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Wedding…Church or Garden?

December 9, AD 2012 6 Comments

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.

About the Author:

Bernard Toutounji is an Australian Catholic writer and speaker. He writes a fortnightly column called Foolish Wisdom ( which examines afresh issues within news, culture or faith. One of Bernard’s favourite quotes comes from Edith Stein who said "All those who seek truth seek God whether this is clear to them or not". Bernard is married to Jane and they have two daughters.
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  • You make some interesting points. I think this removal of the wedding ceremony from a traditional church setting comes from a more vast misunderstanding of the concept of what weddings are supposed to focus on, and the reason for celebrating the marriage after the ceremony. The joining of a man and woman has become twisted into a secularized, consumer driven “industry” that involves unimaginable sums of money, self-indulgence and pampering, anxiety, and unrealistic expectations. Weddings that cost in excess of twenty five thousand dollars have become the new normal, as the couple and their families put their all into a wedding reception meant to dazzle and impress. The entire focus on the wedding as a whole has shifted from the actual joining of man and woman to the kind of bash that will echo throughout the ages.

    Naturally, this mentality has leeched into the religious aspect of weddings, including the Catholic Church. There are plenty of poorly catechized Catholics out there who don’t even understand the sacramental aspect of getting married and buy into the spending frenzy of the fully customized wedding. It’s like everything else. We like our options. Many consumer products include customizable features that allow us to tailor that product to our own whims and desires. Weddings aren’t any different nowadays. We can spend hours of agonizing scrutiny as we pick out the colors of the flowers with which the bridesmaids hair will be adorned.

    The sacramental aspect of marriage is completely opposite to this self-serving version of the secular, pick-your-feature wedding. It is a donation of self before God and those witnessing the marriage. It is a promise to one another to faithfully spend their lives together, bringing children into the world if God grants it, it is caring for each other during sickness, bringing two lives together into one. That is a very beautiful, amazing gift that God has given us. It is sad to see it overlooked in order to throw a good party.

    Poor catechesis can be partly blamed on the part of churches and their pre-cana programs, as well as parishes who do not present the proper teachings of the Magisterium. When I was going through pre-cana, most of the couples had already lived together before marriage and saw no problem with it. How can we celebrate a marriage if the couple has already been living in a state of de-facto marriage, without vows and the graces of the sacrament? It is no surprise then that the wedding reception becomes the focus.

    Sorry about the long reply. I am deeply saddened by the cheapening of the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church and pray that parishes can teach young couples the Truth of the Church in relation to love, relationships, and marriage.

  • >>>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.<<<

    I think a better analogy would be filling the gas tank with sugar. The car will still run on low grade fuel, but when a person leaves the Church to get married, they are sabotaging the life of grace in their soul. They are creating innumerable problems for themselves. Marital problems arising from non-sacramental marriages are some of the most painful and difficult to rectify. Going back to the gas tank analogy, the car can be made to run again, but it is going to require an overhaul and it may be a difficult process.

  • alvien

    God has a house and that’s where marriage should happen.Young cupples should also kno that marriage is about man and woman joining together in front of god,and not just another party that they can plan how ever they want.The me my self and I mentality is also a factor in this growing trend.

  • I am very much against Church weddings being outside of the church- it makes the wedding (and thus marriage) about the couple instead of God and the couple. very sad

  • Jes

    I often think that it is better for the uncatechised, non practicing to marry outside the Church. They retain the ability to return to the Church and to have a sacramental marriage (with the same or a different partner) at a later point, and the journey is not complicated by requirements for annulments/ inability to remarry.