Musing on canonical consequences for participation in same-sex “weddings”

From the Canonical Defender comes this:

Possible canonical consequences for participation in ‘same-sex weddings’

March 19, 2012

British Catholic blogger Damien Thompson recently remarked “For Roman Catholics the prospect [of Britain legalizing same-sex marriage] is a very bleak one. Even if a liberal priest wanted to do the honours, he’d incur automatic excommunication and be out of a job. The ‘wedding’ would be a parody of the sacrament. So a legal ban would save a lot of awkwardness.” Of course, there is no such thing as ‘same-sex marriage’ and civil law should not pretend that there is. But that’s not what I respond to here. My focus is on canon law.

As canon law reads right now, officiating at a ‘same-sex wedding’ does not result in latae sententiae excommunication. Green, “Table 1”, in CLSA Comm (1985) at 932. To the extent, however, that such action on a cleric’s part might constitute, say, “abuse of ecclesiastical power or function”—and I think that such an act would constitute abuse of Church office—he might well face punishment “according to the gravity of the act” and even loss of office. Canon 1389. Whether that punishment could, in turn, in the face of, say, clerical recalcitrance or repeat offenses, lay the foundations for later excommunication (Canons 1393, 1399, and/or by particular legislation under Canon 1315) remains to be seen.

Individual Catholics attempting such marriages seem generally susceptible to a “just penalty” for simulation of a sacrament under Canon 1379.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Augustin57 says:

    And, so, the war broadens and gets more fierce. To be sure, persecutions are not far behind for Catholics, especially clergy. Prayer, penance, fasting, the Rosary, Mass, the Sacraments. We have an excellent arsenal, if we will but use them! :)

  2. Gail F says:

    Isn’t there some sort of penalty for doing a fake sacrament? I don’t know the correct canonical term. But isn’t there a difference between doing a sacrament wrong (Ritz crackers and Coke at the Eucharist) unknowingly or recklessly, and pretending to do a sacrament you know very well isn’t real?

  3. Fr. Z – thanks for this. While I haven’t been asked the question (yet) it’s good to know the answer.

    I wonder if anything would actually happen to those clergy who do officiate at homosexual weddings outside of those dioceses whose bishops are doing their job. I have heard of priests who have blessed the ‘marriages’ of couples who could not marry in church. It’s not that big a step to blessing same-sex ‘marriages’. As long as it’s done on the quiet I think a blind eye will be turned especially by liberals.

    The question is whether homosexual couples in general, and activists in particular, will be content with an ‘on the sly’ blessing? I don’t think so. They want total equality and approval.

    In Ireland we have civil partnerships which allow homosexuals similar but not equal status to heterosexual civil marriage. I think will only be a matter of time before they push for full equality and for legal power to force religious marriage services – after all once baptised one is in the Church. At least the European Court of Human Rights has said it’s not wrong to ban homosexual adoption.

  4. Gail F – Attempting to offer the Mass with Ritz crackers and Coke is just the same as celebrating a marriage between two men or two women – in both cases the matter is invalid. In the first case it is the priest who consecrates but in the second he is the ‘duly appointed witness’ – the representative of the Church. Only a baptised man and woman can validly celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage. In the first case the priest is guilty of sacrilege (I think that’s the applicable term) but not in the second.

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    While I agree with Dr. Peters that Catholics attempting such “marriages” might be susceptible to punishment, I’m not sure if c. 1379 would be the most accurate canon here. Since simulation of a sacrament (“sacramentum se administrare simulat”) requires some elemental understanding of the nature of the sacrament, and the sacrament of marriage (indeed marriage itself – even non-sacramental marriage) requires a man and a woman, could parties entering into same-sex “marriage” be said to be simulating marriage? Is the relationship between two men or two women anywhere near analagous enough to the matrimonial relationship that two men or two women saying “I do” to each other would constitute a simulated marriage?

    I ask the question, not to undermine the argument that such attempts at something society seems eager to refer to as “marriage” should be rejected and the parties punished with an appropriate penalty. Generally speaking, anytime I find myself in disagreement with Dr. Peters I more readily question my own opinions first. Still, I think that this might be an area where the law has not yet dealt with the reality we face, and canon 1399 – which allows for punishment for an external violation of divine or canon law “when the special gravity of the violation requires it and necessity demands that scandals be prevented or repaired” – might be ground on which to plant a flag.

    Secondarily, one wonders (doesn’t one?) if the Church starts punishing those entering into same-sex “marriages,” will there also be a call for a punishment for those Catholics who attempt heterosexual marriage lacking canonical form without the necessary dispensation?

  6. Massachusetts Catholic says:

    In one parish I know of, a gay activist couple with adopted children has had their photograph in the parish directory as a family, enrolled their children in religious education classes, and attend Mass and receive the Eucharist as a family. The two “husbands” have sought favorable media coverage, so their situation is quite public. The chancery was notified years ago; nothing happened.

