Issue: What role can a Protestant minister play in a Catholic wedding between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic? Can vows be exchanged before both the Protestant minister and the Catholic priest? Can a Catholic be married at a Protestant service?
Response: The 1993 Directory on Ecumenism encourages a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic to be celebrated in a ceremony outside of the
Mass and allows for the participation of a Protestant minister. Canon Law states that at this ceremony a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest may not both ask for the consent of the couple using their own rites (Canon 1127 §3). In certain cases a Catholic can be married at a Protestant service—if serious difficulties prevent the observing of the canonical form—provided that the couple has the permission of the bishop.
Discussion: When a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic marry (the Church terms this a “mixed marriage"), they face special challenges in planning their wedding.
Christ’s esteem for the natural institution of marriage is evident in His blessing of the wedding at Cana with a miracle (Jn. 2:1-11). Later in His ministry, when the Pharisees asked Him about the practice of divorce, He declared that God Himself establishes the marriage bond, and that no human being has the power to break it (Mt. 19:3-9; Lk. 16:18). Marriage for Christians is no longer merely a praiseworthy natural institution—it is a sacrament by which God bestows supernatural grace to the couple. The Church’s concern is to protect the essential ends and properties of marriage.
For centuries, the Church has required that marriages be celebrated in a public ceremony, because a marriage is not just a private affair between two people. It is a state of life directed toward the salvation of others (Catechism, no. 1534). The man and woman assume new responsibilities, not only to each other, but also to their children, their families, and the rest of the community. Even on a natural level, philosophers have recognized the family, and therefore marriage, as the building block of society. It is only fitting that the couple’s family, friends, and community be present to witness this sacrament. Public vows confirm the institution of marriage and are less easily broken than private vows when difficulties in marriage arise. “The public character of the consent protects the ‘I do’ once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it" (Catechism, no. 1631).
If the wedding ceremony is to be a source of joy and unity, how can the couple plan for it? The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, no. 159, states that a mixed marriage is ordinarily celebrated outside of Mass. That way, all present may fully participate in the ceremony. If, for a good reason, they wish the marriage to take place at Mass, they must first receive special permission from the bishop.
In an effort to respect the traditions of various religious confessions, some non-Catholic denominations have accepted a practice of “co-officiated" ceremonies. In such a wedding, each of the two ministers witnesses the vows of the couple in turn. Some couples schedule two weddings: one in the bride’s church and one in the groom’s. May Catholics adopt either of these procedures?
In order to preserve the unity of the sacrament of marriage, the Church does not allow separate vows to be made before both a priest and a non-Catholic minister, either in separate ceremonies or within the same ceremony (no. 156). The solemn vows creating the sacrament of marriage are exchanged once. The divisions that regrettably exist between Christian communities do not affect the unity of a marriage between two baptized Christians. Rather than splitting up families of differing confessions further, a mixed marriage should be an occasion when all Christians can come together despite their divisions, according to the Lord’s prayer “that they may all be one" (Jn. 17:21).
Catholics believe marriage is much more than a social institution or a contract between two parties. The Church teaches that the state of marriage is constituted by a “perfect union of persons and full sharing of life" (no. 144). A perfect union means nothing is held back. There can be no private reservations and no option of breaking off the relationship if things get too difficult. A perfect union is of its nature indissoluble.
Even though there is to be only one ceremony, there can still be an opportunity for a Protestant minister to participate. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity states: “In a Catholic liturgical celebration, ministers of other churches and ecclesial communities may have the place and liturgical honors proper to their rank and role, if this is judged desirable" (no. 119). Specifically regarding the celebration of a mixed marriage, the document states that a Protestant minister, with permission from the local Ordinary, may participate in this ceremony by reading scripture, preaching, and blessing the couple (no. 158).
Must the marriage be celebrated according to the Catholic form in all situations? Can the wedding ceremony take place at a non-Catholic church? Church law requires Catholics to be married in a Catholic ceremony (Canon 1108) in order to ensure that the Catholic understanding of marriage is preserved. If the non-Catholic party understands and consents to the Catholic party’s obligation regarding the children, the bishop can grant a dispensation from the Catholic form of marriage. In other words, should serious difficulties arise, the couple, after securing the bishop’s permission, can lawfully marry in a
non-Catholic church (Canon 1127, §2). In no. 9 of Paul VI’s apostolic letter, On Mixed Marriages, the Holy Father said:
If serious difficulties stand in the way of observing the canonical form, local Ordinaries have the right to dispense from the canonical form in any mixed marriage. But the bishop’s conference is to determine the norms according to which the said dispensation may be granted licitly and uniformly within the region or territory of the conference, with the provision that there should always be some public form of ceremony.
According to the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism,"serious difficulties" which may justify such a dispensation include the “maintaining of family harmony, obtaining parental consent to the marriage, the recognition of the particular religious commitment of the non-Catholic partner or his/her blood relationship with a minister of another Church or ecclesial Community" (no. 154). And, just as the Catholic priest may invite the non-Catholic minister to participate in the ceremony, so may the priest (with the permission of his bishop) accept a similar invitation to participate in a non-Catholic wedding ceremony from the minister under these circumstances (no. 157).
The Church wants to safeguard and respect the right to marry that God has given to all Christians, while unmistakably preserving the unity and validity of this sacrament. The Church preserves the unity of marriage by celebrating mixed marriages outside of the Mass (in most circumstances) and by teaching that the marriage vows be exchanged only once. By allowing a Protestant minister to play a role in the ceremony, the Church maintains Christian unity. The validity of the sacrament is safeguarded by requiring that the couple receive permission from the bishop to be married at a Protestant service, and by the Church’s requirement that this only occur when serious difficulties prevent the observing of the Catholic form. The Church’s guidelines for celebrating a mixed marriage ensure that the couple will enter into the perfect and indissoluble union of a sacramental marriage, and that their family and friends will be able to fully share in this joyful celebration.