Can the Pope Validly Marry People on an Airplane?

Q: It would seem that [during his trip to Chile] Pope Francis received and blessed a couple who actually celebrated the sacrament of Holy Matrimony on the Pope’s flight.

At first glance, according to your previous articles about canonical validity regarding the location of the celebration, the pope’s airplane doesn’t seem to be like an ordinary parish. Therefore I wonder: is that sacrament valid?

If so, is it because the pope has the power to derogate from canon law in specific situations?  Or at his own pleasure?  I understand he is the Supreme Legislator, so is this an example of Pope Francis using that liberty? –Brian

A: Brian certainly isn’t the only Catholic who was scratching his head after reading that Pope Francis had unexpectedly celebrated the wedding of two airline employees, while onboard a domestic flight during his recent visit to Chile.  If you’re Catholic, aren’t you supposed to get married in a Catholic church?  Since when do Catholics get married on an airplane—and without any marriage preparation, to boot?  Can the Pope even do that?

They’re all excellent questions—but as if the situation isn’t already complicated enough, there’s apparently a lot more to the story that you didn’t read in the mainstream news.  While most media outlets appear to have mindlessly parroted whatever they were told, without bothering to corroborate the facts and/or investigate further, the version of events that they reported is far from the whole truth.

So let’s first look at the situation as these sloppy news sources described it, and go through all the canonical questions that it raises.  But then we’ll examine the evidence (which is readily available!) indicating that what really happened was quite different—and then see what conclusions we might safely be able to draw from all this.

For starters, here’s what ABC News told us on January 18:

The crew of Chile’s flagship carrier was gathering in the first-class section for the usual photo with the pope when flight attendants Paula Podest and Carlos Ciuffardi revealed that they were a married couple. Francis motioned for them to sit next to him for the photo and asked if they had been married in the church.
They told Francis that they had been wed in a civil service in 2010 but had been unable to follow up with a church ceremony because the Feb. 27, 2010 earthquake that rocked Chile had damaged the church.
Francis then made a proposal of his own: “I’ll marry you!” and they readily agreed. The head of the airline served as the witness.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend for now that this account is accurate, and examine the canonical issues it raises, one by one.

In a number of countries, it’s necessary for Catholics to marry in a civil ceremony (so that it will be recognized by the State) as well as in a Catholic wedding ceremony in church (so that it will be recognized by the Church).  As Catholics, Paula and Carlos had done the first, and were planning to do the second—but on their wedding-day, there was a devastating 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile.  Two children and nearly eight years later, they still had not married in a church wedding.  As has been discussed so many times before in this space, their civil marriage was not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church, because Catholics are required to marry in accord with canonical form (c. 1108).  Obviously the couple knew this, since they had arranged to marry in a Catholic ceremony after the civil one.

Even without knowing much about the nation of Chile or the 2010 earthquake, it’s a pretty safe bet that Paula and Carlos have had ample opportunity to celebrate a Catholic wedding in the past eight years—but they didn’t.  If you believe the news stories, they were both airline employees, working on one of Pope Francis’ recent flights within Chile, and the Pope asked them if they had been married in church (i.e., validly).  They allegedly admitted that they hadn’t… and he spontaneously offered to rectify that, by marrying them on the spot.

Does the Pope have the power to do that?  Was the marriage valid under such circumstances?  There are a number of different factors that have to be examined here.

Firstly, as we saw in “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?canon 1118.1 lays out the general rule: a marriage between Catholics, or between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, is to be celebrated in the parish church (although the bishop or parish priest can grant permission for it to be celebrated in a different Catholic church).  But canon 1118.2 immediately notes that the bishop can allow it to be celebrated in another suitable place.  Since there’s no official definition of what’s “suitable,” this is up to the bishop’s discretion.

The article just mentioned explained that in actual practice, bishops do not give this permission very readily.  But that certainly doesn’t mean they can’t grant it at all.  Thus if a bishop decided for some reason that a couple should be allowed to get married on an airplane… they can do that, validly and licitly.

