Why Can’t a Deacon Celebrate This Marriage?

Q: My fiancé is a baptized, faithful Greek Orthodox and I am Roman Catholic. We are about two weeks away from our wedding and received an email that the priest at my church, the location of our wedding, will no longer be able to perform the ceremony.

In a panic, we reached out to a deacon that we have a relationship with and would love to be our officiant.  However, we are being told that we are not allowed to have a deacon as an officiant because my fiancé is Greek Orthodox.  We are not having Communion or a Mass at our wedding. Can you please provide us some clarity? –Michelle

A: At first glance, the information which Michelle and her fiancé are being given (presumably by her pastor) might sound suspicious to many readers.  After all, as we saw in “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” a Catholic deacon can validly celebrate a Catholic wedding, if he has been delegated by the bishop or parish priest to do so (c. 1108.1).  So why would anybody tell Michelle that a deacon can’t officiate at her marriage?

Even without knowing the full story, it seems clear that the key issue here is that Michelle’s fiancé is Orthodox.  The pastor of Michelle’s parish is rightly concerned that if the wedding is celebrated by a deacon, the Greek Orthodox Church will not recognize the validity of the marriage—and for ecumenical reasons he wants to avoid that.

As we saw in “Why is a Catholic Permitted to Marry in an Orthodox Ceremony?” the Catholic Church acknowledges (as a rule) the validity of Orthodox sacraments, because it recognizes the apostolic succession of Orthodox clergy.  Consequently, if a Catholic were to marry an Orthodox in an Orthodox wedding ceremony celebrated by an Orthodox priest, the marriage is still considered valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church—even if the Catholic fails to obtain the necessary permission in advance.

But is the opposite true as well?  In other words, if an Orthodox marries a Catholic in a Catholic wedding ceremony, is the marriage valid so far as the Orthodox Church is concerned?

Unfortunately, the correct answer is “it depends.”  This is because the Orthodox do not have a single Code of Canon Law that uniformly binds all Orthodox believers.  That’s why on some issues, marked disagreements exist between the different Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, etc.); while in other matters, one can even encounter variations in praxis from one parish to another within the same Orthodox Church.  For example, some Orthodox clerics will tell you that if an Orthodox marries in a Catholic ceremony, he/she is excommunicated—while other Orthodox clergy will advise that such a wedding is totally okay!  This sort of inconsistency renders it impossible to make a blanket statement that will be accurate in all cases like Michelle’s.

Nevertheless, there is one factor which seems true for all Orthodox across the board: for the wedding of an Orthodox to be valid, the celebrant has to be a priest.  This is because traditionally, the Orthodox understanding of a valid marriage ceremony always involves conferral of a blessing on the marriage by a priest, in addition to the exchange of vows by the spouses.  The Orthodox hold that such a blessing cannot be conferred by a deacon.  Thus the Orthodox simply have no provision for marriages celebrated by deacons—even though they generally (but once again, not always!) recognize the validity of a Catholic deacon’s ordination in and of itself.

(Incidentally, eastern-rite Catholics have the same issue.  As was discussed in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” millions of faithful Catholics around the world are not Roman Catholic at all.  Their Churches used to be Orthodox—but they subsequently rejoined Rome and today recognize the Pope as their head.  Externally, their rituals and ceremonies are understandably still like those of the Orthodox, and this includes requiring a blessing by a priest as a crucial part of a valid marriage ceremony.  Therefore, when an eastern-rite Catholic marries a Latin-rite [or “Roman”] Catholic, the same problem exists: for the marriage to be valid, they cannot be married by a deacon.)

In short, Michelle’s own parish priest is rightly trying to ensure that her marriage to a Greek Orthodox can be recognized in the Orthodox Church.  If the marriage is celebrated by a Catholic priest, it may be accepted by her husband’s Orthodox pastor and bishop (although it may not); but if a deacon officiates, it’s almost certain that it won’t be considered valid at all.

Thus we can see that the pastor of Michelle’s parish is not being arbitrary about this.  On the contrary, his insistence that the wedding must be celebrated by a priest would indicate an ecumenical sensitivity which is entirely appropriate in this situation.  He naturally doesn’t want Michelle’s future husband to be told by his own Church that he’s not really married!

Sometimes it can be extraordinarily frustrating for Catholics to be told “no,” particularly when a last-minute problem arises like this one.  But it’s important to realize that “no” is often the correct answer—and taking the steps necessary to change the answer to “yes” is in our best spiritual interests.

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