Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?

Q:  My fiancé and I have been engaged for about a year, and long ago we had planned to marry on April 25.  As you can probably imagine, our parish priest cancelled the wedding entirely, citing a directive from the bishop that all weddings are postponed indefinitely because of the virus.

In our locale, the government says you can have events with up to 20 people present.  So we argued with the priest that this was unjust, and expressed our willingness to have a drastically scaled-down wedding, with no guests except a couple of witnesses … [but] he is afraid of the bishop.  So here we are.  We already completed the marriage-preparation course and the priest had told us everything is in order….

Since our parish priest is refusing to marry us, even though he had previously said nothing stood in the way, can we ask another priest in another parish/diocese to marry us instead?  Would it be valid and licit?  What would you suggest?  –Alexis

A:  If any Catholic bishop tries to tell you that his illegal denial of Mass and the sacraments to the faithful is somehow “for their good,” you might ask him how anyone could morally justify the scenario in which Alexis and her future husband currently find themselves.  Around the world, the cancellation of our sacramental life by many bishops “because of the virus” has become almost a joke.  If civil authorities and their medical experts have determined that a gathering of 20 people does not pose a significant health risk in their region, then on what grounds does a diocesan bishop insist that it does?

Alexis and her fiancé are both Catholics, and they both live in the same parish.  Parts of her original question have been omitted for brevity’s sake, but it is clear that they had already completed all the marriage-preparation requirements (cc. 1063-1067; see also “When Can the Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?” for more on this) to the satisfaction of their pastor.  That’s why they had already set the date, which now has come and gone, for their wedding.

In accord with canonical form, the couple was going to have a Catholic wedding ceremony celebrated by the priest of their parish.  We have looked at the concept of canonical form many times before (see “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” and “Discovering an Impediment Right Before the Wedding,” among others), but in short, a marriage involving at least one Catholic must be celebrated in a Catholic ceremony; in the presence of either the diocesan bishop, the parish priest, or a priest or deacon delegated by either one of them; and in the presence of two witnesses (c. 1108.1).  So it appears that Alexis and her husband-to-be had arranged everything correctly for a Catholic wedding.

In recent weeks it has been emphasized repeatedly in this space that the Catholic faithful have a right to receive the sacraments (cf. c. 843.1), and the sacrament of matrimony is no exception.  In fact, the Catholic Church has always held that marriage is a natural right, whether you’re Catholic or not.  The desire to seek out a member of the opposite sex, and to have children with him/her, is a natural, normal, healthy part of being human!  Speaking broadly, human beings can marry regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof, which is why the Catholic Church (as a general rule) recognizes marriages between two non-Catholics that are celebrated in non-Catholic ceremonies.

Consequently, since the bishop and the parish priest of Alexis and her fiancé are now refusing to marry them—after already preparing them for the sacrament and telling them that they were indeed ready for it—this isn’t objectionable “just” because two Catholics are being denied a sacrament, as outrageous as that is in itself.  There’s even more to it, because there is an additional aspect of the refusal that one can argue is contrary to nature.

One can also argue quite easily that morally, this sort of indefinite postponement of their wedding constitutes an invitation to temptation.  After all, the couple were planning to live together as man and wife after their marriage on April 25—but now they’re being told they have to continue living apart until some unknown point when their wedding can finally be celebrated.  That doesn’t amount to a sacrifice which is humanly impossible to make, of course; but it has created a situation in which they might possibly fall into sin, something which would never have happened if they had been married as planned.

In short, Alexis and her fiancé want to be married as soon as possible, and under the circumstances their desire is entirely warranted!  So if they can find another priest somewhere who is willing to celebrate their wedding, can he marry them validly?

A big part of the answer is found in canon 1109, which tells us that by virtue of their office, the local Ordinary and the parish priest validly celebrate the marriages of not only their own subjects, but also of non-subjects, provided that at least one of the spouses is a Latin Catholic.  There’s quite a lot going on in this canon, so let’s unpack it piece by piece.

First of all, this canon speaks of clergy who can validly celebrate weddings by virtue of their office.  This means that they don’t need permission from any higher authority to marry anybody.  It also means that nobody can take the ability to celebrate a valid marriage away from them, without actually removing them from the office they hold (which in the case of parish priests requires cause, and is a complex process).

Next, canon 1109 refers to the “local Ordinary.”  This term, which is explained in canon 134.1 and .2, includes the diocesan bishop himself (who in Alexis’ case refuses to allow their wedding, so he isn’t an option!), the diocesan Vicar General (defined in c. 475), and any Episcopal Vicars (defined in c. 476) which the diocese might have.  If Alexis or her husband-to-be happens to know one of them and he is willing to marry them despite the bishop’s prohibition—which isn’t too likely, to be honest—he can do so validly.

