QUAERITUR: Layperson, Notary Public, witnessing invalid civil marriage of Catholics

From a reader:

I was recently asked to officiate a wedding ceremony for a couple of friends of mine. I am a Notary Public living in the state of Florida so I am legally permitted to perform such a ceremony. However, what restrictions, if any, are placed upon me as a Catholic lay person performing a ceremony for two non-practicing Catholics?

Canonically, am I allowed to perform the ceremony or not? Any guidance would be appreciated.

There is no canonical penalty for a layperson officiating at an invalid wedding.

When a person has a civil obligation to do so (e.g. the only judge in town) she should feel no compunction about in fulfilling her civic obligation. If two strangers approach a civil official and ask him to officiate at their wedding, he is under no obligation, canonically, to inquire whether or not they are Catholic, whether or not are free to marry according to ecclesiastical law, etc. In fact, there could be civil penalties for doing so.

That said, when the couple asks the civil official specifically out of friendship or blood relationship – knowing that the civil official is Catholic who knows their status with the Church – then we are wandering onto more complicated moral terrain.

There is a strong possibility of giving scandal.

Provided there are other reasonable and available alternatives (other judges, notaries, etc.), I think it could be a good decision to refuse to witness the marriage.

To repeat: There is no canonical penalty envisioned.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. jhayes says:

    “When a person has a civil obligation to do so (e.g. the only judge in town) she should feel no compunction about in fulfilling her civic obligation.”

    Is ths also true in the case of officiating at the wedding of a same-sex couple (where same-sex marriage is permitted by law)?

  2. Faith says:

    The Town Clerk in my town, who is Catholic, and if she knows the family (small town) when she is issuing a marriage license, will ask/advise/lecture, the couple. Marriage is a family affair. The family should be considered. Unless, you want to start your new life together selfishly wearing blinders to the sensibilities of those who love you.

  3. Tim Ferguson says:

    I would take serious issue, as a Catholic, with a Catholic civil official witnessing a “same-sex marriage.” Unlike a canonically invalid marriage of two Catholics who fail to take recourse to the canonical form of marriage to which they are bound by their baptism, a same-sex marriage is contrary to the natural law, not just ecclesiastical law. An invalid marriage has the potential of being sanated later – a same-sex marriage has no such potential.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    Well, something interesting is happening in some parts of France. Catholics are avoiding the so-called required civil ceremony, in protest to the increasing stand of acceptance of gay civil marriages and merely getting married in the Catholic Church without the civil certificate. This will only effect the status of the marriage in civil law, but one can have custody over children without marriage, so that is not an issue. Taxes or any break for being married would be an issue. The Catholic marriage is, obviously, valid without the civil one. I am all in favor of this “grass roots” French rebellion.

  5. mamajen says:

    It’s so frustrating that “Catholic” friends and relatives put people who they supposedly love and respect into these difficult situations to begin with.

  6. Ana says:

    As a notary, I simply say I am unavailable to perform marriages. Given the current trend towards same sex “unions” and remarriage of divorced Catholics, I’ve chosen not to open a can of worms that needs to be closed.

  7. mcferran says:

    The questioner asked, “Canonically, am I allowed to perform the ceremony or not? ” and Father Zuhlsdorf replied “There is no canonical penalty envisioned.” That still doesn’t make it okay. There are lots of things which are wrong which are not mentioned in the Code of Canon Law.
    Catholics are bound to the Catholic form of marriage. It is sinful for Catholics, and canonically invalid, to attempt marriage outside that Catholic form (i.e. without ecclesiastical dispensation). Other people sin (objectively) when they cooperate in that offense.
    The cooperation of Catholics with divorce and civil marriage has led to a popular re-definition of the word “marriage” which in turn has led to same-sex marriage.

  8. justanothercatholic says:

    From the post, should I gather that they won’t be getting married canonically afterwards?

    Anyhow, about cooperating with sin, let me cite you a theoretical case put out by a well known moral theologian, Fr. Antonio Royo Marin, OP.

    He says that even if you were to sell a house that you know for sure that is for sinful practices, in a big city you can do so if not doing so would put significant burden on you, as one more one less in a big city won’t affect the general morality, as if that one didn’t exist, the next door one would.

    In a small city, where none exist it is another question.

    Canon Law aside, this is a moral issue. Object(bad) intention(I assume good) and circumstances (this is the determiner here)

  9. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    imho, Fr. Z’s answer is completely (including morally) correct. This is a fairly common topic in the manuals, and Fr. Z knows the tradition. TF’s point is different and, while solid, is not settled yet.

  10. I will remind readers that this question was not about “same-sex” situations.

  11. AnnAsher says:

    I wouldnt do it. We’re supposed to help people enter the Church, not make it easy to stay out.

Comments are closed.