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FAQs about Catholic Marriage

Why does the church teach that marriage is a sacrament?
The sacraments make Christ present in our midst. Like the other sacraments, marriage is not just for the good of individuals, or the couple, but for the community as a whole. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament. The Old Testament prophets saw the marriage of a man and woman as a symbol of the covenant relationship between God and his people. The permanent and exclusive union between husband and wife mirrors the mutual commitment between God and his people. The Letter to the Ephesians says that this union is a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church.

What is the difference between a valid and an invalid Catholic marriage?
Just as individual states have certain requirements for civil marriage (e.g., a marriage license, blood tests), the Catholic Church also has requirements before Catholics can be considered validly married in the eyes of the Church. A valid Catholic marriage results from four elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they freely exchange their consent; (3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; and (4) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by church authority.

If a Catholic wants to marry a non-Catholic, how can they assure that the marriage is recognized by the Church?
In addition to meeting the criteria for a valid Catholic marriage (see question #3), the Catholic must seek permission from the local bishop to marry a non-Catholic. If the person is a non-Catholic Christian, this permission is called a “permission to enter into a mixed marriage.” If the person is a non-Christian, the permission is called a “dispensation from disparity of cult.” Those helping to prepare the couple for marriage can assist with the permission process.

Why does a Catholic wedding have to take place in a church?
For Catholics, marriage is not just a social or family event, but a church event. For this reason, the Church prefers that marriages between Catholics, or between Catholics and other Christians, be celebrated in the parish church of one of the spouses. Only the local bishop can permit a marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place. Please note: so called “chapels” at wedding venues are not places where Catholic wedding ceremonies may be held.

If a Catholic wishes to marry in a place outside the Catholic Church, how can he or she be sure that the marriage is recognized by the Catholic Church as valid?
The local bishop can permit a wedding in another church, or in another suitable place, for a sufficient reason. For example, a Catholic seeks to marry a Baptist whose father is the pastor of the local Baptist church. The father wants to officiate at the wedding. In these circumstances, the bishop could permit the couple to marry in the Baptist church. The permission in these instances is called a “dispensation from canonical form.”

If two Catholics or a Catholic and non-Catholic are married invalidly in the eyes of the church, what should they do about it?
They should approach their pastor to try to resolve the situation.

When a Catholic marries a non-Catholic, must the non-Catholic promise to raise the children in the Catholic faith?
The non-Catholic spouse does not have to promise to have the children raised Catholic. The Catholic spouse must promise to do all that he or she can to have the children baptized and raised in the Catholic faith.

Is it required that a wedding celebration have expensive flowers, clothes and other accompaniments?
The Rite of Marriage makes no reference to any of these cultural elements. The focus of the couple should be on the celebration of the sacrament. Pastors repeatedly point out that a couple do not have to postpone the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage because they cannot afford such things.

How much does it cost to get married in the Catholic Church?
There is no “charge” to receive any of the Sacraments. It is customary to make an offering to the Parish on such an occasion.

What is a Nuptial Mass and when can a couple have one?
A Nuptial Mass is a Mass which includes the celebration of the sacrament of marriage. It has special readings and prayers suitable to the Sacrament of Marriage. The Sacrament of Marriage between two baptized Catholics should normally be celebrated within Mass.
If the situation warrants it and the local bishop gives permission, a Nuptial Mass may be celebrated for a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized person who is not a Catholic, except that Communion is not given to the non-Catholic since the general law of the church does not allow it. In such instances, it is better to use the appropriate ritual for marriage outside Mass. This is always the case in a marriage between a baptized Catholic and a non-baptized person.

Are weddings permitted on Sundays or during Lent?
Church law allows weddings to be held during most days of the year, except the Triduum. However, many parishes do not schedule weddings on Sundays because of the conflict with regularly scheduled Masses and other parish activities. In addition, some dioceses and parishes do not allow weddings during Lent, a season of penance.

What should a couple do when they decide that they want to marry in the Catholic Church?
They should contact their parish as soon as possible and make an appointment to talk with the priest, deacon or staff person who is responsible for preparing couples for marriage. This person will explain the process of marriage preparation and the various programs that are offered.

Why does the church require engaged couples to participate in a marriage preparation program?
Marriage preparation offers couples the opportunity to develop a better understanding of Christian marriage; to evaluate and deepen their readiness to live married life; and to gain insights into themselves as individuals and as a couple. It is especially effective in helping couples to deal with the challenges of the early years of marriage.

What key issues are covered in marriage preparation?
Marriage preparation programs help couples to understand the Christian and the human aspects of marriage. Typical topics include: the meaning of marriage as a sacrament; faith, prayer and the church; roles in marriage; communication and conflict resolution; children, parenthood and Natural Family Planning; finances; and family of origin.

What is an annulment?
An annulment is a declaration by a tribunal (Catholic church court) that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union (see question #3). Unlike civil divorce, an annulment does not erase something that was already there, but rather it is a declaration that a valid marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship ever existed between the couple, or that the spouses truly loved one another.

If a marriage is annulled are the children from it considered illegitimate?
No. A declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children, since the child’s mother and father were presumed to be married at the time that the child was born.

Are annulments expensive?
Annulments have no cost in the Archdiocese of Washington.

How long does it take to get an annulment?
It usually takes 12 to 18 months to complete the entire process.