Wedding without Mass

Dear Catholic Exchange:

I hope you can answer a question for us. Our daughter was raised Methodist. She is getting married in the Diocese of Kansas City in September and herein lies the problem. She is marrying a very nice young man that is a Catholic; they have discussed the fact that since she is not Catholic and many of the guests are not, that they do not wish to have a Mass as part of the wedding. The groom’s parents are up in arms! It is my understanding that there is no requirement to have a Mass, especially when one of the partners is not Catholic. The priest is supportive of the decision of the bride and groom. What percentage of couples married in the church where one is not catholic do not have a Mass? The groom’s mother has also insisted the bride cover her shoulders during the ceremony. Are these folks living in the darks ages or has the Catholic Church stepped backwards?


C Landes

Dear Mrs. Landes,

Peace in Christ!

A large percentage of weddings such as you describe are celebrated outside of Mass. In fact, this is the usual practice. The bishop’s permission is required to celebrate a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic during Mass (Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, no. 159).

The Church has no explicit requirements for wedding dresses. In general, all clothing should be modest. For a solemn occasion such as this, the clothing should be tasteful and appropriate.

I am including here some general information we have prepared on this topic, which may be of interest to you:

When a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian marry (the Church terms this a “mixed marriage”), they face special challenges in planning their wedding. If her mom has always dreamed of a Catholic wedding, and his dad is a Baptist preacher, how are both sets of in-laws going to be satisfied? It might be tempting to just skip the ceremony and elope to Vegas! But of course, this is not an option.

The Church has, for centuries, required that marriages be celebrated in a public ceremony, because a marriage is not just a private affair between two people: it is a state of life directed toward the salvation of others (Catechism, no. 1534). The man and woman assume new responsibilities, not only to each other, but also to their children, their families, and the rest of the community. Even on a natural level philosophers have recognized marriages as the building blocks of society. So it is only fitting that all these other people concerned be present for the big event! Besides, public vows confirm the institution of marriage and are less easily broken than private vows when the road gets rocky. “The public character of the consent protects the ‘I do’ once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it” (Catechism, no. 1631).

So, if the wedding ceremony is to be embraced and not avoided, how can the couple plan for it? Ordinarily, they will choose to celebrate their marriage outside of Mass. That way, all present may fully participate in the ceremony. If, for a good reason, they wish the marriage to take place at Mass anyway, they must first make sure the bishop permits this (Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism [DAPNE], no. 159).

In an effort to respect the traditions of various religious confessions, some non-Catholic denominations have accepted a practice of “co-officiated” ceremonies. In such a wedding, each of the two ministers witnesses the vows of the couple in turn. Alternatively, some couples even schedule two weddings: one in the bride’s church and one in the groom’s. May Catholics adopt either of these procedures?

Catholics believe marriage is much more than a contract between two parties, or a social institution. It is these, and it is much more besides. The Church teaches that the state of marriage is constituted by a “perfect union of persons and full sharing of life” (DAPNE, no. 144). A perfect union means nothing is held back. There can be no private reservations, no preserving of the option of breaking off the relationship if things get too difficult. A perfect union is of its nature indissoluble. Anything less would not be marriage, in the Catholic understanding.

Teaching in this way, the Church follows the example of Christ. The Lord’s esteem for the natural institution of marriage is already evident in His blessing of the wedding at Cana with a miracle (Jn. 2:1-11). Later in His ministry, when confronted with the practice of divorce by the Pharisees, He took marriage a huge step further by declaring that God Himself establishes the marriage bond, and that no human being has the power to break it (Mt. 19:3-9; Lk. 16:18). Marriage for Christians is no longer merely a praiseworthy natural institution. It is a supernatural grace, given to each individual couple by God. The Church’s concern is to protect the essential ends and properties of marriage.

Because of the deep reverence the Church has for the unity of the sacrament of marriage, she does not allow separate vows to be made before both a priest and a non-Catholic minister, either in separate ceremonies or within the same ceremony (canon 1127 §3; DAPNE, no. 156). There is no such thing as “Catholic marriage” as opposed to “Lutheran marriage” or “Presbyterian marriage.” There is just Christian marriage! The vows, properly made by baptized Christians, establish a sacramental bond once and for all. The divisions that regrettably exist between Christian communities must not prevent us from recognizing this. And so, rather than splitting up families of differing confessions further, a mixed marriage should be an occasion when all Christians can come together despite their divisions, according to the Lord’s prayer “that they may all be one” (Jn. 17:21).

Even though there is to be only one ceremony, there can still be an opportunity for a Protestant minister to participate. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity states: “In a Catholic liturgical celebration, ministers of other churches and ecclesial communities may have the place and liturgical honors proper to their rank and role, if this is judged desirable” (DAPNE, no. 119). Specifically regarding the celebration of a mixed marriage, the document reads: “Upon request of the couple, the local Ordinary [usually the bishop] may permit the Catholic priest to invite the minister of the party of the other Church or ecclesial Community to participate in the celebration of the marriage, to read from the Scriptures, give a brief exhortation and bless the couple” (Ibid., no. 158).

Therefore, it is possible for the minister to read Scripture, preach, and bless the couple at a Catholic wedding (as long as the wedding is celebrated outside of Mass, which is usual for mixed marriages). The priest is simply required to ask the approval of the bishop first.

Must the marriage take place according to the Catholic form, though? Why not have the wedding at the non-Catholic church? Church law requires Catholics to be married in a Catholic ceremony (canon 1108) in order to ensure that the full truth of what marriage is be respected in the rite. But, if the non-Catholic party understands and consents to the Catholic’s obligation regarding the children, the local Ordinary (usually the bishop) can grant a dispensation from the Catholic form of marriage. In other words, with the bishop’s permission they can lawfully marry in a non-Catholic church. In no. 9 of Paul VI’s Apostolic letter, On Mixed Marriages, the Holy Father said:

If serious difficulties stand in the way of observing the canonical form, local Ordinaries have the right to dispense from the canonical form in any mixed marriage. But, the bishop’s conference is to determine the norms according to which the said dispensation may be granted licitly and uniformly within the region or territory of the conference, with the provision that there should always be some public form of ceremony.
“Serious difficulties” which could justify such a dispensation include the “maintaining of family harmony, obtaining parental consent to the marriage, the recognition of the particular religious commitment of the non-Catholic partner or his/her blood relationship with a minister of another Church or ecclesial Community” (DAPNE, no. 154). And, just as the Catholic priest may invite the non-Catholic minister to participate in the ceremony, so may the priest (with the permission of his bishop) accept a similar invitation to participate in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony from the minister under these circumstances (Ibid., no. 157).

The Church above all else wants to respect and safeguard the right to marry that God has given to all Christians. All of her laws tend toward this. She preserves the truth about the perfect union that marriage is, and ensures that this truth is expressed in the public ceremony. This way, the wedding can truly be a great cause of joy.

I hope this is helpful to you. Please feel free to contact us again if you have any further questions on this topic or on any other. Our phone number is 1-800 MY FAITH; our website is

In Christ,

Poul Lundgren

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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