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“Ask a Priest: Is it OK to Enter a Civil Marriage First?”
Q: My fiancé and I are planning on getting married and I would like it to be in the Church. My fiancé is in the military and is Christian. He is going to contact the Catholic priest on his Army base to ask about the RCIA process because he wants to become Catholic. Since this process will take a certain amount of time and he also will be going overseas soon, will it be allowed by the Church if we were to get a civil marriage prior to having the Catholic ceremony? We would really like to buy a house and also combine our expenses and insurance, and we know we would not be able to get a Catholic marriage until after he returned from overseas and we do not want to rush. Would we be allowed to have a Catholic marriage celebration after he returns, while already having our civil marriage document previously completed? We would not mention to anyone our civil marriage because, personally I would not consider it a marriage until God sealed our deal and approved. Please let me know if this would be possible. I have been a devout Catholic and I really would like to have a wonderful celebration in the Church. -J.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Permit me a few questions in turn.
Have you and your fiancé talked to a Catholic priest, either your parish priest or the military chaplain? Many things can be expedited, especially if a service member is being deployed to a hostile fire area. It might be possible to have a valid marriage in the Church sooner than you think.
That being said, the Church does not approve of Catholics marrying before a civil magistrate. The Church could, of course, convalidate the civil marriage later, all other things being in order. But at that point you might still need to go through a marriage preparation program.
Another question is: Do you want a big church wedding if and when the marriage is convalidated? Officially, the convalidation should be a small liturgy. The size of the celebration depends on pastoral prerogative. You should be aware of this when making a decision about a civil marriage.
And, of course, there is that chance that news of your civil marriage gets out – and possibly causes a scandal with family and friends.
You will want to take all this to prayer. I pray that you decide well, and will include you and your fiancé in one of my Mass intentions.