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.
  • Charles

    There’s a very simple work-around: have two weddings. Do the marriage prep process with your parish priest, ask to be married in a private ceremony (just the two of you with a witness, perhaps in the sacristy of church), then have a big wedding ceremony wherever and however you like. Problem solved.

    • ElizD

      Having a fake wedding ceremony is simulating a sacrament and is a serious sin. If you already married then you are already married. You could have a big ceremony to renew your wedding vows, but not to get married again.

  • Johnny

    “The Church needs to get out of the wedding business.” This was a common refrain that I heard decades ago in the seminary. And over many years as a priest and dealing with engaged couples, I’ve begun to understand what they were saying. What we need is 2 types of weddings: one being your common “garden-variety” (and I hope the term doesn’t offend) wedding with more focus on flowers than faith, show than spirituality, “our wedding” than “our church”. And the second time being a commitment ceremony after a few years of “being married”, where a couple is willing and desiring to truly BE a sacrament, to have their married life be a statement of their shared faith in the context of their faith community. There would obviously be a lot fewer of these type weddings, but these would be the ones that show the understanding of what the SACRAMENT of marriage really means. This would allow the members of the faith community to come to an understanding of Christian marriage as a true covenant and sacrament, and it would hopefully be as celebrated and as “owned” by a parish as is an ordination. They are both life commitments; they both are an expression of faith as much as love. And having this distinction between “getting married” and “committing to a sacramental union” might finally allow Matrimony to take its rightful place in the sacraments of commitment, rather than being looked down upon as a poor second to Holy Orders. May that day come soon.
    Just thinkin’ out loud…

  • Jean

    I think the problem here is the lack of understanding as to what marriage is. First before any one can pick apart the Church for not allowing out door marriages can you tell me what the vocation of marriage is and means to the Church? Then you need to decide if that is the vocation for you. I am pretty sure just a simple understanding of what marriage is and truely means would clear up a lot of the marriage debate. I also wonder if there would be some different decissions as to whom you would marry or if you would marry. We need to explore our faith more and really learn about what it is to be Catholic.

  • Derrick

    Cam, your questions are ones you need to present to your (Catholic) priest, as he will be able to answer them for you.

  • DickFOS

    My wife and I were married at a nuptial Mass in her Parish Church. In a little less than 4 months we will celebrate our 55th anniversary. When all of the people wanting to get married outdoors can say the same, I might have more sympathy. (BTW, the FOS in my name is a celebration of our love and life, it stands for Father of Sixteen.)
    As for the one comment posted about annulments and the cost of $50,000 stated therein, one of our children had to go through this process and the cost was more like $500 and this would have been waived if she had been unable to pay it.

    • Bill Guentner

      The annulment process may soon be free to all. The Diocese of Pittsburgh does it free now. The silly cost of $50,000 is usually stated by those who have a bone to pick about Catholicism.

  • joanne

    i am a Roman Catholic my father was Jewish my mother RC. Mother went to church every week and my father practiced his faith Judaism. They were not married in a Church but loved each other and made it work. My father died 35 years ago mother is now 93. I remember my mother never received communion at mass and I wondered why when I was young. Both were strong examples of faith in God. My husband of 38 years was not Catholic when we got married at St. Mary’s, so we decided not to have a Mass. Several years passed when my husband decided to become a RC, I was happy for him for I knew the joy my faith as been for me. A priest who worked with him asked about our wedding and I happen to mention we had not had a mass. He gave us both a gift of a wedding Mass for our 25th anniversary. Our 3 children were in our 2nd wedding at St. Mary’s, to me it is a HOLY place. I was always taught that a RC wedding is a prayer from the beginning to the end…make it a good one. God Bless Joanne

  • Simon

    What’s with you people marrying outdoors? Do you sleep outside too?

  • Colleen

    Here’s my opinion: if you choose to have a Scripture Reading instead of a full-blown mass, it should be able to be outside.

    • Bill Guentner

      Whether there is a mass or not is of no consequence. The sacrament of matrimony is not conferred by a priest of deacon. Rather those who are being married confer the sacrament on each other. The priest is a witness to the ceremony. Nevertheless, since matrimony is a sacred act between the two parties, it must be held in a sacred place–a church, chapel or oratory.