Canon 1109 also speaks of the parish priest.  As we already know, Alexis and her fiancé were supposed to be married by the pastor of their parish, who has the authority to do this by virtue of his office.  But note that he’s not the only parish priest who could marry them validly; canon 1109 indicates that the pastor of any parish could do so, provided that the wedding takes place in the territory of his own parish.  If this is getting confusing, an example should serve to clarify things.

Let’s say that Hillary is a member of St. Matthew’s parish, and the parish of her fiancé Martin is Our Lady of Fatima.  Either the pastor of St. Matthew’s or the pastor of Our Lady of Fatima would ordinarily be the one who should celebrate their wedding (c. 1115; see “Can Catholics Marry in Any Parish Church They Want?” for more on this).  But let’s say that Hillary and Martin both used to live in St. Anne’s parish, and they first met at Mass there; and now they want to get married at St. Anne’s, in commemoration of that fact.

Assuming that he’s willing to do it, the pastor of St. Anne’s can validly marry Hillary and Martin—so long as the wedding is celebrated at St. Anne’s.  In other words, the pastor of St. Anne’s cannot travel outside the territory of his own parish and validly celebrate Hillary and Martin’s wedding somewhere else, solely with the authority he has as pastor of St. Anne’s parish (although he could do that if he received delegation, which is a separate matter that doesn’t apply in this scenario).

Returning to the final phrase of canon 1109, any parish priest can celebrate the wedding of two non-parishioners, so long as at least one of them is a Latin Catholic.  We have discussed eastern Catholic Churches many times before, such as in “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” and “Why Don’t We Marry Validly Before a Ukrainian Catholic Priest? (Eastern Catholics, Part I).”  But since both Alexis and her fiancé are Latin Catholics, this caveat does not pertain to them.

So, if our couple can find another parish whose pastor is willing to marry them under these highly unusual circumstances, and they can travel to his parish and celebrate the wedding there, the wedding would be valid.  There is one catch, though, which is found in the final sentence of the abovementioned canon 1115: if neither spouse is a member of the parish where their wedding is to take place, their own parish priest is supposed to give his permission for the marriage to be celebrated there.

The word permission used here tells us that this is a matter of liceity, not of validity.  The distinction between valid and licit was explained at length in “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” and “How Do You Fix an Illicit Sacrament?” but in a nutshell, if a marriage is valid, the couple is truly married in the eyes of the Church.  If, on the other hand, a valid marriage is found to have been celebrated illicitly, that means that the marriage really did take place (so they’re really married), but some law was violated in the process (meaning that something happened at the wedding which wasn’t legally supposed to).

So if Alexis and her future husband can find a pastor of another parish who agrees to celebrate their wedding, for liceity they are supposed to ask their own pastor for permission to have the wedding there.  Alexis tells us that her priest “is afraid of the bishop,” which might mean that he wouldn’t dare give permission for his parishioners to marry elsewhere.  But at the same time, it could also be that their parish priest feels terrible about what is happening to the poor couple, and he may actually be happy to agree that they be married somewhere else (with the assumption that news of the wedding will never even reach the bishop’s ears).  Given the chaotic and complicated circumstances in which we Catholics are living these days, both are quite possible.

Speaking generally, far too many Catholics have a tendency to be dismissive about matters of liceity, on the grounds that “at least it was valid, and that’s the most important thing, right?”  Back in pre-virus days, when life as a Catholic was more or less “normal,” that was hardly the correct attitude to take—because when celebrating a sacrament, every Catholic should always want to follow the law to the best of his ability.

Now, however, there are countless Catholics all over the world who are illegally (that is, illicitly!) being prevented from attending Mass and receiving the sacraments by the clergy who are both morally and legally required to help them, as was discussed in detail in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Mass Completely?” and “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?”  As the old saying goes, “desperate times call for desperate measures,” and in order to get the sacraments which they need and to which they have a right, the faithful are often finding it necessary to find work-arounds and back-door solutions which ordinarily would not be justifiable (see “Can I Attend an SSPX Church, Since My Parish is Closed?” for a good example of this).  If Alexis and her fiancé can’t get the permission of their parish priest to celebrate their wedding elsewhere, but they can find another  Catholic parish where the pastor is willing to marry them … it would be very difficult to justify discouraging them from going ahead with it.

It’s oh, so easy to hide behind laws and regulations and other technicalities, declaring that the faithful must not do X and cannot have access to Y—and totally forget that the subjects of the laws and regulations are real people.  We have to remember that the Church’s laws exist in order to help us, not to tie our lives in knots by preventing us from doing what we should.  Canon law follows theology, and since the Church holds that marriage “between the baptized has been raised by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament” (c. 1055.1), and requires Catholics to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony … it only stands to reason that Catholics who have fulfilled all the Church’s requirements and established to their clergy’s satisfaction that they are ready for marriage, should be allowed to do just that.

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