A question about bastardy

A question about bastardy October 9, 2013

A reader writes:

On the list of possible topics for you to blog about, this probably doesn’t rank real high–so I totally understand if you don’t it tackle it. But…before and after converting to Catholicism (Easter 2011) I have run into person after person (Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise) who labors under what I HOPE (and suspect) is a false assumption: That is, that the children of Catholic parents who end up getting their marriage annulled somehow become “Bastards.”

This is a personal issue for me because my wife is the child of divorced Catholic parents. When I told my very wonderful and loving Protestant mother that I thought my mother-in-law should get an annulment, she said with concern: “Oh no, but wouldn’t that make [my wife] a bastard?” I said, “Mom! That’s ridiculous!” To which her reply was: “Vaughn, I know. But I grew up on the East Coast. And this is pretty much the answer I got from every Catholic I knew–including priests.”

The truth is, I asked an otherwise respectable older priest and was shocked when he said, “Well, I guess technically that’s true.”

I’m open to what the Church teaches. But…

Yes, I know I could probably Google this–and have. But I would love to hear your take on it.

Thanks and Peace to you!

I think my approach to this question is, “Who cares if somebody is a bastard?” Certainly the Church doesn’t. It’s a word whose *sound* is fraught with all sorts of negative connotations in English (“You bastard!” “He’s a mean bastard.”) but in fact, the term is devoid of significance in canon law as far as I know and is absolutely devoid of significance in the Church’s sacramental theology. Children do not bear the blame for the mistakes or sins of their parents (though, of course, such mistakes and sins can affect children). Great saints such as St. Martin de Porres, OP, were bastards—and mixed race bastards to boot! Bastardy may be a legal issue in civil law affecting inheritance rights and so forth, but it is essentially of no moral and spiritual consequence for the child conceived out of wedlock in terms of his or her standing with God or the Church. It not a sin to be a bastard, though it is sinful for the parent to sire a child out of wedlock. And in the case of the complexities of modern marriage, it may well be that even the parent’s sin is less culpable if they have never been taught what marriage is and means. This gets even more complicated when one parent enters into marriage in good faith, while the other enters into it with defective intent. I doubt it’s really helpful to drag in words like “bastard” to poison the waters. The main (and deeply good) thing is that babies are good. Stick with that.

I think the main takeaway from your descriptions of your interaction with the priest is that neither he, nor most people, think about it much. So while the word may sting due to your personal reactions to it, the reality is the Church basically rejects the notion that a stigma attaches to a bastard, though she of course cares if a child lacks the love of an intact family.

Hope that helps!

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  • IRVCath

    Well, I was always taught that it wasn’t having the child that was the sin, it was the means by which that child was concieved out of wedlock. Also, the Church did prohibit until the new Code of Common Law the illegitimate fromentering the diocesan priesthood (as opposed to being ordained while a religious). Though not sure what that meant annulment-wise. But otherwise, great post.

  • bob

    And just in case you missed it, writer, the answer is yes, it does make your wife a bastard. I think.

    • BHG

      I think not. Bastardy ( and for that matter, divorce as well) is a function of Civil law ONLY and its effects hold there ONLY. As long as the parents were married when the child was born, he is not a bastard. And like the concept of civil divorce–which has no weight in the matter of sacramental marriage–the concept of bastardy, as Mark points out, does not enter in at all to the Church’s thought. And given that the parents were civilly married at the time the child was born there is no question of bastardy in civil law either. Our problem comes from conflating the civil aspects of marriage with the sacrament of the Church when we approach the problem…..

      • quasimodo

        “the concept of civil divorce–which has no weight in the matter of sacramental marriage”… not exactly sure what you are saying here, but, just to be clear, you cannot get a decree of nullity with out a civil divorce.

