QUAERITUR: Parish usher wants to be a JP to officiate at wedding of Catholics

From a reader:

I have a good friend who is much older than I. Sadly, he disagrees with a lot of the Church’s stances. Despite that, he hears Mass regularly (every Sunday), and Holy Days of Obligations. He is an usher and “lector” at his parish, and although he is not a Daily Communicator, he does practice and try to live his faith more than most people in 2011. [Okay.  He is an older fellow who still seems to know the difference between right and wrong.]

His nephew, one of my good friends, is getting married next month. [Uh oh.] His nephew is also (tho cradle-catholic) a self-proclaimed agnostic. My friend is becoming a Justice of the Peace in order that he may officiate the wedding ceremony. Now, I know that if my friend were becoming “ordained” in one of the heretical faiths, that would no doubt be an act of self-excommunication. Is his becoming a Justice of the Peace and officiating the ceremony also an act of self-excommunication?


Members of the Catholic Church are bound to follow the Church’s law on marriage.

If Catholics contract civil marriage before a Justice of the Peace only, they sin and the marriage is not valid.  They may not receive the sacraments in such a relationship.  Catholics who aid them in such an endeavor would be also committing a sin.  If this would be a big public thing, it would all be compounded by public scandal.

Look.  It isn’t a sin to become a Justice of the Peace.  If one is a Justice of the Peace it may not be a sin to officiate at the weddings of fallen away Catholics, since it is not the business of JPs to know the religion of the people asking to be married.  But if you become a JP in order to officiate at the wedding of Catholics not practicing their faith,…. no… that’s just plain wrong.  In that case you are knowingly helping Catholics attempt marriage.

If this fellow is known by many people not to agree with the Church’s teachings on various matters, and yet he is functioning as an usher and lector, then I think the pastor should explain kindly that he must no longer to fulfill these functions so long as he stands in opposition to the Church’s teachings. Does the pastor not know?  Not care?  If not… why not?

“But Father! But Father!”, you may say.  “Aren’t you being mean?  Isn’t it better to keep the guy involved and work with him? Bring him around?”

What is this?  A quirky British sitcom?  Keep the eccentric but lovable disenter ready to commit public scandal in highly visible positions so he can spark hijinx and provide opportunities for gossip over coffee and doughnuts?

It may be that there important things going on in the parish which need the pastor’s attention and this this issue is not on his radar screen. Maybe the roof is caving in and he can’t pay the bills.  Nevertheless, situations like the one described need to be addressed with charity and diplomacy.  Roofs don’t have soul.  Ushers, however, do.

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  1. Gail F says:

    Best line I’ve read all day: “What is this? A quirky British sitcom?”

  2. Supertradmum says:

    “The Church is intolerant in principle because she believes; she is tolerant in practice because she loves. The enemies of the Church are tolerant in principle because they do not believe; they are intolerant in practice because they do not love.” Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

    Sent to me by a friend recently to remind us the reason for our supposed rigidity. In the end, the rules are about love, real love for the soul. So many to pray for….

  3. Anonymous Seminarian says:

    What about Catholic judges? may they “marry” fallen-away Catholics?

  4. Mom2301 says:

    I am a Magistrate Judge which roughly the equivalent of the JP in most states. I don’t know what this gentleman would have to do to become a JP but it must not involve getting a law degree (as we must in our state) or being appointed or for that matter elected to the position. However, taking a job just to do one part of it and ignore the rest is rebellious, childish and irresponsible. I have long said that presiding over marriages was my LEAST favorite part of my job. I never felt right doing it and frankly, 95% of the people who come to be married at the courthouse had no business getting married. I never felt like I really had any authority to marry two people even though the State says I do. I hated seeing people show up later that week on domestic abuse charges and later down the road in juvenile court. Sadly enough it became quite predictable… So, after a while I quit doing weddings. Then, my boss said I had to do them. So, I did until the Iowa Supreme Court decided we had to allow same sex marriages. This man would serve his nephew better by quitely attending the wedding and offering his congratulations and then praying for the new couple. He should not simply play the role of judge for the fun of it all the while leading others, and himself down primrose path.

  5. Bender says:

    If Catholics contract civil marriage before a Justice of the Peace only, they sin and the marriage is not valid.

