What is it that Prevents a Marriage from Being a Marriage?

In the previous article in this Sacraments series, the topic of Marriage was approached from the standpoint of addressing “What makes a marriage a marriage?” The answer was identified as consent freely given between one man and one woman, made before the Church’s minister and two witnesses. This article is going to address the inverse issue: What is it that prevents a marriage from being a marriage?



There’s Always a Hitch

Frank Sinatra famously sang, “Love and marriage / love and marriage / they go together / like a horse and carriage” – and while that may be true, just like a horse and carriage, there is always a hitch! And the hitch that connects love and marriage, like the hitch of the horse and carriage, has to fit together in such a way that the two are properly bound together. When marital hitch can’t properly connect to the carriage of marriage, we call that an “impediment.” A marital impediment is something that impedes the marital union from happening. Sometimes that marital hitch can’t be fixed; other times the local Bishop is needed to help you fix that hitch; and still other times you have to send your hitch out to the repair shop in the Vatican for fixing.


The Church, as expressed in its Canon Law, teaches that there are 12 impediments to a Sacrament of Marriage; these are commonly called Diriment Impediments. Diriment is a word that comes from the Latin dirimens, which means separating. Thus a Diriment impediment is one that separates the couple (or better put, it causes them to be unable to be joined). Of these impediments, three are based on Divine Law. They come from God; if these impediments are present, they are not dispensable, even by the Pope. Another three are deemed as “reserved”; this means they can only be dispensed by the Pope (the Holy See). The remaining six are dispensable by Church authority in the person of the Bishop.


The Big Three

Some impediments are more impeding than others to marriage – and just as for many years TV had the “big three” networks: CBS, NBC and ABC – the Church has the big three non-dispensable impediments, to wit: impotence, prior marriage and consanguinity. Each of these impediments emanate from Divine Law (i.e., God said so).

  • Impotence: Impotence is the inability to, by natural means, complete the marital act. It prevents the marriage from ever being consummated, thus no marriage can be contracted or consented to. This is not to be confused with sterility, which is not an impediment at all. A sterile man can still complete the marital act and thus can consummate the marriage.
  • Prior Marriage: If you have been married, and that marriage has not been declared null -- commonly referred to as an “annulment” -- by the Church, you are not free to marry. That marital bond, if deemed valid, and not able to be declared null, prevents any new marriage from occurring.
  • Consanguinity:  Consanguinity is a fifty-dollar word that means blood relationship. In the direct line (father-daughter, grandfather-granddaughter, mother-son, grandmother-grandson), marriage is never allowed. There are also  non-direct lines of relationship; there are stringent rules governing these, too. Generally speaking, marriage is not permitted by those up to (and including) “the fourth-degree of consanguinity” (or as it might be put in common English: you can’t marry your first cousin or anyone closer in blood relation. In terms of these non-direct lines, the Church breaks it down this way: the second degree of consanguinity refers to brothers/sisters; the third degree refers to uncles/nieces and aunts/nephews; and the fourth-degree refers to first cousins. Beyond this point marriage is permissible.


Reservations Please

The next three impediments to marriage are deemed “reserved,” this means they can be dispensed but only by the Pope. They are:

  • Conjugicide: This cool sounding word actually speaks of a heinous act: killing of your spouse, so as to make yourself free to marry another. Basically, this is what happens when one spouse thinks “until death do us part” is not a vow, but a plan. Using a Brady Bunch example, if Mike Brady kills Carol Brady because he wants to be free to marry Alice, questionable taste aside, he cannot marry her (or anyone else). In order for this impediment to be lifted, there would have to be a Brady Bunch episode in which Mike Brady visits the Pope, who lifts the impediment. And both in TV-Land and Vatican-land, that is very unlikely.
  • Holy Orders: Those in Holy Orders -- Bishops, Priests and Deacons -- may not move from their present state of life to married life without going through the arduous process of laicization along with specific permission to marry from the Pope. Laicization is a rarely used process that reduces a man from the clerical state to the lay state.
  • Perpetual Vows of Chastity: Religious brothers and sisters (nuns) who have taken final or perpetual vows in a religious community (e.g., Franciscans, Dominicans, etc.) are impeded from marriage. In order for a religious brother or sister be released from those vows they must undergo exclaustration. Exclaustration is an indult (exception) that is granted by the Holy See; it permits religious to live outside the community, however that person receiving the indult remains bound by all other vows so far as they are compatible with their new status in life.


Six of One, a Half-Dozen of Another

The remaining six diriment impediments are all dispensable by the Bishop. I would be remiss if I failed to note that while the Bishop can dispense from some of these impediments it doesn’t mean that he likely would.

  • Age. The Church, on a universal basis sets the minimum age for marriage at 16 for a man, and 14 for a woman. Many Bishops conferences and Dioceses have set higher a minimum age for marriage. In theory, a Bishop could set a lower age, but that hasn’t happened and is unlikely. It should also be stated that it is the practice of the Church to observe civil law in regard to age requirements for marriage (thus, if Delaware says you have to be 18 to marry, the Church won’t marry you unless you are at least 18).
  • Affinity. Affinity is not just a cool car, it is also a relationship established not by blood but by marriage; it impedes marriage. Thus, while Greg Brady and Marcia Brady are not biologically brother and sister, by affinity, they are considered brother and sister. So, while Greg could marry Alice the housekeeper, Marcia, Jan and Cindy are off-limits.
  • Disparity of Cult. This term refers to a difference of fundamental religious faiths involved in a marriage. Ideally, a member of the Catholic faith marries a fellow member of the Catholic faith, and if not, he certainly marries a Christian. But what if a Catholic marries a non-Christian (i.e., Buddhist, Jew, Klingon), then what? A Bishop commonly dispenses couples from this “disparity of cult.” In doing so, he allows the Catholic party and the non-Christian to enjoy the benefits of natural marriage with the blessings of the Church.
  • Abduction. This is simple one: If Greg Brady kidnaps Alice the housekeeper and runs off with her, no marriage may be contracted. The very act of abduction, regardless of what Alice might say to the Priest or Deacon at the altar, impedes the marriage from validly occurring.
  • Adoption. Remember when actor Woody Allen took up with his step-daughter Soon-yi and they got married? Google it; you’ll get a ton of hits. While the state says that this is okay, the Church would say it is not. While these two people are not blood related, Allen effectively was her adoptive parent. Definitely not okay!
  • Public Propriety. This is an interesting one, and it has to do with – among other things – cohabitating partners. The impediment of Public Propriety would dictate, for example, that a man cannot validly marry the mother or the daughter of a woman who was his mistress or his cohabitating partner.  There is no affinity, blood relation or adoption here, but to casual onlooker it would appear there is. This is what I like to call the “icky” impediment – there might not be something wrong here that I can define, but “ick” – something is just not right!

I should also note that prior to 1983 in the Roman Catholic Church (and currently still existing in the Eastern Church) there was a 13th impediment: Spiritual Relationship. This impediment dictated that a marriage between a Godparent and a Godchild – even if not connected by blood, affinity or adoption – is not permissible.


There are of course other matters that impede marriage or render it potentially invalid:  coercion (forcing someone to marry); refusing procreation (when one party in a marriage makes it known that he/she doesn’t want to have children); lack of form (when a Catholic gets married without following the marital laws and rites of the Church); exclusion of fidelity (if either party says that he/she can’t be faithful); and mental incapacity (if either party doesn’t understand what he/she is entering into).