The next question is easy: does the Pope have the power to make the decision and grant this permission?  Of course!  The Pope has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, as canon 331 tells us—and the word “universal” is directly relevant here.  The Pope is Bishop of the Diocese of Rome, but as we all know, his jurisdiction doesn’t end there.  Unlike all other diocesan bishops, the Pope has power everywhere: all over the world, underground, in international waters and airspace, and even up on the International Space Station (which might be useful if there are any Catholics working there).  In short, there is no place where a Catholic could conceivably be, where the Pope doesn’t have authority.

Note that this means that in practice, the Pope has power within the territory of other bishops’ dioceses.  If he wants to celebrate a wedding in the Diocese of X, and/or to marry a couple from the Diocese of X, he can do that whenever/wherever he wants.  And the Pope doesn’t need to ask the local bishop for permission, either.

So if we return now to Paula and Carlos, if Pope Francis wanted to give them permission to marry in a Catholic ceremony in a place other than a Catholic church, he could do that.  Period.

Next, we see that the ABC News story indicates that this airplane-marriage was a completely spontaneous idea on Pope Francis’ part (“Francis then made a proposal of his own: “I’ll marry you!” and they readily agreed.”)  But isn’t marriage-preparation a requirement for a valid Catholic marriage?  Or can the Pope simply waive it altogether?

Canon 1063 n. 2 tells us that pastors of souls are obliged to assist the faithful under their care by personal preparation for marriage.  Part of the advance preparations involves ensuring that nothing stands in the way of a valid and licit celebration (c. 1066)—meaning, among other things, that effort must be made to determine whether any impediments exist that would render the marriage invalid.  The manner in which this is normally done will vary from one diocese to another (cf. c. 1067), but ordinarily, the pastor of the parish will make sure that the prospective spouses are old enough to marry (c. 1083, see “Can Catholics Ever Elope?“ for more on this), that neither is already married to someone else (c. 1085), that the couple are not biologically related too closely (c. 1091, as discussed in “Can Cousins Marry in the Church?”), and so forth.

If Pope Francis failed to do this before marrying Paula and Carlos, then obviously there is a possibility that some impediment exists that would invalidate the marriage.  One can certainly argue that since the couple had already arranged to marry in a Catholic wedding back in 2010, this preparation must have already been completed at that time.  Nevertheless, in the eight intervening years, it’s quite possible that something has changed—so prudence would dictate that some sort of investigation be done again, even if cursorily.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that as canon 1114 phrases it, one who assists at a marriage [Pope Francis, in this case] acts illicitly unless he has satisfied himself of the parties’ freedom to marry in accordance with the law.  We weren’t privy to the conversation between the Pope and Paula and Carlos (more on that in a moment), so we don’t know what exactly the Pope asked them, and whether he “satisfied himself” that they were free to marry in the Church.  Consequently, nobody can claim that Pope Francis failed to do this.  But even if the Pope did neglect this important aspect of marriage preparation, the canon indicates that this failing would be illicit—but would not in itself invalidate the marriage.

On to the next issue: witnesses.  Canon 1108.1, mentioned above, tells us that canonical form requires that two witnesses be present at a Catholic marriage, and this does not include the cleric who celebrates it.  If we rely solely on the ABC News story quoted above, this would appear to present a serious problem, because it asserts that “the head of the airline served as the witness.”  One witness is not enough to satisfy the requirements of canonical form—and would, therefore, affect the validity of the wedding.

Interestingly enough, however, BBC News repeated the same claim that there was only one witness… yet posted a photograph of the hand-written marriage certificate documenting the event, which clearly shows two signatures (the second and third ones in the left column), each identified underneath as a testigo, or “witness.”  It appears that one witness was the president of the airline, and the other was a bishop travelling with the Pope.  (Is it too much to expect that journalists might actually read the documents that they show their readers, before telling us what they purportedly say?)  Thus there is no canonical problem here at all.

Now let’s move on to canon 1119.  This canon states that except in a case of necessity, the celebration of a marriage is to follow the rites prescribed in the liturgical books.  Since Pope Francis wasn’t planning to marry this couple on the airplane, it might be tempting to assume that of course he didn’t have a copy of the Sacramentary handy, so he couldn’t possibly have followed the Rite of Marriage it contains.  But it’s a risky assumption.  If the Pope—or any cleric in his entourage, of which there were several—was personally planning to celebrate a baptism, or a wedding, or any other sacrament while in South America, then there might very well have been a Sacramentary on board the plane somewhere.  And for all we know, the Pope (or one of those other clerics on the plane) might have an electronic copy on his tablet or phone!

