Is an Arranged Marriage Still Considered by the Church a REAL Marriage?

Question: Is an arranged marriage still considered by the church a REAL marriage? My husband and I married as strangers (afraid if we didn’t comply we would be “damned”) in a mass wedding done in the Unification church (Rev. Moon). We were never “in love” but kept our marriage vows, and after leaving that group, still stayed married (for the sake of the kids, mostly!) Later, we became Christian and eventually became Catholic. We are still together (and plan to stay that way!) but sometimes I feel “guilty” for never being in love with my husband and not having that kind of “best friends” relationship. Ours is more one of respect and helpmates. I sometimes worry my marriage is not genuine due to the reasons we got married. What does the Church say?

First of all, congratulations to you and your husband for your fidelity to your relationship and to the remarkable spiritual journey that you have traveled together. While your question is understandable, nowhere in Church teaching will you find a distinction between a marriage that is “real” and one that is not. The Code of Canon Law describes marriage as a “covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (1055). While magisterial teaching highlights the beautiful potential of marriage to be a sign of God’s love in the world, there are as many ways to be that sign as there are married couples. No two marriages are ever exactly alike.

Most couples, especially those who have been married for many years, will tell you that there are moments when their marriages are alight with flames of passion and moments when they are swamped by a deluge of dirty laundry. They will probably also tell you that over the years their reasons for staying married are more complex than the reasons they gave on the day they posed starry-eyed for wedding photos. The notion of Hallmark-style romantic love as a sine qua non for marriage is actually a relatively late arrival to the wedding party. Arranged marriage was the norm throughout much of human history and remains the norm in some communities today.

When you participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, you probably discussed your situation with a priest or catechist involved in your preparation. He or she would have explained that the Church distinguishes between marriages that are valid and invalid and also between marriages that are sacramental and not sacramental. When two unbaptized people are married according to the norms that apply to them (whether the norms of civil law or the norms of another religious group) their marriage is presumed valid until or unless proven otherwise. And when two people who are validly married receive the sacrament of baptism, their marriage automatically becomes a sacramental marriage. Although I don’t know the details of your particular situation, this could be what happened in your case. If there were any reasons that your marriage might not be considered valid – if, for example, the fear you felt amounted to coercion – the priest or catechist in the RCIA would presumably have addressed those concerns as part of your preparation. But if you and your husband participated in the RCIA process with the intention to remain married, he or she would likely have understood that you believed your marriage to be valid.

Neela Kale

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.