Separate civil and church ceremonies


Hi Everyone! Need some advice about something.

I'm due to be married soon and I'm thinking about the ceremony. In Ireland a religious marriage (in pretty much any religion, including the Catholic one) also counts as a civil marriage so the same ceremony serves as the Catholic and civil marriage ceremony. However, in my mind they're two entirely separate ideas. One is a legal contract for taxation purposes which can be dissolved at any stage without the mutual agreement of the parties and is virtually indistinguishable from a civil partnership arrangement which can take place between two men or two women. Furthermore Ireland is well on the way to legalising gay marriage and will almost certainly do so in my lifetime. The other ceremony is a solemn commitment before God by a baptised man and woman during which myself and my fiancée will administer a sacrament to each other. It cannot and will not be dissolved in this life and brings us spiritual fruit and blessing.

My issue is, given that the two unions mean completely different things, I am not comfortable having one ceremony for the two institutions and think they should have two separate ceremonies. We would like to have a small civil ceremony first together (which I would not consider to be my wedding and I would not consider myself to be married after it) and then have a church wedding after (preferably the day after but that's unlikely to work out). I would like the two ceremonies to be as close to each other as possible and we would not live together as a married couple until after the church wedding.

Just wanted to get people's take on this? Does my reasoning about the two different ceremonies make sense? My priest is ok with this but my fiancée is concerned that our friends, and friends of my parents' in particular, will not understand our course of action and will disagree with and abuse us. Some might even refuse to attend our (church) wedding and could ostracise us afterwards and he doesn't want to put me or my parents through that kind of pain.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!


No, your reasoning does not make sense at all. If this were problematic morally or theologically, the Church would not take part. You have the wrong idea about marriage civilly and marriage in the Church being two different things. They are not.

Marriage is a natural institution. It predates Christianity, and all people-- Catholic or not-- have a right to marriage (albeit limited by natural law and divine law impediments). Christ raises this to a dignity of sacrament through our baptism. But, we participate in the civil process of marriage.

Please go talk to your pastor and work through these feelings. You need to follow Church law on marriage. Your pastor will guide you.


There are countries where you must marry civilly by a judge or you are not legally married. My MIL and FIL married in the Church 30 years before they were legally married by a judge. In the US and many other places where legally the two are the same thing it is difficult for us to understand why it is necessary, but it was almost impossible for my inlaws to understand that here it is sufficient to have just the one ceremony. Your priest already gave you the green light, so if your fiancé is ok with it I see no harm. If either of you are concerned that family/friends won’t understand, I can guarantee there are many choices you two will need to make throughout your married lives together that others will not understand either. This is only the first of many. Would it be possible to marry civilly without guests? Possibly just two witnesses at the civil and the guests only go to the Church wedding? This is how my husband and I did it. We married at the county courthouse with only the judge, my mom and the judge’s secretary. Later we married in the Church at a regular Saturday Mass with family, friends and parishioners present. We had a small reception after the Mass. A year later when we visited my husband’s hometown we renewed our vows (basically wedding #3) so his family could see their only son marry. They had a huge party after the Mass and the entire town came to celebrate. As an added bonus, our kids don’t worry when we argue because we have told them that since we have been married three times, we would need to divorce three times before we were no longer a family. Divorce is expensive. We can’t afford to do that, especially three times. Do what you two feel is right and don’t let anyone else decide for you. Your priest is fine with it so it’s morally ok in his mind as well.


I pretty much agree with Ike on this one. Talk to your priest.

That said - I can sort of understand where you are coming from and I believe that in some places (Italy?) it is handled this way…two ceremonies. I can also foresee the possibility that, at some point in the future, the Church might choose to go to this format in more places. But for now - I don’t see that you are gaining anything by having two separate ceremonies.
Be guided by your pastor.



