FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT MARRIAGE IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
1. WHAT’S THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE PREPARATION?
In a sense, you have been preparing for marriage for your entire life, because you have been learning how to love and be loved as long as you have been alive, and certainly as long as you have known your future spouse.
Because marriage is so significant (see Question 3: Why does the Church have so many rules about marriage?), the Catholic Church insists that all couples go through the marriage preparation process. There are several goals of this process meant for the couple to discern:
• Whether you have the basic elements of a psychological, intellectual, moral and legal capability for marriage and family life;
• To foster a clear awareness of the essential characteristics of Catholic marriage: unity, fidelity, indissolubility, and fruitfulness;
• To offer an opportunity for deepening your faith and to help you discover of the value of the sacraments and the experience of prayer;
• To offer you practical advice and assistance to preserve and cultivate your married love, including topics such as communication, finances, family of origin and how to overcome the inevitable challenges and difficulties of married life;
• To provide education and support in the values concerning the defense of human life and the nature and importance of married sexuality, according to the plan of God and promoted by the Catholic Church.
To sum this up, the goals of marriage preparation are to help you to grow in love, and to be open to God’s grace, so that you can have a happy and fulfilling sacramental marriage and a harmonious family life.
2. WHAT ARE THE REQUIREMENTS FOR MARRIAGE UNDER THE CHURCH’S LAW?
According to the Canon Law (the law of the Church), in order for a marriage to be valid, there are certain requirements:
• At least one of the spouses is a baptized Catholic;
• The wedding must be celebrated in a Catholic church in the presence of a Catholic priest/deacon/bishop and in the presence of two other witnesses;
• The two spouses must be free to be married (e.g., no prior valid marriages or any other vow that would impede the spouses fulfill their commitment to marriage);
• They must be psychologically mature and capable of consenting to the marriage; and they must understand the nature of Catholic marriage (i.e., exclusive, permanent, and open to having children).
Under the regulations of the Archdiocese, the spouses must also meet with the priest/deacon who will be witnessing their marriage, or a member of the parish staff that would guide them through a particular marriage preparation process.
Meeting the requirements above are what is considered necessary for a valid Catholic marriage. They also are foundational elements that contribute to a stronger, happier, lasting, and fruitful marriage. These rules are designed to help you have a good, solid foundation for a happy marriage.
For more information, see Question 3: Why does the Church have so many rules about marriage?
The priest/deacon who is witnessing your marriage will meet with you to go over the “Pre-Nuptial Questionnaire” and ensure all of the Canon Law requirements for marriage have been met.
3. WHY DOES THE CHURCH HAVE SO MANY RULES ABOUT MARRIAGE?
The Church takes marriage very seriously, because God takes it very seriously. That is why there are rules.
Marriage is a sacred covenant between a man and woman and God. It is a tremendous gift from God, and it is a visible sign of His love and commitment to His people (cf. Eph 5:31-32).
Marriage is the foundation of the family and of society, and it is central to the life of the Church. It is also a public act that is celebrated as part of the Church’s liturgy, and introduces the couple into a special state of life in the Church. It creates a permanent and faithful bond between husband and wife, and it establishes significant rights and responsibilities between the married couple and, eventually, their children. It is also the most important relationship in the life of a married couple, and is vital to their happiness and to the happiness of their children.
Because it is so significant, the Church wants to make sure that a couple is properly prepared for marriage, and that they enter into it freely, without reservation, and with full understanding of what is involved. The Church also has an obligation to make sure that the marriage is celebrated in the right way, according to the right forms. All of this stems from the Church’s special obligation to take care of the spiritual health of all of God’s people.
As a result, the marriage preparation process is governed by rules and regulations that are part of the Church’s Canon Law (her universal law), regulations of the Archdiocese, liturgical rules, and particular pastoral requirements of individual parishes and priests. While these rules may seem complicated to those who are unfamiliar with them, most people find them no more difficult than the civil law requirements governing marriage or any other civil or social commitment.
In addition, a couple who goes through this process with an open heart and open mind will find that they will address issues of critical importance to their marriage. In having discussions between themselves and with a priest/deacon or parish staff about these issues, they can avoid problems in the future and have a firmer sense of confidence in their love and in the love of God.
