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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