Q: For four years our son was away at college, over 500 miles from home. He just graduated and is now engaged to a girl he met at school, and they want to get married in our parish here.
Our son attended Mass regularly the entire time he was at school.
In his last year of school, we got a new pastor at our parish here at home. He’s now refusing to marry our son because he says he doesn’t know who he is! Father insists that if you’re a parishioner, you should be coming to Mass regularly at the parish, and if you’re not a parishioner, you can’t be married in the parish.
We’re at a loss. Kids go away to school all the time, and during that time they obviously don’t go to Sunday Mass at their home parish every week. We’ve never heard of a college-graduate having this problem… what can we do? –Roger
A: The pastor of Roger’s parish certainly sounds like he’s being unreasonable, doesn’t he? After all, now that Roger’s son is back home, where he lived before he went away to school, it seems perfectly logical that he can and should marry in his family’s parish. But at the same time, the new pastor of the parish may have some entirely legitimate grounds for refusing to allow this. There are actually a couple of separate canonical issues potentially at play here, so let’s take the question apart and examine the different elements one at a time. Then we can draw some conclusions, and see what options Roger’s son has for his wedding.
To begin with, if we want to know where Catholics should get married, the (rather verbose) answer is found in canon 1115. It states that marriages should be celebrated in a parish where either of the spouses has a domicile, quasi-domicile, or month-long residence; or in the case of transients, in the parish where they actually reside. The canon adds that marriages can be celebrated elsewhere, with the permission of the diocesan bishop or the parish priest.
So as a rule, you’re supposed to get married in your parish. But which parish is Roger’s son’s parish?
The whole issue of domiciles, quasi-domiciles and transients was discussed at length in “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?” If we review the terminology and apply it to a typical college student who just spent four years away from home, we can see which parish Roger’s son technically belongs to.
Canon 102.1 defines the term domicile for us: a Catholic has a domicile if he resides in a parish with the intention of staying there indefinitely, or if he has in fact lived there for five full years. If we apply this to a typical college student, who leaves home for four years (usually with some breaks during the summer and holidays) but who does not intend to stay at school forever, we can immediately see that a college student ordinarily loses his former domicile at his family home, but at the same time he does not acquire a new domicile at school. Bear in mind that there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with a Catholic not having a domicile; it simply means that he moved in recent years and hasn’t settled permanently in one location, yet.
But does a student at least have a quasi-domicile somewhere? The definition of this term is found in the very next paragraph: a person acquires a quasi-domicile if he lives in a place with the intention of staying there for at least three months, or his stay there has in fact lasted for three months (c. 102.2). It would appear, therefore, that your average college student does indeed have a quasi-domicile away at school (which means he’s not a transient, as per canon 100). Consequently, if Roger’s son and his fiancée want to marry in the parish where their alma mater is located, they should be able to do that. If they attended a Catholic school with its own Campus Ministry, that very Campus Ministry might be constituted as a parish itself (see “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” for more on this). Otherwise, the school is territorially located within the boundaries of a diocesan parish church—and that’s the parish where Roger’s son has obtained a quasi-domicile.
Roger tells us that his son attended Mass regularly when he was away at school. That should mean, logically, that over the years he formed at least a nodding-acquaintance with the clergy of that parish—so if he tells them of his wedding-plans, they should (at a minimum!) recall seeing him on a regular basis. Canonically, it doesn’t matter if he actively participated in parish activities; or contributed to the collection (see “Tithing and Excommunication” for more on this subject); or even if he registered at the parish (which, as we saw in “Parish Registration,” means nothing in canon law). If Roger’s son lived in the territory of that parish for at least three months, and routinely attended Mass/received the sacraments there, then that is a parish where he can marry according to canon 1115, as seen above.
But as we know, that’s not where Roger’s son wants to get married! He wants to marry in his former parish, where he lived before he went away to college. Since he “just graduated,” it appears that he hasn’t been back home for too long; and if he’s found a job elsewhere, he may not be planning to stay there anyway. These circumstances would mean that Roger’s son has not regained a domicile or quasi-domicile (yet) in his family’s parish. In fact, it doesn’t even sound like he’s lived here for one full month yet—the bare-minimum period of residence required by the above-mentioned canon 1115.
As we saw in “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?” it’s entirely possible for a pastor of a different parish to agree to permit a couple to marry there, even if they’re not his parishioners. Note, however, that he’s under no obligation to do this.
Which brings us to Roger’s parish priest, who has refused to allow Roger’s son to marry in the parish. It’s possible that he is merely quibbling about the domicile-issue we have just discussed… but there’s a broader issue which might be the real reason.
According to Roger, the priest doesn’t want to permit the wedding of Roger’s son, because “he doesn’t know who he is.” Look at it from the priest’s perspective: a couple in their early twenties suddenly shows up in the parish, and they want to get married. The priest has never seen them before. The prospective husband was raised Catholic, but hasn’t been seen at the parish regularly for years. How does the priest know that this young man is really a practicing Catholic—as opposed to a lapsed Catholic who merely wants a church wedding for frivolous reasons?
Remember that canon 843.1 spells out the conditions under which a Catholic has the right to receive the sacraments: a person must ask for them at an appropriate time, be properly disposed, and not be prohibited by law from receiving them. (Among other places, this canon was addressed in detail in “Can a Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?”) It’s pretty easy for a priest to argue that a non-practicing Catholic, who’s just going through the motions of a Catholic wedding for the sake of tradition or to please his relatives, is not “properly disposed.” Instead, it’s highly likely that his consent to the marriage will be defective in some way, thus rendering the marriage null. We’ve seen numerous situations involving defective consent, in “Marriage and Annulment,” “Contraception and Marriage Validity,” and “What Does it Mean to Have Your Marriage Blessed? Part III,” among others. Put simply, if you’re not committed to what the Church teaches about marriage, and don’t sincerely mean the words you’re uttering when you exchange wedding-vows, then your marriage could possibly be annulled later on.
Parish priests are well aware of this, of course, and are naturally less than keen on permitting a wedding ceremony between parties whose faith they aren’t sure of! During this Jubilee Year, there’s a lot of talk of mercy—but there’s nothing merciful about celebrating an invalid sacrament. It is concern about this possibility which is probably leading Roger’s pastor to refuse to marry his son, because “he doesn’t know who he is.”
So what can the couple do? As mentioned above, they could talk to the pastor of the school’s Campus Ministry (if applicable) or of the parish where the university is located, and seek to marry there instead. Another option would be to obtain a written statement from the priest(s) there affirming that Roger’s son did indeed practice his faith regularly while he was away at school—and present this to the pastor of Roger’s parish. If the fiancée is Catholic too, and can do the same thing, even better. In the meantime, of course, if Roger’s son is living at home again, he will naturally be attending his family’s parish on Sundays—so the pastor will see him on a regular basis in the very near future.
Curious readers may be interested to know that this problem was resolved fairly quickly, and without any animosity on either side. This was unquestionably a frustrating situation; but it’s important to bear in mind that the pastor of a parish has to engage in what might be described as a perpetual balancing-act, between administering the sacraments to his parishioners when they want them, and ensuring that these same sacraments are celebrated correctly.