        • BHG

          You are right of course, this is what comes of a quick comment (mine, not yours) on two related but different topics. Civil divorce is a prerequisite for a decree of nullity but does not guarantee it. And if the parties remarry civilly without obtaining such a decrees (unless they remarry each other), they are not eligible for sacramental marriage. To that extent–which is what I was trying badly to get at–the civil divoce has no effect on the sacrament of marriage. And as the civil divorce is needed before a decree of nullity is obtained, the reverse situation is moot–but the lack of a decree of nullity is no bar to civil remarriage when there has been a civil divorce (as is all too obvious these days…). That’s what I meant by separateness. Parallel and somewhat interrelated, but not mutually controlling spheres of influence.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      How is this helpful?

    • Biff Spiff

      Thanks for being part of the problem.

  • Andy, Bad Person

    I would say that, in the strictest sense, Jesus Himself could be considered a bastard (though being the Son of God takes the edge off of that stigma juuuust a little bit).

    I agree with Mark. It’s a word.

    • I was inordinately amused the day I had to explain to Beadboy2 that Jesus had two fathers.

    • Absolutely not. Joseph and Mary were validly married at the time Jesus was conceived. The Jewish concept of marriage and betrothal at the time was very different from ours. The betrothal itself was the binding contract of marriage. About a year later, the groom would bring the bride in procession to his home for the big wedding celebration and consummation of the marriage, but this changed nothing legally.

      • Andy, Bad Person

        A “bastard” is someone born of unmarried parents. Since Mary was not married to God (in the legal physical sense, anyway), Jesus was indeed a bastard.

        My point here isn’t to be blasphemous, but to point out that even if the above reader is a bastard, he/she is in good company. It’s a word that has no moral bearing on the child at all.

        • Well in actuality I hadn’t considered that aspect of it, but since she was married to Joseph he would have instead been the child of adultery. If you put the thing in purely human terms, which it is not. But since
          Mary is called the spouse of the Holy Spirit, I suspect everthing is legit. 🙂

  • Sally Wilkins

    Incidentally, the official canon-law type answer is “no” – the status of the child at birth (when the marriage was presumed to be valid) remains unchanged. Also probably worth recalling that a statement of annulment does not end a marriage, it says that there was never a marriage in the first place.

    • Yup; according to canon 1137, as long as one spouse entered the marriage in good faith a subsequent annulment has no bearing on the status of any children.

      • Thanks for the reference!

      • Rosemarie


        Here it is:

        Canon 1137: Children who are conceived or born of a valid or of a putative marriage are legitimate.

        So children of an annulled marriage are not illegitimate.

  • Although not the main point of the article, Dr. Edward Peters (Canon Lawyer, blogger) notes that the legitimacy of children is utterly un-impacted by nullity status.


  • Sean P. Dailey

    As a few others here have pointed out, no, the parents’ annulment does not make their children bastards.

  • Kate Cousino

    I’m sure someone below has pointed this out, but since ‘bastard’ is a civil term, and the annulment doesn’t annul the *civil* marriage (which is legally recognized as having existed until the time of the divorce), the answer is NO, children conceived during a later-canonically-annulled marriage are NOT bastards.

    You’re absolutely correct that none of this impacts the status of a child within the Church anyhow.

  • Stu

    I suppose everyone living here: http://www.twprideaulakes.on.ca/heritage/bastard-ward.html

    …is a bastard.

    • 1yRolandoOFS0

      George Washington is the Father of our country. Since he and Martha had no children, does that make Americans bastards?

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    From what I know on the topic (and it’s not much) no, everyone (including the priest friend) is wrong on this. Children born within an annulled marriage are not bastards. Two reasons: (1) Most marriages have to be civilly registered as well as being sacramental marriages, so legally they are not illegitimate (and bastardy is a *legal* term) (2) At least one of the partners in the marriage, we assume (unless both of them were deficient/unable to contract a valid marriage) had the intention to marry and believed the marriage was valid, so they were not intending to commit the sin of fornication.
    The third reason is the most important one: charity. It is not just to burden someone with blame greater than they deserve or to punish the innocent for the faults of others. Since the children are not to blame for any delictions on the part of their parents, they do not incur any penalties and so they are not bastards (that is, they are not considered to be children born of the desires of the flesh, as would be the case in an unmarried couple or an adulterous couple who were fully aware their relationship was illicit and engaged in fornication anyway).

