ASK FATHER: Becoming “minister” of on-line “church” to do wedding

From a reader…


A church-going Catholic friend of my daughter was asked to officiate at the wedding of a non-Catholic couple, by becoming a “minister” of an on-line “church”. I assume that legally this is permissible as far as the State is concerned, but it seems a serious violation of canon law regarding the Catholic layperson. I’ve researched on line but haven’t been able to find a definitive answer, (at least not one from a trustworthy authority). But it definitely doesn’t pass the “smell test”. Secondarily, what suggestion do you have for my daughter, who was told of this plan by the bride-to-be, and who is friends with the minister-to-be’s wife? Thank you for your help.

1983 CIC can. 1364 establishes the penalty of excommunication for all those who apostasize from the faith, embrace heresy or schism. This has to be a conscious and intentional action. Someone who, poorly catechized, wanders away from the regular practice of the faith and starts attending a non-Catholic Church probably wouldn’t fall under the penalty of excommunication, although he would need a good, thorough confession to come back to the sacraments.

Someone who gets ordained in another denomination… well, that’s another story.

It would be difficult to explain how one could get ordained through mere negligence.

“Oooops!  Got ordained!   Sorry ’bout that.  Didn’t mean… hah hah….”

Requesting “ordination”, even from some crazy, online “church”, requires a conscious decision.  Well… I’ll grant that in the ancient Church they used to hold you down and ordain you against your will, as they did to Augustine of Hippo.  But that doesn’t happen now.  If it’s another putatively Christian denomination, one would be committing an act of schism (at least). If it’s a non-Christian denomination, we’re well on the way to apostasy.

These are serious things.

Catholics don’t, MUST NOT – take marriage lightly.  We don’t – MUST NOT – take the role of the officiant at a wedding lightly.

Someone who submits to ordination in another denomination, even if it’s “only” to witness a non-Catholic wedding is putting himself in pretty dangerous territory.  I wouldn’t want to answer for that in my judgment!

Moderation queue is on.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    What about a practicing Catholic that gets elected mayor of a city or is captain of a ship that can legally preside over civil weddings? Should he officiate weddings of non-Catholics?

    He obviously wouldn’t be able to do real Catholic weddings.

  2. jhayes says:

    To expand on Eric’s question, my understanding is that in this state anyone can apply for ( and get ) authorization from the state to officiate at a wedding for a specific couple – no ordination or other qualifications required. Presumably, the state has to satisfy itself that your word can be trusted that a wedding actually took place.

    Assuming that neither spouse is Catholic, is a Catholic permitted to do this if asked?

  3. iamlucky13 says:

    Sorry for wandering onto a tangent, but the same question as Eric had struck me. My first thought is that a purely secular officiant is merely facilitating the non-sacramental marriage that non-Catholics can validly confer upon each other. This does not seem to me to be either schismatic nor apostasy, as there is no affiliation with any form of religion.

    However, it could place a Catholic in the scandalous (if not sacrilegious?) position of being asked to officiate a civil marriage ceremony for baptized Catholics. Would the state allow a Catholic judge to decline to officiate the couple’s marriage if he had been informed of this impediment? I fear that even if he were allowed to refuse to perform a heterosexual wedding for this reason, he would be figuratively drawn and quartered if he dared refuse to be the officiant of a homosexual wedding, even if a non-Catholic judge was willing to do it in his stead, meaning the legal “rights” of the homosexual couple are not reduced.

    Or would circumstances reduce or eliminate his culpability in the case of baptized Catholics seeking civil marriage?

    By the way, as far as I know in the US, the only civilly recognized wedding officiants are judges and religious clergy, the latter of whom need a license from the state to gain their civil authority. I don’t think any states allow mayors, ship’s captains, or train conductors to officiate over a marriage.

  4. Stephen Matthew says:

    While I agree with Fr. Z for the most part, in the case of a “church” that is purely a sham “ordination” factory for the purpose of creating legal witnesses for civil weddings, I am not so sure that such a thing could ever really rise to the level of schism, because there is no religion to join, no ecclesiastical body to defect to. This has more in common with one of those online Caribbean diploma mill “universities” than it does with anything religious at all. Most of these online places even let you choose what sort of religion and what type of religious title you want at check-out. I would view this more as an act of acquiring a civil license to conduct marriages rather than as a religious act. Not that I would ever consider doing such a thing.

