Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?

Q: My fiancé and I just decided to get married.  The city where we both live is very far from both of our home-towns and our relatives, but we’ll be having the wedding here in our parish, which is also where we first met.

The problem is my fiancé’s mother, who insists we should get married in her parish, where my fiancé was born and raised, because most of his family still lives in that area so it’s easier for them.  Neither of us wants to do that, we just took it for granted that we would get married in our current parish.  But now we’re wondering what canon law says, because it would theoretically be possible to have our wedding in my fiancé’s mother’s parish, wouldn’t it?  Can we get married in any parish church that we please, as long as the pastor agrees?  Could you please explain how that works?  Thank you. –Felicia

A: Back in those days when the average Catholic was born, lived and died in the same village, always under the care of the pastor of the same parish church, the question of where he would get married was usually a non-issue.  But nowadays, of course, we are much more mobile than Catholics of centuries past, and so the situation raised by Felicia is not uncommon: when the two spouses come from different parishes/dioceses, and now live in yet another one, where should they get married?  And do they have more than one option?

Canon 1115 directly addresses this question: it states that a marriage is to be celebrated in the parish where one or both spouses have a domicile or quasi-domicile, or where they have lived for a month.  In the case of transients, they are to marry in the parish where they actually reside.  The canon adds, however, that a marriage can be celebrated elsewhere with the permission of the proper Ordinary or the proper parish priest.  There’s quite a lot going on in this canon!  Let’s take it apart piece by piece.

As was discussed in “Holydays of Obligation,” a Catholic’s domicile is the place where he either intends to live permanently, or where he has in fact lived for five full years (c. 102.1).  Under this definition, it’s entirely possible that a person doesn’t have a domicile; if he has moved to a new place but plans to live there only temporarily, and has only lived there for a few months so far, it doesn’t constitute a domicile at all.

That’s not a problem for those wanting to marry, though, because canon 1115 also notes that Catholics can marry in their quasi-domicileCanon 102.2 defines a quasi-domicile as the place where one either intends to live for at least three months, or where he has actually lived for three months already.  Someone who (let’s say) has just moved relatively recently to a new city, and plans to see whether he likes it enough to stay there indefinitely, thereby acquires a quasi-domicile.

But what of the Catholic who’s repeatedly on the move, perhaps because his work requires him to live in various places for short periods, or maybe because he’s a war refugee and hasn’t yet found a stable new home?  Canonically, such a person is termed a transient (or vagus in Latin) by canon 100.  There’s nothing morally reprehensible about being a transient; in canon law, it simply refers to a Catholic who has neither a domicile nor a quasi-domicile.

Armed with these definitions, we can see that no matter how long he’s lived in a particular town or what his long-term plans are, a Catholic can always determine the place where he should be getting married.  It takes two to get married, of course, and so if both spouses are Catholics, and don’t live in the same parish, they can marry in the parish church of either one.

But what if they have a good reason for wanting to get married somewhere else?  Perhaps a couple might prefer to get married in the parish church where they were raised, or where most of their relatives live today.  Can they do that?

According to the final section of canon 1115, the answer is yes: if they get permission of their diocesan bishop or their pastor, the spouses can marry elsewhere.  The code’s use of the word permission here is very deliberate.  As a general rule, when the Code of Canon Law speaks of obtaining permission to do something, this indicates that it is necessary for liceity—not for validity.

The difference between validity and liceity was discussed in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II,” but in a nutshell, it’s possible to have a marriage that is valid (i.e., it really does take place) but illicit (or illegal, because it shouldn’t have taken place).  If a couple were married by the pastor of some parish other than their own, and they failed to obtain permission to do this from their pastor in advance, their wedding would technically be illicit.

But it would be valid, because canon 1109 states broadly that within the territory of his parish, a pastor validly assists at the marriages of not only his own parishioners, but also of non-parishioners.  A simple example can illustrate the situation.

Let’s say that Mark and Beth are two Catholics who want to get married.  Mark is a member of St. Gregory’s Catholic Church, while Beth is from Our Lady of Lourdes.  Under canon 1115, they are expected to marry in one or the other of these churches.

But let’s say that Mark’s father Jeffrey lives 1000 miles away, is terminally ill and cannot travel.  Mark and Beth want him to be present at their wedding, so they agree to marry in Jeffrey’s parish of Holy Redeemer.  The pastor of Holy Redeemer is amenable to celebrating their wedding.  According to canon 1109, he can validly do this in his own parish, even though Mark and Beth aren’t his parishioners.

Mark and Beth really need to get permission from the pastor of either St. Gregory’s or Our Lady of Lourdes to marry in yet another parish, according to canon 1115.  If they obtain this permission in advance, it’s all good.  The marriage is both valid (assuming that all the other elements required for a valid marriage are present, of course!) and licit.

If, however, they fail to ask/obtain permission, the marriage is valid but illicit.  This is true regardless of whether they were deliberately negligent, or somehow they genuinely didn’t know they needed to do this.  In other words, culpability is not the issue here—getting advance permission is all that counts.

So now we can piece together the answers to Felicia’s questions.  Firstly, if she and her fiancé wanted to marry in his mother’s parish, they could do so, if of course the pastor of that parish agreed to it.  Note that the pastor is under no obligation to allow the wedding in his parish, since the spouses aren’t his parishioners; but they would at least be presenting a legitimate argument if they pointed out that most of the groom’s relatives live there.  Secondly, if Felicia and her fiancé wanted to have their wedding in “any parish church that [they] please,” this is theoretically possible so long as the pastor of that parish agrees to allow it—but such agreement shouldn’t be presumed.  If two Catholics want to marry in a parish other than their own, the pastor will naturally want to know why!

Notice that the scenarios discussed here all involve weddings celebrated in parish churches.  But as we saw in “Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?” there are plenty of different types of Catholic churches and chapels around the world which do not constitute parishes.  Can Catholics marry in a Catholic church that isn’t a parish?  We’ll take a look at that related issue in the next column.

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