As the number of traditional Church weddings decline, more Catholics are opting for unusual weddings. These often take place outside of the Church. Some wish to marry on the beach, at their favorite ski resort, or some other exotic location.
Why Not Just Do What You Want?
Then there are those Catholics who attempt marriage outside of the Church because they are divorced and have not received a declaration of nullity. Thus the Church still considers them married to their former spouse. And there are always those who simply do not wish to be married in the Church.
So why bother? Why marry in the Church? Why pursue a Church wedding in this day and age when most people just do what they want anyway? As a young wife, mother and canon lawyer, these are questions I often hear from my nominally Catholic friends. These are also questions many older parents in our parish field from their grown children.
Well, the obvious answer is that the Church says so. Yet this answer proves insufficient for many young adults who lack a clear understanding of their Catholic faith. Thus we must further reflect upon why someone should marry in the Church whether for themselves, for their children, or for society as a whole.
Do It for Yourself
Why would a Catholic marry in the Church for his- or herself? What personal reasons inspire a Catholic to have his or her marriage recognized by the Church?
For many, the main issue is the capacity to continue receiving the Church’s other sacraments. To receive the other sacraments, one must be in a state of grace that is, free from obstinate, manifest, grave sin. Church teaching is clear: A Catholic who attempts marriage outside of the Church puts his- or herself in a state of manifest grave sin. The Church requires such individuals to abstain from reception of Holy Communion, as well as the other sacraments, so long as the state of manifest grave sin persists. Why go to confession if one is only going to return to one’s civil marriage without addressing its invalidity? Such a confession is invalid because the penitent lacks a firm purpose of amendment.
Another reason is the sanctifying grace brought about by the sacrament of marriage. Between two baptized, marriage is a sacrament. Marriage, that partnership of life and love which is a good, holy and natural thing, becomes a visible sign of God’s love in the world. But this is only the case for Catholics when marriage is contracted according to the canonical form. The grace poured into a person’s life, both as an individual and as a spouse, is a good reason why a Catholic should marry in the Church.
It Is the Law
To begin, the Church possesses the authority to determine how and when Catholics should marry. Most people do not find it controversial when the state exercises the same control over how its citizens marry. The state requires people to obtain a license, occasionally pass blood tests, and then stand before a licensed official. We take these requirements for granted.
When a Catholic marries, even when the intended spouse is a non-Catholic, the wedding is governed by Divine Law, by canon law, and by the corresponding civil law. In other words, Catholics must satisfy three sets of laws when they marry if the Church is to recognize their marriage.
Fr. Philip Erickson, a friend and colleague from the Archdiocese of Louisville, uses the following example when teaching Catholics about their obligation to marry inside the Church: A couple falls madly in love. While walking about in the park, they stop, profess their undying love for one another and promise to take each other as husband and wife. They then begin to live as a married couple.
A month later, the young woman tires of this nonsense and petitions the judge for a civil divorce. What will the judge say? He will tell the woman he cannot grant her a divorce because she was never married. She needed a license and the witness of a civil official. She has neither. In her heart she may have subjectively felt married, but objectively, she was never married, so he cannot grant her a divorce.
It is much the same with Catholics. If you do not follow canon law, the Church will not recognize you as married. There is a canonical way to contract marriage as a Catholic, much like there is a legal way to contract marriage as a citizen.
Among Latin Catholics, the consent of both parties before a minister of the Church and two witnesses creates the marriage. The Eastern Catholic Churches acknowledge the necessity of each person’s personal consent, however, the crowning of the couple and the blessing of the priest brings the marriage into being. Thus both Latin and Eastern Catholics possess a form of marriage to which their Church holds them. Historically, the Church enacted the canonical form to protect young couples from the passions that afflict them, as well as the integrity of marriage.
Do It for Your Children
Others marry in the Church for their children, both present and future. While no canon states that parents must marry in the Church for their children to receive baptism in the faith, the Church nevertheless encourages that this be the case. Why?
Parents are the primary educators of their children. Children learn best by example. A Church wedding teaches children the respect marriage deserves. Children learn that before God, marriage is the ultimate sign of love between a man and a woman. If you want your children to fully live a life of Catholic faith, then you must set that example for them yourself by fully participating in the Church’s sacramental life. Children, as I know from my own experience as a mother, learn so much more from what they see us do than what they hear us tell them. It is hard for parents to tell their children, and for their children to understand, why they must live according to the Church’s teaching when their parents do not.
Additionally, many parents find that the grace they receive from the sacrament of marriage also pours out onto the children born of the union. That is, the grace between husband and wife in a strong marriage also touches the children in unique and special ways. One of these graces is sharing in the Church’s sacraments as a family. A child’s first encounter with our Lord in the Holy Eucharist is all the more memorable when Mom and Dad receive at the same Mass.
Do It for the Community
What we do, how we act and what we believe does not just affect our vertical relationship with God, but also our horizontal relationships with each other. Hence, the sacrament of confession. We confess our sins not only to be reconciled with God, but with the rest of Christ’s Mystical Body as well. When we sin against God, we also sin against our brothers and sisters. Everything we do affects the community at large.
Many people marry in the Church because they wish to set a good example for the community at a time where secular forces have conspired against marriage. To go against the Church’s law governing marriage is to fall out of communion with the Body of Christ. This inflicts a wound upon the Christian faithful.
Marriage is the foundational family unit in society. This is why so many groups want marriage for themselves, even if their definition of marriage differs from ours. In order for a society to function at its best, the family unit, founded in a solid marriage, must be stable. Catholics achieve this stability through marriage, and we believe that for a marriage to exist, it must be done in a way the Church recognizes.
A Catholic should set a good example for others within the community. Young couples need good role models to follow. Note how friends and family get choked up when a couple is acknowledged for having a long and happy marriage. They provide a shining example to the community of how God loves each and every one of us. Through their fidelity to each other, they stand as a testament to God’s fidelity.
The community needs an example of love, fidelity and commitment, especially during these unscrupulous times in which we live. Marriage in the Church gives that example of God’s unwavering love to the community at large.
This is also why weddings ought to take place in a sacred place. When couples desire to wed in a backyard, on a beach, in a courthouse, or while skydiving, the community cannot help but question the sanctity and seriousness of marriage. In contrast, when a couple chooses to marry before the altar where Christ re-enacts His sacrifice upon the Cross, each spouse shows his or her willingness to sacrifice for the other. The couple demonstrates through their actions their belief that marriage is a sacred moment where the Divine interacts with the human.
Ultimately, each Catholic whom God calls to Holy Matrimony needs to decide for his- or herself why it is important to marry in the Church. Nevertheless, the Church’s teaching concerning this matter is clear. Similarly, the repercussions of attempting marriage outside of the Church are also clear. Hopefully, Catholics will take into account how their actions affect themselves, their children and the community at large when planning the wedding of their dreams.
Jacqui Rapp came into full communion with the Church in 1995 while in law school, and then completed her canon law studies from Saint Paul University in 1998. She worked for the Archdiocese of Louisville until her daughter, Alexandra, was born in 2002. Jacqui is now a work-at-home-mom, doing canonical consulting and writing on canon law, marriage and family issues.