Last weekend, I attended my cousin’s wedding down in Illinois. My grandpa traveled with us, and his concern the night before the big day was whether my cousin was marrying another Catholic. He was much relieved when he learned that she was, but I was perplexed. I knew she was having an outdoor wedding, and also that the Catholic Church rarely officially blesses such weddings. At the reception, my parents and I were seated with the priest who performed the ceremony, and we learned that, although he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest, he resigned due to disagreements with the official Church several years ago and now leads a community in the reform or “old Catholic” tradition.
You can read more about my meeting with him here, but one part of the conversation particularly sticks with me. He said that when he stopped practicing within Roman Catholicism, he was excited to serve those in the Catholic tradition who are marginalized by the Church. He said, “I thought, I need to prepare myself to deal with some really hard-hitting, deeply soulful issues. I’ll be blessing unions for couples who have been divorced; I’ll be blessing unions for gay couples. But in my five years of performing marriages in this tradition, I’ve only married one couple that was previously divorced. I haven’t married any gay couples. Nearly everyone who finds me comes to me because they’re Catholic and they want to have an outdoor wedding. And I find myself thinking, this is what’s driving people away from the Church? The desire to get married outdoors?”
I’ve been reflecting on this idea ever since. My first reaction was to be hopeful — perhaps this would be an inroad into Catholics more closely examining some of the other, more divisive issues within the Church. Then I felt a little annoyed; do these Catholics not bother to look more deeply at the traditions of their faith until it comes to their “special day” and making sure everything goes “just the way they imagined” in their wedding fantasies — even fantasies that included both an outdoor wedding and a Catholic service? Will these people look more deeply at reform traditions after the experience, or will they return to unquestioningly attending traditional services, or to not attending services at all?
But then I started reflecting on the deeper implications. Because I never fancied the idea of an outdoor wedding (too unpredictable!), I never came up against this tension when preparing for my own marriage. But in working with my uncle — also the priest who married us — he stressed how “inconsequential” the priest was to the wedding sacrament. He said, “Whereas a priest administers most of the sacraments, marriage is the only sacrament in which you, the couple, administer it. The priest is only a witness.” As such, he encouraged us to create a ceremony that was meaningful to us as a couple, with the exchange of vows the only element that we absolutely had to incorporate (but even then, we had quite a bit of flexibility in the vows we chose.)
If it’s true that the couple performs the sacrament of marriage and that the priest merely serves as the official witness, why does the Church still get to decide where the wedding must take place? If a priority is creating a meaningful ceremony for the couple, and if the couple finds deep meaning and connection in the beauty of God’s creation, why does the Church deny this? After all, Jesus did much of his preaching, teaching, and sacraments outdoors.
Although my experience of getting married within the Catholic Church was overwhelmingly positive, I’m troubled by the deeper issue of the Church continuing to use the sacraments as a sort of bribe to get people to do things their way. (Withholding communion in particular comes to mind.) I know of one couple whose local priest refused to marry them because the groom was terminally ill, and would never be able to father children. I know another where the couple planned to marry in a city apart from the one they were living in because most of their friends, family, and memories were there. The priest required the couple to attend his church for six months prior to the wedding, even though regularly attending out-of-town services was a hardship for them. And when my sister got married, the local priest refused to give her marriage license to my uncle who would be performing the ceremony, because he was upset about not being invited to the rehearsal (my sister didn’t intentionally shut him out, but only thought not to bother him with the rehearsal since he wouldn’t be present at the actual wedding).
Ultimately, I respect the Church’s right to require Catholic weddings to follow certain protocols; the separation of Church and State means that the Church can decide which weddings it will and will not bless. I don’t want that right taken away from it, even though I don’t always agree with its decisions. (And likewise, I don’t want the Church to impose its standards on the secular institution of marriage, either).
Marriage is a sacrament that is both deeply personal and intimate and profoundly public and communal. As such, each wedding must navigate the terrain between a couple’s individual dreams for the ceremony and the acknowledgment of what the act means to the community as a whole, and what the vocation of marriage means within Catholicism in particular. From this perspective, I think a lot of the Church’s requirements make sense. I was glad to jump through many of the Church’s “hoops” (pre-marital counseling, a period of at least 6 months between the engagement and the wedding, etc.) because they led me to more deeply reflect on the journey my future husband and I were undertaking. That’s what such requirements should do — guide a couple through this important tradition. Not attempt to lock them out of it.
What do you think? How much does “the way we marry” matter? How much say should the Church have over wedding ceremonies? How big a deal are outdoor weddings, really, and are they a proxy for something bigger that’s happening in the Church? I’d love to hear your thoughts.