I was recently speaking to a Catholic woman whose daughter is getting married later this year. I inquired about what church the marriage was to take place in but the mother replied that while the daughter liked the look of the parish church she had opted for a garden wedding so she was able to design more of the ceremony herself. The mother didn’t seem to be aware of any concerns stemming from this decision.
Catholics leaving their parish for a scenic wedding is no longer unique. Until recently even the most distant of Catholics would appear in the parish to be hatched, matched and dispatched, that is, for their baptism, wedding and funeral. But a growing proportion of young couples are marrying ‘outside the Church’ (to use the classical phrase). Some do so because they have such little connection with their faith it makes no sense to them, others dislike the Church for one reason or another and some simply felt an outdoor wedding would be more picturesque.
While it is objectively true to state that Catholics are obliged to observe the Church’s laws on marriage, many Catholics quite simply have no idea what those laws are or what they mean. I wonder if some of the confusion comes down to a lack of understanding about the words ‘church’ and ‘Church’. In the way of a very brief explanation, ‘church’ describes the actual building where people come to pray, e.g. St Joseph’s parish church, whereas ‘Church’ refers to a grouping of Christians e.g. the Catholic Church.
When a person is baptised water is poured over their head and they are called Catholic but supernaturally they get a whole lot more than a damp head and a membership card. In baptism a person is raised up to share in God’s own life. One might use the analogy that due to inherited original sin all people are born running on low octane fuel, but in baptism a person has an engine overhaul and is filled with high octane ultra premium fuel. Now obviously when a vehicle is designed to run on high grade fuel you do not go putting in the cheapest stuff you can find. A person running a high performance vehicle does not resent that they need to use high octane fuel; they do so because they know it is what will make the car run at its optimal level. Similarly, baptism raises a person to a new level and from then they are designed to live a ‘higher’ life. It does not mean the baptised person is better than a non-baptised person but the fact is they are called to something different. Living as a Christian though does necessitate saying goodbye to low grade fuels.
For the baptised person then, not all wedding are marriages. Christ raised up marriage to the level of a sacrament meaning it became filled with specific graces that are simply not available in the natural marriage model. The higher grade model has conditions though. A person is not at liberty to simply design their own version of a wedding ceremony just as the driver of a fine car cannot roll up to any petrol station and fill up with any type of fuel. The Catholic Church offers sacramental marriage to all Catholics but it has to be conducted under the laws of the Church which primarily mean that the marriage is contracted in the presence of one of the Church’s ministers and two witnesses, and in ‘normal’ circumstances, (and if you are reading this you probably fall into the normal category), that would take place in a Catholic church building because that is the place where the faithful gather.
When a Catholic decides not to marry in ‘a church’ it usually means they are not married in ‘the Church’. This is like deciding to fill up a finely tuned Ferrari with the cheapest low grade fuel available. A Catholic might have a nice outdoor wedding ceremony but without the blessing of the Church there is no marriage. Christ offers to his Church every help and blessing but Catholics must understand this requires a certain way of living.
To marry outside the Church is a statement (deliberate or otherwise) that the specific blessings Christ offers are not required. That is why a marriage contracted outside the Church is generally not considered to be valid by the Church. This obligation for Catholics to marry within the Church is not something to be resented; rather it demonstrates what a gift and privilege the Catholic is called to. Getting married ‘in the Church’ has nothing to do with the look of the building or the person of the priest. It has everything to do with Jesus Christ and entering into a sacramental marriage with all the blessings that entails.