Do Catholics have to be married in the Catholic Church?
The “straight answer” is simply “yes,” but let’s understand also the “why.” In the sacrament of marriage, a baptized Christian man exchanges vows with a baptized Christian woman. Before Almighty God, they promise to each other a love that is faithful, permanent, exclusive, self-sacrificing and life-giving. Through marriage, a couple now enters into a new public state of life both in the eyes of the Church and society; therefore, the celebration of the marriage rightfully ought to be public with the vows exchanged before a priest (or other authorized witness of the Church), the witnesses (usually the best man and maid of honor), and the faithful gathered for the ceremony (cf. Catechism, No. 1663).
Given this basis, a Catholic (either baptized as a Catholic or later entering the Catholic Church after having already been baptized in another Christian denomination) is bound to be married in the Catholic Church. The Church in which one has been baptized and confirmed, receives holy Communion and professes faith, ought to be the Church in which one is married. Consequently, whether a Catholic is marrying a Catholic or a baptized non-Catholic Christian (or even a non-baptized person), the normal expectation is for the marriage to take place in the Catholic Church and for the children to be raised in the Catholic faith.
However, when a Catholic is marrying a baptized non-Catholic Christian, legitimate circumstances may arise when the couple would like to be married in the Church of the non-Catholic. Such circumstances include recognizing a special or long-standing relationship with a minister or preventing family alienation. In such a case, the couple would complete the regular Catholic marriage preparation. The Catholic party would also attest to his intention of not leaving the Catholic Church, and of promising to baptize and to raise the children in the Catholic faith. The non-Catholic party would be informed of these promises, attest to understanding these promises and in turn promise not to interfere in their fulfillment.
After the preparation and the attainment of these promises, the priest would petition the bishop on behalf of the couple for a “Dispensation from Canonical Form,” meaning permission for the couple to be married outside of the Catholic Church. The Church requires a dispensation because the bishop, as shepherd of the diocese and guardian of the souls, must insure that the couple is prepared as best as possible for marriage and is ready to enter into holy matrimony. Without such permission, the wedding is not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church (cf. Code of Canon Law, Nos. 1124-25).
For example, when I was an associate pastor at St. Mary Church, I once prepared a couple for marriage in which the uncle of the bride was a Presbyterian minister, who they wanted to officiate at the wedding. After the couple completed the necessary Catholic wedding preparation and made the required promises, I petitioned Bishop Keating for a Dispensation of Form, which he granted. The couple was married in the Presbyterian Meeting House next door to St. Mary. The Presbyterian minister uncle officiated at the ceremony, and I too was present to offer a blessing. This marriage was fully recognized by the Church.
However, if a Catholic enters marriage outside of the Catholic Church without the necessary dispensation, (again whether marrying a baptized non-Catholic or a non-baptized person), then the marriage is considered invalid and is not recognized by the Church. Moreover, this action places the person in a state of mortal sin, which in turn means that the person can no longer receive Holy Communion. For instance, if a Catholic marrying either another Catholic or anyone else just decides to be married in some other Church or by a Justice of the Peace, that marriage is invalid. While such a marriage may have legal standing in the eyes of the state, it has no legitimate standing in the eyes of the Church.
Just as an aside: If a person who was baptized as a Catholic has formally renounced his Catholic faith by joining another Church or by some other public declaration, he would not be bound by these rules since he technically is no longer a member of the Catholic Church. In all, a sincere, practicing Catholic ought to want to be married in the Catholic Church or ought to obtain the proper permission to be married outside of it.
As a pastor, I am surprised how many people are ignorant of this obligation. Too often couples register in the parish indicating that they were not married in the Church. When I investigate to see how the situation can be rectified, I am surprised that some never realized they had to be married in the Catholic Church or first receive the proper dispensation to be married elsewhere. Sadly, some of these people then resent the fact that the Church considers their marriages invalid and that they will have to follow the proper steps to have them validated, which primarily involves a renewal of the vows in the presence of a priest (or other authorized witness of the Church) and two witnesses. Clearly, pastors, parents and religious educators need to stress the importance of marriage in the Church to those entrusted to their care.
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)