May 2017 Print

Questions and Answers

by Fr. Juan-Carlos Iscara, SSPX

What age is required for being a godparent at baptism? 

As the spiritual life—the life of grace—begins at baptism, the Church considers the minister of baptism and the godparents as spiritual parents of the person baptized. 

From the very early centuries of the Church, it was understood that this spiritual relationship imposes grave obligations on the godparents: together with the parents, they become guides and guardians of their godchild’s religious formation, assuming a life-long engagement to help him to persevere in the faith after baptism.

Thus, the 1917 Code of Canon Law clearly states that the godparents must consider their spiritual child as perpetually entrusted to their care and guide him by their example and teaching so that his whole Christian life fulfills what the godparents promised on his behalf in the solemn ceremony of Baptism (c. 769). Canon law insists forcefully on the rigorous duty of watching over the religious instruction of the child, incumbent primarily on the parents, but complemented by the godparents (cf. c. 1335).

Consequently, on account of the moral and canonical obligations assumed by godparents, canon law establishes that, to validly contract the spiritual relationship, the godparent must himself be baptized, have attained the use of reason and having also the intention of performing the functions of a godparent (c. 765 §1). To contract licitly that relationship, however, the godparent must be at least 14 years old, having a sufficient knowledge of the faith and, it is understood, an upright moral life (c. 766 §1-2), for, otherwise, how could he help and guide the godchild in living a Christian life? 

The pastor or the diocesan Bishop may dispense from the age requirement for a just reason. As the law does not require a grave reason, canonists consider that it can be even for a slight one (for example, being a close relative, or because a benefactor has asked). But in that case, again on account of the grave obligations assumed, the young godparent should have an uncommon moral and spiritual maturity. 

The 1983 Code of Canon Law slightly modified the discipline, raising the age requirement to 16 years old (c. 874 §1), but allowing a similar dispensation from the pastor or diocesan Bishop, and for the same reasons. 

Unfortunately, in these times when faith and morals are exposed to such great dangers, the role of godparent is not taken quite as seriously as the Church intended and often it becomes simply a social convention with religious overtones. It is therefore our duty as traditional Catholics to follow as closely as possible the mind of the Church in this important matter, and choose spiritually and morally sound godparents for our children—and we must keep this qualification foremost in our minds if we are to choose a minor as godparent for a child of ours.

Are the Orthodox churches opposed to contraception?

Contraception is the intentional prevention of the conception of a child. While Orthodoxy is unanimous in the condemnation of abortion and of contraceptive methods or means that may cause the abortion of the fetus, there are conflicting opinions regarding non-abortifacient contraception. 

Some Orthodox churches and theologians allow any contraceptive method that does not cause abortion, leaving the matter to be decided by the conscience of the spouses. In spite of their claims of continuity with Tradition, such theologians disregard the biblical emphasis on fruitfulness in marriage and its assessment of child-bearing as one of the greatest of God’s blessings, a sign of God’s favor (cf. Ps. 127:3, 128:1-4), and the condemnation of those who frustrate or reject God’s blessing by using unnatural methods of birth control (cf. Gen 38:8-10). They also disregard the clear assertions of the Church Fathers and earlier ecclesiastical laws, dismissing them as not making proper distinctions between abortion and contraception and having moreover a faulty understanding of the biology of reproduction, thus rendering their opinions worthless in the present day. Such an appraisal, of course, contradicts historical fact, for the ancient Romans knew enough biology to make the distinction between abortion and contraception. It also contradicts the many clear expressions of the Fathers, such as St. Augustine, who condemned those who use poisons of sterility [i.e. a chemical contraceptive], and if those do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in the womb [i.e. an abortifacient] (“On marriage and concupiscence,”1.15.17).

Going to the opposite extreme, a small minority of local Orthodox churches and theologians simply reject any contraceptive method, including periodic continence, and only allow perfect abstinence from marital relations as a method of regulating pregnancies, while still some others share the Roman Catholic position of allowing the method of periodic continence, that is, the restriction of marital relations to infertile periods (but in the Catholic Church such permission must fulfill the strict conditions set forth by Pius XII).

