Catholic Wedding Questions and Answers
What are the rules and requirements for a valid Catholic wedding?
There are three basic requirements for a valid Catholic wedding:
Let's break down each of these points.
Impediments to marriage
First, both people must be capable of being married and free of any impediment (obstacle) that would prevent marriage. Some impediments to marriage include:
This is not an exhaustive list. It is ultimately up to your pastor to determine whether there are any impediments to your marriage.
Previous marriage is probably the most common impediment to marriage. The Church follows Christ's teaching that marriage is a covenant that cannot be dissolved, so it does not recognize divorce as "dissolving" the previous marriage. However, the Church has a legal process for determining whether the previous marriage was valid—that is, that the couple freely gave themselves to one another in a way that brought about a valid marriage between them. If the Church determines that the previous marriage was not valid, it is said to be annulled. An annulment removes the impediment to marriage.
Freely given consent
In order to enter a valid marriage, each person must freely choose to give his or her entire self to the other, and to accept the gift of the other, irrevocably (forever). Church law presumes that the words and actions of the couple during the wedding accurately reflect their intention to do this. Immediately before the couple consent to enter into marriage (by reciting the marriage vows), the assisting priest or deacon asks the couple three questions:
If there are serious doubts about the ability of one or both persons to give their free consent to marriage "without reservation," the pastor may ask the couple to spend additional time addressing the issue; the wedding may even be delayed "for a time" until the issue is resolved (Canon 1077).
For example, cohabitation (living together) is an issue that usually receives extra attention during the marriage preparation process. "If there is not sufficient awareness on the couple's part of the essential elements of Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage and sexual relations and of the commitment, fidelity, and permanence needed in marriage, then the marriage should be postponed until such awareness has developed" (Preparing for Marriage, Diocese of Rapid City; quoted in Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples). A mature awareness of the nature of sacramental marriage contributes to a couple's ability to freely consent to marriage. However, the sacrament of Marriage cannot be denied solely because a couple is living together. In fact, the Church has urged that pastors approach cohabiting couples with respect, charity, and patience.
The question about accepting children (which may be omitted for couples beyond the child-bearing years) may not seem to have anything to do with freely given consent. But the Church teaches that marriage is naturally ordered not only to "the good of the spouses," but also the "procreation and education of offspring" (Canon 1055). In other words, since having children is part of the natural purpose of marriage, it is impossible to give yourself to the other "without reservation" if children are excluded.
In order to ensure that couples fully understand what it means to give oneself in marriage, the Church requires a period of preparation before marriage. Usually, the marriage cannot take place until this happens.
The form of the marriage
The Church has certain rules about how the marriage takes place (Code of Canon Law #1108-1123). These rules are meant to ensure with certainty that a valid marriage actually took place. Basically, a valid marriage must be witnessed by an authorized representative of the Church (usually a priest or deacon) and two other witnesses. It also must follow the Rite of Marriage, the book containing the words and actions that make up the wedding liturgy. Under special circumstances, your pastor can ask your bishop to dispense with the requirement to celebrate the wedding according to the Rite of Marriage. This is most commonly the case when Catholics marry someone who is not Catholic and choose a wedding ceremony from the religious practice of the person who is not Catholic.
Other Catholic wedding requirements
The requirements listed above are only a partial rundown of the laws governing marriage in the Catholic Church; additional rules deal with special circumstances and administrative details. However, each diocese (the region administered by a bishop) also has its own rules regarding marriage. Moreover, individual parishes may have policies regarding marriage preparation and the wedding ceremony. You will need to check with your pastor for details about any of these additional requirements.
Contacting your parish
Preparing for a lifelong marriage
Analysis of Diocesan Marriage Preparation Policies