Marriage Requirements for Godparents and Sponsors and Annulment Summary

By Fr. John Koziol, St. Philip Benizi Parish, Jonesboro, GA, Archdiocese of Atlanta

Recently, I had a conversation with a woman who was upset, hurt, and confused. She had been told by one of our deacons that she did not meet the requirements to serve as a godparent for the baptism of her niece.  She is a confirmed, practicing Catholic and didn’t understand why she was not eligible to serve as a godmother.  The reason she was ineligible was that she was not married in the Catholic Church.  She had married in a non-denominational Church, the Church of her spouse.  She had no idea that being married in the Church is one of the requirements for being a godparent.  She also didn’t know that a marriage outside the Church is not considered valid unless prior permission and a dispensation have been granted by the bishop. 

The canonical requirements for godparents for Baptism and sponsors for Confirmation are the following:

  • Must be a Catholic who is baptized and confirmed
  • Must be 16 years of age
  • Must regularly practice the faith
  • Must have membership in a Catholic parish
  • If married, must be married in the Church or in another Church, with permission and a dispensation.

Why does the Church have these requirements? The role of godparent is significant. During the celebration of the Sacrament of Baptism, the godparents make a promise to assist the parents of the child in fulfilling their responsibility of forming the child in the Catholic faith. In order to fulfill this promise, the godparent must themselves be living the Catholic faith and their lifestyle must be in keeping with the teachings of the Church. Simply put, you can’t sponsor someone for Baptism if you are not yourself in full communion with the Church and the teachings of the Church. One of the canonical requirements of all Catholics is that they marry in the Catholic Church. I know of many Catholic couples who, through no fault of their own, were unaware that they were required to marry in a Catholic Church before a priest or deacon. Consequently, they married outside the Church before a civil authority or another Christian minister. Some couples were under time constraints and married outside the Church because many Catholic parishes require six months of preparation. Regardless of the reason for marrying outside the Church, these couples, presuming they have no previous marriages, can easily remedy the situation by validating their marriage. There are two ways of validating a civil marriage.

  1. The first way is through a “convalidation” of the civil marriage. A convalidation is not simply a renewal of the vows they professed in the first ceremony. Rather, the couple makes a new commitment to one another within a Catholic marriage ceremony. This can be done very simply or with a little more celebration, depending on the situation. I have convalidated many marriages in our Chapel, with a few family members of the couple present to witness the wedding vows. I have also presided at convalidations in the sanctuary of the church, which was more like a regular wedding. Prior to the convalidation, some preparation is required and the necessary paperwork is completed (similar to what is required of an engaged couple planning to marry in the Church). Some documents are needed: namely, a recent Baptismal Certificate of the Catholic party, a copy of the Civil Marriage Certificate, the Marriage Information Form, and Freedom to Marry Questionnaire. If the couple has been married over five years, an abbreviated preparation program is used, which takes place in one session with a trained, married couple.
  2.  The second method for validating a marriage outside the Church is called a “sanation”. The word comes from the Latin word meaning, “to heal”. In this process, the couple does not profess vows again. Rather, the Church literally heals what was lacking at the time of consent by retroactively granting a dispensation from the Canonical Form of marriage and permission to marry outside the Church. Let me explain…. Catholics are required by Canon Law to be married in a Catholic Church, according to the Catholic form of marriage. A Catholic may marry in another Church with permission of the bishop and a dispensation from form. Therefore, the bishop or his delegate can grant the permission and the dispensation after the fact, for the spiritual good of the Catholic party (being able to receive the sacraments and being able to serve as a godparent or sponsor). In this case, a priest prepares a letter to the Marriage Tribunal, describing the circumstances of the marriage outside the Church. He includes a Baptismal Certificate of the Catholic party, a copy of the Marriage Certificate and the Marriage Information Form. The sanction is granted and nothing more is required.

Another challenging situation arises when a Catholic desires to marry in the Church but she or he is divorced or wishes to marry someone who is divorced. Prior to marriage, an annulment of the previous marriage must first be granted by the Church so that the couple can be “free” to marry. An annulment is not the Catholic version of a divorce. It is a declaration that the marriage was not valid from the very beginning and, therefore, is not sacramental and not binding. Marriages are annulled for many reasons. An annulment acknowledges that something was lacking or amiss at the time of the consent of the couple and the profession of vows. Space limitations do not allow me to discuss all the impediments that may invalidate a marriage, but these may include: If there was deception, dishonesty, lack of freedom, immaturity or an inability to fulfill the marriage vows by either or both parties, an annulment may be granted. Although an annulment requires a canonical process, it should be viewed as the Church’s attempt to offer pastoral care to one or both parties and a way to assist them in starting over again. Pope Francis recently simplified the annulment process and also dispensed with any fees for the canonical process.I hope this brief summary is helpful to you.