  • Cam

    I am catholic and my fiance is christian. We want to get marry in the catholic church, but is it possibly to have our his priest (christian pastor) to do our cerenomy wedding at the catholic church? Another thing, I heard if you get married in catholic church that they want u to promise to raise our child as catholic. But since we have been going to the christain church more than the catholic church. We were thinking about baptize our child christain? I am so confused

  • elizabeth

    I understand both sides of the discussion about the location of a wedding-my thought is that what seems to cause the problem is the conflict between the location of the ceremony and the location of the party.
    Its complicated and expensive to host a wedding receptionto and requires months or even years of planning. Perhaps the issue with the location of the wedding could be simplified if the expectations for the reception are scaled back. What is important for a wedding? Is it the exchange of vows or the view? Don’t get me wrong- I truly believe the reception should be full of joy and should be a celebration of the marriage.We recently attended a wedding and the reception, while close to the church, was not “over the top” as far as a swish location but was at a very nice place. What made the reception so amazing was the love that was so apparent between the bride and groom. Love and joy marked the reception as memorable even if the setting was not on a mountain top or in a vineyard.All who attended remarked that it was a wonderful wedding because of the love.

  • HermitTalker

    My considered opinion is to do what the bishops of France suggested decades ago and were torpodoed by the Vatican. Most of us know that marriage today is in trouble.Lots of annumlents of even long marriages. Lots of couples living together before the ceremony. More couples are in mixed denominational marriages, more ingerfaith Jewish and Moslem. One famous canonist who serves on Vatican congregations told me once that very few marriages today in the general US culture are sacrametally valid. Why not have the wedding and the hoopla away somewhere without priest or deacon. Get a blessing for the union quietly and simply with no fuss. The church building is often a mere nice backdrop for the mostly secular event. Sadly 25-40 year married couples ask for annulments and they are granted- either one or both was not ready for a marriage for life, or she/he they were not open to children. No games, lying, “Catholic” divorce as is often said. It was not a marriage. When one sees the huge cost today $50,000 for many, why get the Church as instutution involved in that when the priest or deacon is often sure they do not have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it.

    • Bill Guentner

      The $50,000 figure is nonsense.

  • Mike

    What makes a Church sacred is not that it’s more beautiful than creation. What makes it sacred is man receiving God’s gift of creation – the stones, the sand used to make glass, etc. – and making it a dedicated offering back to Him. Marriage is a gift given to all mankind from God but what makes a marriage sacramental is a man and woman receiving this gift and making it a dedicated offering back to Him. Everything a man and woman do in the ceremony must reflect an adequate understanding of the sacrament they’re entering into. 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.

    Furthermore, with a divorce rate of 50% among married Catholics, are they really in a position to tell the Church they know what’s best for marriage? With a little reflection you’ll notice that the divorce rate didn’t skyrocket because people were listening to the Church.

  • Kat D

    Chiara–I don’t know but do I hope so!! God bless you and congratulations on your marriage!

  • Kat D

    I married a nonCatholic in a beautiful Catholic church, and we brought in our outside priest for free. Our priest was funny and knew us very well. The church is a great place because so many holy things happen there, most importantly the changing of the bread and water into the body and blood with every mass. What an honor it is to have the major events of my spiritual life–the baptism, holy communion, confirmation, marriage–in that holy place! Thankfully churches are usually beautiful places. Yes, there are beautiful outdoor places too, and God is there too as he is in prison cells and lying homeless in gutters, but there is something particularly special about being allowed to celebrate your union in such a sacred space. If only we could appreciate the magnitude and the power of what goes on within on any given day…

  • Joan David

    Is it possible for you to be married in a church and hold your reception in their church facilities. I hope so.

  • Cathy

    I am struggling with this issue. I feel rejected and abandoned by the Church and am angry. I find the position of the church to be arrogant beyond belief to think that a man-made building is more sacred than what God himself created.

    It was Jesus who said you do not need the church to worship. That God was all around you.

    My father died when I was a teenager. He did not see the important milestones in my life. I asked my Uncle, to walk me down the aisle in his place.

    A year after I asked him, he was diagnosed with cancer. We hope he will still be with us for the wedding, and because of his frail state, we opted to have the ceremony, reception and overnight accomodations in the same place to limit his physical exertion. We are getting married on a hilltop vineyard that overlooks a lake. Its breaktaking.

    But since its not in the church, I cannot get married by a priest. I feel abandoned because all I ever wanted was my Dad to walk me down the aisle. Since this can’t happen, I wanted my Uncle. I feel like the church standing in the way of this happening.

    So say that it must be witnessed by community and where the community worships is illogical. The marriage is not being witnessed by the community (unless they are invited guests). When you get married in a church, its a private ceremony…the general public does not come. So this whole, “witnessed by the community.” is a moot.

    I don’t have a problem with God. Its the people that work for him that have it all wrong.

    • David Bates

      > I find the position of the church to be arrogant beyond belief

      Hey Cathy, I do understand your frustration, but do you think that Christ’s shepherds have any kind of authority to say how the Sacraments should be celebrated?

      > I feel like the church standing in the way of this happening.