In short, the Church is concerned about your well-being, and wants you to have a great marriage. That’s what marriage preparation is all about.
4. DO WE HAVE TO GIVE THE PRIEST OR DEACON OR PARISH STAFF ANY DOCUMENTS?
If you’re a Catholic, you’ll need to have the following documents (please check with your parish Pastor to confirm all the documents that are needed):
1. A certificate of Baptism, dated within 6 months of your wedding date.
2. Evidence of your First Holy Communion and Confirmation (if you’ve been confirmed).
3. If you’re not getting married in your home parish, your freedom to be married must be established, by either a statement of “no notations” on your baptismal certificate (e.g., that there are no prior valid marriages, no religious vows, etc.) or a letter from your pastor.
If you’re a non-Catholic Christian, you need to have some evidence that you were baptized (e.g., a recent baptismal certificate from your church). Some parishes will also ask you for a letter from a parent or other adult stating that you are free to be married (e.g., there were no prior marriages).
You will usually be asked to have these documents at the time you first meet with the parish priest/deacon to ensure all of the Canon Law requirements for marriage have been met.
5. WHAT IF ONLY ONE OF US IS A CATHOLIC AND THE OTHER IS NON-CATHOLIC CHRISTIAN?
A marriage between a Catholic and a baptized Christian (even if they’re a non-Catholic) can still be a valid marriage, according to the Canon Law of the Church, provided that the couple is free to be married (i.e., no prior valid marriages), they understand the nature of Catholic marriage, and the Catholic spouse obtains from his/her bishop a formal “permission” for the marriage.
If you wish to have your wedding celebrated at a non-Catholic church, the Catholic spouse must also obtain a “dispensation from canonical form” (i.e., a waiver of the formal requirements that the wedding occur in a Catholic Church, the use of the ordinary marriage rite, witnessed by a Catholic priest, deacon or bishop) from his/her bishop. If you live in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the priest or deacon who is overseeing your marriage preparation will help you to obtain these documents from the Canonical Affairs Archdiocesan Office. If you live outside the Archdiocese of San Antonio, you should contact a priest in your home parish to obtain these documents. Obtaining these documents can take time, so you should start the process early. Please note that permission will not be granted to have a wedding outdoors, or in a non-religious location like a catering hall or restaurant.
You should also be aware that there can only be one marriage ceremony. If the wedding is celebrated in the Catholic Church, the priest presides, and a non-Catholic minister can offer prayers and ask a blessing on the couple. If the wedding takes place in a non-Catholic church, the minister presides, and a priest/deacon may be present to offer a prayer and blessing.
The Catholic spouse is also under a serious obligation to ensure that their children are raised within the Catholic faith — indeed, during one of your interviews with the priest/deacon or parish staff who is overseeing your marriage preparation, the Catholic spouse must make a formal promise to that effect, and the other spouse must be made aware of that promise. On the other hand, the other spouse also commits to allowing the Catholic spouse to practice freely the Catholic faith.
Keep in mind that differences in religious faith can be a significant source of stress and strain in a marriage – especially when the issue of children comes around (as it will, at some point), or if there are problems with relatives or friends over this issue. The most important thing to do is to discuss this issue now – don’t put it off and deal with it later. You should have hope — there are many strong relationships between non-Catholic Christians and Catholics. When there is freedom for the other person to live according to their faith a couple can grow in love, mutual support, while growing closer to God and each other. Mutual holiness is always the goal and a married couple with differences in faith may find opportunities to be enriched by these differences. The Catholic spouse has many opportunities to evangelize as well, but this must be done in a way that is sensitive, respectful, prayerful and patient.
