How Does the Presence of a Priest at My Non-Catholic Wedding Make it Okay?

Q: I am Catholic and my fiancée is unbaptized. I want to have the wedding ceremony in the Catholic Church, but [there are problems]… I know that as a Catholic I should not marry in a ceremony in my fiancée’s religion.

I came across this statement from my parish, about a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic: “The Church recognizes these marriages provided the ceremonies take place in a Catholic church, or in the place of worship of the party who is not Catholic, and provided a Catholic priest or deacon is present as the Church’s witness.”  If my priest attends our wedding in a non-Catholic ceremony, does it mean it will be valid in the Catholic Church? –Henry

A: It’s no wonder that Henry is perplexed about this.  He knows that Catholics are required to observe canonical form, as we have seen many times before in this space (“Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” among others).  As per canon 1108.1, for a valid wedding a Catholic must marry in the presence of either the local bishop or his parish priest, or a priest/deacon deputed by either of them.  But what does it mean to marry “in the presence of” a Catholic cleric?  Let’s first review what has been discussed here before regarding canonical form, and in so doing we’ll work our way toward the answer to Henry’s question.

If a Catholic were to marry in a Catholic ceremony, but did so before a Catholic cleric who was not the local bishop or parish priest, or delegated by either of them, the wedding ceremony would certainly look like it was done correctly, but in fact it would be invalid.  This scenario was discussed in greater detail in “Are SSPX Sacraments Valid? Part II.”

It’s possible to request/obtain a dispensation from canonical form in advance, as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?”  The diocesan bishop can grant such a dispensation if it’s clear that having a wedding in a Catholic parish church will cause difficulties—usually with the non-Catholic party and his/her relatives, who want a wedding ceremony in accord with their own faith.  With this dispensation in hand, a Catholic can marry in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, before a non-Catholic minister, and the marriage is still considered valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

If, on the other hand, a Catholic were to ignore the requirement for canonical form altogether, and marry a non-Catholic in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony without first obtaining a dispensation from form from the diocesan bishop, the marriage would be invalid.  This was discussed at length in “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?

Henry’s question involves a sort of variation on these basic themes, that we’ve never seen before in this space.  According to his parish website, a Catholic can marry in a non-Catholic ceremony—evidently with no dispensation from canonical form, since it is not mentioned—and the Catholic Church will hold the marriage to be valid, provided that a Catholic priest is in attendance at the wedding.  Is this possible?

A cursory reading of the Church’s definition of canonical form, as described in canon 1108.1, might lead some to conclude that this interpretation is accurate.  After all, the canon notes that canonical form requires that the wedding take place “in the presence” of the bishop or parish priest.  If observing canonical form involved nothing more, it certainly would suggest that the Catholic cleric simply needs to show up at the wedding, no matter where it’s being held!

But if you read the canon more closely, you instantly see that there’s more to canonical form that that.  The reference to the “presence” of the bishop/priest/deacon doesn’t mean that he merely attends the wedding, like any other guest.  Canon 1108.1 also states that the cleric “assists” at the wedding, and the next paragraph provides the definition of “assisting”: a Catholic cleric assists at a marriage ceremony only if he is the one who asks the spouses to declare their consent, and receives it in the name of the Church (c. 1108.2).  This obviously means that you don’t merely have to have the right bishop/priest/deacon in attendance at your wedding; he has to actually be the one celebrating it.

Canon 1108.1 also notes that canonical form also requires that the wedding ceremony be celebrated in accord with the canons that follow.  In other words, the marriage ceremony has to be a Catholic ceremony, celebrated according to the liturgical books.  The Catholic cleric, in other words, couldn’t officiate at the non-Catholic wedding of a Catholic to a non-Catholic.

Nor could the Catholic bishop/priest/deacon “co-officiate” at the wedding, together with a non-Catholic minister, as per canon 1127.3.  This was discussed in greater detail in “Can We Have Both a Priest and a Non-Catholic Minister at our Wedding?”  The Church wants to avoid the misconception that a Catholic priest and a non-Catholic minister are both equally able to officiate at the marriage of a Catholic, suggesting that the Catholic Church and the non-Catholic faith are on equal footing—because they’re not.

At this point it should be clear to all that the information on the website of Henry’s parish is flat-out wrong.  (For the record, it has now been removed.)  It’s not clear why any parish priest would provide such erroneous information to his parishioners…but it may have to do with the fact that the parish is located in a developing country, where the Church faces challenges in providing Catholic seminarians with a solid, orthodox background in theology.  We don’t know how many Catholics from Henry’s parish have married in non-Catholic ceremonies, trusting their pastor’s assurance that the wedding would be valid so long as the Catholic pastor was in attendance; but the marriages are in fact invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, and the spouses cannot in any way be held accountable for this.  This is evidence—if any is needed!—of the Church’s need to ensure that its clergy around the world are given a first-rate theological education.

With all that being said, however, when Catholics of weak faith insist on marrying outside the Church, and aren’t convinced that it’s really in their spiritual best interest to request a dispensation from canonical form first, a Catholic priest might, in certain individual situations, agree to attend such a wedding for purely pastoral reasons. The wedding would be invalid regardless, and a priest who attends must make it clear that he is not sanctioning the non-Catholic celebration by his presence; but sometimes a priest may conclude that it’s of spiritual importance to the Catholic spouse, to keep him in contact with the Catholic Church.  In other words, if a priest (understandably) refuses to attend a wedding outside the Church, the Catholic spouse might interpret this as the Church irrevocably shutting the door on him.  When dealing with a Catholic whose faith is shaky, a pastor’s goal is to encourage him to stay in communion with the Church—not to drive him away. Every soul is different, and in some delicate situations it could perhaps be diplomatic for a priest to show up at such a wedding.  Nonetheless, it must be emphasized that this has absolutely no affect on the validity of the marriage: the wedding is still invalid for lack of canonical form.

Now Henry should have a better handle on his situation.  He can marry his non-Catholic fiancée in his Catholic parish; or (assuming he has a good reason) he may request a dispensation from canonical form from his diocesan bishop in advance, and then marry her in her own religious ceremony.  But the option described on his parish’s website does not exist.  A Catholic priest doesn’t make a non-Catholic wedding valid in the eyes of the Church, simply by showing up.

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