      All they’re saying is that marriages should take place in a church building, which really doesn’t seem that unreasonable if one is coming to the Church asking for the Sacrament of Matrimony.

      I assume the wedding has already taken place now, but one option might have been to organize the wedding day around the church building rather than the reception location, so as to limit your uncle’s traveling. Having said all that, did you try contacting the bishop to see if a dispensation could be given?

      • Bill Guentner

        Great reply.

  • Chiara

    I have a somewhat different quandary. While I am not yet engaged to my serious boyfriend, we both intend to marry in the Catholic church within the next few years. Both of us are traditional Roman Catholics and he and I have to drive about 75 miles to attend Holy Mass at a church with dignified architecture and respectful Liturgy. The only Catholic churches in our area look like spaceships on the inside and outside, don’t even have an aisle to walk down, and in most cases, the tabernacle is hidden away in some closet in the back! Moreover, the liturgy of the Mass is not treated with respect at our local parishes. My father has a disability that is progressing very quickly, and his mobility is limited so he cannot travel far distances. Therefore, a wedding at the church that my boyfriend and I attend is probably unrealistic. However, about five years ago, I was seriously considering entering a community of cloistered nuns at a nearby monastery. Although God did not call me to that vocation, I am truly blessed to have gone through that discernment experience because it deepened my relationship with Christ and established a lasting spiritual bond with the Mother Abbess and the rest of the sisters at the monastery. I am still in regular contact with my nuns at the monastery and consider them part of my family in Christ. If I marry the wonderful man God brought into my life, I would want my sisters in Christ and my beloved dad to be at the ceremony. So, after this long explanation of the circumstances, would the Catholic Church allow for the Sacrament of Matrimony ceremony and mass to be conducted in the monastery’s public chapel?

    • David Bates

      I think you’d have to get it cleared with the respective bishops, but I think it could be done :-)

      • Bill Guentner

        It most certainly can be done with a bishop’s approval in this case.

  • Anne

    I feel the rule preventing a priest attending a couple celebrating the sacrament of marriage by witnessing the couple saying their sacred marriage vowsng in the open air or in a place other than a church difficult to comprehend.

    Firstly, Jesus is present everywhere and is present in the disposition of the people saying their vows. Jesus in the gospels often prayed outside with his followers and also fed all those people in the open air on a side of the mountain. Secondly, the people who witness the scarament in the church would also be capable of witnessing the sacrament in a lovely room in a hotel or on the side of a mountain. Finally, Jesus, in a resurrectional scene, fed Peter and his fellow fishermen on the beach. So, therefore I do not think the arguments that have been presented in the above thread convince me that it is necessary to celebrate the sacrament of marriage in a church building in order to make it valid. I have attened many holy masses which were celebrated in many different locations e.g. hotels rooms, backyard and tops of mountiains and each and every time there was an air of reverence.

    By the way, how do we know that when Jesus attended the wedding of his friends in the gospel that it was held indoors?

    • David Bates

      > I feel the rule preventing… vows… in a place other than a church difficult to comprehend.

      As mentioned above, does the Church have any say in how the Sacraments are celebrated?

      > Jesus in the gospels often prayed outside…in a resurrectional scene, fed Peter and his fellow fishermen on the beach

      The Church doesn’t teach that you can’t pray or eat outside. The question is: what is an appropriate venue for the celebration of the Sacraments? The only one that is typically ministered outside of the church building is the Anointing of the Sick, simply due to pure necessity.

      • Bill Guentner

        The rule to have the sacrament of matrimony take place in a church, chapel or oratory is really simple to understand if you are cognizant of the sacredness of the sacrament. Sacraments are sacred acts that should be celebrated in sacred places. Therefore, churches, etc are those sacred places, consecrated by a bishop for the worship of God and to celebrate the Mass, wherein Christ bodily becomes present during the consecration. So, why would anybody find such a place inappropriate for a wedding? What is more beautiful–a garden. a hilltop, the seashore, etc. compared to the presence to Jesus himself?

  • Rose

    In general, it is prudent for couples to base their choice of reception venue on the location/availability of the church–the celebration of the sacrament of Marriage is more important than the reception that follows it. That, at least, is how my husband and I recently dealt with the challenge of coordinating our wedding and the reception.

    @Getting Married Outside–It is possible and quite common for priests to visit people in their homes to celebrate the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.

  • Xochitl

    Thanks Steve, I am beginning to look at different places I’d like to be married but also have financial issues. I want my wedding reception to be in a ranch which is (2 hours away from home) that brings elements of my cultural background but the nearest church is an hour away(total of 3 hours of driving for guests not including those people’s travel time of flying). Hence, why it would make sense to find another option. It’s just sad that I can’t seem to find a good option within my budget.

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