Learning to Love the Unlovely
By Tammy Darling
What would it look like to love the person in front of me — even if this person annoys me, criticizes me, belittles me, or even scares me?
When this question was put to me recently, I had to do some serious thinking. I knew I didn’t treat everyone with the same love and acceptance — some people just didn’t look “worthy” or “safe” in my eyes.
In today’s society loving some people could be downright dangerous. While this may be the case in a few extreme situations, I must admit that I have used this excuse as justification for avoiding certain strangers I come into contact with. Even those with obvious needs have at times frightened me away.
Loving the unlovely doesn’t come naturally. It goes against our nature to love those who don’t have something to give in return — even if that something is simply their acceptance.
Since pondering the above question, I have realized that my spur-of-the-moment responses toward others are a very clear indication to what is going on in my own heart. Take telemarketers, for example. My immediate response has always been to put up a wall — my tone was anything but friendly and the majority of the time I hung up on them. They were interrupting my family life, after all!
Unfortunately, I had lost sight of the fact that they are innocent people simply trying to make a living.
Dealing with the people who populate our everyday lives can easily frustrate, annoy, or even anger us. These negative attitudes then become embedded in our hearts and become the main focus of our thoughts Outward symptoms, such as eye rolling, sarcasm, criticism, complaining, gossiping, and cynicism, become routine. All these and more can be signs that we do not value others as people whom God loves.
The busyness of my life has a tendency to make me become self-absorbed. I can easily become so caught up in my own life to the exclusion of the lives of others. My self-absorption can lead me to become cross with my kids for interrupting me, impatient with the bank teller when she makes a mistake, and angry with the slow driver holding me up from where I need to go — as though it’s all about me.
But, thankfully, I am discovering that the less I am the point of my life, the more my life has a point.
At times our reactions may even seem justified. For instance, when the teenage driver cuts us off, indignation rises up within. How dare he! I, for one, have often wanted to ram such drivers to “teach them a lesson.”
Regardless of what we try to tell ourselves, the simple fact is that no matter where we are or whom we come across in the course of our lives, we can love the one we’re with — even if it’s only for 10 minutes. How? By trusting God with those difficult and “scary” people. Our trust in God enables us to be kind to the ungrateful, to be patient with the impatient, and in essence, to love the unlovely.
The kind of love God calls us to requires a heart transformation. The transformation begins with cultivating a right heart—a heart of good will towards others. This cultivation includes confession, prayer, obedience, and service.
Loving the person in front of us often requires that we find some common ground. Connecting with others can start as simply as finding and sharing common experiences. When we do so, we take the spotlight off ourselves enabling us to focus on others.
While we are all different, we’re also alike in many ways. Finding common ground isn’t as difficult as it sounds. It doesn’t have to be an earth shaking connection — a little oneness can go a long way toward developing a love for someone that works itself out in kindness, prayer, or service.
So what does loving the one you’re with look like in action?
* It may mean remaining silent when your spouse says something unkind to you.
* It may mean turning the other cheek when a co-worker blatantly degrades you.
* It may mean putting your fear aside to aide the homeless man on the street corner.
* It may mean smiling and being patient with the slow check-out clerk, even when you’re in a hurry.
* It may mean lifting up a prayer for the driver who nearly swiped your car.
* It may mean refusing to mouth off to the neighbor that is constantly complaining about your dog, your kids, your noise level, etc.
* It may mean serving anyone, at any time God leads.
Real life requires real love. Love the one you’re with.
—Tammy Darling writes from her home in Three Springs, Pensylvania, where she also homeschools her four daughters.
Why Marriages Fail
Posted by Rebecca Teti
He rejects most pop psychology explanations in favor of something much simpler.
Couples just don’t spend enough time together.
One family expert puts it this way.
spending time together was one of the strongest predictors of marital happiness. The reverse is also true – the happier that people are in their marriage, the more time they will spend with their spouse. This finding holds over time too. When spouses increase the amount of time they spend together, their marital happiness increases (on average).
The specific recommendations for relationship health are a little daunting, at least for certain periods of life.
Willard Harley, for example, recommends couples spend two hours a night together—I don’t know if that’s feasible with a newborn and multiple other children in the house.
Maybe with a lot of coffee and B12 shots.
Still, it’s a good reminder that a marriage must be fed and tended, not taken for granted and put in second place.
Stricherz suggests, too, this may be true the danger of tv and computer use.
