Regarding the ‘relaxed’ atmosphere of the modern RCC: Haven’t you ever heard of Vatican Council II? The RCC has made a definite, self-determined effort to engage the modern world rather than stand apart from it. This doesn’t mean accommodating or compromising its principles, but it does mean trying to be more understanding and compassionate and even a bit more practical. To impute the intention that priests are changing all the rules just to keep numbers is a totally bigoted and mean-spirited comment. Honestly, Shirley Ujest, you can’t think of a better reason than head-counting for priests to be more compassionate and pastoral?
Regarding marriages with pre-marital children: This point applies to all the following points, too; namely, a baptized Catholic has a right to marriage in the Church (as long as there are no pre-defined impediments, such as an existing previous marriage). So, if Mary and Bill have a baby, and one of them is Catholic, they can not be refused the right to marry in the Church.
Of course, they still need to go through the regular preparation, even if they have a civil marriage under their belts. Also, the priest can make life umm… challenging for them. Like insisting on counseling first.
3. Regarding marriage in the case of pregnancy: There used to be a sense of urgency in these cases (a cultural urgency, which many clerics went along with) to get them married before the baby comes so that it’s not a bastard. Nowadays, most priests will say, “Hey, if your pregnant, that’s not a sign to hurry-up the wedding, it’s a sign to slow down the wedding. If you don’t know how to prevent a baby during pre-marital sex, what makes you think you’re ready for marriage right away?” IOW, marriage is delayed until after the baby is born. This is to ensure that the marriage is taking place for all the right reasons and not simply for the sake of the baby.
4. Regarding questions of legitimacy: The RCC used to keep track of legitimacy. It used to be that a man could not be ordained a priest if he was illegitimate (the reason given was that it was usually an embarrassing secret with which the priest could be blackmailed). In the new code of Canon Law (promulgated in 1983), the Church has become legitimacy-blind. It no longer keeps tabs or ever asks about legitimacy. It’s a non-issue ecclesially.
So, when people think that an annulment will illegitimacize their children, the RCC says, “Not in our eyes, since we don’t recognize that category.” Of course, this doesn’t satisfy many people, so many priests pastorally point out that the children born in marriages that were entered into with good faith and believed to be valid (a *putative * marriage as jwk said), are always legitimate (i.e., the children are perpetually putatively legitimate).
Regarding what marriages are and aren’t recognized: The RCC obligates its members (and under the new Code, only its members which are officially RC through baptism or being officially received into the Church) to be married in a Catholic Church with an official RCC minister presiding. The minister could be a priest, deacon, or in mission territories, a designated lay man or woman. If a RC does not follow this rule, the RCC does not recognize this marriage as existing (and calls it an invalid marriage).
A RC can get a dispensation from this form of marriage, but only for a good reason. Usually, it’s because the RC is marrying a non-RC. And this is especially prevalent in RC-Jewish weddings. The RCC recognizes and understands many Jews’ reluctance to be in a Christian Church (what with all that relatively recent persecution of Jews by what is technically a heretical Jewish sect). And so dispensation is routinely granted for the Catholic to marry in a hall with a Rabbi presiding.
Since the Code is not binding for non-RCs, the RCC actually does recognize the validity of marriage for two non-RCs, even if their marriage is purely civil!
6. Regarding ‘blessing’ non-RC marriages: If a marriage is not recognized to be valid (as in the case of a Catholic being married outside the form of marriage without permission), that invalid marriage can be validated. That’s the correct term. Some people call it getting the marriage blessed.
You do have to recite the vows again, because the RCC doesn’t recognize the validity of the first vows. (And yes, it is the couple who are the ministers of the sacrament administering the sacrament to each other in the vows – the minister is just an official witness.)
Of course, if there is an impediment to getting the marriage validated (such as a previous valid marriage) then there can be no validation (‘blessing’) until that impediment is removed (such as with an annulment).
9. Regarding children and mixed marriages: The RC party has to promise to have the child baptized and to share his or her RC faith with the child. The non-RC only has to be aware of this promise that the RC party makes. The non-RC party does not have to make any promises. Also note that the promise that the RC party makes does not necessarily exclude the non-RC party from sharing his or her faith with their children. The promise simply guarantees that the RC faith will not be excluded.
The non-RC party is never forced to convert, although, the non-RC party is usually given the information on how to convert if he or she wanted to.
8. Regarding the OP (finally!): It’s very easy to correct fornication – you get the fornicators to marry, which is relatively easy to do. It’s very difficult to correct what is technically adultery – you have to annul the previous marriage, which is a very involved process.