Note, however, that once again, even if the Pope did not follow the rite contained in the liturgical books, this doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage was invalid.  As we just saw, canon 1119 excepts cases of necessity, and determining what constitutes a “necessity” is of course a judgment-call—which the Pope has the right to make.

That said, there is one very important element of the Rite of Marriage which is not negotiable, as its observance directly affects marriage validity.  This involves the wording of the vows which the couple recites, exchanging their consent.

As we have seen many times before, the Church holds that consent makes the marriage (c. 1057.1).  Canon 1057.2 defines matrimonial consent as an act of the will, by which a man and woman mutually give and accept one another for the purpose of establishing a marriage [as the Church defines it].  Defective consent invalidates a marriage, and determining whether the consent of the spouses was defective or not keeps Marriage Tribunals busy all over the world.  The phraseology of the Church’s marriage vows, as found in the Rite of Marriage, is a lot more than just lovely words—it indicates precisely what the spouses are consenting to, and what their consent actually means.

This is, incidentally, why the “write your own marriage vows” trend in the 1970’s and 1980’s resulted in a lot of invalid marriages.  Simply saying vague romantic things like, “I love you and want to spend my life together with you” doesn’t cut it.  Think about it: you could say exactly the same thing to someone with whom you simply wanted to cohabit, without intending marriage at all!

Many, many priests have celebrated enough weddings that they know the wording of the vows by heart.  They can tell the spouses exactly what to say, without needing to check the liturgical books.  If Pope Francis remembers the words of consent, then of course he could have done this with Paula and Carlos, even if a Sacramentary wasn’t available.  Keep in mind that they were all speaking Spanish, the Pope’s native language, which would have made it even easier.  And let’s not forget that even if the Pope himself couldn’t remember the exact words, there were lots of other clergy on the plane—including the bishop who acted as a witness—who might have been able to help him.

But what did the press report after the fact?  Here’s what Reuters told the world that the new husband said:

“We had a short and small ceremony. He took our hands and he asked if there was love in our marriage and if we want to keep on being together all life long,” [Carlos] said.

Since Carlos had never married in a Catholic ceremony before, it’s entirely possible that Pope Francis asked them to repeat the vows as they are written in the Rite of Marriage—and Carlos was simply summarizing what he remembered.  At the same time, though, there’s no denying that this report raises questions about exactly what the couple said/did.  If they failed to exchange consent correctly… then the marriage is invalid, no matter who celebrated it.

But this now brings us back to the question of reporting.  It is fascinating to note that all the news stories gushed that this airplane-wedding was an “impromptu,” unexpected event—and none of the reporters seems to have known about this story about the members of the flight crew that would serve the Pope during his trip to Chile, published in the Chilean news on December 19, 2017, a full month before this “spontaneous” wedding in mid-air:

Both [Paula and Carlos] were married civilly eight years ago and now have two daughters, aged 3 and 6 years.  They planned to be married by the Church in a short time, which did not happen: the marriage was set for February 27, 2010. “We couldn’t be married by the Church because of the earthquake of 2010, the church collapsed, everything collapsed. So we began to put it off, we began to work, then came our daughters,” declared [Carlos].  And so both hope that next January, this postponed plan can finally be realized on the plane, and directed by none other than Pope Francis. “We would love it…” said [Paula].  (My translation, emphasis added.)

The fact is, there was nothing “impromptu” about this.  Paula and Carlos had planned well in advance to ask Pope Francis to marry them on the airplane!

All of the news stories, therefore, are a sham.  It was not Pope Francis who initiated the discussion about Paula and Carlos’ marriage, and he was not the one who impulsively suggested, out of the clear blue sky, that he could marry them right then and there.  This was their idea, not the Pope’s.