It’s not the potentially harmful content, but what you’re missing.
We’ve talked about date nights here before. How about daily time together? What are your tips and trade secrets for connecting day in and day out?
One Love, Two Faiths
Living a Mixed Marriage
By Kate Wicker
APR. 15, 2010 (www.faithandfamilylive.com) - In a best possible world, anyone who was called to the married life would find a faithful Catholic spouse. Yet, the reality is many Catholics end up marrying someone who does not share their faith.
While a mixed marriage is not the ideal, when two people are married in the Church, God’s graces pour down on them, perfecting their love for each other and strengthening them in times of weakness and uncertainty.
As someone who always assumed she’d be part of a “purist” marriage but ended up marrying an amazing man, non-Catholic man, I share some tips that have helped me stay true to my spouse and to the faith I love.
Seek out support.
I choose to not vent about my husband or our disparity in faith with friends or family. I want to build him and our marriage up in every way I can. On the other hand, I sometimes do need to talk about the special challenges I face in my marital life.
What I’ve learned to do is to confide in a few trustworthy and prudent people, including a priest, a spiritual director, and my grandma. My nana, in particular, has been a wellspring of wisdom for me since she was also a part of a mixed marriage.
Never underestimate the power of prayer.
Prayer - even if it never leads to conversion - is needed to nourish your own soul and faith life. I find that being in a mixed marriage demands I pray regularly and fervently - not only for my husband and children but for my own strength and wisdom.
When I’m wrestling with my own doubts, I cannot start to think there’s no hope for my children or my husband. I have to work through my spiritual dry spells. I have to spend more time in prayer and put myself before the Blessed Sacrament. I have to embrace my spiritual challenges as a way of becoming stronger in my faith instead of looking at them as leading my entire family down the path of non-belief.
Speaking of prayer, before marrying anyone - Catholic or not - it’s important to spend time discerning about your relationship and whether it’s God’s will (or your own desire to seize your “soul mate”) to enter into the bond of a sacramental marriage.
Let the little children come.
As Catholics, we must not only bear fruit; we must ripen it for Christ by leading our children to Him, training them in godliness, and nurturing their souls for an eternity in heaven.
Thankfully, the Sacrament of Marriage showers couples with graces that help them face this daunting task of touching the souls of our children and bringing them to know, love, and serve Jesus with all of their being.
But what about the couple in a mixed marriage? Can they really bear witness to this awesome responsibility? Can children grow in faith, embrace the virtues Christ imitates, and know the tremendous power of the Eucharist when only one parent is living the Catholic faith?
Some would say probably not. I say yes, but it won’t be easy. The good news is, while it’s essential the non-Catholic spouse agrees to raise the children Catholic and supports the faithful spouse in the spiritual formation of their children, even parents in mixed marriages aren’t really going at it solo. God is with you to guide you and to give you all the graces you need to reveal the faith to your children. I do realize the odds may be stacked against my children, but there are saints who overcame far greater odds.
What about when your children start asking questions?
The first time my oldest asked why Daddy didn’t receive communion, I explained it this way: “Daddy doesn’t have the same gift that we have or if he does, he hasn’t opened it yet and it’s our job to help him find it and unwrap it.”
Sure, this simple explanation may not work on a 16-year-old, but right now she’s very keen on helping Daddy get his present. There’s a reason Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.” Their humility and blind trust is a beautiful reminder of how we should all approach our faith. My children love to talk about God. They ask to pray a decade of the rosary and are curious about the lives of the saints. They’re wonderful witnesses to the faith.
While I’m not suggesting you goad your children to be pint-sized apologetics, allow them to share their love for God with your spouse.
Trust in Him.
Stop trying to change your spouse. Don’t nag. Do not get all “holier than thou” on him or her. Strive to be a spouse who tries to do right rather than be right. This means upholding your own obligations to the Church and leading a life of love.
As St. Ambrose advised St. Monica, “Talk less about God and more to God.” Once I said to my nana that if having a non-Catholic spouse, who was still a loving, good man, was my cross to bear, then so be it. She wisely reminded me, “It’s not your cross to bear at all. This is God’s business.” I can be a faithful, good wife. But it’s not up to me to convert him. That’s ultimately God’s work.
Release yourself from the burden of changing your spouse. While you’re at it, release him or her from a similar burden of fulfilling you when Christ is the only one who can satisfy your restless heart. It’s only when we place our complete trust in God, that miracles can begin to happen.
Don’t lose faith.
