Ask a Franciscan

Is a Private Marriage OK?

Q: I am in my 80s; my wife passed away three years ago. About a year after she died, I started a relationship with a neighbor lady whom I have known for over 55 years. She is also in her 80s and was a friend of my wife. She has been a widow for many years. We both have children and grandchildren. After sharing a meal together every Friday, we fell in love. We decided that we would like to get married and travel together while we still had time; we both, however, have wills and own property. We believe that this will cause conflict among both sets of children when one of us passes away. We did not want to offend God. Because we believe that marriage is a pledge between a man and woman in the presence of God and because we know that in the Middle Ages the Church began requiring that a priest act as its witness at a marriage, we decided to get married before God but privately. We knelt down before a crucifix and made our wedding vows before God. Our children are not aware of this, but they are not opposed to us traveling together. Have we committed a sin and, if so, what should we do?

A: You could probably have the Catholic Church regularize your marriage without too much trouble. A prenuptial agreement about the division of property in the event of a spouse’s death is quite legitimate; it should be drawn up with the assistance of a lawyer who knows the relevant laws in your state. With the death of your wife and of her husband, revised wills for each of you may be advisable, anyway.

You should probably seek an attorney’s assistance in drawing up a document to specify who is responsible for making health-care decisions if you are unable to do so. This woman? Your children? You? Her children? I think you owe it to each other to be very clear on this issue. Your diocese may have some guidelines to help you on this.

You exchanged vows privately with the hope of avoiding complications involving property and your children. In fact, you may not have avoided those complications.

In any case, marriage is both private and public. The decision to exchange consent for a lifelong and exclusive commitment is indeed private, but its public consequences are great. The Catholic Church recognizes marriage as a sacrament with immense implications for society.

I encourage you to consult a parish priest about your situation. A small ceremony for the exchange of vows is possible and, in fact, could have positive benefits for your family and for hers.

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