  • Stu

    “Who cares if somebody is a bastard?

    While yes it is really only an archaic legal term, ultimately this thought is the winning ticket.

    Who does care? And if they do, why?

  • Gustave

    I understand ‘bastard’ to be a completely secular, legal term. It has no relevance to spirituality or religion.

  • Dr. Eric

    Unless one is in line for a throne somewhere, it doesn’t really matter if one is a bastard or not.

    But, no, being born of an annulled couple does not make one a bastard.

  • Steve

    My parent’s marriage got annulled and I actually HOPE that this makes me a bastard because that would be hilarious. In fact, I actually do call myself a bastard in these contexts purely because it amuses me.

    But I don’t think that legitimacy has any relevance or weight as a concept in Catholicism. I just believe that “bastard” is one of the greatest curse words in the English language. (Mother****er is the greatest curse of course, in addition to being the greatest overall word in the English language.)

    • TeaPot562

      In ancient Greek plays, Oedipus Rex may be the first classical prototype for a Mother****er. But then, he had (unknowingly) killed his father as a result of a traffic dispute first.

      • Steve

        I noticed that the word never specifies whose mother exactly it is. Going by some interpretations, every father in the world would qualify

  • I’m not expert on the topic, but «“Who cares if somebody is a bastard?” Certainly
    the Church doesn’t» and «the term is devoid of significance in canon law» sounds a little simplistic. The term (not bastard but illegitimate, but it’s the same thing, no?) is technically used in canon law: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P43.HTM
    And not many years ago it was a canonical impediment to ordination. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02579b.htm

    • IRVCath

      To be more precise, it was a canonical impediment to diocesan ordination. If one was already a religious, this would not apply. For example, back then an illegitimate child would be turned away (if not dispensed) from a diocesan seminary. But if that same person joined, say, the Norbertines, they would have had no problem ordaining him.

  • David

    Actually- although this is not comforting to the reader who asked the question-legitimacy is a canonical term/category and it is possible for a child to be considered illegitimate according to canon law, and this can have practical effects, although minimally (see canons 1137-1140 of the 1983 CIC.) This has a long tradition, in fact, and prior to 1983 illegitimate children could not be admitted to the seminary/ordained or hold certain offices, for instances. We also must remember that in not a few countries in the world there is still an interplay between canon and secular law and declarations in one forum- e.g., a canonical finding that a child is illegitimate- will have effect/be accepted in the other. There are also issues that should be addressed in canon law by people that are not, e.g., last wills and testaments involving funds/things destined for the Church or persons therein, should be the subject of canonical recognition. One could imagine a scenario, however unlikely, of someone stipulating that illegitimate persons, someone who happens to be a cleric with a patrimony, for instance, not receive something.

    • IRVCath

      Largely the reason why this occured was prior to the mid 20th Century, the secular law did not treat illegitimate and legitimate offspring equally. The 1917 Code of Canon Law concieved of orders as not only conferring the graces of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, but a benefice, which as a legal fiction (and before the 20th Century, in legal fact) was a title to real property. Until fairly recently to admit to the diocesan priesthood, and thus a title to property, to illegitimate offspring would have caused conflict with the civil probate and real estate law in many countries. So it was essentially a way for the Church to avoid being embroiled in all sorts of nasty probate disputes. Glad it has been repealed, though.

      Why, then, would it not apply to religious orders? Well, because they live in community, and would not have individual title to a benefice, but only collectively. So Fr. Joe Schmoe would not have fictional title to the benefice, but, say, the Canons Regular of Premontre.

