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What are the rules for Catholic weddings?

When it comes to getting married in a Catholic church, there are certain rules about what can and cannot be done. In this blog, find answers to common questions, such as "If my fiance isn't Catholic, can we still get married in a Catholic Church?" and "Can we write our own vows?"

What are the rules for Catholic weddings

There are often specific questions or concerns that a couple has as they start to plan their wedding. If you have others which are not covered here, talk to your parish priest and he will clarify matters for you.

The references are taken from the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC).

My fiancé is a Muslim/Jehovah’s Witness/Atheist – can we still get married in the Catholic Church?

Yes. Many couples today marry someone of a different faith. If your future spouse is a non-Catholic Christian, this is referred to as a ‘mixed marriage’, and permission can be given by your bishop, which you would obtain via your parish priest (CIC 1125). If he/she is non-baptised (of another faith such as Islam or perhaps no faith at all), this is known as ‘disparity of cult’ (CIC 1086). A dispensation must be given in this instance, which is likewise obtained from your bishop through your parish priest; you will be able to marry once this is obtained. It is important to bear in mind the material covered in Chapter Five, however, particularly the risks posed to the Catholic party, and any future

children you may have, of lapsing from the practice of the faith. Be sure to discuss the importance of your faith with your fiancé(e), and the promise that you will make to raise your children in the Catholic Church. If they feel similarly strongly about raising your children in their particular faith, then you will need to have a serious discussion about the matter before proceeding further with your wedding plans.

My future spouse is not Catholic – can we have a Nuptial Mass?

Perhaps. Whether or not it is the best option, however, is a matter for discussion between the two of you and your parish priest. A wedding is part of the worship of the Church, and for two Catholics, having it take place in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist is a wonderful start to their marriage. While ordinarily a non-Catholic is not able to receive Holy Communion at a Catholic Mass, there is provision for this in exceptional cases (CIC 844.4), and the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in their document One Bread, One Body, have recognised situations where this may be appropriate. This may not be something your non-Catholic spouse wishes to do, however, and in addition to whether or not both bride and groom receive Communion, there are other aspects which you should take into consideration. If many of your guests are non-Catholic, a Nuptial Mass may not be understood or appreciated by many of the people present. If one party is a non-baptised Christian, however, the norms laid down by the many of the Bishops’ Conferences exclude the marriage from being celebrated within Mass. It is important to re-emphasise, though, that the rite of celebration of marriage outside of Mass is a full Catholic marriage liturgy.

Are we able to get married in a non-Catholic church?

Perhaps. In order to comply with the law of the Church, a wedding should take place in the parish church (CIC 1118.1), and if both parties are Catholic it should present no problem to do so. However, where one of the parties is non-Catholic, a dispensation from canonical form can be given to enable you to marry in another church. There should be a sufficiently good reason, not that you prefer a prettier church for example. Such reasons might include a Church of England bride who wishes to marry in her own parish church, or one of the parties’ father may be a Baptist minister whom the couple would like to conduct the wedding. A dispensation to marry in another Christian church may be obtained from the bishop on recommendation of your Catholic parish priest. In this case, the officiating non-Catholic minister is empowered by the bishop’s dispensation to receive the couple’s consent on behalf of the Church. (CIC 1108.2). In addition, Catholic marriage instruction would be carried out by the Catholic parish priest in accordance with the requirements of the diocese. This would ensure that both parties are suitably prepared and aware of the essential properties of marriage (CIC 1125.3).

Can we get married on the beach?

No. While CIC 1118.2 makes provision for the bishop to permit a wedding to take place in “another suitable place”, there must be a grave reason for asking to do so. An example of such a dispensation from Church Law (canonical form) might be at a hospital bedside perhaps, where one of the parties is gravely ill. However, sentimental or aesthetic reasons are not sufficient. It may be a romantic thought to get married where you proposed, or where your family and friends can enjoy a wonderful holiday for less than the price of an English wedding. But it is important to bear in mind that a Catholic marriage is a solemn promise made before God whereupon you ask his blessing. The appropriate place for a marriage to take place is in the house of God.

May we write our own vows?

No. Since a Catholic marriage has essential elements (unity, indissolubility and openness to children) it is important that the couple promise to enter into marriage as the Church understands it. Because of the utmost importance of consent, everyone must be clear that this consent has been declared. If the promises aren’t clear, or use wording that may appear to exclude one of these elements, the validity of the marriage may be called into question. Moreover, a Catholic wedding is a liturgical celebration, which is an action involving all of the people of God. It does not belong to us in that respect, and is therefore not open to changes which are of our own personal creation. The bond of communion between the members of the Church is seen in her “common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments” (CCC 815) – this unity would be hard to recognise if everyone started altering important parts of the liturgy. Bishop Villegas of the Philippines remarked that personal expressions “should not be mixed in with the Church’s liturgy because this diminishes, confuses, and spoils the action of Christ himself in the sacrament.” Personal testimonies and declarations of love could be written on the inside cover of the wedding programme perhaps, or form part of a speech at the reception.

I am Catholic and my future spouse is Church of England. Can we have a Church of England wedding with a Catholic blessing?

This is possible. The dispensation from Church Law must be given for you to marry in a Church of England church, and this means that by law the marriage must be conducted by a minister of the Church of England. It is a pastoral practice, however, for the Catholic priest to be invited to give the Nuptial Blessing at the end of the ceremony, as a gesture of support for the couple and a sign of Christian unity between believers of different Christian denominations. Your parish priest should be happy to do this if he is free on that date, and if you so wish.

Are all marriages in the Catholic Church sacramental?

