Canonical Witness to Sacramental Marriage

Hi there,

I’m posting to ask for canonical advice on my (a layperson) presiding over a marriage to ensure it has canonical acceptance as a Roman Catholic Sacrament.

I am a confirmed Roman Catholic, and am also a Justice of the Peace and have performed civil marriages in the past. My cousin, also a confirmed Roman Catholic, is engaged to marry her fiance, a baptized Lutheran Protestant, but they do not want a Catholic celebration and would prefer a secular ceremony. They’ve asked me to officiate, and I am deeply honored. I’ve always learned in my Catholic upbringing that the Sacrament of Marriage is a sacrament between man and woman, and only observed canonically by a witness (ideally two canonical witnesses presided over by an ordained minister).

The ceremony itself will be one of the couple’s creation, within the bounds of the civil marriage that I will be officiating.

What steps do I need to take to obtain special dispensation to serve as a canonical witness and celebrant for this marriage so that it is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a valid sacrament? I know the families would be thrilled if, even in this secular ceremony, there were a religious sacrament concurrently imparted.

Thank you for your advice!

On your own there is nothing you can do.

Your cousin & her fiance need to meet with her Pastor to prepare for their marriage, get permission for a mixed marriage, and petition for a dispensation from canonical form. They can list you as the celebrant. If the dispensation is granted, you can officiate over their sacramental marriage. If the dispensation is denied and they go ahead anyway their marriage will not be valid.


Thank you so much for your reply.

Does this mean that marriages that were performed between two baptized non-Catholic Christians are not valid? (As referenced in Cat. 1635, I understand that the dispensation is required prior to a mixed marriage taking place, but is there no provision for its acceptance post factum?)

No, it does not mean that. Catholics are required to be married in the Catholic Church. There is no such requirements for non-Catholics, baptized or not. A Catholic may be dispensed from that requirement when marrying a non-Catholic, but it’s up to the Bishop to do so.

An invalid marriage can be convalidated but generally that means at least one party accepts that the marriage is not valid and they get married in the Church with a priest or deacon and two witnesses. It would still require permission for a mixed marriage but often the priest has been given the faculty to grant that.

Much less complicated to do things the right way from the get go. Why start your marriage by entering into sin?


Talk to the pastor of your parish for a definitive answer…while well intended, the advice you get from a social website is meant times only worth what you pay for it!

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You don’t.

You just said they do not want a Catholic wedding. It is possible for a lay person to officiate a Catholic wedding, but that is only in absence of a priest or deacon under certain circumstances provided for under church law, and when the person is delegated by the Church. And when a Catholic lay person does this, they use the Catholic marriage rite and it is a Catholic wedding.

What it sounds like your cousin and his fiancé want is a non Catholic wedding. I’d be wary of that— why don’t they want a church wedding/marriage???

In a mixed marriage situation it is possible for the Catholic to receive a dispensation from canonical form. In this case, the couple must complete Catholic marriage preparation. The priest applies for a dispensation from form from the bishop, and if granted to the couple then the couple may marry in a non-Catholic ceremony. In this case you are a civil officiant and NOT a canonical witness to the marriage. You perform the ceremony and coordinate with the Catholic priest who prepares them for marriage so he can record their marriage in the sacramental register after the fact.

Not exactly. The Catholic form of marriage requires two witnesses and the priest (or his designee).

What about the couple? If the couple has no intention to marry validly, you as a Catholic should not perform the ceremony.


C’mon. Why are you taking the OP to task for his niece’s desires? Since we both know that it’s possible to receive a dispensation from form, it’s reasonable to answer the question with “because that’s not the desire of the Catholic fiancee vis-a-vis her non-Catholic fiance.”

Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. :wink:

This is an interesting theoretical question, though! Can a Catholic JP perform a civil wedding of Catholic spouse(s) which would be an invalid marriage in the Catholic Church?

On one hand, he’s willingly participating in a ceremony that’s invalid in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, he’s not participating as a Catholic officiant, but is fulfilling his requirements in his secular position. So… is it sinful on his part?

The analyses I’ve read tend to suggest that, while it’s not optimal, it’s also not sinful. He’s attempting to perform an action as an agent of the state, and not of the Church.

(Now, on the other hand, if we had a Catholic priest or deacon attempting to celebrate a wedding which he knew was invalid, that would be a different story, and would open him up to ecclesiastical censure.)

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I’m not “taking him to task”. I’m suggesting he be wary of being asked to officiate a Catholic-Lutheran wedding that neither seem inclined to approach their own pastors about.

I didn’t say it was.

As the cousin, asked to perform the marriage and stating that he does not want to perform an invalid marriage, I suggested he decline if they don’t want to take steps to have a valid marriage (i.e. dispensation from form).

