This question recently came up with EWTN’s experts source]:
Marriage in the Church without civil contract
Question from on 06-08-2009:
I have read that it is possible to have a church wedding without a civil marriage license, however, that permission is “unlikely” to be granted. I assume the granting would have to come from the local bishop. Why is it that granting of such a wish is “unlikely” when we have separation of church and state by law in this country? Having lived in Europe for many years (and I lived in predominantly catholic countries), the process to get married is two separate, independent steps, one, a civil ceremony at the local courthouse or government office and one at the church. Generally the two separate ceremonies are conducted a day or week(s) apart with the civil ceremony being held first usually. In cases where a civil ceremony is not desired by a couple, for social, financial or family reasons, why can’t a church-only marriage be performed? What is the agreement between the Church and the State to act as civil servants? What are the rules by which the bishop would grant such a marriage? And what are the requirements that the couple has to meet in order to be granted permission?
Answer by Rev. Mark J. Gantley, JCL on 06-15-2009:
Canon law requires that marriages be recognized by both canon law and the local civil law. This is because the state has a responsibility to support the institution of marriage because the family based on marriage between a man and a woman is the basic building block of society.
You are confusing the manner of marriage with the perpetual status of being married.
It is true that in the United States, the priest or deacon (or rabbi, minister, etc.) who officiates at the marriage acts both on behalf of the religion and on behalf of the state. It is also true that in many other countries, there is a separate religious and civil marriage ceremony.
However, the canon law is the same for both situations. Canon law has as its goal that the couple be in a relationship that is recognized both by the Catholic Church and by the civil authority.
Ordinarily, in countries where couples marry in a separate civil ceremony, first they marry civilly and then they marry in the Catholic Church, often on the same day or nearly the same day. In countries like the United States, they secure a civil marriage license and then the priest or deacon acts as both a representative of the state and the Church. In both situations, canon law is fulfilled – the marriage is recognized as valid both civilly and canonically.