Although most Catholics are aware of this, I have recently encountered some people who were surprised to hear that Catholics must get married “in the Church.” By this phrase, I do not necessarily mean that Catholics must get married in a church building, but this should happen too. To get married “in the Church” means to get married according to the ritual of the Catholic Church in the presence of one of her ministers, usually a priest or deacon. If a Catholic gets married in a different way, such as at a courthouse, he or she is in fact not married at all according to the laws of the Church.
So why do Catholics have to get married in the Church? There are several important reasons, although this has not always been the case. As I have said in previous columns, marriage was not invented by Christianity, but it was raised to the level of a sacrament by Jesus. In the time of the early Church, Christians probably did not have a distinct marriage ceremony from other people in their communities. At that time, most people would have taken marriage for granted, and the cultural understanding of marriage would have been that it was lifelong, faithful, and open to children, which is how our nature is built for marriage. However, at a certain point in history, the Church judged that there would be a great spiritual benefit for Catholics to get married in the presence of the Church’s official minister. The Catechism lists four of these reasons in paragraph 1631.
- Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church;
- Marriage introduces one into an ecclesial order, and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children;
- Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses);
- The public character of the consent protects the “I do” once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it.
A sacramental marriage is a union in Christ of the two spouses. With this in mind, it only makes sense to enter into this sacred covenant in the presence of the Church and in the house of God. Some couples would prefer to enter into marriage on an island somewhere as part of a vacation. While this might be fun, it does not reflect a good understanding of what marriage is. Marriage is certainly not just a vacation, and to place the beauty of a beach before the beauty of being in the presence of God is not a correct prioritization.
There are exceptions to this rule. Catholics can ask for permission from their local bishop to get married outside of the presence of the Church’s minister. Bishops may give this permission for a good reason, such as when a Catholic is marrying a Jewish woman, and her family will not come to a Christian wedding ceremony. As long as there is not a danger of the Catholic losing his faith, a bishop could give permission for him to get married in the Jewish ceremony. While not a sacrament, this marriage is still a natural good and blessed by God.
Marriage can get complicated and a little messy, as I’m sure we have all witnessed at some point in our lives. Christian marriage is no exception. If you have questions regarding the validity of a marriage, or if you would like help rectifying a complicated situation, contact your local parish or one of the priests at the Cathedral; we would be happy to help. Marriage is a beautiful gift from God, and it is worth the effort to ensure that our married couples are receiving all the graces they can from this great sacrament.