    All that being said, treating marriage or ordination in such a light and even nearly mocking manner runs the risk of sacrilege. Sacrilege, relativism, indifferentism, and universalism are the key dangers here, in my view.

    Now, obviously a lay Catholic could only witness (officiate) a Catholic marriage in certain extreme situations (all the clergy in the region have been purged), but under what circumstances could a lay Catholic legitimately witness/officiate (from a Catholic, religious point of view, ignoring civil law concerns) for a non-Catholic wedding?

  5. Stephen Matthew says:

    Interestingly, the reputedly Catholic comedian Stephen Colbert married a couple on his show, and it is claimed he got the necessary credential through an online “church”.

    This all seems to be a good reason for the Church to revisit the issue of “form” for the validity of non-Catholic weddings. Surely defect of form must be possible in some way even for non-Catholic weddings, and these sorts of “weddings” seem to run a high risk of such a thing.

    On the other hand, I wonder with the recent “developments” regarding civil marriage, I wonder if someone will challenge the requirements regarding officiants at weddings.

  6. yatzer says:

    From my almost 70 decades of observation, it seems as though we are heading toward a situation where there is some sort of sex act before or after some sort of ceremony where papers are signed by whoever decides to participate, and that will be a “marriage”, whatever that means by that time. I thank God I am the age that I am.

  7. APX says:

    Stephen Matthews, that was the Universal Life Church. They “ordain” anyone 13 years and up who fills out the online form. Many provinces in Canada don’t recognize them as legit to officiate at weddings.

    Eric, Catholics who by their legal status (JP, judge, Mayor, etc) can legally officiate marriages are, generally speaking, allowed to do so. The issue hear is the “ordination”. The person in question could attempt to apply for status as a Justice of the Peace and legally officiate. The likelihood of being approved, outside of living in a small town, is slim unless there is sufficient reason. Senior ranking peace officers often have JP status so that they can swear in new peace officers and witness sworn affidavitsin place of someone at the courthouse every time an officer needs to deliver a sworn affidavit to a “client”.

  8. mburn16 says:

    This does create an interesting conundrum. There might be some parallels here to the recent issue in Germany where even faithful Catholics are “renouncing” their faith (which comes much closer to apostasy, at least in the academic sense) to avoid the Church Tax. What to do when the particulars of civil law run headlong into the preferences of faith?

    What dose the Church say about Non-Catholic Christians married in a Non-Catholic Christian ceremony by a Non-Catholic Christian minister? Is said couple thought to be living in a state of sin?

  9. iteadthomam says:

    Careful Father. The truth these days can get you in trouble. I was recently rebuked by a rather orthodox priest for saying based upon this canon that obstinate heretics are automatically excommunicated.

  10. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    What an interesting discussion!

    What can/does “officiant” mean, here? Variously, (1) someone who witnesses and civilly registers a marriage, and (2) a priest witnessing a valid marriage between two eligible Catholics, – and, any other sense?

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Mburn16 – Non-Catholics married as such are assumed by the Church to have a valid natural marriage.

  12. gramma10 says:

    Can you imagine this situation being worthy of discussion..back in the day?
    It amazes me what people don’t know.
    Also, what happened to plain old Common Sense?
    Would love to hear Chesterton’s response to this stuff!

  13. asperges says:

    As a civil registrar, I am employed by the local Council (UK). It was not the job I expected to end up with but it is what I was appointed to do, along with other civil duties. I also took opinion from trusted clergy over my position. In the civil marriage, any element of religion has to be excluded – it has been this way since 1837. I do not know or ask what the religion of the participants may be. My role is solely to facilitate what the law allows. It saddens me when I suspect either party might be Catholic, but I never know for sure.

    “What does the Church say about Non-Catholic Christians married in a Non-Catholic Christian ceremony by a Non-Catholic Christian minister?” It says prima facie that they are valid unless proved otherwise. Canon law does extend outside the Church. People marry each other, not the officiant, clergy or not. They make it happen under whatever regime they are doing it.

  14. Volanges says:

    mburn16 asked “What does the Church say about Non-Catholic Christians married in a Non-Catholic Christian ceremony by a Non-Catholic Christian minister? Is said couple thought to be living in a state of sin?”