6. WHAT IF ONLY ONE OF US IS A CATHOLIC AND THE OTHER IS A NON-CHRISTIAN?
According to the Canon Law of the Church, a wedding between a Catholic and a non-Christian can be a valid bond if the couple obtains from the Catholic spouse’s bishop a “Dispensation” due to the “Disparity of Cult”. If this is the case and you wish for your wedding to take place at a religious building other than a Catholic church (for instance, at a synagogue), you will also need a “Dispensation from Canonical form” (i.e., a waiver of the formal requirements that the wedding occur in a Catholic Church, witnessed by a Catholic priest, deacon or bishop). If you’re from the Archdiocese, the priest or deacon who is overseeing your marriage preparation will help you to obtain these documents from the Canonical Affairs Archdiocesan Office.If you live outside the Archdiocese of San Antonio, you should contact a priest in your home parish to obtain these documents. Obtaining these documents can take time, so you should start the process early. Please note that permission will not be granted to have a wedding outdoors, or in a non-religious location like a catering hall or restaurant.
You should also be aware that there can only be one marriage ceremony. If the wedding is celebrated in the Catholic Church, the priest presides, and the non-Catholic minister (e.g., a rabbi) can offer prayers and ask a blessing on the couple. If the wedding takes place in another religious location, such as a synagogue, the non-Catholic minister presides, and a priest/deacon may be present to offer a prayer and blessing.
In addition, the Catholic spouse is also under a serious obligation to ensure that their children are raised within the Catholic faith — indeed, during one of your interviews with the priest/deacon or parish staff who is overseeing your marriage preparation, the Catholic spouse must make a formal promise to that effect, and the other spouse must be made aware of that promise.
Keep in mind that differences in religious faith can be a significant source of stress and strain in a marriage – especially when the issue of children comes around (as it will, at some point), or if there are problems with relatives or friends over this issue. The most important thing to do is to discuss this issue now – don’t put it off and deal with it later. You should have hope — there are many, many wonderful and strong interfaith relationships in which the couples, based on their love and mutual respect, grow closer to God and each other. Holiness is always the goal, and a married couple with religious differences can still get there — and be joyfully married as well — by helping and supporting each other.
7. DO I (WE) HAVE TO BE CONFIRMED BEFORE WE GET MARRIED?
In order to be married in the Catholic Church, confirmation prior your wedding is something strongly encouraged. In the Sacrament of Confirmation, the baptized person is “sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit” and is strengthened for service to the Body of Christ. As you seek to live a life of self-giving through the Sacrament of Matrimony, your commitment to your spouse will be strengthen by the gifts you receive through the Sacrament of Confirmation. Confirmation completes and strengthens the graces that were given to you at your Baptism.
There are thousands of adults confirmed every year. Almost every parish offers confirmation preparation programs for adults. Click here to learn more about how adults can receive the Sacrament of Confirmation.
8. WHAT IF ONE OF US WAS MARRIED PREVIOUSLY?
The Archdiocese of San Antonio wishes to accompany you as you seek to bring new meaning to your life by embracing the vocation of marriage and dedicating your family’s mission to sharing God’s love.
Convalidation process: If either of you ever went through a wedding ceremony of any kind (even if it was a civil marriage that was later dissolved), please speak to your parish priest or deacon as soon as possible, in order to satisfy the requirements of the Canon Law and to ensure that your marriage will be valid. Click here to find a parish near you.
For more information about the Convalidation process, click here.
Click here to visit the website of the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, the Office that responds to petitions for declarations of nullity of marriages (commonly referred to as annulments).
9. WHAT IF WE’RE GETTING MARRIED OUTSIDE THE ARCHDIOCESE OF SAN ANTONIO?
If you’re getting married outside the Archdiocese of San Antonio, you should speak to the priest or deacon who will be witnessing your marriage outside of the Archdiocese about your marriage preparation. Some priests/deacon or parish staff may ask you to work with a local priest or deacon in the Archdiocese of San Antonio regarding your marriage preparation (e.g., he may ask that a priest in your local parish do the “Pre-Nuptial Questionnaire” — For more information see Question 15. What is the “Pre-Nuptial Questionnaire”?).
You will need to have proof of your baptism, (a newly-issued baptismal certificate), a confirmation and first communion certificate. Your local priest will send the necessary documents to the other diocese, after having the Canonical Affairs Archdiocesan Office endorse them with the Archdiocesan seal.
You should be aware that any dispensations or permissions that are required by Canon Law must be granted by the bishop of your home diocese. Obtaining these documents can take time, especially if you have to get them from a diocese outside of the country, so you should start the process early.
