When Can You Have a Catholic Wedding Without a Mass?

Q: I’m engaged to an evangelical Christian.  He’s very open to the Catholic Church though, he attends Mass with me sometimes and is okay with raising our children Catholic.

The problem is his evangelical parents, who are convinced that Catholics worship statues and have blood-sacrifice rituals, etc.  They said that they won’t come to the wedding because a Catholic Mass involves cannibalism and idolatry.  My fiancé and I both tried to reason with them, but nothing we say does any good, they just don’t want to hear it.

We were already far along in our wedding planning, and had booked the wedding-date at my parish… naturally my fiancé wants his parents to be present at his wedding, so everything came to a halt.  I met with my pastor about this and I was so stressed-out that I started crying, and the pastor was trying to comfort me.

He said we can have the wedding without a Mass, if that will appease them.  My fiancé spoke with them and they will come provided that they aren’t being asked to attend any “satanic sacrifice”… my pastor insists that this is permissible, but now I am wondering if that’s definitely true?  I’ve never been to a Catholic wedding that wasn’t part of a Mass.  –Jennifer

A: We have seen many, many times in this space (in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” and “How Does the Presence of a Priest at My Non-Catholic Wedding Make it Okay?” among others) that Catholics are required to marry in accord with canonical form (c. 1108) for validity.  A marriage involving at least one Catholic must take place (a) before either the local bishop or the pastor of the parish, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them; and (b) in the presence of two witnesses.  If a Catholic marries in a ceremony that does not follow canonical form, without having obtained a dispensation from form from the diocesan bishop in advance, then the marriage is invalid.

As Jennifer herself indicates, many Catholics simply take it for granted that there’s always a Mass with a Catholic wedding.  But note that canonical form does not require that a Catholic wedding be celebrated in the context of a Mass.  In fact, the Code of Canon Law does not even address this issue, as it does not pertain to the validity of the sacrament.  The Church’s official liturgical books, which are to be followed in the celebration of all Catholic sacraments (c. 846.1) specify further exactly what the rite of marriage requires.

The full Sacramentary is not online, but a text containing the current Order of Celebrating Matrimony can be found here.  The Introduction ultimately tells us the answer to Jennifer’s question, but the answer comes in several stages.

First, the Introduction discusses the marriage ceremony for a wedding that the Church views as the norm: a marriage between two Catholics.

Marriage should normally be celebrated within Mass. Nevertheless, with due regard both for the necessities of pastoral care and for the way in which the prospective spouses and those present participate in the life of the Church, the pastor should decide whether it would be preferable to propose that Marriage be celebrated within or outside of Mass. (29)

So we can see right away that even when both the bride and groom are Catholics, the Church foresees the possibility that in some situations it might be determined that having a wedding without a Mass is better for some reason.  We saw just such a situation in “Can the Pope Validly Marry People on an Airplane?” when Pope Francis decided, as he told a press conference later, that he judged it prudent to marry the couple right then and there, because “waiting until tomorrow would perhaps have meant waiting another ten years.”  Under such circumstances it is certainly possible to have a Catholic wedding ceremony without a Mass.

At the opposite extreme, the Order of Celebrating Matrimony tells us what should happen when a Catholic marries a non-Christian (a term which includes practicing members of non-Christian faiths like Muslims or Jews, as well as atheists, agnostics, or others who have no religious beliefs at all).  As was discussed in “If a Catholic Marries a Non-Christian, How is it a Sacrament?” and “Catholics in Non-Sacramental Marriages,” a Catholic can obtain a dispensation allowing him/her to marry a non-Christian; but the marriage will be a non-sacramental one, because a person must first be baptized before he/she can receive any of the other sacraments.  These marriages are normally not to be celebrated within the context of a Mass, and the Order of Celebrating Matrimony includes a different rite which is to be used for these weddings.

When it comes to a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, the Introduction of the same Order of Celebrating Matrimony tells us what is ordinarily expected to happen:

If a Marriage takes place between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic, the rite for celebrating Matrimony without Mass should be used. If, however, the situation warrants it, the rite for celebrating Matrimony within Mass may be used, with the consent of the local Ordinary; but with regard to admission of the non-Catholic party to Eucharistic Communion, the norms issued for various cases are to be observed. (36)

As we can see, the norm is that a Catholic wedding like Jennifer’s is not celebrated with a Mass.  That said, however, the local bishop can—and often does—permit that such weddings may take place within a Mass if he sees fit.  Note that individual dioceses might have their own, local policies on this subject, because cultural circumstances can vary dramatically in different parts of the world.  Since non-Catholics cannot normally receive the Eucharist (see “Can a Non-Catholic Receive Holy Communion in a Catholic Church?” for more on this), the notion that a mixed marriage would be celebrated during a Mass could be very confusing in some countries; while in others it is perfectly understood and accepted that the Catholic spouse can receive Communion during the wedding Mass, but the non-Catholic spouse (as well as non-Catholic guests) cannot.

But note that if a diocesan bishop allows the marriage of a Catholic to a baptized non-Catholic to take place within the context of a Mass, this doesn’t mean that having a Mass is actually a requirement.  Thus what Jennifer’s parish priest is telling her is absolutely correct: her Catholic wedding can certainly be celebrated in church without a Mass—and given the hostility of her future in-laws to the concept of attending a Catholic Mass, this is an obvious example of a particular situation when not having a wedding Mass is definitely preferable.

So now Jennifer has her answer.  The ritual that is used for a Catholic wedding sometimes includes a Mass, but sometimes it doesn’t—and this is an issue that does not pertain to the canonical form of marriage.  Yes, Catholic clerics who celebrate weddings should be following the instructions contained in the Church’s liturgical books on this specific subject, and also following the directives of the local bishop (if he has issued any); but they do not have any direct bearing on a Catholic marriage’s validity.

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