    The requirement to be married in the Catholic Church, before a priest/deacon/or in certain circumstances a lay person appointed by the bishop, applies only to Catholics. In certain situations that requirement can be dispensed to allow the Catholic to be married outside the Church because the theology of marriage is that the couple confer the sacrament (if they are both baptized) of marriage on each other, they are not married ‘by’ the officiant.

    For everyone else, if there is no impediment and the marriage is legal, the Catholic Church considers it valid as long as the couple’s Church considers it valid. The Orthodox Church has a different theology of marriage in that the sacrament is conferred by the priest on the couple. For that reason a member of the Orthodox Church can only be validly married by a priest.

  15. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you for your elucidation! (Might you recommend online sources for further reading about the details?)

    gramma10 has an interesting comment. ( I wonder what Chesterton has said, related to marriage law? – I’d like to read it, too!)

    Some strange situations have been found, and have had to be found, worthy of discussion back in various days. And I am, sadly, among the people who don’t know enough about it.

    For example, when I read Chapter One of the “Decree on the Reformation of Marriage” of the 24th Session of the Council of Trent (11 Nov. 1563), where it says, ” it is not to be doubted, that clandestine marriages, made with the free consent of the contracting parties, are valid and true marriages, so long as the Church has not rendered them invalid; and consequently, that those persons are justly to be condemned, as the holy Synod doth condemn them with anathema, who deny that such marriages are true and valid; as also those who falsely affirm that marriages contracted by the children of a family, without the consent of their parents, are invalid, and that parents can make such marriages either valid or invalid; nevertheless, the holy Church of God has, for reasons most just, at all times detested and prohibited such marriages.”

    The “holy Church of God has, for reasons most just, at all times detested and prohibited […] marriages” which it defends as in and of themselves indubitably “valid and true marriages” the validity and truth of which the holy Synod defends by justly condemning “with anathema” any “who deny that such marriages are true and valid”. Having done this, the holy Synod seems to go on prudentially (not doctrinally) to ‘render them invalid’. The proper ministers of the sacrament of such “valid and true marriages” it renders “wholly incapable of thus contracting and declares such contracts invalid and null, as by the present decree It invalidates and annuls them” under certain prudential circumstances.

    Am I understanding this correctly?

    And in how far is this pertinent, that is, still in effect?

    And can a future holy Synod as easily undo what the Council of Trent has done, as it seems prudential rather than doctrinal?

  16. Volanges says:

    I’m no expert on the Council of Trent and its decrees but my reading of it doesn’t lead me to the same interpretation. As I read it, the Trent decree declares that up to that time clandestine marriages and those of children without the consent of their parents were valid if the consent of both parties was freely exchanged. They remained valid unless they had been declared invalid by the Church for some reason. In other words, they were valid unless the couple had petitioned for and received a decree of nullity.

    The Church had always prohibited clandestine marriages because often the man then dumped the wife because there was no proof that they’d been married and ‘married’ another, thus committing the sin of adultery. Up to this point the Church didn’t have marrying in the Catholic Form as a requirement for validity so had no real recourse when it came to clandestine weddings.

    This decree of Trent imposed ‘Catholic form’ as a condition for validity. From 30 days after the publication of the decree in parishes, it became necessary that couples be married by their pastor or with his permission, that their intention to marry be published in the form of banns in their respective parishes and the parishes of their Baptism and that they marry before 2 or 3 witnesses. I don’t understand the decree as being retroactive — indeed, you can’t invalidate a valid marriage.

    That form persists today, although banns may or may not be published, often replaced by a civil license and proof of freedom to marry, often in the form of an affidavit by the bride and groom’s respective parents. Banns worked great when almost everyone was born, grew up, married, lived and died in the same parish. Today, not so much.

    We’ve published banns once in my 17 years in this parish. It was done at the request of the marrying parish, since one party had been baptized in our parish. Nobody remembered him or his family, that being the nature of the area – high number of people moving in for a year or two for work, then gone again without so much of a ripple in the parish.

  17. gramma10 says:

    So I guess there are just more of us now and that means more of everything from both sides. Just that we have the internet and a larger audience and crazier people who are proud of their craziness. Because to them it is normal! They cannot find the TRUTH in this hodgepodge of various ideas. Relativism runs rampant.

