Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?

Q: At a social event, I met a woman who is Catholic, but newly married to a Methodist. We started talking about wedding-planning, and she mentioned that her own wedding took place just a couple of months ago in a Methodist church. So I assumed that she’s out of the Church. But subsequently I saw her receiving Holy Communion at Mass at my parish! Don’t Catholics have to get married in a Catholic church? So isn’t she in a state of sin because she’s not really married? Why should she be allowed to receive Communion then? Should somebody tell our pastor about this?  –Beth

A: Catholics as a rule must be married in accord with what’s called canonical form. This still applies even when one of the parties to the marriage is not Catholic. The canonical form of marriage requires that the marriage be contracted in the presence of either one’s pastor, or another priest or deacon deputed by him, like the associate pastor or a priest-friend of the family (c. 1108). In rare situations when no priest is available for long periods of time—as happens in some parts of Alaska, for instance—a lay person may receive advance permission from a bishop to take the place of a priest at Catholic weddings. That lay person must always be a Catholic himself (c. 1112).

Most Catholics probably do not realize that the existing canonical form for marriage is actually a relatively new development in the 2000-year-old history of the Church. During the protestant reformation, the Church found it necessary to assert her authority in the face of new non-Catholic ministers—in many cases, renegade Catholics who had rejected Church teachings—who claimed that they could lawfully officiate at Christian marriages. In 1563, the Catholic Church officially rejected these claims with the publication of the Decree Tametsi of the Council of Trent. Under this decree,

Those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest or of another priest authorized by the parish priest or by the ordinary [the local bishop] and in the presence of two or three witnesses, the holy council renders absolutely incapable of thus contracting marriage and declares such contracts invalid and null, as by the present decree it invalidates and annuls them (Sessio XXIV, November 11, 1563).

This Tridentine decree is the basis for the current law.

Understandably, a non-Catholic who wishes to marry a Catholic may be unhappy about this requirement. We Catholics cannot fault a person who was raised in a non-Catholic church for wishing to get married in his own church! So, is there some way that the couple could be married by the non-Catholic party’s minister, and yet still be married in the eyes of the Catholic Church?

Well, canon law forbids that both a non-Catholic minister and a Catholic priest officiate together at the same wedding (c. 1127.3), so no compromise of that sort is possible. Along similar lines, the same canon forbids a Catholic to have two separate wedding ceremonies, one Catholic and one non-Catholic, regardless of which one takes place first. There are theological reasons for this. The Church wishes to avoid the appearance that it is just as acceptable for a Catholic to have a non-Catholic wedding as a Catholic one, or that the two ceremonies are equally sufficient for the marriage’s validity—they’re not.

Canon 1127.2, however, notes that the bishop may dispense a mixed marriage from canonical form, if observing it would lead to “grave difficulties.” (The notion of dispensation, the relaxation of an ecclesiastical law in a particular case {c. 85}, was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”) It’s up to the bishop to determine what constitutes a grave difficulty and what doesn’t. He may, for example, grant a dispensation based on the desire to maintain harmony with family members on the non-Catholic’s side, who are anti-Catholic and who object to a Catholic wedding ceremony. Another common scenario is that of a non-Catholic party with a family member who is a protestant cleric, who naturally wishes to officiate at the wedding. The dispensation allows the Catholic party to marry before a non-Catholic minister, in a non-Catholic ceremony, and still be considered validly married (assuming no other separate issues affect sacramental validity, of course) in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Such a dispensation must be obtained in advance. A Catholic who gets married in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation from canonical form is not validly married under canon law.

How does one obtain this dispensation from canonical form? The process is initiated by the pastor of the Catholic party. He forwards a description of the situation to the bishop for review, and the bishop then informs him whether the dispensation is granted or not.

As we can see, it is very possible that the Catholic woman whom Beth met, who was married in a Methodist church, is nevertheless validly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. If she is in fact a member of Beth’s parish, and sought such a dispensation, the pastor would have been involved in obtaining it, so he would already be well aware of her situation. If that is the case, she is of course perfectly free to receive Holy Communion at Mass, and he would already know that there is no reason why she could not receive this sacrament.

In any event, it is not safe to assume that this woman is automatically “out of the Church” because she was married in a Methodist wedding ceremony.

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