Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?

Q:  My girlfriend and I decided to get married next year.  She wants to have the wedding in the chapel at the Catholic college where we both studied.  She already talked to the chaplain in the Campus Ministry Office, and he said we can get married there since we’re alumni of the school.

He sounded like there’s no issue with doing this, but I remember hearing several years ago about marriages in Campus Ministry chapels being declared invalid.  I searched online but now I can’t find any information… I know I’m not imagining this.  Is there a problem under canon law with us getting married there? –Daniel

A:  Daniel is right, he isn’t imagining anything.  In recent decades, particularly in the United States, there definitely have been numerous marriages found to be invalid simply because they took place in a Catholic university’s Campus Ministry, and were celebrated by the school’s chaplain.  Yet at the same time, the chaplain who spoke to Daniel’s fiancée was most likely speaking accurately, when he told her there would be no problem getting married there.  These two statements sound completely contradictory, don’t they?  What’s going on here?

At issue is the notion of canonical form.  We’ve seen other scenarios involving canonical form before, in articles such as “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, Catholics marry validly only when they follow the prescriptions outlined in canon 1108.  These state that the wedding must take place (a) in the presence of either the local Ordinary (usually the diocesan bishop) or the pastor of the parish, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them; (b) in the presence of two witnesses; and (c) in accord with the rules set out in the canons which follow.  Among the canons that follow, canon 1118.1 notes specifically that a marriage between either two Catholics, or between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, is to be celebrated in the parish church.  It adds, however, that it may be celebrated in another church or oratory with the permission of the bishop or the pastor of the parish.  So how does all this apply to Daniel getting married in the chapel of a Catholic university?

Well, for starters, Daniel and his fiancée are supposed to get married in their own parish church, as per canon 1118.1.  As was discussed in “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?” if they live in two different parishes, they can choose to have the wedding in either one (c. 1115).  But if they want their wedding to take place in yet another parish—where they both grew up,  for example, or maybe where the majority of their relatives live today—they can do that if their own pastor gives permission (c. 1115 again), and of course assuming that the pastor of that other parish agrees to allow it.  The column just mentioned notes that if the pastor of that other parish marries them without their having obtained advance permission from their own proper pastor, the marriage is still valid, but is illicit—because they really were supposed to get their pastor’s approval first.

The pastor of a parish is always able to celebrate the marriages of his own parishioners, because he is responsible for their spiritual well-being in general, and for the administration of the sacraments to them in particular (cf. cc. 528-530).  He is also able to officiate at the weddings of Catholic non-parishioners if they take place within the territory of his parish, because parishes are as a general rule territorial (c. 518), and so the spiritual activity of persons within the boundaries of his parish is (as a general rule) supposed to be under his purview.

It is the territorial nature of parishes that has caused problems in the past for some—but not all!—Catholics who have been married in a Catholic university’s chapel.  The whole issue of canonical form in such weddings hinges on the way that these chapels were canonically erected in the first place.

In many cases, the bishop of the diocese where the Catholic university is located has canonically erected the Campus Ministry as a parish.  In such a situation the boundaries of the university campus usually delineate the territory of the parish, the chaplain who heads up the Campus Ministry is technically the pastor, and the university chapel generally constitutes the parish church.  This means, logically, that this Campus Ministry chaplain has the right by law, under canon 1109, to marry the Catholics who reside on-campus, as well as other Catholics (like alumni) who marry within his territory.

If this is how the Campus Ministry chapel at Daniel’s alma mater has been erected by the local bishop, then it is absolutely correct that the chaplain (who’s canonically a parish priest, remember!) can validly marry Catholics in the university chapel.

But not every Campus Ministry on every Catholic school campus around the world has been legally established as a parish.  This is what has caused serious problems in the past for Catholic students and alumni getting married in their school’s chapel.  If we apply the canons already discussed above to this situation, the consequences logically follow—so let’s do that now.

Since the entire inhabited world (with a few exceptions that need not concern us here) has been divided up by the Catholic Church into territorial dioceses, and those dioceses are in turn divided up into territorial parishes, any Catholic institution that is not a parish—such as a monastery, a Catholic hospital, or a Catholic university—must by definition be located within some parish’s territory.  (See “ Is Every Catholic Church a Parish?” for more on this.)  As such, according to canon 1109, the pastor of the parish whose territory includes that institution is responsible for any marriages that take place there!

So if the Campus Ministry chapel of a Catholic university has not been canonically erected as a parish, that means the chaplain is not a parish priest—and thus he has no power to celebrate the wedding of anybody on-campus without explicit delegation from either the diocesan bishop, or the pastor of the parish where the university is located.  If the pastor or the bishop has not granted him this delegation, any marriage he celebrates is ipso facto invalid.

And sadly, this is exactly what happened many times in the U.S. in decades past.  Sometimes it appears that the university chaplain was genuinely unaware that he had not been given this delegation at the time of his assignment to the school—so he didn’t bother to ask for it.  In other cases, the chaplain evidently disregarded canon law and celebrated the wedding without the needed delegation, simply because he decided his own approval was enough, much like the tragic case discussed in “Annulments and the Authority of the Parish Priest.”  Regardless of the reasons, the end-result was the same: the marriage was invalid, because (through no fault of their own) the Catholic spouse(s) did not observe canonical form.

Fortunately, you might say that nowadays local bishops have learned their lesson, as many of them have changed parish borders and created parishes on college campuses within their territory—in order to eliminate this problem.  At the same time, Campus Ministry chaplains are generally much more careful now to obtain any necessary delegation (and permission too) in order to do this right.  Since Daniel and his fiancée naturally want to make sure that canonical form is being followed in their case, they might ask the chaplain whether the school is a parish or not, and how all the canonical requirements are going to be carried out.  Strictly speaking, the spouses aren’t obliged to second-guess the priest who celebrates their wedding on these matters; the moral responsibility for ensuring that church law is followed ultimately rests with him.  But they have every right to ask such questions, and given Daniel’s understandable uncertainty about the whole matter, it should help him to rest easy regarding the validity of the celebration of his marriage.

At this point, readers’ heads might be spinning—and there’s no doubt that the whole issue of exactly who has the authority under canon law to celebrate a wedding can get complicated!  But the bottom line is that the responsibility for the spiritual well-being of Daniel and his bride-to-be rests with their diocesan bishop, and (under his authority in turn) the pastor of their parish.  So long as this general rule is kept in mind, the law on this matter follows as a matter of course.

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