    I should think that that would be qualified to cases where there is, in fact, a Catholic priest available to officiate. If a couple were in an area where there were no priests available (and there have been countless such areas throughout history), it seems not quite right to say that such a marriage before a non-priest official would be, not only invalid, but a sin, especially since it is the couple themselves who are the ministers of the sacrament, with the priest serving to witness and bless the union. For example, if there were a couple in the Old West, where there was no priest around for thousands of miles, and no practical way to get to one, it is difficult to see how they would be prohibited from marrying.

  6. Ralph says:

    My wife and I were married by a JOP (his name was Paul Simon which was kind of cool).
    Some time later we each, in the span of about two years, converted to the Church. Me from evangelicalism, her from atheism.

    After my wife came into the Church, I asked our Pastor, a good young Priest, about the vailidity of our marriage. He informed us it was not valid and we had to get married in the Church. Otherwise he felt that we were living in a state of moral sin.

    So, my wife of (at that time) 7 years, mother of my (at that time) 3 children, and I went off to marriage prep classes . That was interesting to say the least. Incidentally, we scored very well on the pre marriage compatability tests, which was a relief ;) We were able to receive the sacrament of marriage.

    The reason I bring all of this up, is that this Uncle is really setting up his nephew for sin. Not only is he condonig the sin, he is enabeling it to happen. On top of that, if this young man ever decides to come home to the Church, he is going to have a lot of work to do to “fix” his marriage.

    I am not a priest, but I feel that this is something that needs to be delt with strongly by the Pastor. It’s opening a big can of worms for sure.

  7. Ralph says:

    Bender ” For example, if there were a couple in the Old West, where there was no priest around for thousands of miles, and no practical way to get to one, it is difficult to see how they would be prohibited from marrying.”

    I asked my Pastor about this. He said that a marriage officiated by a minester with a trinitarian formula would be acceptable. But since the JOP uses a non-religious civil ceremony, it doesn’t work. So I guess in the old west case, if all else failed, you might have been able to get another christian minister to officiate, but I am not sure.

  8. William says:

    They could always jump over a broomstick.

  9. APX says:

    Members of the Catholic Church are bound to follow the Church’s law on marriage.

    I noticed there was no mention of the nephew’s fiance’s religion (or there lack-of). Does the Church’s laws regarding validity and the type of marriage ceremony requirements not change at all if the couple getting wed aren’t both Catholics?

  10. Fr. Basil says:

    An Orthodox bishop was once asked about an Orthodox civil magistrate doing so.

    He replied, “He should fulfill his duty at civil law. However, should the couple be Orthodox, he should tell them afterwards that their marriage MUST be regularized by the Church if they intend to remain members of her. He should also make it clear in this case that he is NOT speaking as a magistrate, but as a fellow Orthodox believer.”

    I know many priests–Orthodox and Catholic–who find it distasteful to act as civil agents when celebrating the Mystery of Marriage. I understand their feelings about how the civil and Christian should be two separate ceremonies.

  11. KevinSymonds says:

    I’m in a situation where my brother wants to marry a fallen-away Catholic and have a JP officiate at the wedding. I’ve been asked to be the best man. What should I do?

  12. Elly says:

    Ralph- I really doubt that is true that you were living in a state of mortal sin before you had the Catholic wedding. If neither of you were Catholic at the time of the civil marriage, you were not bound to the Catholic laws on marriage. Becoming Catholic would not suddenly make the civil marriage sinful.

  13. Gabriel Austin says:

    “It may be that there important things going on in the parish which need the pastor’s attention and this this issue is not on his radar screen. Maybe the roof is caving in and he can’t pay the bills. Nevertheless, situations like the one described need to be addressed with charity and diplomacy. Roofs don’t have soul. Ushers, however, do”.

    I thought one of the purposes of Vatican II was to emphasize the pastoral, which is to say, the religious aspect. Is it really the pastor’s responsibility if the roof is leaking? What are all these parish councils doing? You’ll next be expecting the pastor to mop the floor.

  14. Widukind says:

    Just a couple of comments:
    When the US was designated as mission territory, there was some leniency in holding to the precepts of canon law. I believe this was the case for marriage before a priest. I know of marriages in the 1830’s that were witnessed by the justice of the peace and then were blessed when the priest came to the parish (and such is notated in the marriage register). I believe that the US lost the designation of mission territory in the mid 20th century? I know of a priest out in some western state, during the 1950’s and 60’s, who besides being the pastor, was also the justice of the peace, so he got them coming and going.