I don’t see a problem with it. People in culturally Catholic countries do this all the time. They have the civil ceremony first, which doesn’t really count as being married to them, and then later but shortly after, they have the real wedding in the church. They still live seperately until the wedding in the church. If Catholics married at the justice of the peace are not considered married in the eyes of the church, then I don’t see why it would be a problem if someone wanted to do it this way.


There is a difference between registering civilly in countries that do not recognize the priest as having authority to marry a couple and creating that situation in a country that does recognize the authority of the priest because you reject civil marriage and want to separate the two.

The Church does not reject the civil aspects of marriage, and we should not either.



I wonder why you would want to go through with a “ceremony” that you know will have no impact on your status–“I would not consider myself to be married after it” is how you put it. If you don’t have to go through that charade (something which I had to do, by the way), I would never suggest that you do it. Yes, civil law is corrupted in its appreciation/understanding of marriage. But, you are not. So, just get married and don’t bother with the simulated wedding.



Since it is the norm in Ireland, like the USA, to have one ceremony that suffices for both religious and civil purposes, I believe that some of the Catholics attending would be scandalized to hear that there are two separate ceremonies. They may not understand or even be aware of the OP’s thinking on this matter. Scandal is always a serious concern, so in the interests of avoiding it, I would recommend going with just the one ceremony.


Thank you for the replies everyone!

Ike, please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not rejecting the civil aspects of marriage. On the contrary, I WANT to be civilly married (which is why I would not go with Dan’s suggestion), I just object to the fact that a ceremony which I take very seriously is being used to also give rise to a legal contract from which I can walk away at any time, and into which I could enter with another woman if I so desired. I want my church wedding to be about the sacrament and only the sacrament. I was it witnessed by my priest in his capacity as my priest and pastor, and not also in his capacity as an officer of the state. I don’t want to pull out a legal contract and sign it in the middle of a sacred place of prayer and worship while everyone else around me has a chat. I want to be married in both the eyes of the Church and the State, just in separate ceremonies.

Could you please explain to me which aspect of Church teaching on marriage I am not following? I checked this with my priest and he assured me the Church does not stipulate that one must avail of the dual function of the church and civil ceremony, even if it is available in a given jurisdiction. Have you a different understand of Church teaching and if so can you provide me with appropriate references? It would be important to us that we not be offside of the Church on this.

7armyrugrats, thanks for sharing your story, your points were very helpful, as indeed were everyones’.


Well I’m geographically rather close to you (West Coast of Scotland) and when my husband and I were married we had one ceremony in the church, and honestly the civil aspect of it didn’t enter my mind.

I mean we signed the register, on the alter with family and friends watching, but I didn’t (and don’t) separate my Catholic marriage and my civil marriage, I suppose a better way of saying it is I don’t think of my marriage as a civil marriage, you do that in a registry office or hotel or some other venue with a registrar. I think of my marriage as firstly a sacramental marriage and secondly as a legal marriage. The word “civil” doesn’t figure, if that makes any sense.

I also am greatful that the legal system here recognises the sanctity and legality of my marriage and that I don’t have to make a set of “false” vows to ensure the law recognises me as a married woman.

I hope that makes sense!!


I think the issue is with having a “ceremony” for the civil marriage. This implies that both are things to be celebrated.

At least in the US civil marriage is signing a contract and does not require a ceremony of any type. If you truly want to separate the two you could sign the civil register/license with the priest in their office right before the wedding. No pomp, no ceremony.


Just because the state is debasing marriage in the ways you describe in one of the previous posts does not mean that is your problem. You are not debasing it. Marriage is older than both the church and the state. In modern times the state has been given authority over marriage (unfortunately) and in some countries still allows the church to perform wedding ceremonies that it considers valid. I think that if you go ahead with your plan you are giving the state more power over your marriage than it deserves. So even if it is just a legal contract for the state and if secular people see nothing more to it, so what? You know better. Your marriage does not need to turn into a political statement of this kind.


We will probably head this way in this counrtry.
The Church will refuse to beform same sex marrage.
Catholic couples will be forced into two ceremonies.


