Why Catholics Must Be Married in a Church

The dawn of spring means the dawn of wedding season. And while weddings can take place in a variety of locations, for a Catholic wedding the ceremony will always take place in a church. But does that mean that a marriage that takes place somewhere else isn’t a valid marriage?

A listener named Tim called in to Father Simon Says™ to ask whether someone who was married by a Justice of the Peace is married in the eyes of the Church.

Father Simon responded, “If you are a Roman Catholic, under normal circumstances you must be married in the Catholic form to be considered a valid marriage.”

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There are rare cases where a couple is given permission to marry outside of a Catholic Church, but only their bishop has the authority to grant that permission. This requirement to be married in a Catholic Church is not arbitrary, or simply to maintain custom. There are many reasons the Church requires a Catholic bride and groom to be married in a church.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph #1631:

“This is the reason why the Church normally requires that the faithful contract marriage according to the ecclesiastical form. Several reasons converge to explain this requirement:

  • 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.”

The reason a priest or deacon is required for a Catholic wedding is not because the priest is the one who administers the sacrament of matrimony. The bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament. But the reasons listed above explain why it is important to have a priest or deacon present to witness the marriage.

“The priest and the deacon witness the marriage,” Fr. Simon explained. “Because marriage is such a profoundly public thing it must be witnessed, and it must be witnessed by the Church. It is the public nature of marriage that demands the appropriate witness.”

“If you want to be married in the eyes of the Church, in the eyes of the Lord, and you are a Catholic then you have a debt to the whole community to witness through the clergyman (the priest or the deacon) your marriage.”

In response to Tim’s particular question about being married before a Justice of the Peace, Fr. Simon said, “So the answer, unless it is very unusual circumstances, is no. A marriage performed before a Justice of the Peace and not then witnessed by the appropriate clergyman is not valid.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Father Simon Says airs weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Central on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.

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Stephanie Foley serves as a Digital Media Producer at Relevant Radio®. She is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she studied journalism, and she has worked in Catholic radio for 12 years. Stephanie is a wife, a mother of three boys, and in her free time she enjoys reading, running, and really good coffee. You can find more of Stephanie’s writing at relevantradio.com and on the free Relevant Radio mobile app.