Wedding: Church or Garden?


Outdoor Wedding

I was recently speaking to a Catholic woman whose daughter is getting married later this year. I enquired about what church the marriage was to take place in but the mother replied that while the daughter liked the look of the parish church she had opted for a garden wedding so she was able to design more of the ceremony herself. The mother didn’t seem to be aware of any concerns stemming from this decision.

Catholics leaving their parish for a scenic wedding is no longer unique. Until recently even the most distant of Catholics would appear in the parish to be hatched, matched, and dispatched, that is, for their baptism, wedding, and funeral.

But a growing proportion of young couples are marrying ‘outside the Church’ (to use the classical phrase). Some do so because they have such little connection with their faith it makes no sense to them, others dislike the Church for one reason or another and some simply felt an outdoor wedding would be more picturesque.

While it is objectively true to state that Catholics are obliged to observe the Church’s laws on marriage, many Catholics quite simply have no idea what those laws are or what they mean. I wonder if some of the confusion comes down to a lack of understanding about the words ‘church’ and ‘Church’. In the way of a very brief explanation, ‘church’ describes the actual building where people come to pray, e.g. St Joseph’s parish church, whereas ‘Church’ refers to a grouping of Christians e.g. the Catholic Church.

When a person is baptised water is poured over their head and they are called Catholic, but supernaturally they get a whole lot more than a damp head and a membership card. In baptism a person is raised up to share in God’s own life. One might use the analogy that due to inherited original sin all people are born running on low octane fuel, but in baptism a person has an engine overhaul and is filled with high octane ultra premium fuel.

Now, obviously, when a vehicle is designed to run on high grade fuel you do not go putting in the cheapest stuff you can find. A person running a high performance vehicle does not resent that they need to use high octane fuel; they do so because they know it is what will make the car run at its optimal level. Similarly, baptism raises a person to a new level and from then they are designed to live a ‘higher’ life. It does not mean the baptised person is better than a non-baptised person but the fact is they are called to something different. Living as a Christian, though, does necessitate saying goodbye to low-grade fuels.

For the baptised person, then, not all wedding are marriages. Christ raised up marriage to the level of a sacrament, meaning it became filled with specific graces that are simply not available in the natural marriage model.

The higher-grade model has conditions, though. A person is not at liberty to simply design their own version of a wedding ceremony just as the driver of a fine car cannot roll up to any petrol station and fill up with any type of fuel. The Catholic Church offers sacramental marriage to all Catholics but it has to be conducted under the laws of the Church which primarily mean that the marriage is contracted in the presence of one of the Church’s ministers and two witnesses, and in ‘normal’ circumstances, (and if you are reading this you probably fall into the normal category), that would take place in a Catholic church building because that is the place where the faithful gather.

When a Catholic decides not to marry in ‘a church’ it usually means they are not married in ‘the Church’. This is like deciding to fill up a finely tuned Ferrari with the cheapest low-grade fuel available. A Catholic might have a nice outdoor wedding ceremony but without the blessing of the Church there is no marriage. Christ offers to his Church every help and blessing but Catholics must understand this requires a certain way of living.

To marry outside the Church is a statement (deliberate or otherwise) that the specific blessings Christ offers are not required. That is why a marriage contracted outside the Church is generally not considered to be valid by the Church.

This obligation for Catholics to marry within the Church is not something to be resented; rather it demonstrates what a gift and privilege the Catholic is called to. Getting married ‘in the Church’ has nothing to do with the look of the building or the person of the priest. It has everything to do with Jesus Christ and entering into a sacramental marriage with all the blessings that entails.

Copyright 2014, Bernard Toutounji


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  1. I have never understood and I still don’t understand why a marriage that takes place on a beach is less “full of grace” than a marriage that takes place in a church. Didn’t Christ say. “Wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I am present?” I know it’s the presence of the Eucharist that indicates God to us Catholics, but why can’t a priest celebrate Mass on a beach or in a meadow? The argument seems to me that it’s all about a building and and I just don’t get the significance of the four walls and a few windows. Christ spoke wherever He happened to be and it was His presence that made everything holy and sacred, not the physical surroundings. His living breathing presence. If a priest celebrates Mass on a beach, the Eucharist is there, so Jesus is there. Why would a marriage celebrated thus be any less full of grace?