Yes, I agree. But given that in Ireland that is not the case (yet), it seems that the OP’s plan stems from a personal opposition to the definition of marriage by the state and her desire to to act in a somewhat subversive way. I feel exactly the same way about it btw, but still think that it is not necessary to do that. Signing the legal papers that will go to the registrar can be done discreetly afterwards when nobody is watching. I wish I did that, rather than follow the local custom and sign it on the altar. :rolleyes:


Well actually I do agree with you and in fact in South America in many countries it is the norm.
That is how I was married to my wife of 26 years, the 2 “weddings” were done 10 days apart.
So if you feel inclined to do it, that is nothing that has not happened before, and may your bride and you lead a fruitfull and faithfull life together.


I’ve never seen the legal papers signed on the altar here in the States. I don’t remember signing legal paperwork during or after I was married. (That doesn’t mean anything, though. It was such a whirl-wind day.) What I do remember is that the marriage certificate we received from the state was signed by the priest who married us and then it was “placed in the books” for both the Church and the state by the priest, himself. We did nothing else. Is signing the registrar and other paperwork on the altar something they do in Europe and other countries? The states I’ve done weddings in don’t do the legal papers on the altar.

I do agree with everyone that since it is not a requirement to have two separate ceremonies, it doesn’t make sense to do that. At the same time, I do understand the OP’s sentiment. I can actually see it happening here in the US if the entire country decides to legalize gay marriage so that the Church and other religions would not be forced to perform the gay marriages.


I am in the States as well, and that is what I remember. We went to the courthouse a few days early because there is a waiting period of three days in my state, and filled out the paperwork, and then after the three days went back to receive the documentation for our priest to sign the day of the wedding. He did this a few minutes after the wedding, (nothing on the altar), and then either he mailed it in or gave it to our best man who mailed it in. We kept a “receipt” that served as our civil marriage license until receiving our official one in the mail.

(The one thing I did find troubling, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be an issue, is that our priest’s name was misspelled on our license. If he’s certified by the state to officiate weddings, wouldn’t there be a registry to check to make sure we didn’t just get married by John Doe off the street?)


In Mexico, separate ceremonies are required. Large numbers of Mexican couples get married civilly and move in together, while putting off the church wedding until they can afford the party. Quite often, as is the case with many Mexican couples living in the US, the church wedding never takes place, so they no longer participate in the Sacraments because they are living in sin (fornication). Many Catholic Mexican immigrants are not aware that American law allows priests and ministers to witness for the state, so they will get married in an American courthouse and repeat the same mistake.

Having separate ceremonies is a very bad idea.


I was married in the UK, I don’t know if that it the norm there or if it was just my parish. (I have never been to another Catholic wedding there so no idea). I thought it was strange and not appropriate but did not think it wise to argue with the priest at that moment. Basically, after the end of the ceremony he asked my husband and I and our witnesses to fill out the paperwork on the altar.


[quote="Contra_Mundum, post:19, topic:310822"]
I was married in the UK, I don't know if that it the norm there or if it was just my parish. (I have never been to another Catholic wedding there so no idea). I thought it was strange and not appropriate but did not think it wise to argue with the priest at that moment. Basically, after the end of the ceremony he asked my husband and I and our witnesses to fill out the paperwork on the altar.


I've seen the papers, and the register, signed at a table in the sanctuary. One priest I've read about has the couple do it at the back of the church after the recessional just to make the point that signing the papers is not part of the ceremony, but a legal formality outside of it.

All the weddings I've attended have included signing the papers.
In my province the bride and groom apply for a marriage licence in person, and that includes signing an affidavit that states that there is no issue of consanguinity, prior marriage, or other legal impediments to the marriage.

They wait 4 days and then they can pick up their licence which includes the Registration of Marriage which is filled in by the celebrant with the information about the couple & their parents, and which is signed by the bride, groom, witnesses and the priest at the end of the ceremony and is then returned to the province. The priest alone signs the marriage certificate that was attached to the licence and gives it to the couple.

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