Busted Halo
October 10th, 2008

Must Catholics Marry in a Church?

Must Catholics Have Their Wedding in a Church?


“My most powerful experiences of God have been outdoors—the glory of a sunset over a lake, a mountain vista, hiking in the woods. We want our marriage to start in this kind of setting.”

“We are having our wedding reception at a hotel which also has a space that would be perfect for the wedding ceremony. It would be a great convenience to have all the wedding festivities in one place so people wouldn’t have to drive all over.”

“My fiancée isn’t Catholic. Neither she nor her relatives would be comfortable attending a religious service in a Catholic Church.”

The comments above are common and understandable attitudes of many engaged couples. Before responding to whether a Catholic can indeed have a wedding ceremony outside of a church building, it is important to know how the church regards the sacrament of marriage.

The key element to remember about the Catholic understanding of marriage is that it is a public act of the church which recognizes the lifelong and exclusive commitment of the bride and groom to each other. The bride and groom may say “I do” to the wedding vows, but the presence of the church community is meant to support the couple throughout their married life together. All those present are presumed to be saying to the couple “We do.” We do witness, confirm, and support your marriage.

The popular notion that a wedding is primarily the business of the bride and groom is romantic, but not true in the sacramental sense. The church, and all the people of God who witness the marriage, have a stake in the sacrament of marriage. It makes a difference to the community of believers and to society that marriages are freely entered and strong. As Pope John Paul II said, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” (Familiaris Consortio, #86)

What’s all this got to do with having a wedding in God’s beautiful outdoors?
Since sacraments belong to the entire church—not just the bride and groom—they are normally celebrated in the place that the church gathers. This unites the couple with the universal church throughout the ages and puts the ceremony in the common gathering place where other sacred celebrations occur.

Although as Christians we believe that God is everywhere, we also have set aside special places for community worship—church buildings. It makes sense that baptized Christians would celebrate the vocational sacrament of marriage in the building where the community usually worships and which is dedicated to such special sacred commitments.

Are there any exceptions?
Yes, no and rarely.

If a Catholic is marrying another Catholic or baptized Christian, the wedding vows should be exchanged in a church building. If both partners are Catholic, of course this would be in the Catholic Church building. If one partner is baptized but not Catholic, the ceremony could take place in the church building of either partner.

The popular notion that a wedding is primarily the business of the bride and groom is romantic, but not true in the sacramental sense. The church, and all the people of God who witness the marriage, have a stake in the sacrament of marriage.

If a Catholic is marrying a person of another faith—a Jew, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, etc.—a special “dispensation from sacred space” can be requested from the local bishop. This is sometimes appropriate in respect for the faith of the non-baptized partner.

For example, if a Jewish person is marrying a Catholic, it is not permissible for Jews to celebrate the wedding in their own synagogue. However, it is permissible to use an appropriate neutral location.

In situations such as this, the criteria is that it be a place of dignity but not outdoors. Often reception halls serve this double duty as both the place of the ceremony and the place of the reception.

I’ve been to outdoor Masses before. And what about all those outdoor Masses that the Pope has at World Youth Day?
First, let’s talk about outdoor Masses in general.

Outdoor Masses are allowed but sacraments of vocation (Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Holy Orders) are to be celebrated in the usual worship space of the believing community.

In regard to the outdoor papal Masses, it is simply a matter of numbers. There is no church building that can accommodate 50,000 or more people. Hopefully you aren’t planning a guest list this large at your wedding or you might also need to call upon the Lord for another miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes!

So yes, there can be a dispensation for a wedding outside a church building for good cause, but it is rare. A dispensation for a wedding to be held outdoors is even rarer.

Where does that leave the nature lovers and those who sincerely recognize the presence of God in the outdoors? It leaves you with a beautiful place for a reception and the rest of your lives. An outdoor reception would be a fitting way to connect your wedding celebration with your desire to honor God’s natural creation. Regardless of the place of your wedding or reception, may you frequently find time to renew your love and commitment to each other in the glory of nature, even when it rains, snows, or the wind howls.

The Author : Susan Vogt
Susan Vogt,www.SusanVogt.net, speaks and writes on marriage, parenting, and spirituality. She and her husband live in Covington, Kentucky.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Tricia Brooks Hale

    Why do Catholic’s have to get married in the church? Well, because marriage is a sacrament and sacraments take place in the church, hopefully in front or near the Tabernacle. That’s what I’ve told my children. The party is after the wedding, but I’m told that I’m old fashion and have no clue how things are done now

    • ElectricFire

      Then the church shouldn’t be using the sacrament to make a profit. If you’re going to tell me I have to get married in the church, you don’t charge me $600 for it.

      • Tricia Brooks Hale

        ElectricFire- I agree with you on that point.

