Where Should a Catholic Get Married?

I’ll admit up front to being amazed by the growing need to explain the most elementary things. Like that there are boys and girls. Like that we know when life begins. Or like the fact that Catholics should get married in churches.

The secularization, if not outright sacrilege, of fundamental vocational commitments goes on even in the Church. It’s all tied to a weakened sense of the sacred, especially in daily life. We are witnesses of a campaign to whitewash the current sex scandal among bishops and priests as a matter of the “clerical culture.” (If those priests and bishops actually acted like, and respected their status as, “clerics” we wouldn’t be in this cesspool.) Given the increasingly tenuous hold of the Church on the marriage-age generation (brought about in part by a dumbed-down catechesis and the vow of omertà regarding the Catholic understanding of marriage and sex) we now see a weakening of the idea that Catholics should get married in churches.

The last point is generated by an experimental policy introduced this year in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, whereby a Catholic can ask for a wedding to be celebrated outdoors. Archdiocesan Chancellor Diane Barr said it was part of Archbishop Lori’s concern for “reaching out to young people” who seem especially interested in capitalizing on the “lovely” places in the Old Line State, and that priests should remember that couples ought to have a “meaningful ceremony at a particular location.”

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The Archdiocese has already decided, however, that no matter how “lovely” or “meaningful” they are, casinos, bars, and nightclubs are not places for weddings. Nor are boats—not because Maryland’s Chesapeake is not “lovely,” but because a boat can drift into another jurisdiction, affecting the civil license.

Barr promised that Baltimore would review the “data” on the policy at year’s end and “probably poll” the Baltimore presbyterate.

I don’t need to wait until December 31. This kind of mush is precisely why the local Church in the United States is foundering.

Marriage is a sacrament. It is the foundation of the domestic Church, the “Church in miniature,” and as such it is a reflection of a greater mystery, that of the union of Christ and his Church (see Ephesians 5).

It is a sacrament of vocation. It specifies the primordial sacrament of vocation—baptism—by enabling two persons (ideally, two Catholics) to live their lives as Christians and, eventually, to share the gift with their children. It should perdure until “death do them part” temporarily, until they are rejoined in the nuptial feast of heaven.

That’s pretty “meaningful,” and a lot more meaningful than even Fort McHenry, or waterfowl winging over the Severn River in Annapolis, or even, as Chancellor Barr suggests, “their grandmother’s field behind the family’s home.” (That is why a man shall leave his father and mother, stop looking back at the family home or even the family plough, and cling to his wife—Genesis 2:24 and Luke 9:62, adapted.)

Are we evangelizing these “young people” sufficiently to challenge their vision enough to realize what is truly “meaningful” in what they are committing to “until death do us part?” Or are we acquiescing in some gauzy “meaningfulness,” not unlike an equally ephemeral “spirituality,” that “finds” God everywhere save his house?

Because this is what at least partially bothers me about Baltimore’s permission: is it a concession to the kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” mentality, particularly of Millennials—that recognizes some “Force” but never within the doctrinal confines of a community of believers? Does it not also reinforce contemporary individualistic, non-communal orientations? A religious venue matters because it is a place of prayer, not just for myself but for others alongside, before, and after me. It does not acquire significance because we had our first date there or because we find God in the sunset over the Bay Bridge.

My guess is that there is another more superficial motivation: Some want a pretty backdrop for the wedding pictures. All things considered, I’ll admit that some of the “lovely” areas of Maryland are more beautiful than some parishes (especially ones that survived the “renewal of the local church” after more traditional churches were sold off). But there is an essential difference between a real church—no matter how unappealing it might be after the liturgical Vandals had their way—and other venues.

I offer this last observation because of a passage inserted into the new procedures by members of the liturgical movement: “The norms regarding Sacred Music are to be observed for the wedding ceremony and properly trained Church music ministers are to be employed at the approved wedding location.” (Presumably this is meant as a warning for the local soloist who may be inclined to plop in front of the congregation, waving her arms like a Herbert von Karajan wannabe, crooning into the nearest microphone.)

I agree that marriage is a liturgical rite that demands appropriate liturgical music. The marriage ceremony is not a preview of “the couple’s favorite song” that will be played at the reception. But I find it paradoxical that dioceses will dig in on “proper” liturgical music, fighting Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride,” and then give in on celebrating the rite somewhere while we tiptoe through the tulips. (Hey, there just might be some Dutch Catholics for whom that herbaceous bulbiferous geophyte abloom at the Rawlings Conservatory has a particularly “prayerful, sacred feeling for the couple and their guests.”)

By the way, at least the Archdiocese specifies that outdoor weddings should be performed as sacrament only, i.e., the Liturgy of the Word and the exchange of consent. In other words, outdoor weddings will normally be outside of Mass.

Vatican II was centrally about the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium, #11), to which marriage as a communion personarum has an explicit nexus. A wedding within the Mass should be the normal context for Christian marriage; the burden of proof should lie on justifying a departure from that norm.

In Baltimore’s quest for a “meaningful” experience for marrying couples, have we lost perspective on what is “meaningful?” Or is “meaningful” merely in the eye of the beholder?

Well, if “meaningful” is the criterion capable of trumping both the Mass and the local Church community, then are we not abetting the subjectivism of marriage? Deciding that the parish is not “meaningful” can also lead to other essential characteristics of Catholic marriage becoming less “meaningful” to “the couple and their guests,” like “fruitfulness” or “indissolubility.” Where do we stop on the slippery slope?

Weddings are often one of the few moments where the Church in the United States, which has a dismal track record with twenty-somethings, can address the “unchurching” and secularizing of young people that often ensues after receiving the sacrament of Christian exodus, Confirmation. Confirmation, marriage, and the baptism of one’s children are watershed moments when the Church should challenge people with the adventure of what John Paul II called “setting out into the deep” of faith. And, with the postponement of childbearing along with marriage, the next opportunity after the wedding day may be a while off. (By that time, some of those folks may be thinking that infant baptism is not only not “meaningful” but a positive human rights violation.)

Chancellor Barr says that Archbishop Lori is concerned about “reaching out to young people” and “openness to considering other options.” Given the Church’s hemorrhage of Millennials, it seems we have two choices: the path of accommodation or the path of challenge. The path of accommodation may get us a Catholic wedding, but I am very skeptical it will build up Catholic marriages. The path of challenge need not be one of “take it or leave it,” a legalism thought to be common before Vatican II, when moralists split hairs over the canonical permissions needed to deviate from the bride’s parish without the explicit consent of her liege lord and pastor. But it can be one that presses young people to think about what the Church believes is “meaningful” about this event rather than pursue a course of action that turns out to be fairly superficial.

In the wake of Baltimore’s experiment and the chance it could spread, I urge the bishops to say “no” (and not just “think long and hard” before “pastorally” throwing up their hands) to this further secularization of Catholic marriage.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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