful. The world is a complicated place; canon law is just trying to keep up.