Catholic Wedding Q&A
What are the rules and requirements for a valid Catholic wedding?
There are three basic requirements for a valid Catholic wedding:
- The couple must be capable of being married—that is, they must be a woman and a man who are free of any impediment that would prevent marriage.
- The couple must give their consent to be married — that is, by an act of their will they irrevocably give and accept one another in order to establish marriage (Canon 1057).
- They must follow the canonical form for marriage—that is, they must be married according to the laws of the Church so that the Church and the wider community will be certain about the validity of their marriage.
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:
- Age: Both persons need to be old enough to contract marriage according to the local civil laws. (The Church has a minimum age requirement as well; see Canon 1083.)
- Previous marriage: You cannot marry someone else if you are already married. This most common impediment to marriage is discussed more below.
- Relatives: You cannot marry someone who is already your relative (Canons 1091-1094).
- Reason: Anyone who is incapable of understanding what marriage is and the responsibilities that come with it (because of mental impairment, for instance) cannot enter marriage (Canon 1095).
- Fear: No one can be forced into marriage, either directly or because of some "grave fear" (Canon 1103).
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:
- Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?
- Will you love and honor each other as husband and wife for the rest of your lives?
- Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church? (Rite of Marriage #24)
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.
For more information
Contacting your parish
This article describes some of the Catholic wedding requirements you may encounter at the parish level.
Preparing for a lifelong marriage
An article describing some of the most common marriage preparation requirements in the Catholic Church.
Marriage Preparation and Cohabiting Couples: An Informational
This report from the U.S. Catholic bishops contains information on the growing trend toward couples cohabiting (living together) before marriage; it also describes how many priests are approaching this issue with couples. This is important reading for engaged couples who are living together.
Analysis of Diocesan Marriage Preparation Policies
An overview of diocesan marriage preparation policies.
Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage
This Vatican document is written primarily for bishops, pastors, and others ministering to couples preparing for marriage; it provides the pastoral and theological basis for marriage preparation, as well as norms for marriage preparation programs.