Stay hopeful. Persevere with humility and patience as St. Monica did.
And keep close these words from the Catechism:
“For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. It is a great joy for the Christian spouse and for the Church if this consecration should lead to the free conversion of the other spouse to the Christian faith. Sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of family virtues, and perseverance in prayer can prepare the non-believing spouse to accept the grace of conversion.” (CCC 1637)
—Senior writer Kate Wicker is a wife and mom of three living in Georgia. Find her online at KateWicker.com.
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By Pontifical Household Preacher Father Cantalamessa
The Two Shall Become One Flesh
Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
The topic of this 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time is marriage. The first reading (Genesis 2:18-24) begins with the well-known words: "The Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.'"
In our days the evil of marriage is separation and divorce, whereas in the time of Jesus it was repudiation. In a certain sense, the latter was a worse evil, because it also implied an injustice in regard to the woman, which, sadly, persists in certain cultures. Man, in fact, had the right to repudiate his wife, but the wife did not have the right to repudiate her husband.
There were two opposite opinions in Judaism, in regard to repudiation. According to one of them, it was lawful to repudiate one's wife for any reason, hence, at the discretion of the husband. According to another, however, a grave reason was necessary, established by the law.
One day they subjected Jesus to this question, hoping that he would adopt a position in favor of one or the other thesis. However, they received an answer they did not expect: "Because of the hardness of your hearts he [Moses] wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate."
The law of Moses about repudiation is seen by Christ as an unwanted disposition, but tolerated by God (as polygamy and other disorders), because of hardness of heart and human immaturity. Jesus did not criticize Moses for the concession made; he recognized that in this matter the human lawmaker cannot fail to keep in mind the reality in fact.
However, he re-proposed to all the original ideal of the indissoluble union between man and woman -- "one flesh" -- that, at least for his disciples, must be the only form possible of marriage.
However, Jesus did not limit himself to reaffirming the law; he added grace to it. This means that Christian spouses not only have the duty to remain faithful until death; they also have the necessary aids to do so. From Christ's redeeming death comes a strength -- the Holy Spirit -- which permeates every aspect of the believer's life, including marriage. The latter is even raised to the dignity of a sacrament and of living image of the spousal union with the Church on the cross (Ephesians 5:31-32).
To say that marriage is a sacrament does not only mean -- as often believed -- that in it the union of the sexes is permitted, licit and good, which outside of it would be disorder and sin; it means even more yet, to say that marriage becomes a way of being united to Christ through love of the other, a real path of sanctification.
This positive view is the one that Benedict XVI happily showed in his encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" on love and charity. In it the Pope does not compare the indissoluble union in marriage to another form of erotic love; but presents it as the most mature and perfect form, not only from the Christian, but also from the human point of view.
"It is part of love's growth toward higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being 'forever.' Love embraces the whole of existence in each of its dimensions, including the dimension of time. It could hardly be otherwise, since its promise looks toward its definitive goal: love looks to the eternal" (No. 60).
This ideal of conjugal fidelity has never been easy (adultery is a word that resounds ominously even in the Bible!). But today the permissive and hedonist culture in which we live has made it immensely more difficult. The alarming crisis that the institution of marriage is going through in our society is easy for all to see.
Civil laws, such as that in Spain, permit (and indirectly, in this way, encourage!) beginning divorce proceedings just a few months after life in common. Words like: "I am sick of this life," "I'm going," "If it's like this, each one on his own!" are uttered between spouses at the first difficulty.
Let it be said in passing: I believe that Christian spouses should accuse themselves in confession of the simple fact of having uttered one of these words, because the sole fact of saying them is an offense to the unity, and constitutes a dangerous psychological precedent.
In this marriage suffers the common mentality of "use and discard." If a device or tool is in some way damaged or dented, no thought is given to repairing it -- those who did such repairs have disappeared -- there is only thought of replacing it. Applied to marriage, this mentality is deadly.
What can be done to contain this tendency, cause of so much evil for society and so much sadness for children? I have a suggestion: Rediscover the art of repairing!
Replace the "use and discard" mentality with that of "use and repair." Almost no one does repairs now. But if this art of repairing is no longer done for clothes, it must be practiced in marriage. Repair the big tears, and repair them immediately.
St. Paul gave very good counsels in this respect: "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil," "forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other," "Bear one another's burdens" (Ephesians 4:26-27; Colossians 3:13; Galatians 6:2).
