Why Can’t These Priests Ever Celebrate a Valid Catholic Wedding?

Q1: Can a laicized Catholic priest ever validly marry a Catholic couple? —Courtney

Q2: My best friend is going to marry a divorced Catholic man, and she asked me to be a bridesmaid… her pastor said that her fiancé would have to obtain an annulment of his first marriage before they could marry in the Church, but then she found this group of Catholic priests who told her it wasn’t necessary.  They said they will marry you without it, in a Catholic ceremony in a hotel or some other place that’s not a church…  This can’t be right, can it?  My friend is insisting that it will be a real Catholic wedding by a priest, but something must be wrong here.  What do you think? –Emma

A: Before tackling the specific issues pertaining to these two questions, let’s look once again at the general concept of canonical form.  This has been discussed many, many times in this space (in “Why Can a Parish Priest Annul This Marriage?” and “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” among others), but it bears repeating once again since it is directly relevant to the issues presented by both Courtney and Emma.

Canon 1108 explains that for Catholics to marry validly in the Church, their marriages must be celebrated by either the local bishop or the pastor of the parish, or by a priest delegated by either of them.  That said, as we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” it is sometimes possible for a Catholic to obtain in advance a dispensation from this rule from their bishop; but without such a dispensation, the marriage of a Catholic is considered invalid if it doesn’t follow canonical form.

This means that if a Catholic were to get married in, let’s say, a Lutheran ceremony by a Lutheran minister, or a Jewish ceremony by a rabbi, or a civil ceremony by a government official… such a wedding would be considered invalid by the Catholic Church, unless the Catholic had first obtained the above-mentioned dispensation from the bishop.

(One exception to this rule was discussed in “Why is a Catholic Permitted to Marry in an Orthodox Ceremony?”: if a Catholic marries an Orthodox person in an Orthodox wedding ceremony, celebrated by an Orthodox priest, the Catholic Church holds that this is valid, as per canon 1127.1.  The Catholic spouse is still supposed to obtain a dispensation from canonical form in advance; but if he/she fails to do that, the Church still considers the marriage valid, but illicit.  In other words, the Catholic spouse violated the law by not getting the dispensation, but it is nonetheless a valid marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church.)

Speaking generally, most Catholics appreciate the fact that they’re not supposed to be married by a non-Catholic minister; but many of them wrongly believe that a Catholic priest, simply by virtue of being an ordained priest, is able to celebrate their wedding validly.  As canon 1108 tells us, however, it’s more complicated than that.

By definition, the sacrament of matrimony involves a major, long-term change in one’s state of life; and the Church’s basic position is that it should be celebrated by not just any Catholic cleric, but the head of the parish or the diocese where at least one of the spouses resides.  That’s because a Catholic’s spiritual well-being has been entrusted to the bishop of the diocese (cf. c. 387, among others), and even more specifically, to the pastor of the parish (cf. cc. 528-529) where he/she lives.

Put differently, if a Catholic priest has been assigned to minister to the people of a certain parish, or is consecrated a bishop in order to see to the spiritual care of the people of a certain diocese, the well-being of the souls of the people in his territory is his particular responsibility. Now contrast this, by way of example, with a Catholic priest who is a professor at a Catholic university, or a monk in a monastery.  The professor and the monk are ordained priests; but their tasks in the Church do not directly involve the care of souls.  For this reason, neither the professor nor the monk is able to celebrate a valid Catholic wedding—unless the diocesan bishop or the pastor of the parish delegates him to do so.

In short, in order to celebrate the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, being ordained a Catholic priest is not enough!

As we all know, a couple who wishes to marry in the Church must meet in advance with the parish priest, and go through some organized marriage preparation.  It is his responsibility to see to it that they fully understand and appreciate the significance of the sacrament of marriage (cf. c. 1063 n. 2).  The details and method of this preparation will vary depending on the country/diocese, as the arrangement is ultimately up to the bishop (cf. c. 1064).

It frequently happens that a Catholic couple is married in the parish church, but by a priest who is not assigned to the parish.  Perhaps the bride’s uncle or the groom’s college buddy is a priest, and the spouses really want him to assist at their wedding.  This occurs all the time, and there is absolutely nothing canonically wrong with this, provided that the pastor of the parish (or the diocesan bishop) delegates him to do so in advance.  If the priest does not have the proper delegation, he cannot validly assist at a Catholic wedding.  An example of this was discussed in “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?