10. WHAT IF ONE OF US LIVES OUTSIDE OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF SAN ANTONIO, OR LIVES IN ANOTHER COUNTRY?
Since you need some documents before you get married (e.g., a certificate of baptism), you should contact the parish in which you were baptized. That parish will have to send the documents to its diocesan offices, which will then forward them here to the Archdiocese. As you can imagine, this will take some time, so you should start this process as soon as possible.
11. CAN WE GET MARRIED IN A PLACE OTHER THAN A CHURCH? (E.G. A SYNAGOGUE, BEACH, ETC.)
Before we can answer this question, an explanation is needed to understand why the location of your wedding matters so much.
The Sacrament of Marriage is a sacred event for both the couple and for the Church as a whole. The Sacrament is a sign not only of the love of the couple for each other, but of the love of God for the couple and the love of God for his people. Spiritually, the Church itself as a whole is present at every wedding.
With rare exceptions, all of the sacred events in the life of the Catholic people (Mass, baptisms, funerals, weddings, ordinations, confessions, confirmations, etc.) are celebrated at a Church — at the sacred place that is the center of our life as a faith community, the place where Jesus Himself is really present in the Eucharist in the tabernacle. The church building is also the place where past and future generations (our ancestors and descendants) have and will worship — so when we gather there we act in solidarity with all of God’s people, present, past and future.
That is also why weddings are supposed to be celebrated at the home parish of one of the future spouses— so that your own Christian community can participate and represent the Universal Church there present to be witness to and supporters of your Sacrament, in their own special holy place.
Essentially, location has meaning, just as the words of the marriage vows have meaning. Sacred events belong in sacred places, and secular events belong in secular locations. The requirement of Canon Law reminds us of the sacred nature of marriage, the special participation of God and His Church, and the place of every marriage in the life of the Church. A catering hall, a park, the beach, or city hall, are not sacred places, however nice they may be — they are certainly not places where the Catholic people ordinarily come together to worship God in the presence of Jesus and each other. Thus, the right place for your sacred exchange of wedding vows is a sacred place — in a church.
Having said that, the answer to the question depends on whether a marriage is between two Catholics, between a Catholic and another Christian, or between a Catholic and a non-Christian. Take a look at the following situations to see which applies to you.
Situation 1. Marriage between Two Catholics
Under the Canon Law a marriage between two Catholics must be celebrated in a parish church. Under the regulations of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, permission is never granted for a marriage between two Catholics to be celebrated in such places as parks, restaurants, catering halls, hotels, cruise ships, or the beach.
Situation 2. Marriage between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic Christian
Out of respect for other Christian communities, permission can be obtained for a wedding between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian to be celebrated at a non-Catholic church. See Question 5 above “What if only one of us is a Catholic and the other is non-Catholic Christian?”
Situation 3. Marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian
Out of respect for other faiths, permission can be obtained for a wedding between a Catholic and a non-Christian to take place at a religious building other than a Catholic church (for instance, at a synagogue). See Question 6 above “What if only one of us is a Catholic and the other is a non-Christian?”
12. DOES THE CHURCH HAVE A POSITION ON PRE-NUPTIAL AGREEMENTS?
The question of “prenuptial agreements” frequently arises in this day and age. These agreements are basically a contract between the prospective spouses about how their property and other rights will be handled within their marriage, and how they will be handled in the event of a divorce.
The Catholic Church does not have a blanket prohibition against prenuptial agreements. There may be some cases where they are perfectly legitimate. For example, if a widow with adult children marries a widower who also has adult children, a prenuptial agreement can be a legitimate way to preserve the inheritance rights of each spouse’s children to the property of the prior marriage.
In most circumstances, however, prenuptial agreements are not advised, and may even call into doubt the validity of the marriage itself.
Remember, one of the basic elements of a Catholic marriage is indissolubility — that marriage is permanent, and cannot be dissolved. Jesus himself stated about marriage, “what God has joined, let no man separate” (Mt. 19:6). This teaching is very strongly reflected in the Canon Law, the law of the Church. For a marriage to be valid, the couple must both fully understand what indissolubility means and they must fully consent to it. There cannot be any conditions or reservations about the permanency of their marriage.