It follows, logically, that since it is untrue that the wedding was unplanned and spontaneous, everything else that Paula and Carlos told the news media—and that the news media told us—is suspect.  Under these circumstances, expecting to get an accurate account of what really happened from the newlyweds, or from journalists who obviously can’t be bothered to verify the facts, would be foolish.

On January 21, 2018, Pope Francis gave a press conference onboard his flight returning to Rome, and the question of the airplane-marriage came up.  Unlike the accounts we are given in all the bogus news stories, a verbatim account of the entire discussion (at which many people were present) is available.  Look at the Pope’s response:

[Journalist:] After the marriage of the steward and hostess in flight, what would you say to parish priests who are confronted by engaged couples wishing to marry on aircraft or ships?
[Pope Francis:]  You’re envisioning cruises with marriages? One of you told me that I am crazy to do these things.
The matter was simple. The husband (Carlos) had been on my flight the day before.  She (Paula), however, was not there.  He spoke to me.  I realized that he had been feeling me out… it was a nice chat.  The next day they were both there, and when we took photographs they told me that they were married civilly, and that eight years ago they were about to marry in their parish, but the church collapsed after an earthquake the day before the wedding.  And so there was no marriage.  They said, we’ll do it tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.  Then life goes on, they have a daughter, then another.
I questioned them, and they told me that they had done the prenuptial courses. I judged that were prepared.  Sacraments are for men, all the conditions were clear. Why not do what you can today? Waiting until tomorrow would perhaps have meant waiting another ten years. Both were prepared before the Lord in the sacrament of Penance. They told me that they had disclosed their intention to some of you in advance: “We’re going to the Pope to ask him to marry us.”  I do not know if it is true.
We must say to parish priests that the Pope questioned them well, it was a normal situation.  (My translation, emphasis added.)

Now we suddenly have a much different picture of what happened, don’t we?  This couple knew full well that their civil marriage was not valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church—and while they certainly could have rectified their situation earlier, they were more interested in getting the Pope to do it.  Note that Carlos had already been on a different flight with the Pope the previous day, and had made a deliberate effort to set the stage.

The Pope appears to have assessed the situation, and understood that this couple wasn’t all that focused on doing what the Church teaches, as their main desire seems to have been to enjoy the novelty of a papal wedding.  As he told reporters later, if he had declined to marry them then and there, “waiting until tomorrow would perhaps have meant waiting another ten years.”  It seems pretty obvious that if the Pope had instead urged them to marry in a Catholic ceremony in their own parish, Paula and Carlos would not have done it.  So he satisfied himself that they were in fact prepared—they had done the marriage preparation required by their parish/diocese in the past, and had both gone to confession—and then he decided to marry them right away.

Now, after eight years of living together, Carlos and Paula are finally married.  We may hope that all the attention paid to their novelty-wedding will prompt them to practice their faith, if they haven’t already been doing so.  (Have their daughters been baptized, for example?  It’s a fairly safe bet that the Pope talked to them about important issues like this.)  Pope Francis plainly feels that he did the right thing, by “roping them in” to a valid Catholic marriage before the couple got off the plane.  If Paula and Carlos really thought about it, they wouldn’t boast to anyone that they were married by the Pope; they would instead be ashamed that Francis sized them up and basically concluded that they are not particularly good Catholics—and judged that he had better marry them now, because they couldn’t be trusted to rectify their marriage otherwise.

It is unfortunate that publicizing the incident has caused so much confusion, especially among Catholics—but it’s important to point out that the bulk of the confusion has been caused not by Pope Francis, but by inaccurate reporting done by irresponsible journalists.  We see here yet another good reason why they are commonly referred to today as “fake news”!

One might certainly disagree with the Pope about the way he handled the situation, but it’s important to keep in mind that we weren’t there, and he was.  As often happens to many parish clergy, Pope Francis was confronted with a sticky pastoral situation, which forced him to think fast and make a decision on the spot—and it may or may not have been the best one.  (Some other scenarios involving the Catholic clergy’s need sometimes to “think on their feet” were discussed in “Can a Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?”)  But whether you like his decision or not, the fact is that Pope Francis had the right to make it.  Airplanes are definitely not the ideal locations for Catholic weddings; but there’s no particular reason to think that somehow, this one was celebrated invalidly.

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