      • David

        Yes, although legitimacy is still a canonical institute and particular law can still stipulate that different effects pertain to an illegitimate child. The prior law did effect religious orders in certain ways, by the way, e.g., an illegitimate child could not be a major superior, and arguably it was still an irregularity for ordination if it was a clerical institute and did not involve solemn vows, for instance (see cc. 504, 984, of the 1917 CIC). Such a religious would have also been considered unsuitable for the episcopate. Furthermore, the particular law of each religious institute- their “Constitutions”- could provide additional stipulations/restrictions. The issue was not simply economic and such, but moral as well: concern over scandal that an illegitimate child would be a cleric or hold a certain office of the hierarchy, hence the prohibition on being superiors, bishops, cardinals, abbots.

        • IRVCath

          True. Though I believe in part it was to stop the way Renaissance Popes would often use benefices or high offices in the Church as gifts to their own illegitimate children otherwise deprived of the right to a secular inheritance (remember Cesare Cardinal Borgia?). Which makes sense, as that was one of the main complaints among Catholics at the time.

          • I vividly recall being in a 8th-grade catechism class in the late 60’s when the mean monsignor we hated was teaching. I don’t recall whether it was one of the actual questions in the Baltimore catechism we were using or not, but Msgr Meany (not even close to his real name btw) told us that illegitimacy was a canonical bar to the priesthood. I raised my hand, braved his glare (he hated questions) and asked how the Church could do something so unfair. He was very offended, and refused to answer me, insinuating that I lacked faith for even questioning this. Fortunately, my wonderful parents helped me research and answer the question, pretty much the same way Amario has.

            A footnote: Some years later, I read a story of a young man in nineteenth-century Austria who wanted to be a priest, but was the soon of a poor single mother. He put in a plea and got a dispensation from the requirement of legitimacy. Up until then, I hadn’t known that such a thing as a dispensation for this existed. With this he went on to the priesthood. His name was Fr. Josef Mohr, and he is best known for writing the lyrics to “Silent Night.” For some reason, I just felt enormously satisfied and vindicated by reading that. I presume Msgr. Meany would have been appalled. OK, maybe I completely misjudged him, but I still feel that I won!

  • Shawna Mathieu

    A lot of anti-annulment activists tend to be completely OK with childless couples getting annulments, insisting that the second kids come into the situation, annulment should be forbidden. BTW, you can try to explain or show people who think this that they’re simply wrong, but it won’t do any good – if they “feel” the Church made them bastards, that’s all the proof they need.

  • Evan Miller

    I think there is a distinction between the term “bastard” and the term “illegitimate”. The two are not the same, even though many people think so. Speaking as someone who is going through the annullment process right now, I can say that I was assured that the annullment of a marriage does not de-legitimize children or change their standing in the eyes of the church.

    The Holy Spirit, the giver of life, does not create anything illegitimate! So while a person may be considered a bastard in some archaic legal sense, they are no less of a person in the eyes of the church.

  • Rosemarie


    This is how it was explained to me:

    There are two types of marriage: natural marriage, which God established in Eden for the entire human race (Genesis 2:22-24) and sacramental marriage, which Our Lord established for Christians (Matthew 19:3-6). Any adult of any religion can enter into a natural marriage, and it can be sealed in any public ceremony. Sacramental marriage, OTOH, is only for Christians. When a Christian man and woman get married, they have both a natural marriage *and* a sacramental one, since they are both baptized and so confer the Sacrament of Matrimony on each other.

    Divorce is the dissolving of a marriage. A natural marriage can truly be dissolved by divorce, but a sacramental marriage cannot, since Christ said “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt 19:6). So if a man in a sacramental marriage gets a civil divorce he really remains married to his wife in the eyes of God, thus if he “remarries” he commits adultery (Matthew 19:9). Ditto if the wife remarries.

