Can Catholics be Prohibited from Marrying in Lent and Advent?

Q: I am engaged to a non-Catholic. We want to have the wedding in December, during the Advent season.  December is the only time when all my relatives are around due to the school holiday…

My parish priest rejected my request, saying church policy forbids any weddings during Advent.  He is known for being stricter with procedure.  The priest told me that it is the DIOCESE which refuses to solemnize marriages in Advent.

But there is another parish…which permits weddings during Advent.  Why does this parish allow weddings but my parish does not?  It’s just unfair, I think.

My last resort would be marrying in my fiancée’s non-Catholic Church.  But a Catholic wedding is really important to me.  I just don’t want to give up.  What should I do to make my wedding valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church? –Henry

A:  Henry’s question refers to the Advent season, but canonically the question pertains just as much to Lent, which is currently upon us.  In some parts of the world, Catholics are routinely informed that they cannot marry at all during these seasons, because (so they are told) the penitential and/or preparatory nature of these times renders them inappropriate for the joyous celebration of a wedding.  While it’s impossible to compile statistics on this, it seems to vary from diocese to diocese, or from parish to parish.  What’s going on here?  Do the faithful have the right to schedule their weddings during Lent or Advent, and if not, why not?

As we have seen before in “When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?” “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” and “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?” Catholics have, in general, a right to receive the sacraments.  This general rule is first articulated in canon 213, in the section of the code delineating the obligations and rights of all the faithful (i.e., both clergy and laity).  It states broadly that the Christian faithful have the right to the spiritual goods of the Church, among which it specifically mentions the sacraments.

More details are then provided in the chapter of the code discussing the sacraments themselves.  Canon 843.1 states clearly that Catholics cannot be denied the sacraments if they opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.  In the abovementioned columns, we did encounter some situations in which the faithful could lawfully be refused the sacraments—perhaps they were not properly disposed, or did not request them at an appropriate time.  If we assume that Henry is a practicing Catholic, and that he and his fiancée have completed, or are willing to complete, any necessary preparation-program mandated by his diocese for all Catholics planning to marry, it seems reasonable to conclude that they are “properly disposed” to marry in the Church.  The refusal of his request, however, was not based on his and his fiancée’s spiritual dispositions, but rather on the time of year when they want the wedding to take place.  So the question to be asked is, are Advent and Lent “inappropriate times” for the celebration of the sacrament of Catholic matrimony?

In the current (1983) Code of Canon Law, there is certainly nothing to indicate that any particular days of the year are definitively off-limits for the celebration of weddings.  But in 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship published a document “Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts” which explained authoritatively that there are two days when marriages may not be celebrated.  On Good Friday, “All celebration of the sacraments…is strictly prohibited, except for the Sacraments of Penance and Anointing of the Sick” (61).  And as for Holy Saturday, “The celebration of marriages is forbidden” (75).

The Congregation’s document is intended to apply universally and thus cannot be ignored by diocesan bishops, much less by parish priests.  Consequently, if any Catholic ever asks his pastor to schedule a wedding on Good Friday or Holy Saturday, the answer must be no.  That’s because even though the Congregation’s document was focused on the Easter Season, and not on the sacraments per se, it has nonetheless indicated that these dates constitute inopportune times for the celebration of the sacrament of matrimony.  Refusal would thus be fully in accord with canon 843.1.

So if the Vatican has established that Catholics may not opportunely ask for the celebration of the sacrament of matrimony on these dates in Holy Week, is it possible for a diocesan bishop or a parish priest to broaden the prohibition to other times of the year when the faithful cannot marry either?  In a word, no—or at least, not without specific permission from the Holy See.  The reason for this hinges on a general legal concept pertaining to the restriction of rights.

Canon 18, in the very first section of the code delineating some of the broadest, most basic concepts governing church law, states among other things that laws that restrict the free exercise of rights are to be interpreted strictly.  In other words, if a canon limits our right to have or do something, and a question arises as to whether or not the canon can be applied in an individual situation, the answer must involve interpreting that canon in the narrowest possible way.

Put differently, the rights of the faithful cannot be limited unless the law clearly permits this.  A “loose interpretation” of any canon restricting a person’s rights is not permissible.  Telling Catholics that they can’t get married for nearly an entire month (during Advent), and/or for the entire calendar period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, obviously constitutes a very loose interpretation of the restrictions contained in canon 843.1, and is thus a policy unsupported by canon law.

In theory, it’s possible that Henry’s diocesan bishop has requested and obtained from Rome special authorization to forbid weddings from being celebrated in Advent and/or Lent.  Perhaps there are unique cultural circumstances in that region of the world which make such a ban advisable.  But if that’s what has happened, then the bishop ought to be able to produce evidence of this, and explain to the faithful of his diocese why he has it (something which is definitely not happening in this particular case).

The very fact that policies in Henry’s diocese vary from parish to parish shows that something must be amiss.  For if the diocese had permission to impose harsher restrictions on its lay-faithful than are in place for the rest of the Church—which it doesn’t appear to have at all—individual pastors would then logically have no leeway in the matter whatsoever.  It would be impossible for “another parish” to “permit weddings during Advent,” as Henry indicates.

Thus it seems pretty safe to conclude that Henry’s pastor is violating Henry’s rights, while wrongly claiming that he is merely abiding by diocesan policy.  It would be one thing if the priest merely sought to discourage weddings during Advent/Lent, explaining pastorally why another time of year would liturgically be much more suitable for such a joyous occasion; but forbidding them outright is an altogether different matter.  Henry describes his own pastor as “stricter with procedure,” but this is not a question of being strict—it’s a case of parishioners being flat-out denied the sacraments, with no known legal justification!

In Henry’s case, we can see a perfect example of why such arbitrary restrictions can do the faithful a lot of spiritual damage.  Henry’s family genuinely cannot gather for the wedding at any other time—and if he is banned from marrying during Advent, he feels forced by practical circumstances to consider marrying outside the Church instead.  This is exactly the sort of scenario the Church strives to avoid.  If Henry were to marry in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, without obtaining a dispensation in advance, his marriage would be invalid in the eyes of the Church—because as a Catholic he is required to follow canonical form (see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” for a more in-depth discussion of this).  The pastor’s illegal refusal to allow Henry to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony, at the one time of year when he is logistically able to schedule it, could thus result in Henry marrying invalidly elsewhere.  Spiritually speaking, of course, Henry’s pastor would be morally responsible for this.

Note that while canon law does permit a wedding during both Lent (except for the two days just discussed above) and Advent, the faithful are required to tone down the celebration, in keeping with these more somber periods of the liturgical year.  The Church’s liturgical books indicate that for weddings during Advent/Lent, external signs such as music and flowers are to be less lavish (if there are any at all).  Note that in the process of making this admonition, the liturgical books do acknowledge that weddings may indeed be celebrated during these times—they just cannot be celebrated with the same exuberance and festivity that one often finds at weddings held at other times of year.

So now we can see the answer to Henry’s question.  Curious readers may be interested to know, by the way, that Henry’s situation has already been resolved, amicably and in full accord with canon law.  Lent and Advent may not be the best times of year to schedule a happy event like a wedding; but sometimes this is the best (or only!) option for the spouses, and the Church does indeed permit the sacramental celebration to take place.

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