QUAERITUR: Can a Protestant minister officiate at Catholic marriage while the priest watches?

From a reader:

First, please know you are in my prayers. My question: Is it permissible for a Protestant minister to officiate the Marriage Rite at a Catholic Nuptial Mass? This is about to take place at our local parish and our pastor stated that as long as he witnesses (watches) the vows, it is okay.

It would not be possible for a non-Catholic minister to receive the vows of a couple at a Catholic nuptial Mass.

Depending on the diocesan laws and customs, and subject to the norms of the 1993 Ecumenical Directory, there might be some place for the non-Catholic minister in the nuptial Mass – processing in, sitting in the sanctuary, even standing (silently) with the Catholic priest while he, the priest, receives the vows of both parties, offering congratulations to the couple on behalf of his ecclesial community at the end of the nuptial Mass.

If the Protestant minister “officiates” at the marriage rite while the Catholic priest merely “witnesses” the vows being exchanged, we have a likely case of the marriage being null due to a defect of canonical form.

The priest (or deacon) must ask the questions (“Do you, Sempronius, take this woman, Caia…”) of BOTH parties.

If the priest (deacon) does not, then the canonical form to which the Catholic party is bound is defective.

If the priest obtained a dispensation from form for the couple, the dispensation should specify where the wedding should take place (e.g., not in a Catholic Church) and who should officiate.

In the interest of protecting the couple from an invalid marriage, it could be prudent to report this matter to the local diocesan tribunal or chancery.

If the wedding has already taken place, it might be possible to sanate it. If it has not, the pastor might be able to be corrected.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mike says:

    I was married in an Episcopal church by their minister, with a RC priest present at a simple prayer service. I received a dispensation from place and form, as I recall.

    Very different from this, at a Catholic Nuptial Mass.

  2. PostCatholic says:

    Worth noting that there is such a thing as “dispensation from Canonical form” which can be applied for from the chancery of the ordinary. Unless I’m mistaken and that has changed?

  3. Precentrix says:

    The closest situation of which I know in practise is where a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian are married in a non-Catholic ceremony; the dispensation granted allows for a priest or deacon (to whom this is specifically delegated) to witness the ceremony formally in order for the wedding to be considered valid by the Church. I know a couple to whom this applies, where she is a practising Anglican and he is a non-practising Catholic; they are marrying in her church and the deacon is witnessing. However, it seems completely odd to me that this sort of thing would be contemplated in the context of an actual Mass.

  4. jhayes says:

    Looks as if the non-Catholic minister could do certain things:

    158. Upon request of the couple, the local Ordinary may permit the Catholic priest to invite the minister of the party of the other Church or ecclesial Community to participate in the celebration of the marriage, to read from the Scriptures, give a brief exhortation and bless the couple.

    159. Because of problems concerning Eucharistic sharing which may arise from the presence of non-Catholic witnesses and guests, a mixed marriage celebrated according to the Catholic form ordinarily takes place outside the Eucharistic liturgy. For a just cause, however, the diocesan Bishop may permit the celebration of the Eucharist.151 In the latter case, the decision as to whether the non-Catholic party of the marriage may be admitted to Eucharistic communion is to be made in keeping with the general norms existing in the matter both for Eastern Christians 152 and for other Christians,153 taking into account the particular situation of the reception of the sacrament of Christian marriage by two baptized Christians.

    160. Although the spouses in a mixed marriage share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional and in each case the norms stated above concerning the admission of a non-Catholic Christian to Eucharistic communion,154 as well as those concerning the participation of a Catholic in Eucharistic communion in another Church,155 must be observed.


  5. RichardT says:

    That is how my wife and I married; an Anglican vicar doing the marriage and a Catholic priest saying Mass. So I hope it’s valid!

    Several dispensations were needed:
    – for mixed marriage (Canon 1125), to marry at all;
    – from form (Canon 1127), to marry in an Anglican service with an Anglican minister;
    – from place (Canon 1118.2) to allow it to happen in her (Anglican) church building.
    We also had permission from the local Catholic bishop for her to receive communion at the Catholic Mass (no-one else took communion), and Anglican permission for the Catholic Mass to take place in their church building.

    But once all the relevant permissions were in place, and they’d had a bit of time to think about it, everyone seemed happy that it was valid. And since we were living in different dioceses before we married, it had two Catholic chanceries considering it for weeks before agreeing.