Don’t read things into my posts that aren’t there. The OP stated they didn’t want a Catholic marriage and he also stated he wanted to perform the marriage in a way that would be valid and Catholic. He said “the family” would be thrilled if the wedding were a valid Catholic wedding. I asked “what about the couple?”— which is not an unreasonable question. I gave him factually correct information and suggested be be wary of his cousin not wanting a Catholic marriage.

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In my experience, Catholics generally have no idea that they can request a dispensation from form. (As a result, they don’t attempt to approach their own pastors to request it, and instead, just go ahead with an invalid marriage. Their shock when they’re later informed that they could have done so is a common experience.)

Right. And we have no idea whether that’s the case, although we do know, from his post, that this is something that the family would favor. Families often can be positive influences in the lives of their loved ones.

No, he said that they weren’t interested in a “Catholic celebration”. Given what you and I know about dispensations from form, we know that the two aren’t the same. :wink:

Agreed. Now it’s on him to take the answer and see if there’s the possibility that the couple wish to proceed.

…with an interesting spin, IMHO. :man_shrugging:

Your cousin is a Catholic. She is bound to marry according to canonical form. If she does not her marriage will be invalid.

She can apply for a dispensation from canonical form. This comes from the bishop and usually is applied for by the priest who is preparing her for marriage.

If she is granted a dispensation from canonical form you will be able to marry her and her fiance as a civil registrar of marriage providing all necessary civil laws in that jurisdiction are followed.

You will not be some kind of officiant at a Catholic marriage.

Interesting point. What do we mean by “a Catholic marriage”? Do we mean “a marriage celebrated in a Catholic church building”? Or, do we mean “a marriage recognized as valid by the Catholic Church”?

The OP realizes that he’s not participating in the former, but is asking how this wedding can meet the requirements of the latter. In that sense, it’s a “Catholic marriage”.

When you wrote “a Catholic marriage”, what did you mean? One of these two, or yet another understanding?

No, That is not what he said at all.

He asked how he could receive permission to be the canonical witness and celebrant.

Thanks for the thoughtful replies, everyone.

The couple want to observe a Catholic marriage, if possible, but do not want to celebrate a Catholic ceremony officiated by a priest. They are willing to undergo preparation as appropriate, and recognize that the Sacrament is something that is shared between the two of them under certain strict canonical requirements. They simply asked me to consider ways in which the civil ceremony can be augmented to also meet the canonical requirements of recognition by the Church as a valid marriage sacrament.

Does that make sense?

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You don’t augment it.

It is valid if the Catholic receives a dispensation.

Right. That was his error. However, ask yourself why he wanted to be “canonical witness and celebrant”: his real desire – in his own words – was “so that [the wedding] is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a valid sacrament.”

So, if we cut him a break for asking in the wrong way, then we see what he wants: a valid marriage for his relative:


@Kaelon, their request makes sense. However, let me go out on a limb here. Is the problem that a “Catholic ceremony” normatively takes place “in a Catholic church building”? Or is it that they want to avoid contact with a priest at all costs?

You mention that they “do not want to celebrate a Catholic ceremony officiated by a priest.” Is it the presence of a priest that’s the sticking point for them?

If so, then a couple of thoughts:

  • Since there’s a non-Catholic Christian involved in the marriage, it’s an option for them to have a wedding ceremony (in a church) that is not a Mass. In that case, it’s possible for a Catholic deacon to preside. Is their issue with Catholic priests (such that a deacon-led ceremony in a church is ok) or is it all Catholic clergy? (Or is it merely the church building itself?)
  • If (as I’m guessing) the problem is a prejudice against Catholic priests in particular, then how willing are they going to be to sit down in a meeting with a Catholic priest or deacon and go through a pre-marital interview, or to participate in a “pre-Cana” program of wedding preparation?

Anyway, I might be barking up the wrong tree, but I’m just wondering whether this isn’t merely a bias against guys wearing collars, and how that might affect the discussion at hand.

I believe if that sentence is not divorced from its context that its meaning is clear.

This sentence is so divorced from its context that your meaning is unclear! :rofl:

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So we’re all in agreement that we forgot what we were arguing about? :rofl:

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Yes, it makes sense. Here’s an article written by a canon lawyer that describes basically your exact situation. I think it would be good to read it. And like others have said, talk to your priest if you have any questions.

Basically, the commentors are correct who said you don’t do anything; they have to get permission from her bishop. So if I was in your position (as unlikely as that would be), I would tell them I would be happy to officiate their wedding once I hear from her pastor that the necessary permissions are in order.

Just out of curiosity, what are you planning to do to ensure that she plans on living out her marriage according to the laws of the Church (like not using artificial birth control, doing her best to raise the children Catholic, etc.)?

That’s problematic, though. @Kaelon holds an official position in which he represents the civil government, and may not (in good faith) refuse to perform a civil wedding that would be considered valid by the government.

That’s not even a standard that a Catholic cleric must meet, having married a couple, per se!

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