With all of this in mind, it should be clear that a priest who has been laicized cannot validly assist at a Catholic wedding.  We looked at the concept of laicization in “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?” and saw that once a man has validly been ordained a Catholic priest, his ordination can never be undone (c. 1338.2); but if he is returned to the lay state, he is not permitted to exercise the power of orders for the rest of his life.  The one exception to this strict rule is the granting of absolution to a person in danger of death, which any priest, laicized or not, has not only the sacramental power but the obligation to do (see “Can All Priests Always Hear Confessions?” for more on this).  Rest assured, therefore, that no pastor or bishop will delegate a laicized priest to celebrate a wedding!  So the answer to Courtney’s question is an unqualified no.

The group to which Emma refers is different.  They say that they are “Catholic priests” and offer to celebrate your “Catholic wedding,” but if you look into the status of the group more closely, it is perfectly clear that they are not affiliated with the Catholic Church at all.  On their website, they identify themselves as an “independent Catholic jurisdiction,” which is a fancy way of saying that they are calling themselves Catholics, but are not in fact part of the Catholic Church.

As we saw in “Canon Law and ‘Catholic’ Organizations,” canon 216 asserts that no initiative can call itself “Catholic” without the consent of the competent ecclesiastical authority.  And it is obvious that this group has not received permission to carry on their ministry from the diocese(s) where they are located—since they openly assert on their website that in their view, this isn’t necessary.

At best, this group is some type of schismatic entity, akin to those we looked at in “Can You Be Both a Catholic and a Sedevacantist?”  As canon 205 tells us, those who are in full communion with the Catholic Church share the same profession of faith, the same sacraments, and the same governance.  But this group acknowledges that they are not operating within the hierarchical structure of the Church, and thus they clearly do not share the same governance.  Since they aren’t in communion with the Catholic Church, they have no ability to assist validly at a Catholic wedding of any kind.

But that’s the best-case scenario.  It actually isn’t clear whether these “Catholic priests” are even priests at all, since they fail to explain whether they have their own validly ordained (schismatic) bishop who can in turn validly (but of course illicitly) ordain priests.  It appears that in order to become a “Catholic priest,” they ask you to fill out this “Application for Ordination”— which, needless to say, is not how the Catholic seminary system works.

As we saw in “How Can You Tell a Real Priest From a Fake?” there unfortunately are plenty of men out there calling themselves “Catholic priests,” when in reality they are not truly Catholic—and sometimes are not truly priests, either!  It should be obvious that no Catholic can ever marry validly in this sort of sham “Catholic” wedding.

In Japan, which as we all know is a largely non-Christian country, it has become fashionable for couples to marry in a pseudo-Christian/Catholic ceremony.  Apparently many Japanese merely like the aesthetic aspects of a traditional western Christian wedding, in a “church” with stained glass and an altar, and a faux “cleric” who is often dressed like a Catholic priest!  These Japanese spouses aren’t interested in a Catholic (or protestant, for that matter) wedding per se; they simply like the optics.

Canonically, there’s no difference between getting married in a faux-Catholic wedding in Japan, and being married by a member of the group that Emma mentions.  Sure, it looks like a Catholic wedding… but just like the Japanese ceremonies, it is nothing more than an act.

As Emma rightly pointed out, if her Catholic friend wants to marry a man who has been divorced, the Church will not permit it unless his previous marriage has been proven null.  On top of that, as we saw in “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” absent highly unusual circumstances, no Catholic pastor will volunteer to celebrate a Catholic wedding “in a hotel or some other place that’s not a church.”  Taken together, these issues should constitute a sure tip-off that something here is gravely amiss.

One has to wonder how many unsuspecting Catholics have been fooled into thinking that they’ve been married in a “real” Catholic wedding ceremony performed by someone from this group!  An authentic Catholic priest will not hesitate to tell you what diocese he’s from—or, if he’s a member of a religious institute, what diocese has invited his institute into its territory.  This is public information, and there is absolutely no reason why any genuine Catholic cleric would ever be less than forthcoming about it.  And if Emma’s friend had found a legitimate Catholic priest to celebrate her wedding correctly, her own pastor wouldn’t be telling her that it can’t be done!  Emma is absolutely right that something is very wrong here.  If her friend is “married” by someone from this allegedly “Catholic” group, hers will not be a valid marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

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