      • Phil19034

        1) The Church does NOT make a profit off of the charge. That money is used to pay the salary of the part time musicians and janitors who work for the parish on an hourly basis. The rest of the money is used to cover the added power costs for electricity and A/C.
        2) You can still get a Catholic Wedding for FREE if you (1) truly can’t afford it, (2) get married in the Chapel (Church Chapel or Rectory Chapel). All you need for a Catholic Wedding is a priest or deacon and two witnesses, or (3) get married during or right after Mass on Sunday. But people want their own private ceremony, so the parish passes on the break-even costs onto the couple.
        3) $600 for rental for the Ceremony is NOTHING compared to $500 to $10,000 for a dress, thousands for flowers, thousands for pictures, $20K to $100K for the reception, etc. If you are spending thousands for all the other stuff, then I don’t want to hear belly aching. But if you are not spending a dime on anything else, then I’m sure the Pastor will waive any/all fees (except for the salary of the musicians).
        4) Finally…. if you don’t believe that most parishes make pretty much NOTHING on the fees they charge, as your Pastor or Parish Council to show you the budget and math. If you parish is making money off weddings, then you will be doing your parishioners a favor in exposing that. But the majority of parishes do not make any money off the fees UNLESS they charge more for non-parishioners.
        God Bless.

      • ElectricFire

        I have to go to a non-parish church because my fiancee and I want to marry in front of our families, and we live several states away from them. That’s not right to charge for that, parishoners or not.

        Also, no, we’re not spending anywhere close to that on the reception. We’re hacking the reception as much as humanly possible. I had friends I’ve known for 20 years who I cut immediately from the guest list because I can’t afford it. $600 is a large chunk of our budget, and I can’t justify that cost. This is just an example of the church forcing younger Catholics into other ideas to make their situation work.

      • Phil19034

        In this case many pastors would make an exception. Also, usually, the parishes are the costs are A LOT more money are usually beautiful Churches where everyone wants to get married (aka their supply is way less than the demand).

        Some parishes don’t even charge more. But again, it’s really only for the heating bill and musicians.

        If you have a hardship, almost every single pastor will help. Remember, a lot of times it’s the lay people who set the fees.

      • Bill Guentner

        Tell that to the pastor. If warranted by the circumstances, he may reduce the charge or eliminate it.

  • David

    I have a GEORGEOUS Church I will be married in. Some of the most beautiful moments of my life have taken place in that space. The stone of the church is imprinted with shells, the floor is marble and it is one of the best acoustic spaces in the city. In the morning at a certain time, the light hits the alter and it simply glows. I have been to weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations there. I’ve heard some of the wisest priests I know speak in that church, I have memories of growing up there. I could not picture being married on the most beautiful beach in Hawaii or on the top of a mountain in Boulder Colorado. This parish is my home, as a parish is intended to be. The fact that so many people don’t view their parish as such is sad, not for them, but because their churches were not built as beautiful spaces physically and do not serve many beautiful memories of deep emotion, where peace was felt and joy and love were shared. My parish is the Paulist church of St. Austin in Austin, Texas. I love it, I would not want to get married anywhere else. I wish other parishes could create the same environment and I think it’s a statement as to the failure of American Catholocism today to provide that kind of atmosphere because in my years at college, I searched far and wide for something comparable and found no community that had both the beauty of the building and both the beauty of a loving, welcoming environment for me. If people leave the Church for this trivial reason of marriage in a building, I offer the suggestion that they do so because they do not have a parish with a community that has treated them in the loving manner they deserve.

  • Progressive Catholic

    The problem seems to be that many people, even in this thread, view a church as a venue to be obtained for “their day,” as one might rent a catering hall for the reception. Event planning should have nothing to do with the sacrament of marriage.

    “I have yet to hear a convincing argument on behalf of being married outside a church besides mere rationalizations of on an obsession with personal wants and aesthetics.”


  • J Wilson

    If the rules say you must marry in a church, then why not find a small church in the countryside somewhere ? That would be a bit like getting the best of both worlds.

  • Marty

    I think the two ceremony solution is an elegant one for those for whom this is a huge problem – a simple sacramental marriage Mass, inviting those who appreciate the difference, and a second ceremony outdoors (or whereever) for the everyone.
    I think it’s important, though, that the sacramental wedding Mass be held first. Those who appreciate the importance of the sacrament of marriage also would appreciate the importance of doing in a state of grace.

  • Dani

    I have noticed one reason why couples may have gotten married outside, might be because of conflict of interest. I have 2 friends that just got married this past week. They chose the outdoors as neutral territory so both sides of the family would not argue over what church building to get married in. He is Jewish and she is LDS. Both would have gotten married in a church building if it wasn’t for that factor. They didnt want the ceremony to get ruined simply over something like that. I would get married in a church mostly because of my faith and the fact of that it will be in the presence of eucharist ie Christ’s body which is an essential part of at least a Catholic marriage and partly because I dont necessarily want my guest getting rained or snowed on

  • Laura

    I have heard of situations (particularly with “destination” weddings) where a couple held their wedding ceremony outdoors or wherever and then later had their marriage blessed by the Church. Or, like another individual posted, have two weddings – one a simple ceremony with your priest and a few witnesses, and the other your “big” wedding ceremony at the venue of your choosing.

    • ElizD

      The huge problem is that if they know they cannot marry validly in the “desination wedding” they are publicly doing something they know is false and giving scandal. Then most likely they go on “honeymoon” and the still unmarried couple fornicate. Will they go to confession for these grave sins before approaching the Church to get married for real? It’s not okay to have fake wedding ceremonies, such as the idea in this post to get married simply in the presence of a priest and then have a big fake wedding ceremony at a fancy venue. This is called simulating a sacrament and is a major sin.

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