In its discussion of marriage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, "The Church holds the exchange of consent between the spouses to be the indispensable element"(CCC 1626) that seals the covenant of matrimony. "If this freedom is lacking, the marriage is invalid." (CCC 1628)

The CCC goes on to say, "For this reason (or for other reasons that render the marriage null and void), the Church ... can declare a nullity of marriage, i.e., that the marriage never existed." (CCC 1629)

In consideration of this, it lends to question what the nature of the sexual relations were if the marriage never existed. However, that's an aside; it's the children of such a union I'm asking about. Presumptively, these are children baptized in the Church with godparents.

Is there a term for children born from what was thought to be a valid Catholic marriage whose parents then go through legal divorce and the Church delclares the marriage null? Please no derogatory answers, but if there's something "you've heard somewhere," feel free to add as a comment with some context.


3 Answers 3


Yes, there is a term: legitimate children

Canon 1137 of The Code of Canon Law:

“The children conceived or born of a valid or putative marriage are legitimate.”

Canon 1061 of the Code of Canon Law

“An invalid marriage is called putative if it has been celebrated in good faith by at least one of the parties, until both parties become certain of its nullity”.

There is no stain, and no fault, laid upon any child under canon law due to a decree of nullity.

Beyond that simple term, based on your presumption

Presumptively, these are children baptized in the Church with godparents.

there is another term for those children: Baptized Catholics.

  • Fair enough, but.I wasn't asking about the legitimacy of the children per se; rather, within the context of a legitimate child and baptism, is there nomenclature associated with the annulment. However, Canon 1137 does fully answer the question of legitimacy. +1
    – Stu W
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 4:34
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    Please note: you can baptize your children even when you are not married! And you do not need the consent of the other parent. You however must convince the priest that you will raise the child according to catholic beliefs. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 11:15
  • @Tony_KiloPapaMikeGolf That's beyond the scope of the question, but thanks for pointing that out. That's the "work with your priest" deal rather than the "standard practice" or presumption. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 11:38
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    I suppose you could call them "children of a presumptive marriage", but there's really no need to single them out in that way. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 12:03
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    A marriage, to be declared invalid, is an after the fact declaration. 1060 Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven Can. 1059 Even if only one party is Catholic, the marriage of Catholics is governed not only by divine law but also by canon law, without prejudice to the competence of civil authority concerning the merely civil effects of the same marriage -- Illegitimacy is a civil effect, not a sacramental effect. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 17:14

The answer to this question depends upon whether the marriage is invalid or valid.

If the marriage is valid (either certainly valid or putatively valid), then the children are legitimate, even if the marriage is subsequently annuled:

Canon 1137 The children conceived or born of a valid or putative[ly valid] marriage are legitimate.

Expressed negatively: If "children [are not] conceived or born of a valid or putative[ly valid] marriage," then they are illegitimate.

The canonist Charles Augustine, O.S.B., D.D.—commentating on 1917 Code canon 1174, which corresponds to the 1983 Code canon 1137—writes in his A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law book 3, vol. 5, p. 332:

But legitimacy always requires a marriage, whether certainly or putatively valid. A marriage is certainly valid if contracted without an invalidating impediment and according to the form prescribed by the Church. A putatively valid marriage is one contracted with due observance of the prescribed form, but with an invalidating impediment, the existence of which is unknown to one of the parties.

The New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law p. 1259, published in 2000, also describes how "putative marriage" in Canon 1137 specifically means a "putatively valid marriage":

For a marriage to be considered putative, it must have been celebrated according to the required form and, therefore, have the appearance of a marriage. Thus, when a Catholic enters marriage without observing the canonical form and without being dispensed from its observance, the attempted marriage is not considered putative but simply invalid. If, however, the canonical form was observed but was substantially defective (e.g., the official minister was not properly delegated), the marriage would be considered putative.

The most significant effect of a putative marriage is that any children born of it are considered legitimate, even if it is subsequently declared invalid (c. 1137). A putative marriage also enjoys the favor of the law. It remains putative until both spouses become certain of its nullity. Thus, the spouses' doubts, even grave doubts, about the validity of their marriage are not sufficient to deprive it of its status as putative. The spouses on their own may become certain of the invalidity of their marriage because of an impediment. However, most couples become certain that their marriage was invalid because of a defect of consent only through the decision of a church tribunal.

  • This doesn't seem to correspond to the canon definition of "putative marriage" in the current code, canon 1061 section 3: "An invalid marriage is called putative if at least one party celebrated it in good faith". It says nothing about a requirement of canonical form (which seems reasonable, since the Church appears to consider marriages made between two non-Catholics as valid). Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 13:27
  • @MattGutting 1983 Can. 1061 §3 is verbatim the same as 1917 Can. 1015 §4. It speaks of when an invalid marriage can be called putative. It says nothing about how a valid marriage can be called putative. (Putative does not mean doubtful; it speaks of a precisely determinate situation.)
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 14:28
  • I'm not stating that it does say anything like that. I'm saying that if an invalid marriage is a putative marriage (and the canon does not appear to require invalid marriages to be celebrated according to canonical form in order to be putative marriages), then the children born are legitimate, contrary to your statement that "if the marriage is invalid, the children are illegitimate". Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 14:38
  • @MattGutting Children born of invalid marriages are illegitimate. This is the definition of illegitimacy. Putatively or certainly invalid marriages are still invalid (i.e., they're not marriages).
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:11
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    But if invalid marriages can be putative marriages (as you seem to admit by your first comment), and the children of putative marriages are always legitimate (by canon 1137), then it would seem that the children of at least some invalid marriages are indeed legitimate. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 15:26

This is what I heard on Relevant Radio a few years back. I believe it was Fr. Rocky who said something to this effect: There is no special status for the children as the Church presumes that the man and woman entered into a marriage that was later found to be null did so in good faith. I found the reasoning to be pretty confusing. But I believe it had something to do with the marriage appearing to be valid and giving the parents the benefit of the doubt, that the fact they parents thought they were married, it makes it so their children are not illegitimate.

  • Peter, marriage accrues the favor of law: it is presumed valid unless challenged and found wanting. See my answer. You may want to keep that in your hip pocket when interacting with kids and parents in your ministry to youth. Know the facts; know the church's unambiguous position. Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 4:23
  • @korvin that's a good point - very important not to bandy about half-heard truths in Religious Ed.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 13:24
  • It doesn't matter what the parents think but what the Church thinks.
    – Geremia
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 4:30
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    @Geremia I'm not even sure it matters what the Church thinks, but what the Holy Spirit thinks. The Church discerns what that is and the rest of us do our best.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 20:10

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