What is important is that one must understand that in this process of tears and repairs, of crises and surmounted obstacles, marriage is not exhausted, but is refined and improves. I perceive an analogy between the process that leads to a successful marriage and one that leads to holiness.
In their path toward perfection, the saints often go through the so-called dark night of the senses, in which they no longer experience any feeling, or impulse.
They have aridity, are empty, do everything through will power alone and with effort. After this, comes the "dark night of the spirit," in which not only feelings enter into crisis, but also the intelligence and will. There is even doubt that one is on the right road; if it has not all been an error; complete darkness, endless temptations. They go forward only through faith.
Does everything end then? On the contrary! All this was but purification. After they have passed through these crises, the saints realize how much more profound and selfless their love of God now is, in relation to that of the beginning.
For many couples, it will not be difficult to recognize their own experience. They have also frequently gone through the night of the senses in their marriage, in which the latter have no rapture of ecstasy, and if there ever was, it is only a memory of the past. Some also experience the dark night of the spirit, the state in which the profoundest option is in crisis, and it seems that there is no longer anything in common.
If with good will and the help of someone these crises are surmounted, one realizes to what point the impulse and enthusiasm of the first days was but little compared to the stable love and communion matured over the years.
If at first husband and wife loved one another for the satisfaction it gave them, today perhaps they love one another a bit more with a love of tenderness, free of egoism and capable of compassion; they love one another for the things they have gone through and suffered together.
By Lenora Grimaud
When a marriage is on the brink of a divorce it means that both partners are in need of healing, both are wounded, both need to make changes in their own selves. It takes two to make a marriage healthy, and it takes two to get a divorce.
When my marriage was on the brink of divorce, I went into Rehab because I was consuming too much wine. Later, I discovered that this was not my problem, but a symptom of the problem. I was using wine to numb the pain that I was in. This is common with people who are going through a divorce. They look for any means to distract them from the pain and loneliness—promiscuity, alcohol, drugs, gambling, affairs, pornography, food, shopping, etc.
Our marriage ended in divorce before either of us could get the healing we needed and make the necessary changes for a healthy marriage.
I discovered that I was suffering from burn-out, and it was slowly killing me. Physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually, I broke down. That was when I went for help. Sometimes we have to literally hit bottom—come to the end of our rope, the end of our human strength—before we recognize that we need help. I learned that I needed to learn how to say “no” without feeling guilty. I learned that I needed to learn how to discern between what was my responsibility and what was not my responsibility, because I took responsibility for everyone and everything, thinking it was my responsibility. I needed to become aware of my limitations and surrender them to God in humility, instead of punishing myself for them, or blaming others for them. I needed to become aware of my own personal wants, needs, and desires, and to learn how to care for and nurture myself. I was always very independent and never wanted or expected others to take care of me, but I also did not know how to take care of myself. I thought I did, but actually I just denied my own wants, needs, and desires because I believed that it was selfish to have them. I saw my purpose in life as being to serve and love others; to make others happy, not myself. So, I neglected taking care of myself. I didn’t know how to cope with my emotions and feelings. My emotions were out of control and my feelings were suppressed until they became numb. My priorities became confused and out of order.
Our purpose in life is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is why we were created. Our first priority is our relationship with God, which includes our relationship with our own self—the salvation of our own soul. Self-knowledge and knowledge of God go hand in hand. Humility enables us to know the difference--who God is and who we are. If we are not in right relationship with God, we will not be able to be in right relationship with anyone else. Our second priority is our spouse and children. If we are not in right relationship with God, our relationship with our spouse and children will suffer. We will not have good judgment or be able to make good decisions. We will not be able to provide our family with the right kind of guidance and nurturing. Our love will be disordered. This will affect our relationships with everyone outside our home as well. If our immediate family unit is healthy and ordered, our love will flow out from it to others outside our home—family and relatives, friends, and community. Our priorities will be in order. If this family unit is not healthy, all our other relationships will suffer, as well.
It took quite awhile for me to get the healing I needed and to make the changes in myself that I needed. When I finally felt that I was healthy enough to resume my marriage, to be committed to my marriage and husband even if my husband didn’t change, it was too late. My husband didn’t want me back, or wasn’t ready to make a commitment to me or our marriage. Both partners have to be willing to make a commitment to each other and to the marriage; a commitment to work towards a healthy and fruitful marriage, or it will be a marriage in name only.
