Getting Married on One’s Deathbed

Q:  Sometimes people get married in the hospital, because one of the spouses is dying and they want to be married before that person dies.  I’m assuming that in these unusual circumstances the Church’s strict canon laws can get relaxed.  Is that accurate?  I mean, they’re never going to actually live together like a married couple, so it strikes me that a lot of rules shouldn’t even apply….

Is it fair to say when one spouse is dying, a couple can sometimes marry in a Catholic ceremony even though they wouldn’t be permitted to marry if both were healthy?

I believe you have mentioned in other contexts that there were exceptions to canon law in danger of death…. –Sophie

A: People do indeed marry sometimes on the deathbed of one of the spouses.  In some cases, this is for purely legal/financial reasons.  Even people with no religious faith at all can appreciate that marriage brings with it certain tax and inheritance benefits/rights under civil law.  In other cases, a couple might want a deathbed marriage in order to legitimize their offspring before it’s too late.

But there are also spiritual reasons for wishing to marry someone before he/she has died.  For example, if a couple was already planning to marry before one of them unexpectedly finds him/herself at death’s door, it is typically important to them both that they become husband and wife for even a brief time, “until death do us part.”

As a rule, as we saw in “When Can a Parish Priest Postpone a Wedding?” preparing for the sacrament of matrimony in the Church takes time.  And there’s a good reason for all the delay: 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, these preparations cannot be done overnight.  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 ordinarily, nobody should expect to get married in a Catholic ceremony without completing a lot of directly relevant tasks first.

But as Sophie reasonably points out, if the death of one of the spouses is imminent, the couple won’t necessarily be living together as husband and wife anyway!  So why would all this time-consuming marriage prep and investigation be needed in their case, right?  And Sophie is spot-on when she observes that the Church does indeed jettison some of its liturgical and/or canonical requirements when a person is in danger of death—see “Can a Baby be Baptized Against the Parents’ Wishes?” for one example of this.

There are several canons in the code which specifically address the scenario which Sophie describes.  One of them is canon 1079.1, which tells us this:

When danger of death threatens, the local Ordinary can dispense his own subjects, wherever they are residing, and all who are actually present in his territory, both from the form to be observed in the celebration of marriage, and from each and every impediment of ecclesiastical law, whether public or occult, with the exception of the impediment arising from the sacred order of priesthood.  (Emphasis added)

Let’s take a look at the various components of this canon, with particular focus on the bolded parts.

As was discussed in “Our Priest Cancelled Our Wedding, So Who Else Can Validly Marry Us?”  the term “local Ordinary” is defined in canon 134.1 and .2, and includes the diocesan Bishop himself, the diocesan Vicar General, and any Episcopal Vicars that the diocese might have.  Each one of these men has the authority to grant dispensations to people of the diocese (even if the people happen to be outside the diocese at the moment), and to Catholics who are not members of the diocese but who happen to be there.  (See “When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?” for more on the granting of dispensations).  This broad scope of their authority can be extremely relevant to the specific scenario we’re discussing, if a gravely ill Catholic is in a hospital located outside of his own diocese.

Next, note that canon 1079.1 does not say that the local Ordinary can dispense the couple from absolutely everything—far from it.  The bolded phrases above indicate that there are two significant elements which can be dispensed: (1) the canonical form for marriage, and (2) impediments of ecclesiastical law.  There are solid theological reasons why these, and only these, aspects of Catholic marriage can be dispensed in danger of death.

It’s vital to understand the distinction between (a) those elements of a Catholic wedding which are of purely human origin, and (b) those which are of divine origin, or are otherwise intrinsically connected to the Catholic Church’s understanding of what marriage is all about.  That probably sounds pretty abstract, so let’s look at a couple of concrete examples of marriage impediments to see how this works.