  15. RichardT says:

    Be fair Father. If this really were a quirky British sitcom, the problem wouldn’t arise; the uncle would never actually be sworn in as a JP because as the culmination of a series of increasingly unlikely incidents he would lose his trousers on the way to the swearing-in ceremony.

  16. RichardT says:

    There may be one way around this.

    If the girl the nephew is marrying is not a Catholic (i.e. was not baptised Catholic), then he could apply to his Bishop for a ‘dispensation from form’, giving permission to get married in a non-Catholic ceremony. In that case the marriage would be valid in the eyes of the Church, and so presumably there would be no objection to the uncle performing it as a JP.

    That is most commonly seen where the non-Catholic party is a member of another ecclesial community, to allow the marriage to be celebrated in her community under their rites. But I see no reason why permission could not be granted for a civil ceremony (particularly if the bride is not baptised anywhere), although whether the Bishop would do so remains to be seen.

    The problem is that the nephew presumably sees no need for his marriage to be valid in the Church’s eyes, so would not bother to apply for permission. But perhaps the uncle could be a means of grace here, by pointing out that he cannot, under the Church’s law, preside at the ceremony unless such permission is obtained. By this means the boy might actually get validly married, even in a civil ceremony.

  17. RichardT says:

    At one point I knew the Canon Law on this, having married my then-Anglican wife in an Anglican ceremony in an Anglican church. All perfectly valid, and fully recognised by the Catholic Church, because I obtained the relevant permissions from the relevant Bishops. But I’ve forgotten most of it, and I seem to remember that the law was different depending on whether or not the non-Catholic party had been baptised. Are any Canon Lawyers able to say whether my idea (above) would work?

  18. catholicmidwest says:

    This is really all about money. If a person is a steady church-goer in a Christian denomination, they already have a way to get a minister to officiate at their wedding, and often without paying a fortune. But if a person isn’t closely affiliated with a denomination, wedding officiating fees can be really obscene, hundreds if not a thousand dollars per wedding, even without rental of the church property for the wedding date. That’s extra. [Yes, I know Catholic churches aren’t supposed to do this, but many other churches do. It’s hard to turn down the revenue.]

    So when a wedding is planned and the person is an agnostic or something of the sort, the hunt is on for someone to preside over the ceremony at a price the couple can afford. This usher is probably the target of such a hunt by a relative.

  19. catholicmidwest says:

    PS, it’s not unheard of for a couple to hunt down a relative and get them a cheapie “ordination” for the sole purpose of presiding over the wedding. Crazy? Yes. Invalid? Absolutely. Outside the realm of reality? Nope. You can get “ordained” online very easily so that you can officiate at weddings and make a lot of money or alternately, make your relatives very happy (or both!). I kid you not. Google it if you don’t believe me.

  20. catholicmidwest says:

    And pick up your coffee-cup off the floor, all. The better part of half the USA doesn’t know any better. They don’t know the difference! Amazing, but true.

  21. ikseret says:

    What if the Catholic Justice of the Peace knows one out of the couple coming before him is Catholic?

    Or what if the JP knows that at least one of the couple was divorced?

  22. Sixupman says:


    In the Mission Fields, a village elder/deacon would give the permission to marriage, which would then be solemnized the next time the priest visited. Age-old Catholic practice.

  23. Technically the sacrament of matrimony is viewed slightly different in the West than the East. Latin Catholics believe it is between the two believers and the Church can regulate the conditions required for it to be valid. The Orthodox view it differently- they would explain it better than I so if one of them might want to chime in it would be interesting. For them the couple are not the ministers of the sacrament from what I understand. Technically depending upon times and places Catholics could get married without a priest being present. The couple in a certain sense are regarded as the “ministers” of the sacrament and bestow it upon eachother. However, the Church has always possessed the ability to regulate the sacrament of matrimony and set various conditions. The theology has not changed but now a priest must be present. It was more common during the “Reformation” due to persecution and the inability to find a priest. It was permitted back then (and in certain missionary territories perhaps) but after persecution diminished a priest was required ato be present, etc.

  24. RichardT says:

    For those who are comparing this to missionary territories, or times when the US was a missionary territory, that is governed by the Code of Canon Law, para 1116, but that is quite restrictive and doesn’t apply here:

    Canon 1116 recognises a marriage without a priest or deacon, just in front of any two witnesses, but only if it is impossible (“without grave inconvenience”) to get hold of a priest, deacon or bishop within the next month (or if one of the parties is in imminent danger of death). That’s pretty unlikely.