No. Baptism is the gateway to all other sacraments (CCC 1213). Other sacraments cannot be received unless a person has first been baptised. However, as with mixed marriages between and a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, a dispensation for marriage is usually given by the bishop through his Chancellor or Vicar General upon application from the Catholic parish priest who is instructing you for marriage, and the marriage into which you will enter will be a valid marriage and a permanent union of husband and wife. It brings with it all the rights and responsibilities of a Christian marriage. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘natural bond marriage’, and is strengthened by the Lord with a sacred seal. Every valid marriage – sacramental or not – is an indissoluble, true marriage.

My fiancé(e) is divorced – are we able to be married in the Catholic Church?

Perhaps. If your fiancé(e)’s first marriage is not considered valid by the Catholic Church, then you can be married in the Church. However, this is a fairly complex matter and your parish priest will need to ask questions to ascertain your particular situation. Basically, no matter your legal status (married, separated or divorced), the Church holds that a valid marriage is indissoluble and therefore would consider your spouse still validly married unless it was declared otherwise. (Canon 1060 states that marriage enjoys the favour of the law – marriages are presumed valid unless shown otherwise.) Some examples where a divorcee may marry in the Church include: if your fiancé(e) is Catholic and was married in a registry office or somewhere other than a Catholic church without a dispensation from canonical form, the marriage may be considered null (this needs to be backed-up with documentation by the Diocesan Tribunal). If he or she has already been through the annulment process and been granted a declaration of nullity, then you would be free to marry in the Church. This question cannot be satisfactorily answered in a few short sentences, since each case is unique and there are many variable factors. I suggest you talk to the Judicial Vicar of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, or the Chancellor of the Diocese since this is their area of expertise. You should be able to find their phone numbers online, but if not, your parish priest will provide them for you.

Do I need to be confirmed before I get married?

It’s advisable. Canon Law states that “Catholics who have not yet received the sacrament of Confirmation are to receive it before they are admitted to marriage if it can be done without grave inconvenience” (CIC 1065.1). If you have the time and are able to prepare for Confirmation before your wedding, it would be a good idea – the gifts of the Spirit received in the sacrament of Confirmation include wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord, all of which will help you in your married life. However, if the situation is such that you have no time to prepare for Confirmation before your wedding, or if you have reservations about doing so, then you are able to marry without being confirmed. If the issue is a time constraint, you should proceed to complete preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation after your wedding and be confirmed as soon as you are able.

Do we have to complete marriage preparation?

Yes. Canon Law requires that priests offer assistance to the Christian faithful, to include “personal preparation to enter marriage, which disposes the spouses to the holiness and duties of their new state” (CIC 1063.2). It is important that the couple have time and opportunity to reflect upon the marriage into which they are about to enter. It is common for parishes to request at least six months in order to have time to complete this preparation, but you can embark on a programme of marriage preparation as soon as you have decided to get married. As mentioned earlier, a lack of full consent, or exchanging promises whilst not intending to actually keep them (for example, having no plans to accept children, or deciding that you will get a divorce if your marriage doesn’t work out) can call the validity of your marriage into question. If you and your future spouse do not live near each other, it is possible to take marriage preparation classes separately, although it will require more effort on your part to spend time discussing the different elements of the class.

May we have non-Scripture readings at our wedding?

No. Again, as with writing personal wedding vows, this is because your wedding liturgy is an action of the whole Church and must reflect the solemnity of the occasion. Solemn doesn’t mean gloomy, but it does mean dignified and deeply sincere. The Scripture readings included in the wedding liturgy are the Word of God, in whose presence you are getting married and from whom you are seeking blessing. The Word of God speaks to us if we listen. If you have a poem or other piece which is meaningful to you, the wedding reception may be the best place for its recitation.

My father is deceased. Can my uncle walk me down the aisle?

Of course! We discussed earlier that the Catholic preference is for bride and groom to walk in together, signifying their free consent to marriage. However, it is customary for the father to escort his daughter, and if there is a reason why he is not able to do so, any friend or relative can walk you down the aisle. You also have the option of walking down by yourself, if you wish.

Do our bridesmaids and best man have to be Catholic?

No. The witness for the Church is the bishop, priest or deacon, and the other witnesses (of which there must be two) can be anybody you wish provided that they fulfil the age requirement.

Are we able to choose songs which are meaningful to us, but are not hymns?

Probably not. Ecclesiastical music for the bridal procession or recessional music is entirely appropriate, but secular songs such as “Wind Beneath My Wings”, for example, are not suitable for a Catholic liturgy. Again, you are marrying before God in God’s house. Your wedding is an act of worship and the hymns and music you choose should be in keeping with this.

Should we go to Confession before our wedding?

Yes! It is entirely appropriate, and would be a good idea, for Catholics to go to Confession before receiving a sacrament such as marriage or Confirmation even if we are not aware of committing serious sin. We are better disposed to receive the sacramental grace fruitfully if we are spiritually prepared. If we are aware of serious sin, however, which includes sexual intercourse before marriage, it is necessary to go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion. The sacraments of healing, which include Confession and Anointing of the Sick, have the power to forgive sin and restore us to God’s friendship. Do not be afraid of going to Confession – everything you tell the priest is bound by the seal of the confessional and will never be repeated. Nothing you say will shock him; he’s heard it all before and will rejoice in your seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God – that’s the reason he’s there!

Cherishing Your WeddingThis blog is extracted from our book Cherishing Your Wedding. Everything you need to know to prepare for married life and to have a beautiful ceremony is attractively laid out in this handy guide for anyone wanting to get married in a Catholic church.

For more on Catholic weddings and marriage in the Catholic Church, order your copy of Cherishing Your Wedding today.