As was discussed in “How Did My Ex Remarry in the Church, Since We Never Got an Annulment?” and “Discovering an Impediment Right Before the Wedding,” canon 1085 spells out what’s known as the impediment of prior bond.  If you’re already married to one person, you are impeded from validly marrying another.  The Catholic Church teaches that you cannot validly marry again while your first spouse is living.  Only if the Church determines that the first marriage was invalid for some reason, can you marry someone else in the Church.  This impediment wasn’t merely invented by some human authority in ages past; it is grounded in what our Lord Himself said about the indissolubility of marriage:

Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator “made them male and female” and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.  (Matt. 19:4-6)

The concept that a person cannot marry B, if he’s already validly married to A, is thus of divine law.  And the Church will tell you that it therefore binds everyone, not just Catholics!  This is why no church authority can dispense anyone from the impediment of prior bond, and permit him to marry another—not even in danger of death.

Now contrast the impediment of prior bond found in canon 1085, with the impediment of affinity described in canon 1092.  We took a look at the issue of affinity—which refers to relationships created by marriage, otherwise known as in-laws—in “Can In-Laws Marry in the Church?” but in short, the Church considers the impediment of affinity to be a matter of ecclesiastical law, not of divine law.  In other words, this marriage impediment was created in generations past by church officials, and was not given to us by God Himself.  Thus if a widow wants to marry her father-in-law (or a widower his mother-in-law) in a Catholic wedding ceremony, it’s possible to get a dispensation to do so.  But that’s only because this impediment is of purely human origin.

So we can see that not all marriage impediments are created equal.  And with regard to canon 1079.1, in the case of a couple wishing to marry in danger of death, the local Ordinary could certainly dispense from the impediment of affinity, if it existed—but not from the impediment of prior bond.  That’s because the one impediment is of ecclesiastical law, while the other is a matter of divine law.  The same principle holds true for all other marriage impediments (see cc. 1083-1094).

Let’s go back now and take another look at the wording of canon 1079.1.  In danger of death of one of the spouses, the local Ordinary can also dispense from canonical form—another aspect of Catholic marriage which is of purely human origin.  (Canonical form has been addressed repeatedly in this space, in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” as well as “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” and “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” among many others.)  Canon 1108 describes canonical form, telling us that for validity, a marriage involving at least one Catholic spouse must be celebrated with a Catholic wedding ceremony—following all the Church’s liturgical requirements—and be conducted by either the parish priest or another cleric deputed by him.  Under ordinary circumstances, when neither spouse is dying, failure to observe canonical form invalidates a marriage, if at least one party to it is a Catholic.

Most Catholics probably don’t realize that the existing canonical form for marriage is actually a relatively new development in the 2000-year history of the Church.  During the protestant reformation, the Church found it necessary to assert her authority in the face of new, non-Catholic ministers—in many cases, renegade Catholics who had rejected church teachings—who claimed that they could lawfully officiate at Christian marriages.  In 1563, at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church officially rejected these claims, and laid out the canonical form required for the valid celebration of a Catholic wedding—and it’s the same canonical form that we find in canon 1108 today.

Since the canonical form for marriage was created by human beings in the 16th century, it’s clearly not of divine origin.  That’s why it can be, and often is, dispensed (see the abovementioned articles, as well as “Can I Attend the Marriage of a Catholic Outside the Church?” for more on this issue).

So, to cite only one example, if the bride or groom is dying in the hospital, or in some kind of nursing home or hospice for terminally ill patients, etc., the local Ordinary can dispense the couple from canonical form and permit them to marry there, rather than in a Catholic church—as is ordinarily a required part of a Catholic wedding ceremony (see “Does a Catholic Wedding Have to be Held in a Catholic Church?” for more on this).

Thus far, we can see that there’s really quite a lot that can potentially be dispensed, when a couple wishes to marry in the Church in danger of death!  But the Church does even more to facilitate such a wedding, as can be seen from canon 1068.  This canon asserts that in danger of death, if other proofs are not available, it suffices that the spouses affirm that they are baptized and free of any impediment.  What does this mean in practice?  Once again, to make it easier let’s consider a concrete example.

Imagine that James and Teresa have decided to get married.  But before they can meet with the parish priest to begin the necessary preparations, Teresa is involved in a horrific car accident and is in the intensive-care unit with grave internal injuries.  She is occasionally conscious; but the odds of her pulling through are considered to be extremely slim, and in fact she could die at any moment.

