Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?

Q: My daughter is getting married in June, to another Catholic. Our assistant pastor already agreed to perform the wedding, which will take place in our parish church. But now my daughter is thinking she’d rather have the wedding in our garden. We have a beautiful garden full of roses behind our house, and in June they will be at their peak. Our church is modern and not really too attractive. Is it possible to have the priest marry them in another place besides the church? –Tim

A: On the surface, it may seem that this topic has already been addressed in this space. We saw back in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” that for a valid marriage, Catholics must marry in accord with canonical form. This means that they are required to have a Catholic wedding ceremony, conducted by either the pastor or another priest deputed by him (c. 1108). If a Catholic wishes to marry a non-Catholic in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, which obviously would not be held inside a Catholic church, he must obtain permission from the diocesan bishop in advance.  In order to receive such permission, however, it must be shown that having a regular Catholic wedding, held in a Catholic church by the pastor or another deputed priest, will present grave difficulties (c. 1127.2). To cite a common example, if the family of the non-Catholic party is vehemently anti-Catholic, they might refuse to attend the wedding if it is held in a Catholic church. In such a case, the bishop may grant permission to have a non-Catholic wedding elsewhere for the sake of maintaining family harmony.

But the scenario described here by Tim is actually quite different. The two spouses are Catholics, and they want to have a Catholic wedding ceremony, performed by a Catholic priest. They just don’t want to have it held inside the actual parish church building. In other words, they want to observe the canonical form for marriage, but in a different physical place. What does the law say about this?

Canon 1118.1 states that a marriage between two Catholics, or between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, is to be celebrated in the parish church, although permission can be granted for it to be held in a different Catholic church or chapel. If two Catholics wish, for example, to be married in a Catholic ceremony not in the parish church, but in the Catholic chapel on their college campus, the bishop can—and in practice, frequently does—approve their request. Occasionally a very tiny parish church may actually be too small to accommodate all the guests at a large wedding, and permission is obtained to have the wedding in a different, bigger Catholic parish church.

For a Catholic wishing to get married outdoors in a garden, the law thus far is very restrictive. But the following paragraph may at first glance give Tim’s daughter a glimmer of hope: canon 1118.2 notes that the bishop can allow a Catholic marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place. Strictly speaking, therefore, it is not impossible under canon law for two Catholics to get married in a Catholic ceremony in a rose garden; there is nothing intrinsically unsuitable about the location. (In contrast, U.S. bishops, including the Bishop of Orlando, Florida, have stated in the past that getting married at Disneyland is unacceptable, because they hold that this secular entertainment environment is not a suitable place to celebrate the Catholic sacrament of matrimony.)

It sounds like all Tim’s daughter needs to do is to get approval from the diocesan chancery to have the priest officiate at her wedding in the family garden instead of the parish church, right? Well, that may be implied by the canon, but in actual practice, getting that approval is not so easy.

For the law leaves the decision up to the diocesan bishop. And while I have not surveyed every single diocese in the United States, it is virtually impossible to find an instance where a bishop will grant permission in such a case. After all, as Tim describes it, both parties to the marriage are Catholic; there is no logistical reason why the wedding cannot be celebrated inside the parish church; and the only argument being offered by the bride-to-be merely involves aesthetics and personal preference.

The bishop, in contrast, can and undoubtedly will argue that requiring a wedding to be performed in church (no matter how ugly people may think that church is!) is fully in keeping with the fundamental spiritual nature of the occasion. A wedding ceremony entails the conferral and reception of a sacrament. It thus involves far more than mere sentiment, beautiful flowers, and romantic wedding photos taken under a rose trellis. It is important to maintain the sense of the sacred, because that is exactly what a marriage ceremony is—a sacred, sacramental occasion. A bishop who is concerned that the faithful of his diocese keep in mind the central spiritual components of a wedding (as opposed to its cosmetic outward appearances), will quite naturally object to the notion that a Catholic marriage be celebrated elsewhere than in a Catholic church. As a canonist from a major U.S. archdiocese told me bluntly, permission for a Catholic wedding outside of a Catholic church in his archdiocese is “NEVER granted… don’t bother to ask.”

If the very notion of holding a Catholic wedding outside of church is so objectionable for theological reasons, why does the law even permit the possibility? Keep in mind that the Code of Canon Law is applicable all over the globe, and there may be political or other unique circumstances elsewhere in which holding a wedding in a Catholic church is either impossible or inadvisable. After all, what if two Catholic Haitians have been planning to marry this summer in their parish church, which is now a pile of rubble?

Interestingly, there are a few known cases here in the U.S. where bishops really have granted permission for Catholics to marry in a place other than a church, in the presence of a Catholic priest. All of them, however, have involved at least one spouse who was a celebrity. Actors, rock stars, politicians and well-known business executives who get married have to contend with the need for privacy. We all know that tabloid journalists will go to great lengths to “crash” a movie star’s wedding, snap a photo of the bride’s dress and get a good look at the invited guests, to see whether there are any more famous faces present. This is naturally a scenario that the spouses want to avoid at all costs, no matter what faith they profess! If at least one of the spouses is Catholic, and they sincerely want to marry in a Catholic ceremony, they may ask the bishop for permission for the wedding to take place in a more private location. Their guards can presumably secure a private residence, or perhaps one wing of a hotel, more reasonably and safely than they could a Catholic parish, which by its nature is generally open to all who wish to enter it. In these highly unusual cases, approval has been given for a Catholic priest to conduct a Catholic wedding ceremony in a building other than a Catholic church. We may assume, however, that efforts are made by the clergy to ensure as much as possible that the sacredness of the occasion, and the spiritual importance of the spouses’ exchange of vows, are kept in the forefront.

If, in theory, Tim’s daughter was going to marry a protestant, would the bishop be any more likely to allow them to marry in the garden? Well, it’s possible; but the far more common scenario would be to simply dispense the pair from canonical form altogether.  This would allow the couple to marry in a protestant ceremony, before the minister of the non-Catholic spouse. That way, if the protestant minister were permitted by the rules of his own faith to marry the couple in the garden, the wedding could indeed take place there. At the same time, however, the bishop might very well question the couple and particularly the Catholic party more closely, as to the real reason for wanting a non-Catholic ceremony. Again, since it appears that the main desire is to have a lovely location for a wedding, the bishop might reasonably conclude that this is a rather frivolous reason! As we saw in the previous post mentioned above, normally there should be a more substantive rationale behind such a request.

In short, the prospects for Tim’s daughter getting married in their rose garden, in a Catholic ceremony, are rather slim! This may be a good time for a reality check: perhaps the bride and groom really are making an effort to focus on the spiritual dimension of their upcoming marriage…but it appears that they might be more concerned with the materialistic aspects of the wedding ceremony. A Catholic parish church may very well be architecturally ugly, but we Catholics know that unlike the loveliest garden, Christ is really present there in that church in the Eucharist. Surely the idea of marrying in the presence of God Himself, Who personally attended the wedding at Cana nearly 2000 years ago, easily outweighs other factors? Marriage is for life, and thus it is crucial that we Catholics do it right.

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