“Ask a Priest: May I Marry Civilly to Make Immigration Easier?”

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Q: My boyfriend and I are practicing Catholics and discerning marriage. I am from the United States and he is from Colombia. We have been dating for a year, mostly long-distance, and while we are feeling called to marriage, we have found that there are still some things we would like to discern in our relationship. For now, I am planning to move to Colombia since it would be too hard for him to move here legally without being married. The hard thing is that we want to take a little more time before taking the big step of marriage, but the longer we wait, the longer it will be before my boyfriend will be able to apply for a green card, and the process takes a few years. We would like to relocate to the U.S. as soon as possible for economic reasons and family reasons. Right now, it is very hard for Latin Americans to obtain any sort of visa to live and work in the U.S. legally unless you marry a citizen. Of course, we are planning to be married in the Church, but we have had the thought of whether it would be permitted to be married civilly first, while we are both living in Colombia and still discerning. We would live separately, because in the eyes of God we would not be married; we would continue our chaste courtship. However, in the eyes of the government we would be married, so we could go ahead and start the application process of his green card. Then, if and when we do marry in the Church, that process would already be moving along so we could relocate to the United States faster. Obviously, there is the possibility of our breaking up, and then we would have to have a civil divorce. That’s possible. Would it be permissible in the eyes of the Church to be married civilly first, for these legal reasons, but live as though we were not married? And then be married in the Church later? – A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s good that you trying to discern well about your marriage.

But the short answer is no, you shouldn’t marry civilly. Any wedding you enter needs Church approval.

Marrying civilly could scandalize people who know that you are Catholic. Part of witnessing your faith means living it fully as best you can. And a civil wedding now could put a damper on a Church wedding later.

In any case, you might want to proceed with a lot of caution.

You say that you have been dating mostly long-distance for a year. A year is a relatively short span, and a virtual relationship can be a distorting prism through which we see others.

Moreover, by marrying someone civilly you might open yourself to legal problems and complications. This isn’t meant as any kind of judgment about your friend; rather, it is a prudential observation that you want to consider very seriously.

Being civilly married could change the dynamics of your relationship, in addition to your friend’s legal standing in regard to emigration to the U.S. This can be a very delicate matter.

You might want to consider how all this would factor in. More than a few people involved in these kinds of international relationships have ended up with unexpected problems, to put it mildly.

In any case, if God is truly at work in your relationship, he certainly wouldn’t want you to violate the rules of his Church. Our Lord doesn’t work that way.

It might be good to speak with your pastor or confessor or a spiritual director. It might also be good to speak with a lawyer. You tread on tricky terrain.


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