Can a Catholic Priest Ever Officiate at a Non-Catholic Wedding?

Q1: Is it possible for a Catholic priest to assist at a non-Catholic wedding? –Father N.

Q2: My fiancé is a Catholic and I was baptized Catholic but raised Lutheran…. We opted to have both our wedding ceremony and reception at a hotel.  Is it permissible for a Catholic deacon to officiate a non-sacramental Catholic wedding?  His willingness would be up to him, I know, but is he able, under the given circumstances? –Kathleen

A:  We’ve seen quite a few times before that as per canon 844.1, the Church’s general rule is that Catholic sacraments are for Catholics.  But we’ve also seen that there are exceptions: in very specific situations, it may be possible for non-Catholics to receive some of the sacraments from Catholic ministers (c.844.3; see “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?” and “When Can a Non-Catholic Go to Confession?” for more on this).  So how do these two questions fit into this equation?

In the first case, two non-Catholics want a Catholic priest to celebrate their wedding.  Father N has not provided us with any details, so the motivation for this request is not known.  What do they actually want to take place during the ceremony?  Do they want to have a Catholic wedding? or what?

If for some unclear reason this non-Catholic couple really wants to be married in a Catholic ceremony, they’re out of luck.  The only Catholic sacraments which canon 844.3 allows non-Catholics to receive under certain circumstances are Penance, the Eucharist, and the Anointing of the Sick.  (True, if one of the spouses were Catholic, they would not only be able to marry in a Catholic ceremony, but they would actually be required to do so, as we have seen so often in this space.  But that is not the case here.)

But if, on the other hand, this non-Catholic couple does not want to have a wedding that is actually Catholic, is there any way that a Catholic priest could celebrate it?  If we step back and think about what is happening both theologically and canonically, whenever a Catholic cleric officiates at a wedding, the answer to this question should become clear.

As was discussed in “Marriage and Annulment,” when two spouses marry, the Catholic Church holds that they are conferring the sacrament on each other.  The Catholic cleric, in this case, is not administering the sacrament of marriage to them!  Instead, he “assists” at the wedding, which the law defines as receiving the spouses’ manifestation of consent in the name of the Church (c. 1108).  This constitutes a big part of the canonical form which all Catholics are required to observe when getting married.  The concept of canonical form has been discussed here repeatedly, in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” among many others.

This means, therefore, that the Catholic cleric who “assists” at a Catholic marriage is doing a lot more than simply attending the wedding.  That’s why the mere presence of a Catholic priest at a wedding doesn’t automatically make the marriage valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church—as we saw in “How Does the Presence of a Priest at My Non-Catholic Wedding Make it Okay?

So if a Catholic priest is asked to celebrate the wedding of two non-Catholics, and they don’t actually want him to marry him in the Catholic Church… what exactly do they expect him to do, then?  It sounds like a classic case of sentiment, rather than level-headed thinking, driving the marriage preparations.  A priest who is asked by non-Catholics to officiate at their wedding must decline.

While we’ve been focusing on this scenario as it affects the couple, it’s also important to look at it from the point of view of the priest himself.  As canon 1109 tells us, a Catholic cleric who has the authorization to assist at a Catholic wedding may do so for (a) his own subjects (the pastor of a parish can marry the members of his own parish), and (b) his non-subjects, if at least one of the spouses is a Latin Catholic.  This was addressed before in “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? (Eastern Churches, Part I).”

Since two non-Catholics cannot possibly be the subjects of any Catholic cleric, it logically follows from this canon that he cannot marry them validly, period.  Consequently, if for some inexplicable reason he attempts to assist at their marriage anyway, it would be pretty easy to denounce the cleric to his superior(s) for the crime of pretending to administer a sacrament (c. 1379), which is a punishable offense.  Any cleric who deliberately goes through the motions of celebrating any of the sacraments, while knowing full well that it’s impossible under the circumstances to administer the sacrament validly, has got some explaining to do!

All of this adds up to a pretty conclusive “no” to Father N’s question; and it should now be fairly simple to address the question posed by Kathleen, which is related yet somewhat different.  In her case, the two spouses are baptized Catholics, although it appears that neither of them practices his faith.  They want to be married in a hotel, by a Catholic deacon (who is a personal friend of theirs).  Is there any way that this could be done?

Kathleen clearly does not understand the critical importance for Catholics to marry in a Catholic ceremony in church.  As was seen in “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” the location of the wedding ceremony is another important component of the obligatory canonical form for marriage, already addressed above.  There are extremely rare circumstances when it’s possible for Catholics to obtain a dispensation from canonical form altogether, as canon 1127.2 tells us, and get married in a Catholic ceremony elsewhere; but these circumstances must involve “grave difficulties” which obviously do not exist in Kathleen’s case.

Therefore, Kathleen’s marriage in a hotel will be invalid, no matter who celebrates it!  And in such a situation it should be plain that no Catholic cleric, priest or deacon, could possibly be involved.  Once again, we see a case where if a Catholic cleric were to “assist” at this wedding, knowing that it was invalid, his action would constitute the delict of pretending to administer a sacrament, as per the same canon 1379 discussed above.

Kathleen indicates that she thinks that her marriage will be “a non-sacramental Catholic wedding,” but this is a phrase that makes zero sense in her case.  It’s true that valid, non-sacramental Catholic weddings really do exist; but as we saw in “Catholics in Non-Sacramental Marriages,” they always involve a marriage that is (a) between a Catholic and an unbaptized non-Christian; and (b) celebrated in accord with canonical form.  Since both Kathleen and her fiancé were baptized in the Catholic faith, it is impossible for them to marry validly without that marriage being ipso facto sacramental.  Sadly, it would be more accurate for Kathleen to describe her upcoming marriage as “an invalid, non-Catholic wedding,” because that’s exactly what it will be.

It’s pretty easy for star-crossed lovers to lose sight of the fact that for Catholics, celebrating the sacrament of marriage is a serious matter!  The Church can often be quite flexible when it comes to the ceremony, especially when one of the spouses is not Catholic or even Christian; but there are nonetheless plenty of aspects which are non-negotiable.  Catholic clergy cannot validly officiate at the weddings of two non-Catholics; and lapsed Catholics cannot marry validly in a non-Catholic ceremony conducted by a Catholic cleric.  When one understands the theology behind the sacrament of marriage, it only makes sense that these are lines which cannot be crossed.

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