    What you can’t do is have two lots of vows, or two ministers involved in the exchange of vows. To avoid any doubt, our Catholic priest made sure that he was clearly not the minister at that stage, just as the Anglican vicar did during the Mass (one advantage of using an old Anglican church was that there are plenty of choir stalls for one or the other to retreat to).

    It made sense at the time, since I was a practising Catholic and she a practising Anglican. And obviously it had to be that way round, since an Anglican Mass wouldn’t have any validity but an Anglican marriage, with the necessary dispensation, did.

    19 years later, we’re still married, blessed with children, and my wife is now a Catholic (thanks to Blessed John Henry Newman). That doesn’t mean it’s going to be right for everyone, but it worked for us.

    One query – can you do it in a Catholic church? I don’t see why not, since the canons allowing dispensations from Form and Place are separate and apparently unrelated, but I have a vague memory that we couldn’t, or that it wasn’t approved of. Not relevant to us, but it is to the question here.

    The one odd thing in the original question is the claim that “long as he [the Catholic priest] witnesses the vows, it is okay”. If there’s a dispensation from form, then the valid witness of the sacrament is the protestant minister, and the Catholic priest isn’t needed. That statement makes me wonder whether they have actually been granted a dispensation from form.

  6. Volanges says:

    When a dispensation from canonical form is granted there is no need for anyone from the Catholic Church to “witness the wedding for validity”. In fact, it’s up to the Catholic party to make sure that his parish is informed of the wedding so that the parish can inform the parish of baptism if they are not one and the same. At least that’s the way it is in Canada. Some non-Catholic ministers are very good at actually sending a letter to the Pastor confirming that they have officiated at the wedding and giving details.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    Precentrix, I think the way you described your known situation is not valid, as the non-practicing Catholic complicates the problem. A non-practicing Catholic is in mortal sin and cannot receive a sacrament, so the presence of the deacon is very odd. I have never heard of that happening and am suspicious of that set-up. The Catholic has to first be reconciled to the Church. Father Z, Thank you for posting this, as I have been trying to explain this to some people in my parish, who are going to their children’s marriages to non-Catholics. The problem is complicated by the fact that the children are fallen away Catholics. I think that more teaching on the problems of mixed-marriages, which in the old days were postively discouraged, could be a good thing. The biggest problem in England is that people do not get dispensations from the bishops for such things and just go to some lovely island for a beach wedding with a Protestant minister officiating, and sometimes the minister is from the Church according to Bob or Carlos.

  8. Tim Ferguson says:

    Supertradmum – just a bit of caution: one who is in a state of mortal sin can indeed receive and celebrate a sacrament. They ought not do so, but their sinful state in no way affects the validity of the sacrament. The merits of the sacrament are void to that person, but the validity of the sacrament is not in question.

    There are laws governing the marriage of Catholics to those who have defected from the Church (complicated a bit by recent legislation which removes most implications of formal defection). Those marriages are permitted, under certain conditions (the practicing Catholic party needs to promise to raise the children in the faith, just like in an interfaith marriage).

    It would not be proper for such a marriage to be celebrated in the context of a nuptial Mass (just like it would be improper for the marriage of a Catholic to a non-Catholic to take place in the context of a Mass).

    While it may seem that the Church’s laws on marriage are complex and labyrithnine, each and every one of them has a reason, and we owe it to our faith to adhere carefully to the Church’s law, which is designed to help us grow in grace.

    The situation precentrix speaks of is unusual – if the deacon who is officiating at the wedding is Catholic, then this isn’t the case of a dispensation from form, but rather permission being granted for a Catholic minister to officiate at a wedding outside of a sacred space (canon 1118).

  9. Precentrix says:


    I am working on the assumption that the person in question *will* be fully reconciled to the Church before the wedding takes place much later in the year. They are attending both sets of marriage prep and I assumed that things like this would be covered.

  10. eulogos says:

    I believe there are also different rules when one party is Orthodox. Since the Orthodox (and Eastern rite Catholics) believe that the Church, in the person of the priest, actively marries the couple ie is the minister of the sacrament, rather than just witnessing it as the west believes, it is important for the Orthodox member of the couple to be married in the Orthodox church and this is always allowed. I don’t know if it is considered a dispensation from form or not. Also, I don’t know if each party to the marriage is supposed to understand the sacrament in a differnt way, though.
    (Also,for the Orthodox and Eastern rite Catholics, deacons cannot perform marriages. If an Eastern Catholic marries a Latin Rite Catholic, this can happen in a Latin rite church, but it cannot be a deacon who marries them. At least, so I understand. )
    Susan Peterson

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