Petrine Privilege

Petrine Privilege, also known as the Privilege of Faith or a decree in favor of the faith, is a provision in the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church granting a previously married person the right to marry under certain specific circumstances. The implementation of this procedure is reserved to the Pope. In essence, the Petrine Privilege is an extension of the logic of the Pauline privilege to cases of marriage between baptised and non-baptised spouses.

More precisely, it involves the circumstance where marriage was contracted between a baptized Christian and a non-baptized person, and where, throughout the time when the parties lived together, the non-baptized party did not receive baptism. Such a marriage is considered not confirmed (non ratus) through sacramental union, and hence not fully indissoluble. (If the non-Christian party becomes a Christian after separation, the baptism of this party will automatically confirm the marriage sacramentally; however, if - due to separation - the marriage so confirmed is not consummated through direct, unimpeded intercourse, it may be dissolved on the basis of non-consummation (super ratus). Cf. Code of Canon Law, 1983 - c. 1142 and 1149, based on Gregory XIII's Populis et nationibus).



The petitioner (one of the parties in the marriage to be dissolved):

  • if baptised and Catholic at the time of the marriage in question, must intend to marry a baptised Christian (soon after or in the future).
  • if non-baptised or baptised in another Christian Church, must
  • either intend to enter the Catholic Church or be baptised in it,
  • or intend to marry a baptised practising Catholic.


The procedure is fairly recent in the Catholic Church and is based on an extension of the Pauline privilege. The logic behind it is that the pope has power, in favour of faith, to dissolve any nonsacramental marriage whose existence impeded the spiritual life of a believer. The precedent case is that of the 1924 marriage of Gerard G. Marsh (unbaptised) and Frances E. Groom (Anglican), from Helena, Montana, and civilly divorced a year later. The marriage was dissolved by Pius XI to favour Marsh's marriage to Lulu LaHood, a Catholic. From 1934 onwards, such dissolutions were governed by a series of "Norms for the Dissolution of Marriage in Favour of the Faith by the Supreme Authority of the Sovereign Pontiff", issued by the then Holy Office (such norms were not made public and were not generally known except by bishops and specialists). There has been, since, many similar cases of dissolution, even ones involving baptised Catholics married to non-baptised spouses through a dispensation (whether or not using the form or not of a Catholic marriage - in Church, blessed by a priest, etc. - such marriages are not sacramental since one of the spouses had not been baptised).

The term "Petrine Privilege" seems to come from a defence of the new norms by Fr. Franz Hürth SJ. It is sometimes used to cover what can be called a Pseudo-Pauline Privilege whereby the Pope can dissolve a marriage between two non-baptised parties (where one or both had remained non-baptised during the duration of life in common) in favour of a baptised Catholic third-party who wished to marry one of the parties to the non-sacramental marriage, even if he or she does not intend to be baptised. The precedent case is the dissolution, published in Djakarta on the 19th August, 1959, of the marriage between Phan and Lo Ma in favour of Dorothy, a Catholic. Dorothy had contracted civil marriage with Phan after his separation from Lo Ma, and wanted Phan's previous non-sacramental marriage to be dissolved, even though Phan had no intention to become a Christian and being baptised. The dissolution permitted Dorothy's civil marriage to Phan to be publicly recognized as non-adulterous, and hence her readmission to the sacraments.

The granting of such dissolutions was halted between 1970 and 1973, a period when Italy introduced civil divorce and remarriage laws, but resumed afterwards (through 1973 norms confirming those of 1934, again not made public). Five canons regarding these privileges were included in the 1980 drafts of the revised Code of Canon Law (provisional canons 1104, 1159–1162). These canons were removed in the published version of the Code (1983), and replaced by a simple statement (can. 1150) that "in doubtful matter, the privilege of faith enjoys the favour of the law", while not clearly defining such a privilege or linking it to papal authority. The canons published in the code do not speak of 'dissolution' (and obviously not of 'divorce', which would seem to contradict the simplistic slogan "the Catholic Church does not permit divorce", even though dissolution is technically a form a religious divorce in very specific circumstances - non ratus, or ratus non consummatus). The Code simply speaks of an authorization to remarry, since in the 1980s some theologians claimed that it was doubtful that the Pope had authority to dissolve natural (non-sacramental) marriages as such, and if he did not have such authority, the procedure in question would not be a dissolution of the first marriage, but a sort of second marriage superimposed on it, which either was more firm and "more valid" than the preceding one and hence dissolved it (cf. Aquinas In libros sententiarum IV, d 39, 1.5) or confirmed the first marriage as virtually "dead" (as in the Orthodox tradition).

Following the publication of the new code, given that no clear mention of the Petrine and Pseudo-Pauline dissolution privileges was made in this comprehensive body of law, canonists inquired whether the 1973 Norms had been repealed or simply kept out of the public code to avoid media criticism that the Church was practising divorce. In September 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith assured the apostolic delegate to the US that the 1973 Norms were still in force. A new revision of the Rules was issued in 2001 (again, not made public) by John Paul II. The application forms for papal dissolution using these privileges bears the title "Of the Dissolution of a Marriage in Favour of the Faith", implying that the doubts regarding dissolution have been cast aside.

See also


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