Let’s say that in one of her periods of consciousness, Teresa tells James that if she has to die, she at least wants to die as his wife—so James quickly contacts the parish priest and asks him to marry them.  Father knows that James, his parishioner, is a model Catholic, and has never been married; but he has never met Teresa before and knows absolutely nothing about her.

Ordinarily, among other things, Teresa would be obliged to provide the parish priest with her own baptismal certificate, the notations on which should indicate among other things that she is not already married (as discussed at length in “Canon Law and Marriage Records”).  This is a logical and very important part of the preparation process: as canon 1066 tells us, before a Catholic marriage is celebrated, it must be evident that nothing stands in the way of its valid and licit celebration.  But let’s imagine that there’s simply no time for this: Teresa was baptized in a Catholic parish in another country, and getting a copy of her baptismal certificate will take at least several weeks.

If she weren’t at death’s door, the priest would simply tell the couple to get a copy of that baptismal certificate and then get back to him.  But under these emergency circumstances, Father can accept Teresa’s statement that yes, she is a baptized Catholic, and no, she has never been married before to anyone else; and as per canon 1068, that will be sufficient.  The emergency wedding of James and Teresa can be celebrated without her providing any additional information about her baptism.

By this point, it should be clear that the Church bends over backwards to enable Catholics to marry when one spouse is dying—but there’s even more.  Canon 1116.1 n.1 states that in danger of death, it’s possible to marry in the presence of witnesses only, if no cleric who is lawfully able to celebrate the wedding is present, or can be approached without grave inconvenience.  How does this canon apply in real life?

Well, as we’ve already seen above, canonical form involves the celebration of a wedding by a Catholic cleric who is either the parish priest, or deputed by him.  Canonical form also requires the presence of two witnesses, for obvious reasons: they will subsequently be able to confirm, if necessary, that the wedding did indeed take place.  Under normal circumstances, the absence of two witnesses (see “Can the Pope Validly Marry People on an Airplane?” for more on this requirement) or the absence of a Catholic priest/deacon who is authorized to celebrate the wedding, will invalidate the marriage.  But canon 1116.1 n.1 isn’t intended for normal circumstances—on the contrary, it pertains to extraordinary, and thus uncommon, situations.

Let’s imagine that Elizabeth and George are engaged and have been planning their Catholic wedding.  There are no impediments of divine law (as was already discussed above) that would prevent them from marrying validly.  But let’s say that there’s an earthquake, and the two of them are trapped in the basement level of a building which now lies in rubble over their heads.  Several other people are down there in the basement with them.  While they might not be dealing with life-threatening injuries, they don’t know whether anyone above ground even realizes that they’re down there, and is making efforts to dig them out—and they can tell that their oxygen is running out.

Elizabeth and George understand that they’re most likely going to die very soon, and they wish to die as a married couple.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t happen to be a Catholic priest handy in the basement at the moment!  In such dire circumstances, the couple can exchange their vows in just the presence of two of the others down there in the basement with them.  As per canon 1116.1 n. 1, the Church regards this as a valid Catholic marriage.

It should be obvious that this sort of situation doesn’t happen terribly often.  On top of that, if nobody involved in the last-minute wedding survives, it’s quite possible that the rest of us will have no idea that the marriage ever took place.  But God will know, and under these circumstances that’s quite enough.  The Church has made this provision in the code, as extreme as it is, in order to ensure that the sacrament of Catholic matrimony is available even to those Catholics who are literally at death’s door, and thus genuinely unable to celebrate a “proper” Catholic wedding.

The Catholic Church’s concern for the wellbeing of souls is evident.  As we’ve seen, the code demonstrates a desire to provide the sacrament of marriage to Catholics who are disposed to receive it, and not prevented by law from doing so.  Sometimes situations arise which are outside the control of the prospective spouses—such as grave illness, or other emergency circumstances which put one/both of them in imminent danger of death—and the Church will willingly jettison aspects of its marriage preparations and its wedding ceremony which aren’t considered to be matters of divine law.  Yes, the Church has lots of rules and laws; but the good of souls is always paramount.

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