    It seems to me this is a de facto blessing of their same-sex marriage. I suspect there are similar cases at other parishes in the Boston area. The battle is already half-lost on the ground.

  7. rhhenry says:

    @ Br. Forde: What a great observation about the bride and groom being the ministers of the sacrament!

    If we play this out, leaving aside (for the moment) questions of form (the vows), matter (a man and a woman), etc.: a gay “marriage” is invalid because the proper ministers are not present (one layman and one laywoman).

    This seems to me to be analogous to when our 6-year-old son plays at saying Mass: leave aside the fact that he “consecrates” little pieces of paper and tap water using the not-quite-right words of consecration — he’s not a priest, so his “mass” is therefore necessarily invalid . . .

  8. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    TF makes a fair point. Such attempts could be sooooo far off the charts that they fall outside of any canonically cognizable category. It’s possible (and, note, I hedged with the word “generally”). On the other hand…. (PS: I also had in mind that couples of the ministers of the sacrament in the West.)

  9. Kerry says:

    My wife commented, “Ah, homosexual marriage; the fish copulates with the bicycle”.

  10. jfm says:

    Why would a gay Roman Catholic man want to marry a man in a Roman Catholic church ceremony? That’s what the Episcopal Church (blessings, not ceremonies yet), United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Church, Presbyterian Church, some Lutheran churches, most reformed Jewish temples, and mail-order or internet-licensed ministers are for. You are already a sexually active gay man. It doesn’t get much lower in the sin list for you. (There’s murder. And double murder. But not much else is lower.) Why not have a ceremony in another church which will then automatically excommunicate you?

    Why doesn’t the Roman Catholic Church say loudly and proudly to non-celibate gay men and lesbians: be celibate or go elsewhere? There’s always some dancing around the truth — we’re welcoming; we don’t think you are evil; we really want you to stay (and sing in our choirs). So what if you are not evil, aren’t you intrinsically disordered? Can the priest remind everyone that if they are sexually active gay men or lesbians or planning on being sexually active, then they should just go home? And as they exit, would you also tell them that while they have been given the gift of celibacy, they cannot actually celebrate this gift by becoming a priest or a nun?

    Do you really think Roman Catholic priests are going to be forced to perform gay marriages? I’m as conspiratorial, dark, cynical, and as pessimistic as they come, and even I think that’s far-fetched. Why are priests even asking? Because some might actually want to participate?

  11. Supertradmum says:

    It is the agenda of the gay community to want the larger cultures of all the Western nations to accept the gay lifestyle as “normal”. This is not a new agenda, but is on purpose, that is, not accidental and not unplanned. “Marriage-lite” is already happening in some European countries, where civil ceremonies are including time lines, and not “to death do us part” bits. The entire contract of heterosexual marriage is slipping away into the Christian past quickly, without people noticing the changes as these are being made. England is merely one of many countries either pushing the agenda or already having in place same-sex “marriages”.

    If anyone on this blog has not read After the Ball, the agenda book, it is still in print after 12 years, and is still selling well. Catholics need to stop being naive and see these events in the larger picture. Catholic priests are merely responding to demands of so-called Catholics, instead of standing for the Teaching of the Catholic Church. There will be a schism over this one issue, I predict.

  12. bookworm says:

    “Do you really think Roman Catholic priests are going to be forced to perform gay marriages?”

    No, but I do think it’s possible that there will come a day when the authority to perform a marriage ceremony recognized by the state will require that the officiant not “discriminate” against same-sex couples. If and when that happens, Catholic weddings can still be performed, they just won’t count as LEGAL marriages, and priests will no longer sign off on marriage licenses. Catholic couples who marry in the Church will then have to have a separate civil wedding (which has been the case in some countries for centuries.)

  13. jfm says:


    Some good points. There is already schism. Every gay couple I know who still goes to church has moved to the Episcopal Church with occasional trips to a RC church for old time’s sake. The theology that sexual activity in a loving relationship must be tied to having children is one which does not resonate with most gay men and lesbians. And Roman Catholic theology will never change. And it is a theology which increasingly, I predict, will be seen by more and more Catholics as myopic. As a result, gay men and lesbians in relationship are talking with their feet and walking to other churches. Roman Catholicism will be purer and much smaller.


    If that comes to pass, I think all religious marriage ceremonies will be ceremonial and the marriage license will be civil. I don’t think Roman Catholicism or Orthodox Judaism or Orthodoxy will be discriminated against. Each church would define what it considers marriage (as they already do). And the state regulates the legal implications. Don’t couples still have to go to city hall to apply for a license anymore?
    An annulment is still a marriage civilly unless there’s a divorce, right? And a divorce is no longer a marriage civilly, whether or not there’s an annulment.

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