Why can’t any sacrament be received at any Catholic church?

By Jenna Marie Cooper

Question Corner

Q: Why can't a Catholic couple receive the sacrament of Marriage at any Catholic church? My grandson and his fiancé chose a different diocese from where they live as a midpoint of getting married, to help their family travel distances. They sought the ceremony at several churches but were declined because they were not parishioners. Our family is devastated and angry at the Church. We thought any Sacrament could be received at any church. (Location withheld)

A: It is theoretically possible for a Catholic to receive the sacraments in any parish church. However, some sacraments are intended to be ordinarily celebrated in specific churches, and marriage is one of these sacraments. Canon 1115 of the Code of Canon Law tells us: “Marriages are to be celebrated in the parish in which either of the contracting parties has a domicile or a quasi-domicile or a month’s residence […] With the permission of the proper Ordinary or the proper pastor, marriages may be celebrated elsewhere.”   An important point is that it is really not up to the couple to choose the church of marriage because the first step is usually a conversation between the couple and the Catholic’s pastor; it sounds like the Catholic’s pastor was left out of the loop and that the couple did not seek his permission to be married elsewhere.  So, the other diocese would not want to grant permission for an important matter in which pastor was ignored.  The pastor would grant written permission on a diocesan form and conduct all of the premarital counseling; the other diocese likely did not have any proof of that having been completed or even started.  A convenient marriage venue is certainly not the most important part of the planning since the couple is making a lifetime commitment before God.  The pastor has a crucial role in the couple’s preparation as well as ongoing support after the wedding day.

Translated into layman’s terms, this means that, under normal circumstances, Catholics should have their wedding ceremonies in a parish church where either the bride or the groom has an established permanent residence, called a domicile in canon law, or a part-time or long-term temporary residence (that is, a quasi-domicile) or at the very least, in the parish whose geographical territory either of them have been living in for one month. If a Catholic couple wants to be married in a church at which neither of them are parishioners -- or at a shrine or chapel that is not a parish -- they would need the permission of the appropriate Ordinary (generally, the local bishop or his Vicar General) or the parish pastor who was empowered to grant this kind of permission. And if the couple does get permission to marry in a diocese where neither of them are resident, there is some additional behind-the-scenes paperwork that must be signed by the canon lawyers of the respective dioceses.

As disappointing as this may have been for your family, your grandson was not owed this special permission to be married at a parish that was not his own, in a diocese in which he did not live.

But why would a priest or bishop withhold this permission? Without knowing all the details involved, I can’t give answers about your specific situation. But there are a few general reasons that come to mind.

First, marriage is a very serious commitment that requires careful discernment and preparation. If a Catholic seeks to marry at a parish not his or her own, especially one that is at some distance from where he or she lives, the parish pastor might have some legitimate concerns about whether the premarital preparations were sufficiently addressed. Further, it is often easier to rule out any potential impediments to the marriage when the wedding is set to take place within the couple’s local community.  An impediment could include prior marriages which need to be examined for the possibility of a declaration of nullity.

Additionally, there are some churches and chapels that are well-known for their exceptional beauty. Sometimes, these sacred spaces are widely sought after as wedding venues. In these cases, a parish might run the risk of becoming overly burdened by wedding requests from non-parishioners, to the extent that the actual parishioners risk suffering some degree of neglect. To counteract this, such places often have strict policies of who is eligible to be married in their church or chapel.

It is possible for a Catholic to marry in a parish other than his or her own, but this takes extra planning and communication from all sides; ultimately, the necessary permission is up to the prudential decision-making of local pastors and Bishops who usually designate canon lawyers to handle these matters.  So, please do not yield to a temptation of the devil to be angry and possibly stop being a practicing Catholic; the beauty of Church teaching is that there is always a good reason to follow it.

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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].