Marriage outside Church

Q. I was taught that when Catholics married outside the Church they were not properly married in the eyes of the Church. Yet recently I read somewhere that the Church presumes the validity of the marriage of any two people who are free to marry at the time of their wedding. I thought that marriages outside the Church were always invalid. Please explain.

A. Here’s a reply from Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:

Only Catholics are obliged to get married in the Church with Catholic rites. Catholics who enter into marriage outside the Church (unless they have a dispensation to do so) enter an invalid marriage.

However, non-Catholics of all persuasions who enter marriage through their own religious or civil ceremonies (unless at least one was married previously) enter a valid marriage. If such a marriage breaks up and one of the couple wishes to marry a Catholic, then the non-Catholic party must seek an annulment within Catholic procedures from the first marriage.

Some Catholics are under the impression that only Catholics have valid marriages. Such a viewpoint would declare most marriages in the history of the world invalid. This is not, of course, the Catholic view. All non-Catholic marriages in which the couples are free to marry (that is, having no previously valid marriages) are valid.