If one partner is involved with someone else, they have to be willing to give that person up, or there can be no healing, no marriage. If one partner is violent or controlled by rage, they have to be willing to get help—to get therapy. If one partner has a serious addiction that threatens the safety and security of the family, they have to seek healing, or there can be no marriage. In some cases, there is a serious pathology that makes it difficult or impossible for one or both partners to have a relationship of intimacy and mutuality. Unconditional love doesn’t mean that it is always good or possible to live under the same roof as another person. We need to know our limitations. We need to discover them ourselves. No one else can make our decisions for us. But, we need pastoral and family counseling to hold up a mirror for us so that we can make a free and morally sound choice. Sacrifice, and even martyrdom, is a necessary part of marriage. But, suicide is not. As long as both partners are willing to heal their marriage, and to forgive, most other kinds of wounds, defects, or problems, can be healed and over-come.
Most of all we need the power and strength that comes from the Sacraments. When we are going through distress, we can’t always pray as we would like; or pray at all. Our prayer is more like some of the psalms of misery and distress. We wonder where God is in all this and why we can’t hear him, or why he doesn’t answer us. We feel lost and abandoned by God and when we pray, we feel numb; like we are just going through the motions. This is when we need the Eucharist, regular Confession, and the Community, the most. We come face to face with Jesus in the Sacraments, even though we can’t experience his presence. When we are in distress, we are bombarded with negative thoughts and emotions—anger, resentment, guilt, fear, judgment, self-pity, condemnation, blaming, etc. We need the Sacrament of Confession to set us free and keep us open to love and grace. Through Confession and Eucharist, Jesus gives us what we need, and turns our problems into opportunities for growth and an abundance of his love. “God works all things for good for those who trust in him.”
We may be on the brink of divorce, but we are not without hope. We can turn things around and have a marriage that is truly a Sacrament—where Jesus is truly present—where we sanctify and make each other holy.
by Lee Raffel
Let’s consider your marriage is like a garden. As in nature, how do you begin? What kind of soil do you need? What sort of seeds will you plant? What will your crop look like at harvest time? What special helpers are required to make your garden grow so that you can enjoy it?
You might smile and say, "Of course, you need good soil, water, fertilizer, sun and tender loving care to make my garden grow." But what would happen perchance, if you planted your seeds in a toxic field? Will there be a harvest? And if so what will that look like? By this time you are probably laughing, "No question about it," you say, "Plants shrivel and wither and don’t bear fruit when the soil is contaminated."
Marital gardens fare no better if the field is not properly nourished and tended. Prior to marriage it is only natural to have dreams of a harmonious relationship. You wish for a coupling based on mutual loyalty, respect, compassion and trust. Newly married couples assume their mutual love is all that is required to ensure a perfect marriage.
I would urge you to be aware, however, of how quickly your marital garden can become contaminated. Persistent cynicism, blame, criticism and negativity are particularly dangerous to the integrity of your marriage. Life being so daily, it is often difficult to keep romance alive once the reality of your individual differences sets in.
How did you expect you would handle disagreements? Did you expect you and your mate would essentially agree to agree? Did you think that your differences would be handled politely and quickly? Had you thought about the fallout of hurt feelings if your misbegotten efforts went astray? I pose these questions because so many partners are essentially unprepared to manage their arguments in a constructive manner.
As a marriage and family therapist for the past 30 years, I’ve seen spouses who can have respectful discussions, but few mates are adequately prepared to cooperatively manage heated arguments that endlessly go nowhere. Inevitably, resentment builds when individual differences are put to the test. Differences of opinion can unexpectedly erupt into unseemly discussions that lead to rude arguments that over time damage a loving relationship. And suddenly your precious relationship is at risk as conflict mounts. Like weeds that inevitably sprout in the morning, wisdom requires that you don’t destroy the worth of your marital garden in an effort to prove that you are not at fault, that you know it all and are impervious to making a mistake.
In a healthy marriage, it is essential you and your mate be responsible for what you say and do. However, should you and/or your mate react defensively; you are likely to feel attacked, intimidated, overpowered, diminished, and misunderstood. When this happens, I would ask you to look inward and consider what it would be like if your spouse was right and you were right? Are each of you entitled to express your own opinions without being discounted or scapegoated? John Gottman, Ph.D. (Why Marriages Succeed or Fail) suggests that one third of all disagreements are non-negotiable. Without satisfactory closure, no end of mischief is apt to ensue. Unspoken and even spoken resentment can simmer for a while on the back burner, but what happens when it explodes into a damaging bonfire, leaving the couple unprepared to deal with the conflagration?