    What I think we need instead in this case is Canons 1127.2, which allows a marriage service between a Catholic and a non-Catholic (or, under Canon 1129, a non-baptised person) to take place under “some public form of celebration” other than a Catholic marriage rite. However unlike Canon 1116, Canon 1127 needs the permission of the Bishop.

  25. RichardT says:

    Hmm, this gives me an idea.

    At the risk of re-opening an old dispute, remember the discussion about the dioceses who insist that a couple wait for months, with marriage preparation classes, before they can get married?

    I wonder if a couple could legitimately say that this means that it is impossible for them to get married in front of a priest within 1 month? If so, could they therefore get married in a civil ceremony (which is public, before at least two witnesses), and then use Canon 1116 to demand that the Church recognises that civil marriage as valid?

    Doesn’t seem to help here, but interesting that the Church in her own Code of Canon Law considers that it is unreasonable to expect a couple to wait for more than a month to get married, but that most bishops and priests would regard a month as far too short a time.

  26. APX says:

    remember the discussion about the dioceses who insist that a couple wait for months, with marriage preparation classes, before they can get married?

    I thought the 1 year waiting period was a Catholic Church requirement, not just a diocese thing, as it seems rather prevalent regardless which diiocese I’m in.

    I would imagine the waiting period is more of a reflection of the 50% divorce rate and making sure marriage isn’t rushed in to.

  27. First of all, Ralph, you were married the first time. Your original marriage was even sacramental, if both of you happened to have been baptized at the time of the original JOP ceremony. If not, your marriage became sacramental at the time of your wife’s baptism (since you had already been baptized). Your priest was wrong – in fact, so wrong he made you simulate a sacrament (although you were in no way culpable for this!)

    Second of all, the case of the Catholic JOP and Judge is one worthy of consideration, especially if a Judge is not required to perform marriages (but is allowed to by civil law). The diocese I worked for asked judicial officials not required to perform marriages to make sure they did not perform any marriages which would not be valid in the eyes of the Church (i.e. only non-divorced non-Catholics). They also (and I think this may have also come down from the USCCB, but can’t remember) forbade any permanent deacon who happened to be a judge to perform any marriages “as a judge”. And said permanent deacons were not allowed to be JOP’s, because they are required to perform marriages to anyone who asks, and are able according to state law.

    There were various canonical reasons for this…

  28. Phil_NL says:

    I think some US (or at least common law) traditions in civil law cloud the matter here. As for the Church, it seems plain and simple: if the parties are bound to observe proper form, and they don’t, it isn’t marriage. The most public example of this was the Spanish princess Letizia, who despite a previous civil marriage and divorce could marry the Spanish crown prince for the Church. I remember that one of the Spanish bishops said that there previous marriage was not relevant, as civil cermonies were not recognized by the Church (as marriage, the tone suggested the bishop did recognize it as sin…]
    There as here, the consumption of such a canonically-non-marriage would obviously endanger the person conducting it in terms of aiding in sin. But that the union would be called a marriage (or any other name) under civil law is, insoafar as it concerns the Church or the danger of sin, utterly irrelevant.

    This is made much clearer in several european countries, where a church marriage has no civil effect (the vice versa is nearly universal, as described above). In the Netherlands, for example, you – as a Catholic – are required to have both a civil cermony (by civil law) and the sacrament (by canon law). A marriage comes in two parts. This shows that the worry of the original question (self-excommunication, as if you were trying to set up a new religion by marrying people in a civil ceremony) is out of bounds; it would be more than silly to assume that thousands of civil servants (they are not magistrates here), many of them Catholics, are excommunicate because of their jobs.

    In fact, I think the US would benefit from this dual understanding of marriage. By regarding a civil and a Church wedding to be both marriages without further distinction in everyday use and with the possibility of joint effect in civil and canon law, you do not only allow the Church to influence the definition and contents of marriage in the broader society (a good thing), but also vice versa (decidedly a bad thing, nowadays). Obviously it would be ideal if the state would stop calling its version ‘marriage’, but since that is highly unlikely, something akin to the Dutch custom, with different terms for the two forms much more widely in use, would be helpful.

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