“Ask a Priest: Would It Be OK If I Didn’t Marry in the Church?”

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Q: I’m a Catholic who will be marrying a non-Catholic early next year. I still attend Mass, my mom is a devout Catholic, but my dad has fallen away from the Church. On my fiancée’s side, only an aunt and uncle go to Mass regularly, and the rest practice various forms of Christianity. That being said, we decided it was best for both families if we didn’t get married in a Catholic church. We’d still like to attend pre-Cana instruction, but I’m wondering if this will be allowed? I’d like to have the marriage blessed/convalidated, and have spoken at length with my fiancée about it and know that pre-Cana is a requirement. But I’ve read that some more traditional-minded priests don’t like to do this, so I’m a little concerned. -P.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: As a baptized Catholic your marriage would only be valid if approved by the Church. In theory it is possible to get a bishop’s approval to marry in another location (outside of a church building), but such permission is not automatic and is usually given for a serious reason.

You seem to be asking, though, about getting married without Church approval. That is a different matter altogether.

Besides the simple fact that marriage is something sacred, something linked both to creation and to redemption, it is also a public act. When the couple get married, it is not just a private contract, but an entering into a relationship that in its nature has social repercussions. It is for this reason that the Church has established clear requirements for its celebration. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “Since marriage establishes the couple in a public state of life in the Church, it is fitting that its celebration be public, in the framework of a liturgical celebration, before the priest (or a witness authorized by the Church), the witnesses, and the assembly of the faithful” (No. 1663).

It is good to remember, too, that a marriage blessed by the Church and God brings with it a special grace. Such a grace helps the spouses overcome difficulties and grow in holiness. To marry without Church approval would deprive you of grace and make your living together objectively sinful.

You don’t want to base your decision on a Church-approved marriage based on the beliefs of family members (yours or hers). That is the wrong kind of criterion. You want to focus on what is going to help you and your bride to be. This is where you want to show spiritual leadership and not worry about the sensibilities of your relatives or her relatives. After all, it was God who established marriage and the rules for marriage — your relatives and your fiancée’s relatives didn’t do that.

In short, you want to have your priorities correct. God comes first. In fact, the best thing you can do for your loved ones is to stay close to Jesus and to what he asks of you through his Church. It sounds as if some of the relatives could benefit from the example of someone who tries to live the faith integrally. (Perhaps the online retreat “Three Hearts” would help you.

It might be good to speak with your parish priest about all this. I hope you make the right decision.

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