Can We Have Both a Priest and a Non-Catholic Minister at our Wedding?

Q1: I’m Catholic and my fiancé is from a devout Lutheran family.  They weren’t too pleased when I told them our wedding has to take place in a Catholic church….  Is it permissible for us under canon law to have a wedding ceremony in my parish church, and have his Lutheran minister “co-marry” us there, alongside the Catholic priest?  I asked my pastor and he said no, but I couldn’t tell if he refused because that’s actually the law, or if he just didn’t like the idea.  –Christina

Q2: My Jewish girlfriend and I want to get married, and both of our families are insisting that the ceremony be conducted in their own place of worship.  I understand that since I’m a Catholic, I have to follow canonical form and so the wedding ceremony must be Catholic.  But my future in-laws, not surprisingly, don’t see it that way.  I’m wondering if there’s any reason why we couldn’t have a Catholic marriage ceremony first, and then at a later date go through the Jewish ceremony as well?  I’m assuming that canonically we can, because we really would be married validly in the Church first… –Ian

A: As both our questioners apparently know, Catholics who wish to marry must observe canonical form.  This concept has been addressed several times before in this space (including “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?”), but in a nutshell, the marriage of a Catholic is valid only if it is celebrated by the local bishop or pastor of the parish, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them; and in the presence of two witnesses (c. 1108.1).

It may, however, be possible to obtain a dispensation from canonical form under certain circumstances, as was already discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”  One rather common scenario (among many others), for which dispensations are frequently granted, is a marriage between a Catholic and a protestant Christian whose father is a minister—and who understandably would like to officiate at the wedding of his own child.  If a dispensation is obtained from the Catholic party’s bishop in advance, the Catholic may marry in the protestant ceremony conducted by the protestant party’s father, and the Catholic Church will still recognize the marriage as valid.

But the above questions are different.  In both cases, the Catholic party wants to have a Catholic wedding ceremony in his/her Catholic parish church—but also wants (in different ways) the involvement of the minister of the non-Catholic party to the marriage.  Is this permitted?

In both cases, the answer is no, and can be found in the very same canon.  Canon 1127.3 states first of all that it is forbidden to have another religious celebration of the same marriage for the purpose of giving or renewing matrimonial consent.  This means that the scenario raised by Ian, i.e., having a Catholic wedding and later holding a ceremony in the Jewish synagogue, is not permitted.  (True, the canon is actually discussing marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian; but canon 1129 asserts that the provisions of canon 1127 pertain to a wedding between a Catholic and a non-Christian as well.)  It doesn’t matter whether the couple wants to hold the Catholic ceremony before the non-Catholic one or after: canon 1127.3 states specifically that the order in which the two ceremonies took place would be irrelevant.

The same canon goes on to say that there may not be a marriage celebration in which the Catholic celebrant (normally, though not necessarily, the parish priest) ministers together with a non-Catholic cleric, with each one following the ritual prescribed by his own faith.  This answers Christina’s question: when her pastor asserted that this is impossible, he was not merely expressing his own personal preference, but instead was correctly stating the law on this matter.

These restrictions exist because the Catholic Church is insisting that for Catholics, a non-Catholic minister, and/or a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, cannot be regarded as being on an equal footing with a Catholic one.  It wants to guard against any perception, explicit or implicit, that a non-Catholic wedding is (for a Catholic spouse) just as legitimate as a Catholic ceremony, and that a non-Catholic cleric may officiate at the marriage of a Catholic just like a Catholic priest.  In holding this position, the Church isn’t trying to insult or offend non-Catholics!  Rather, there are important theological reasons for the Church’s position on this.

Simply put, Catholics believe that the true Church which Jesus Christ founded on earth subsists in the Catholic Church alone, “although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (Lumen Gentium 8).  It’s only logical that the Church wants to avoid giving the impression that it considers other religious groups to be its equal—they’re not.

While the Church considers ecumenical relations and inter-religious dialogue to be important and necessary, it is not willing to abandon its own teachings and religious principles for the sake of religious harmony.  As the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Religious Ecumenism stated, “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (Unitatis Redintegratio 11).  The Catholic Church therefore can never accept the notion that a Catholic might marry in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony just as well as in a Catholic one.  And (so the reasoning goes) if it were to allow a non-Catholic minister to officiate alongside a Catholic priest, or to permit a non-Catholic religious wedding celebration before/after a Catholic ceremony, it would be sending the faithful the wrong message.

So what’s a Catholic to do, when a non-Catholic future spouse (and/or the family) insists that a Catholic wedding is not acceptable to them, based on their own religious convictions?  Well, in the case described by Christina, it might be possible for her fiancé’s Lutheran minister to be seated in a rather prominent place in the church during the ceremony, provided that it is quite clear to all that he is not actually officiating at the wedding.  A show of respectful deference to him might perhaps satisfy her new spouse and his family, while at the same time leaving no room for doubt that the Catholic priest/deacon alone receives their marriage vows.

Alternately, Christina may request, with the help of her parish priest, a dispensation from canonical form, which would allow her to marry in a Lutheran wedding ceremony celebrated in her fiancé’s Lutheran parish church.  (This was described in more detail in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?”)  If such a dispensation is obtained in advance, the marriage will still be considered valid even though it is not celebrated by a Catholic cleric in a Catholic ceremony.

If Ian’s future in-laws are content with their rabbi being present (but not officiating) at the wedding in Ian’s parish church, that would of course solve the two families’ inter-faith issues too.  But if that won’t suffice for them, it might perhaps be best for Ian to request a dispensation from canonical form, and then have the wedding in a neutral place, like a reception hall or a hotel ballroom.  By compromising in this way, offending the religious sensibilities of both families could possibly be avoided.  Once again, so long as the dispensation is obtained in advance, Ian’s non-Catholic wedding would be regarded as valid by the Catholic Church.

Requesting a dispensation from canonical form, of course, does not mean it will be automatically granted!  The Catholic party needs to show solid grounds for the request—more often than not, harmony between family members is the main issue—and it should be sufficiently clear that the Catholic party is not making this request simply because he/she considers a wedding in either the Catholic or the non-Catholic venue to be theologically equivalent.  Both the pastor and the diocesan bishop are, in their respective ways, charged with the spiritual well-being of the Catholic party, and so if there is genuine confusion about the reasons why a Catholic is normally expected to marry in a Catholic wedding, some pastoral intervention before the wedding may be called for!

We can see here that the Code of Canon Law strives to balance a respect for the sincere religious convictions of non-Catholics, with the Catholic Church’s own teaching that Catholicism is indeed the true faith established by God Himself.  At the same time, it seeks to maintain some sort of equilibrium between the natural right of everyone to marry, and the requirement that Catholics must follow canonical form in doing so.  There’s no question that in mixed and inter-faith marriages, this can be tricky business!  Still, several options are available for both Christina and Ian, that will enable them to do their best to maintain harmony with their new non-Catholic spouses/in-laws, while marrying validly in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

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