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Marriage Outside the Church

My daughter and her fiance are planning to be married in a Protestant Church. My daughter is a Catholic, and her fianc? was raised Catholic but belongs to that Church. My husband refuses to attend the wedding because he says that this is wrong. Is it? -- A reader in Alexandria

This question has several facets that must be dealt with to derive a "straight answer." First of all, in the Sacrament of Marriage, a baptized Christian man exchanges vows with a baptized Christian woman. Before Almighty God, they promise to each other a love that is faithful, permanent, exclusive, self-sacrificing, and life-giving. Through marriage, a couple now enters into a new public state of life both in the eyes of the Church and society; therefore, the celebration of the marriage rightfully ought to be public with the vows exchanged before a priest (or other authorized witness of the Church), the witnesses (usually the Best Man and Maid of Honor), and the faithful gathered for the ceremony (Cf. Catechism, #1663).

Given this basis, a Catholic (either baptized as a Catholic or later entering the Catholic Church after having already been baptized in another Christian denomination) is bound to be married in the Catholic Church. The Church in which one has been baptized and confirmed, receives Holy Communion, and professes faith, ought to be the Church in which one is married. Consequently, whether a Catholic is marrying a Catholic or a baptized non-Catholic Christian, the normal expectation is for the marriage to take place in the Catholic Church.

However, when a Catholic is marrying a baptized non-Catholic Christian, legitimate circumstances may arise when the couple would like to be married in the Church of the non-Catholic. Such circumstances include recognizing a special or long-standing relationship with a minister, or preventing family alienation. In such case, the couple would complete the regular Catholic marriage preparation. The Catholic party would also attest to his intention of not leaving the Catholic Church, and of promising to baptize and to raise the children in the Catholic faith. The non-Catholic party would be informed of these promises, attest to understanding these promises, and in turn promise not to interfere in their fulfillment.

After the preparation and the attainment of these promises, the priest would petition the bishop on behalf of the couple for a "Dispensation from Canonical Form," meaning permission for the couple to be married outside of the Catholic Church. The Church requires a dispensation because the bishop, as shepherd of the diocese and guardian of souls, must insure that the couple is prepared as best as possible for marriage and is ready to enter into Holy Matrimony. With such permission, the wedding is valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church. (Confer Code of Canon Law, #1124-25).

For example, when I was associate pastor at St. Mary Parish in Old Town, I once prepared a couple for marriage where the uncle of the bride was a Presbyterian minister. After the couple completed the necessary Catholic wedding preparation and made the required the promises, I petitioned Bishop Keating for a Dispensation from Canonical Form, which he granted. The couple was married in the Presbyterian Meeting House next door to St. Mary's. The uncle-Presbyterian minister officiated at the ceremony, and I too was present to offer a blessing. This marriage was fully recognized by the Church.

However, if a Catholic enters marriage outside of the Catholic Church without the necessary dispensation, then the marriage is considered invalid and is not recognized by the Church. Moreover, this action places the person in a state of mortal sin. For instance, if a Catholic marrying either another Catholic or anyone else just decides to be married in some other Church or by a Justice of the Peace, that marriage is invalid. While such a marriage may have legal standing in the eyes of the state, it has no legitimate standing in the eyes of the Church.

Just as an aside: if a person who was baptized as a Catholic has formally renounced his Catholic faith by joining another Church or by some other public declaration, he would not be bound by these rules since he technically is no longer a Catholic. In all, a sincere, practicing Catholic ought to want to be married in the Catholic Church or ought to obtain the proper permission to be married outside of it.

Therefore, the father of the bride in this question is right: this attempt at marriage will be invalid and will jeopardize the souls of the couple. Perhaps the father's firmness and courage for standing for what is right will spark the couple to do what is right in the eyes of God and the Church.

Fr. Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.
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