When Can the Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?

Q: My 26-year-old daughter is pregnant.  She has been dating her boyfriend for over 4 years.  They now want to marry when she completes the first trimester.  All their documents are in place.  The parish priest will not grant them this request of marrying them by [a date less than two months from now].  They will most willingly attend the marriage preparation course.

The Church instead of bringing them together in the Lord Jesus Christ, is pushing them away from the Church.  How and what can we do to escalate this issue so they can marry in the Catholic Church on [the abovementioned date, less than two months from now]? –Anthea

A: As we have seen many times before in this space, canon 843.1 tells us that Catholics have a right to the sacraments—so long as they opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them (see, for example, “Can You Be Refused Holy Communion if You Kneel?” for more on this).  But in this scenario, it does not appear that the priest is actually denying that right; rather, he is saying that the person(s) desirous of receiving a sacrament have to wait longer than they want to.  Can he do that?

Anthea tells us that her daughter has been involved with her boyfriend for years, and since the daughter is now pregnant, they want to get married in the Church.  For unknown reasons they have decided that they want the wedding to take place “when she completes the first trimester,” which is only a few weeks away—and the parish priest is refusing to do this.

As most Catholics are well aware, these days an unacceptably high percentage of marriages fail.  That’s why the Church throughout the world has established preparation-programs for couples who are planning to get married.  Their precise nature and length of time might vary from place to place; but they are all designed to educate the engaged couple about the Church’s teaching on the sacrament of matrimony and the obligations that marriage entails, and to impress upon them the need for maturity and discretion when embarking on this new, lifelong commitment.

These marriage-prep programs are also consistent with canon law on this matter.  It is the pastor of the couple’s parish who is responsible for their spiritual wellbeing, and so it’s not surprising that the parish priest is obliged to see to it that prospective spouses are personally prepared before entering marriage, so they are disposed to the holiness and also the responsibilities of their new state in life (c. 1063 n. 3).  In turn, the diocesan bishop is required to ensure that this assistance to couples in his diocese is duly organized (c. 1064).

On top of this spiritual/pastoral preparation for marriage, canon 1066 states that it must also be established in advance that nothing stands in the way of a marriage’s valid and licit celebration.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for a more in-depth discussion of the distinction between validity and liceity.)  The parish priest needs to be sure that there exist no impediments to a valid Catholic marriage, on the part of either the bride or the groom.  Traditionally, this has involved—among plenty of other things—the publications of marriage banns, as we saw in “Why Doesn’t the Church Publish Marriage Banns Any More?

Needless to say, all these preparations take time.  How much time is required can vary widely, from diocese to diocese and from parish to parish; but it’s pretty safe to say that nobody should expect to get married in a Catholic ceremony without completing a lot of directly relevant tasks first.

In the case of Anthea’s daughter, there appears to be even more reason why a Catholic wedding shouldn’t be rushed, because it’s painfully obvious that she and her boyfriend have not been following the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality. As the Catechism tells us,

Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children.  (CCC 2353)

It is entirely natural that the pastor of their parish might want to meet with them personally and discuss the Church’s teachings at some length, so as to find out their current spiritual state.  If he finds that one or both of them don’t take the Church seriously, and/or don’t understand the married state in the way that the Church does, then it is only prudent for the priest to require the couple to spend more time learning about their faith in general, and about the Catholic sacrament of matrimony in particular.  After all, it would make no sense for the priest to permit them to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, if it’s clear to him that they wouldn’t be exchanging valid matrimonial consent as the Church understands it!

Depending on what the priest finds out, this part of the process could potentially take Anthea’s daughter and boyfriend longer than it ordinarily does.  Yet at the same time, Anthea explains that “they want to marry when she completes the first trimester.”  Anthea offers no explanation for this unusual deadline, which has no significance in either canon or civil law.  Theoretically, if marrying by a certain point in the pregnancy had some specific effect (the legitimacy of the unborn baby, for instance), the couple’s desire to have the wedding by that date might be understandable.  But it doesn’t, and thus this deadline seems to be totally arbitrary—and in any case is heavily outweighed by the Church’s well founded concerns that a Catholic marriage be celebrated validly, and with due spiritual preparation.

It’s not clear why Anthea would suggest that the need to take time to do a Catholic wedding right would amount to “pushing them away from the Church.”  Note that the pastor is not telling them they can’t get married at all; he’s telling them that they can’t marry so quickly, by the deadline which they themselves have randomly set.  Consequently, there is no justification here for complaining about the priest’s position, or for “escalating this issue” (whatever that means).  What Anthea’s daughter and boyfriend need to do is to cooperate with the parish priest in fulfilling all the Church’s requirements for marriage preparation, and to focus on getting their spiritual houses in order before embarking on their new life together.  As the old saying goes, “if it’s worth doing something, it’s worth doing it well,” and when it comes to Catholic marriage, doing it well necessarily takes some time.

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