    If a canon lawyer, after investigation, determines that an impediment existed which kept the Sacrament of Matrimony from being conferred on a Christian couple, he will issue a decree of nullity (annulment) stating that the marriage was never really sacramental in the first place. In that case, it was only a *natural* marriage which can be legitimately dissolved by divorce. However, since a true natural marriage existed when the children were conceived, they are still legitimate.

    • ImTim

      One correction of great importance: The canonical process is not to determine whether a marriage was sacramental or not, but whether a marriage was valid or not.

      An annulment process does not look at sacramentality, but validity. The Tribunal I work at has on several occasions looked at marriages between a non-Christian and a Christian. Regardless of whether it is sacramental or natural, it binds if it is valid.

      source: Studying for my JCL, working in a Tribunal

    • Paul

      “When a Christian man and woman get married, they have both a natural marriage *and* a sacramental one . . . .”

      “In that case, it was only a *natural* marriage which can be legitimately dissolved by divorce.”

      It seems to me that you think that married Christians obtain two marriages when they get married. That is not correct.

      They only obtain one marriage: a sacramental marriage.

      Sacramental marriage is a type of natural marriage that exists between Christians. Christians are A Christian couple is incapable of obtaining a merely natural marriage for the simple reason that any valid marriage that they obtain is raised to the dignity of a sacrament.

      Think of it this way, in the same way that a square is a kind of rectangle, a sacramental marriage is a kind of natural marriage.

      Thus, if the marriage between the Christians is not a valid marriage, then it is not the case that there was only merely a natural marriage. There was no marriage at all.

      So, if a person gets a declaration of nullity, then the person was never married, sacramentally or otherwise.

      *Edited to clarify an ambiguity*

      • Rosemarie


        Okay, so the person who explained that to me was mistaken. Thank you for clarifying that. Though the Church still says that even a putative marriage renders the children legitimate, so in the end the effect is the same; a decree of nullity does not somehow “illegitimize” the children.

        • Paul


  • Children of parents whose marriages are annulled are still considered legitimate.

  • Jerry Rhino

    When I grew up, long long ago, the Church did care. A bastard boy was refused admittance to the seminary on this basis alone. Has this changed?

    • Rosemarie


      I believe it has changed. But in a few posts below, Almario Javier points out that, even back then, that was only the case with diocesan seminaries. An illegitimate son could still become a priest in a religious order.

    • Thomas J. Ryan

      One could get dispensed. That was a rule to guard against dumping kids at the seminary.

  • FrShane Ian Tharp

    This might help. According to Code of Canon Law, 1983, c. 1137, “children conceived or born of a valid or putative marriage are legitimate.” Following this, c. 1061, degree 3, defines putative marriage as “marriage where one presumes it is valid but in fact is not.” The issue about legitimacy and marriage was far more pressing in places where primogeniture reigned in reference to inheritence. The older code defined it because it reflected this older strain of canon law that reached back to the days when civil and canon law often intersected.
    As for admission to the seminary, illegitimacy is no longer an issue, or at least according to my hasty research. It’s one of those canons I know I read in the past but I can’t find it again to save my life.

    • ImTim

      It’s worth pointing out that even though there is no canonical repercussions to being born out of wedlock, the Church went out of its way to make it clear clear that she considers the children legitimate.

  • Sandra Miesel

    Invalid marriages were a considerable problem in the Middle Ages because canon law on consanguinity and affinity was so complicated and there was no requirement to marry before a priest and two witnesses. (That came in after Trent.) But the invalid unions were routinely treated as “putative marriages” and divortium did not impact the legitimacy of the couple’s children. (ex. the daughters of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis VII of France or St. Ferdinand of Castile). But a decree of Lateran IV in 1215 required banns be read before celebrating a marriage. If a couple failed to do that and a defect was later found in the marriage, their children would not be considered legitimate. This is why the children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville were declared illegitimate because they had married secretly and he had had a previous “precontract” with another woman. Hence the accession of Richard III after the Little Princes had been removed to the Tower.
    In antebellum America, the famous Healy brothers didn’t get dispensations for their civil bastardry (their mother was their father’s slave in Georgia) before ordination apparently because their parents had had a Church wedding outside the US. James became Bishop of Portland ME and Patrick president of Georgetown University.

