Children Out of Wedlock & the Catholic Church

by Susan Peterson

Pope Pius II, who was Pope from 1458 to 1464, fathered several illegitimate children. As a young man, he prided himself on being a libertine. At age 40, however, he renounced his former life and became a priest. As a priest and Catholic, he then held to the Catholic ideal: Sex should be confined to marriage, and children should be cared for by two parents.

The Ideal

In "The Catholic Social Doctrine and Human Rights," the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences describes the ideal family: "The family is the appropriate environment in which children are born and raised. Children can be born also out of wedlock but they need the care and the protection of their parents and the family is the social institution where this is guaranteed in the best possible way." In other words, the Catholic ideal is that children should be born into, and raised in, a family with both a mother and father. Children born out of wedlock are not considered ideal.

Legitimacy

The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law declares that if a child is born into a legitimate marriage, that child is legitimate. The father of the child is the mother's husband unless clear evidence proves otherwise. The child, however, does not have to be conceived within wedlock to be considered legitimate. If a child is born at least 180 days after the wedding, the child is considered legitimate. Similarly, if a child is born no more than 300 days after a divorce, the child is considered legitimate.

Outdated Practices

Until recently, illegitimacy bore a great stigma in the Catholic Church. Having a child outside wedlock was considered a sign of depravity, and the child was believed to be tainted by that depravity. In the 11th Century, Pope Urban II prohibited any man who was born outside wedlock from entering holy orders. Illegitimacy was considered a "defect of birth." Without a special dispensation, men who were born illegitimately were barred from the priesthood, the diaconate and religious orders. This policy continued into the early 20th Century.

Modern Practices

Today the Catholic Church affords children who are born out of wedlock the same rights as any other child. According to "The Family and Human Rights," issued by the Pontifical Council for the Family, "All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, enjoy the same right to social protection, with a view to their integral personal development." The 1999 Code of Canon Law does not mandate legitimacy as a qualification for ordination, and it does not place any penalties or restrictions on illegitimate children.

About the Author

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.

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