When a couple enters into a prenuptial agreement that foresees the break-up of their marriage, it strongly implies that they do not intend their marriage to be permanent. Instead, it suggests that their consent is only to be married until it doesn’t “work out”, and that they are more committed to their possessions than to the marriage. This is not compatible with Catholic marriage.
A prenuptial agreement also suggests that there are fundamental questions about the strength of the couple’s relationship. It implies a lack of trust and commitment, and maybe some doubts about whether they are really ready to get married. It also suggests that the couple is not truly dedicated to working through any difficulties that arise, but are instead already contemplating the “escape hatch” of divorce. After all, no sports team goes into a game expecting to lose. What does it say to my spouse that I’m already thinking ahead to a divorce, or that my stuff is more important to me than spending the rest of my life with her, no matter what?
Our advice is that couples should avoid pre-nuptial agreements. We would also recommend that the couple talk seriously about why they would contemplate a pre-nuptial agreement, and whether they are truly ready to make the commitment to a full, permanent marriage.
13. DO WE NEED TO GET A MARRIAGE LICENSE?
Yes. You have to present a valid marriage license to the priest or deacon who is presiding at your wedding, before the marriage ceremony may be performed. For more information about the current requirements for a marriage license, check out the website of the Texas State Department of Health.
14. WHAT IS THE “PRE-MARITAL INVENTORY”?
The Pre-Marital Inventory is an aid to your marriage preparation. It consists of a number of questions that will evaluate your attitudes and beliefs about a wide range of subjects, especially those issues that are most significant to a successful marriage. There is a wide variety of inventories, most developed by psychologists and pastoral ministers, which can help a couple know each other more deeply and learn to communicate more openly to avoid conflicts.
The Inventory’s questionnaire is administered by a priest, deacon, or pastoral worker in person or online as part of your marriage preparation. Please ask your priest, deacon or parish staff about taking a pre-marital inventory. Fees vary according to the type of inventory that is taken.
15. WHAT IS THE “PRE-NUPTIAL QUESTIONNAIRE”?
The Pre-Nuptial Questionnaire helps guide the initial conversation about the Sacrament of Matrimony between the engaged couple and the parish priest or deacon assisting them with marriage preparation. Through this form the priest/deacon or parish staff will make sure that all the Canon Law requirements have been met. For instance, he will ask for proof of Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation, he will ensure that any dispensations or other required documents have been obtained. He’ll also ask a number of questions about the couples’ background and their understanding of the nature of Catholic marriage. The whole process is not very lengthy, and offers an excellent opportunity for couples to speak to the priest/deacon or parish staff about any issue they would like to discuss.
16. WHERE CAN WE FIND SUPPORT FOR LIVING OUR NEWLY MARRIED LIFESTYLE?
There are lots of resources that will support married couples to live their radical, counter-cultural life of self-giving permanent commitment.
First of all, you have to realize that marriage preparation doesn’t end when you walk out the door from your marriage preparation program. It continues throughout your marriage – after all, we should never stop learning how to love each other better. So, you should make sure that you keep working on your marriage. You should make sure to regularly attend some kind of marriage enrichment program, which are promoted in the parishes throughout the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Don’t forget that there is no doubt that the family that prays together, stays together. There are lots of ways to grow together spiritually, such as praying together as a couple, or celebrating the liturgy together. One great activity is to go on spiritual retreats, some of which are designed for married couples. Contact your own parish or any local retreat house for more information.
Another great way to grow as a couple is to do volunteer work together. There are so many opportunities, beginning in your own parish, which always needs help in the school or religious education program, CYO/youth groups, etc. Or, you could contact groups that run soup kitchens, crisis pregnancy centers, homes for unwed mothers, or Habitat for Humanity. Local pro-life organizations always need support, and offer a great opportunity to make a difference.
Click here for a list of marriage and family resources and ministries.
Thank you to the Archdiocese of New York for allowing us to adapt their questions and answers for our use.
To learn more about marriage ministries, contact your neighborhood parish by using our interactive map or contact the Department for Pastoral Ministries at 210-734-1952 or by email.
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