    • Annie B.

      There was a requirement before Trent to have a public marriage acknowledged by the Christian community…Trent did not invent that, but made it more imperative in practice.

  • Thomas J. Ryan

    I think the only time the Church would be consulted over whether or not a child is “legitimate” would be with respect to some ascending to the throne in a Catholic monarchy… Other than that, the state does not care what the Church thinks about the issue of marriage. Hasn’t ANYONE been following the news?

  • Sandra Miesel

    The Tridentine decree “Tametsi” made the obligation of marriage before a priest and two witnesses universal. (There are still exceptions even today.) That wasn’t always the case: Renaissance Florentines of the elite classes were married by notaries at the bride’s home.

    • ImTim

      And the Decree “Ne Temere” exempted Protestants from this requirement.

  • Clare Krishan

    Certainly the Church doesn’t now but did most certainly in the past, consider Blessed Palafox who was the ‘natural’ son of a Spanish bachelor-aristocrat and a young widow of nobility (who was raised by the peasant who rescued him from being “exposed” – ie drowned at birth – to hide the sin of his parents) who being born out of wedlock, under Canon Law was excluded from Holy Orders (a sponsor was required to advocate for his good character at Court and later in the Chancery for admission to holy orders despite the fact his father had adopted him into his family and regularized his inheritance upon his marriage a decade after his illegitimate birth). It is surmised this ‘pedigree’ kept this able man from the high office his talents could have warranted, instead he labored in the colonial minefield as Viceroy of New Spain eventually becoming Bishop of Puebla. He wrote “Virtues of the Indians”


    in defense of establishing a native Creole hierarchy against the Peninsular missionary orders who had carved out benefices [rooted in secular encomienda ‘feudal tribute’ privileges awarded by the Crown] for themselves – all this during the period of the English Civil War, way before Americans got it into their heads to declare independence. A courageous man and embattled Bishop whose sanctity was subjected to three centuries of Jesuit-Jansenist partisan in-fighting at the Vatican to be recognized, he was finally beatified under Pope Benedict in 2011. One wonders if Pope Francis took a page out of Palafox’ playbook – pagan Indians would have been the ‘atheists’ of his day? He had encountered their inate capacity for goodness, publishing to further integral human development in a ‘new evangelization’ of colonial times, yet was rewarded by internal enemies with rancorous approbrium and demotion to a backwater diocese in Spain.

  • lavallette

    What the Catholic Church does definitely do both in the case of an annulled marriage or an invalid marriage (e.g. a previous marriage outside the Church without a dispensation and an authorized priest or deacon officiating), before either of the parties can get married again in the Church. it assures itself that all civil matters concerning the annulled or invalid (in the eyes of the church at least) have been settled and more importantly that all proper and necessary and ADEQUATE arrangements have been made for the upkeep, welfare and education of any children of the first marriage, particularly in the case where the children are still young. Bastardry is an irrelevant issue for the church: it is a purely civil law concept and having more to do with succession and inheritance than anything else.

    • Biff Spiff

      It is becoming increasingly irrelevant in civil law as well.

  • Heather

    The combox consensus appears to be “Probably yes, but who cares anyway.”
    It appears the actual Canon Law answer is “No, not that it actually matters anyway.”

    • Rosemarie


      I’m not seeing a “probably yes” consensus here. It seems the majority of comments are saying “No, it doesn’t make the children illegitimate” while a few simply point out, “But illegitimacy was once more of an issue in the Church than it is now….” (which only seeks to contradict the claim that illegitimacy “doesn’t matter” to the Church, not the assertion that children of an annulled marriage are still legitimate).

      Only one person below gives a “yes” answer and he is roundly rebuked.

  • Liberated Cherry

    So your answer is YES… what a bastard.