My husband, Mark, and I decided early in our marriage to declare "blame" off limits. How would you feel if you did that, too? Personally, I discovered that I felt incredibly lonely when there was no one for me to blame. Only then did I feel obliged to go deeper within. I talked to God and asked for direction. And the answer came as a guiding light: Acceptance. And as I focused on the broader meaning of Acceptance, I understood that I was to have compassion for myself and compassion for my husband, because as God reminded me, "We are all human and that means we are a little lower than the angels."
Hints for Managing Disagreements
Choose a time when you and your partner will not be interrupted.
Turn off the television and radio.
No alcohol permitted.
No vulgarities allowed.
Lower your voice, two octaves.
Beforehand, agree not to interrupt one another.
Focus on one issue at a time.
If you get distracted, stop immediately and go back to original issue.
Blame is not allowed; neither is destructive criticism.
Agree to say, "Stop" if the argument gets heated within five minutes.
If you feel unfinished, agree to reconnect at a convenient time in a day or two.
Be clear about what topics are non-negotiable.
Above all be patient and keep your sense of humor.
Questions for Reflection:
In what ways are you nurturing your marital garden?
What happens when you react defensively with your spouse?
What are you defending against?
How often do you need to be right?
Do you refuse to take responsibility for your part in an argument?
Do you insist on having the last word?
How would you personally change to improve your marital garden?
(Lee Raffel, MSW, a practicing psychotherapist for over 30 years, is the author of Should I Stay Or Go? : How Controlled Separation (CS) Can Save Your Marriage and I Hate Conflict!, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Lee is a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, and a Board Certified Diplomate in Psychotherapy and Behavioral Medicine and a Certified Diplomate in Clinical Social Work.)
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By Legionary of Christ Fr. Edward McNamara
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Bishop Philip Boyce of Raphoe, Ireland, once said that cohabiting couples must not receive Communion (see ZENIT, Jan. 23, 2006). I have two related questions: 1) Are civilly married couples considered cohabiting if not married in church? 2) If a civilly married couple, never married in church, divorce and one or both eventually want to get married in church with a different partner, will they be allowed to? -- F.N., Coquitlam, British Columbia
A: The answer would depend on several circumstances and on the religious status of the couple.
If at least one member of the couple is Catholic, then the Church would not recognize the civil marriage as valid and the couple's status would be practically the same as a cohabiting couple.
This is because positive Church law ties the validity of a Catholic wedding to following the proper canonical form. Since this is positive and not divine law the local bishop has the authority to dispense from the canonical form. This is usually granted if for some serious reason a Catholic wishes to marry according to a non-Catholic religious ritual. The dispensation is rarely, if ever, accorded when a Catholic wants to marry according to a civil ceremony.
If a couple of civilly married, baptized non-Catholics were to become Catholic, then their status would depend on whether their former community recognized the validity of civil marriage or not. If their civil marriage was recognized as valid, then, in the eyes of God and the Church, that marriage would also be sacramental. This is because the Church considers that all valid marriages between baptized persons are automatically sacramental even in those cases where the particular religious community does not number matrimony among the sacraments.
If a civilly married couple receive baptism, then the baptism itself transforms their valid civil marriage into a sacramental marriage and this fact is noted on the baptismal register.
In both of the above cases if there is some well-grounded doubt as to the validity of the original bond (for example, if the terms of the civil wedding created a presumption against making a lifelong commitment), then the couple should be wed on entering the Catholic faith.
Addressing the second question, we can say that if a Catholic had entered into an invalid civil wedding, and later divorced, in principle he or she could marry someone else in the Church.
It is possible that the same rule would apply in the second situation mentioned, but each case would have to be examined on its own merits to determine the sacramental validity of the previous Christian marriage. In general the law presumes the validity of such a marriage until the contrary is proven (Canon 1060).
The previous civil bond of someone who divorced before baptism would not usually constitute an obstacle to being married in the Church. If necessary, the previous marriage could be dissolved in virtue of the Pauline privilege (Canon 1143).
It is important to note, however, that marriage in all of the above cases require the permission of the local bishop, especially if the person has civil obligations toward the spouse and children arising from a previous bond (Canon 1071).
Likewise, before any of these weddings can take place, Canon 1085.2 requires that "the nullity or dissolution of the prior marriage is established legitimately and certainly."