    • I’m very sure that it is okay for a Catholic person to obtain a Catholic marriage outside of the church *building*, just as you have described Mari: in the presence of a priest with the appropriate marriage liturgy. However, canon law says that one has to obtain special permission from their bishop to do this. I’m not sure of the exact reasoning for obtaining permission; Bernard,do you know? That was actually going to be my question here.

    • It might be more helpful if you replace the word “church” with or without the capital “C” with the words “community of faith” or “living community of faith.” It actually is not sufficient for a Priest and the Eucharist to “make a church” be present for a marriage. Christian witnesses are needed. Or, as I already said: a (living” community of faith.
      Second, I would point out that the Priest is a celebrant of the sacrament of matrimony, but the actual ministers of the sacrament are the bride and groom. They minister the sacrament to each other, celebrated by a priest in a living community of faith.
      Can a beach be that? There is part of me that says “sure” as long as there is a living community of faith there. The other part of me (the one that works in a catholic parish), says “No.” It would be like holding a planned infant baptism at the beach. The baptismal font should be from a living community of faith. Not just so that we would know where to record the sacrament, but so that more fundamentally the source upon which this sacrament was realized was not of dubious origins only to be corroborated by a wedding photo and its ephemera and invitational stationery.
      Then again, as someone who works in a parish, I see plenty of people who lack even the proof of that who still seek to celebrate sacraments here at our parish.

      • I like your point about the comparison to Baptisms, and I think, for me at least, that points to the reality that there is a real meaning and theology to everything in the the church building–including the community of faith inside–that point to the reality of the sacraments taking place within its walls.

        While the beauty of nature certainly points to the one who is Beauty, there are–or there should be–works of art and architecture within the church building that are more directly symbolic of the higher realities taking place. Of course, there are many churches out there devoid of this kind of beauty, and I very much sympathize with the parishioner who wants an outdoor wedding in those cases.

        There was definitely a time when I wanted an outdoor wedding, especially because I come from a state that is rather appreciative of nature. However, I realized how much more the “stuff” in our church pointed to the reality of what we were doing, especially for our guests who weren’t familiar with Catholic marriage ideas or with Catholicism in general.So we happily chose church and ended up spending a good portion of the budget on flowers to bring nature inside, haha! Obviously, that’s not going to be everyone’s experience, but it’s just how mine went. Jay’s comment about Baptism reminded me that I actually had this dilemma at one point.

  2. The high octane fuel analogy is interesting for its explanations regarding Baptism and the Christian life to follow, but I find it a little less useful applying it to marriage.
    I think part of that is because to me (one in an interfaith marriage), I have always seen the focus and PULL to celebrate not just civil marriage but the catholic sacrament, stems from the ideal of the family, of man and woman, and what the union of two baptized persons signifies in that economy. It is not unlike entering into the mystery of the Trinity: Lover, Beloved and the love between them.
    However, in an interfaith marriage, only one person is baptized and so the economy and rationale for making the sacrament of marriage out of the union of two baptized people asymetric.
    It is probably more simply stated that as a catholic, because of one’s baptism, one is part of the Body of Christ. And thus, one’s life and even one’s most unique and individual decision to couple with the Other still comes with a need to express one’s personal identity along with one’s catholicity. This cannot be done simply by looking within and asking “What do I want?” but means submitting to the Body of Christ and perhaps placing that most important statement of identity into the life joined with–wait for it–someone who is NOT baptized.
    You can take your destination wedding on the beach, I was married “in the Church” to someone who is not (and probably will never be) in that same Church. And that is today’s definition in real life of Sacrament, and all the graces that flow.

  3. Re interfaith marriage I was nder the impression that baptism was considered the same Either in Catholic faith or Anglican Church.

  4. link to Canon law sections which say that marriages are to be held in the parish 1of the at least one of the persons marrying. #s 1115, 1118 etc.. You need permission to be married outside a church building and in my experience it is almost impossible to get that permission, especially when both parties are Catholic.

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