Is it sinful for a Catholic American citizen to marry an illegal immigrant?

The following considerations obviously assume that we are talking of the sacrament of marriage, the marriage contracted according to the laws of the Church, the only one into which a Catholic may validly enter. With this in mind, it is clear that Catholics who contract only civil marriage, knowing that they are not truly married, thus not intending to live as husband and wife, but solely for the purpose of obtaining the legal effects of a civil marriage for the illegal immigrant, violate just civil laws by fraud, commit a sin, and are liable of civil penalties. This understood, let us proceed to answer this question in an orderly manner.

First of all: is it sinful for a Catholic to remain in the US in violation of the immigration laws? 

As any just civil law obliges in conscience, its deliberate violation not only carries proportionate civil penalties, but it also constitutes a sin. The immigration laws are sanctioned by the legitimate authority, exercising its rights of national sovereignty, for the preservation of the common good of the country. Although some, due to their particular situation, may think them to be unfair and imperfect, they are nonetheless objectively just. Hence, they oblige in justice and their violation is sinful.

The gravity of the sin committed by the violation of any just civil law will depend, on the one hand, on the matter, motive and force of the particular law and, on the other hand, on the concrete circumstances of the person who violates such law (personal motives, state of necessity, etc.). In the case of immigration laws, there does not seem to be sufficient matter for a mortal sin, but their violation as just laws is certainly venially sinful. Moreover, their violation may lead to many other sins which, by accident, may become mortal: lies or fraud to cover illegal status, the unjust appropriation of resources or benefits that legitimately correspond only to citizens, etc.

Secondly: is it an impediment to sacramental marriage if one of the parties is an illegal alien, purposely remaining so?

According to ecclesiastical law, there is no impediment. The only impediments for the sacrament of matrimony are those explicitly listed in the Code of Canon Law, which certainly do not include the immigration status of one of the would-be spouses.

Moreover, there is no civil law preventing an illegal immigrant marrying a U.S. citizen. Nonetheless, it is uncertain whether the illegal immigrant would be able to obtain the license necessary to contract a marriage that will have civil recognition and effects (for example, federal law requires having a SSN to obtain the marriage license, but, on the other hand, as the regulation is haphazardly applied in different states and even counties, they may perhaps obtain it…).

In principle, if the illegal immigrant has entered the country legally and has later overstayed the original visa, after the marriage he/she may apply for adjustment of status as “immediate relative” of the American spouse, without needing to leave the country. Whether the immigrant has been legal or illegal now becomes irrelevant, as people in the “immediate relative” category (spouse, minor children, or parents of U.S. citizens) are not required to be in a legal immigration status in order to adjust status. 

Finally: are there any objections to such a marriage?

Well, yes, there are serious prudential objections to such a marriage. First of all, there is a question of the bona fides, the “good faith” of one or both of the would-be spouses: is the marriage contracted only to obtain the legal residence in the U.S. and the “spouses” do not intend to live as husband and wife? If that is the intention, it is a sacrilegious abuse of the sacrament, a mortal sin, and it invalidates the marriage. 

Once that question is settled, there remain the legal and moral problems that will arise from the irregular status of one of the spouses. The legal process for adjustment of status will be long and difficult. The illegal immigrant will have to meet all the eligibility criteria, such as being in a legally recognized marriage, offering proof that they are not simply getting married to get a green card, that certain types of crimes have not been committed, that there will be no need for welfare assistance, etc. The scrutiny of the case by immigration officials will be invasive and stressful, as it will imply probing into the background of the spouses, their motives, finances, cohabitation, way of life, etc. 

Finally, the successful outcome of the process is in no way assured, and it may end in a denial of adjustment of status, leading to deportation and breaking up of the family.

Therefore, the would-be spouses should be encouraged to reconsider their decision in view of the possible consequences.