The Catholic Church alone has the right to make laws regulating the marriages of baptized persons, because the Church alone has authority over the sacraments, and over sacred matters affecting baptized persons.
The Church alone has authority over holy matters. The Church is the guardian, the custodian of the sacraments, the means of grace for men. On this account, the Church must safeguard these sacraments.
God assigned to secular governments the duty to administer material things: but to His Church He gave power and authority over spiritual matters. "Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
Marriage is not only a sacrament, but a contract. The Church, therefore, may interfere with this contract, by laying down laws: just as the civil government rules certain civil contracts binding, or null.
Regarding the marriages of baptized persons, the State has the authority to make laws concerning their effects that are merely civil. The State may make laws about the aspects of marriage that are purely material, such as laws regarding the filing of the marriage contract, laws about the conjugal property, laws about income tax exemptions according to the number of children a married couple have.
"What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Matthew 19: 6). By these words Christ Our Lord restored marriage to its original unity and indissolubility; so that there is no power on earth that can dissolve a marriage that has been validly contracted and consummated. The civil divorces granted by the State to Christians, giving them a right to remarry cannot be recognized by the Church. The State has no right to legislate in contradiction to divine law.
Catholics should, however, obey the State laws on marriage as long as they do not contradict laws of God or the Church. But if some laws are not exactly according to Catholic principles, Catholics should work to have better laws, suited to the full exercise of their religious obligations.
The ordinary law of the Church to be observed at the wedding of a Catholic is this: A Catholic can contract a true marriage only in the presence of an authorized priest and two witnesses. The laws of the Church requre a Catholic to be married in the presence of the parish priest, chaplain, or the bishop of the diocese, or a priest delegated by either of them, and before two witnesses. Catholics are absolutely prohibited from contracting marriage except before a priest of the Church and two witnesses.
There is only one exception: If the pastor, or the bishop, or a priest delegated by either, cannot be had without great inconvenience:
In danger of death marriage may be contracted validly and licitly before two witnesses; even if there is no danger of death the same may be done, provided it is forseen that the above condition will last for a month. Thus the couple are truly married and receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. The action should be written down, signed, and the document given to the bishop or pastor when he comes. No Catholics should take this unusual step except for an extraordinarily grave reason.
No Catholic can be married outside the Catholic Church. Catholics who go through the form of marriage before a civil official, such as a justice of the peace are not married. They have merely made a civil contract. Therefore, if they live together as man and wife (by a valid civil contract but non-sanctioned Church contract), or if they cohabitate outside the Sacrament of Matrimony, they sin againts the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. There are no exceptions to this! Their legal contract or lax civil laws may save the from jail, but it will not save them from hell. If they have children, these are registered as illegitimate in the baptismal records.
If Catholics attempt to marry before a non-Catholic minister, they not only commit sin, but they are excommunicated from the Church. They are not married. They are excluded from the sacraments, may not be godparents for baptism and confirmation, and may not receive Christian burial. Their excommunication lasts until they go to confession, receive absolution from the bishop or his appointed Marriage Tribunal representative, and get married before a Catholic priest, if they are to live as spouses. Once they have returned in full union with Holy Mother Church they are again entitled to all the benefits of being Catholic including the above that were previously denied, for as the prodigal son, they have returned.
The Church declares the separation of a validly married couple for very grave cause, such as adultery, heresy, threats on the life of either, etc. In the next two installments we shall delve into this in more detail regarding annulments.
There is a difference between separation and annulment.
The separation declared by the Church does not cut the valid marital bond; neither of the parties may marry again until the death of the other. Should the cause cease, they must live together again. The wronged party should obtain the sanction of the bishop before separation. The need of separation will rarely arise when both husband and wife are good practical Catholics who seriously considered the responsibilities of matrimony before embarking upon it, and who did so with prayer and the blessings of the Church. Who has trusted in God and found Him deaf to supplication?
Outside of valid annulment through the Roman Rota which now can designate some authority to the Diocesan level Marriage Tribunals, the only 'divorce' permitted in the Catholic Church is a separation, with no right to marry anyone else. Not that the Church forces a couple who cannot agree in peace to continue living together. As far as separation includes property rights, Catholics are required to obtain ecclesiastical permission to start civil proceedings for a civil divorce. Once the divorce is granted, if the marriage had been a consummated sacramental bond, the contract remains in every other way; and neither of the parties can enter into marriage with another person.
Often times the welfare of the family comes into play and when a couple remaining together becomes detrimental to the souls of either party or especially the children, then at least temporal separation is advised. However, despite this apart separation, both couples must maintain a chaste lifestyle, avoiding the near occasions of sin or temptations of the flesh.