    “But Christ in his view of marriage does not in the least suggest the conditions of Palestine of the first century. He does not suggest anything at all, except the sacramental view of marriage as developed long afterwards by the Catholic Church. It was quite as difficult for people then as for people now. It was much more puzzling to people then than to people now. Jews and Romans and Greeks did not believe, and did not even understand enough to disbelieve, the mystical idea that the man and the woman had become one sacramental substance. We may think it an incredible or impossible ideal; but we cannot think it any more incredible or impossible than they would have thought it. In other words, whatever else is true, it is not true that the controversy has been altered by time. Whatever else is true, it is emphatically not true that the ideas of Jesus of Nazareth were suitable to his time, but are no longer suitable to our time. Exactly how suitable they were to his time is perhaps suggested in the end of his story.”

    ~G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

  18. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Thank-you for that quote from G.K. , gramma10 . To one of your previous comments -yes , wouldn’t it be great if Chesterton had written specifically on this subject ? (BTW while I was checking [without any luck] to see if he had, I came across his essay A Defense of Rash Vows which is still a great read even though it doesn’t address the question squarely).

    I notice that Father Z emphasized –

    “. . . even if it’s ‘only’ to witness a non-Catholic wedding. . .”

    Scrutinizing the witness element a little more closely can be a big help in illustrating to ourselves just how easily a “Catholic” , were they to accede to the request proposed in the OP, could end up in a predicament convergent on schismatic. When, in the case of the Sacraments we say “witness” , we are identifying something of far greater impetus than, say, an innocent bystander who witnesses an accident or a shooting, and who can therefore say, “Yes, it happened – I saw it.” The latter, would simply be categorized as someone “who provides evidence based on personal immediate knowledge of a fact, event, or experience.”
    Within both the sacramental sphere, and the broader general Christian concept, a witness is , in addition to the aforementioned categorization, contemplated as one who believes and who lives their belief. From Father John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary :

    WITNESS. One who can give evidence based on personal and immediate knowledge of a fact, event, or experience. The Christian concept of witness adds to the popular notion the idea of a religious experience to which a believer testifies by his life, words, and actions, and thus gives inspiration and example to others by his testimony. Implicit in Christian witness is also the element of courage in giving testimony, either because others are not favorably disposed or because they are openly hostile to the message of faith being proposed.

    It follows that a so-called “witness” who is without any sense of conviction is only an empty shell – and therefore not really a witness at all according to the sense in which the Church contemplates witness : They resemble the foundational forms of a house or building which lack the concrete ( the sense of conviction) which has to be poured into them. They support nothing.

    If anyone, knowing that I am a practicing Catholic, asked me to become an “online minister” so that I could officiate at their non-Catholic wedding , I believe that they would, effectively, be mocking/insulting my Catholic faith. It wouldn’t even reach the stage of my being able to consider the validity of such a “marriage” – because they are only thinking of themselves and they have , by their request that I become an online minister, essentially told me that my faith is of very little value ; while their proposal that I officiate at their wedding basically demands that I assent to their faith/beliefs – instead of mine.

    If anyone has trouble seeing that, perhaps we should take it a step further: As a Catholic, the now schismatic “online minister” , in good (yet rather deformed) conscience would still have to ask himself : Do I still believe in the indissolubility of marriage ? What vows are they going to exchange to that effect ? What if they don’t ? What if they get divorced later ?

    So let’s say that subsequently, after attending the ceremony, someone came up to our “minister” and said they wanted to join his , ummmm. . . . , “church” . What do we suppose he might say in reply ? . . . He’d probably be obliged to say something along the lines of, “Oh actually, I’m Catholic – I only did that for them.” Whom do we perceive to be speaking here – one witness ? Doesn’t it sound a lot more like two conflicting witnesses ?

    BTW , as Father John Hardon further explains in his Modern Catholic Dictionary’s definition of schismatic , and which concurs with Fr. Z’s application of schism in the OP, affiliation with another religious body is not an absolute necessity to induce schism.

    SCHISMATIC. According to Church law, a schismatic is a person who, after receiving baptism and while keeping the name of Christian, pertinaciously refuses to submit to the Supreme Pontiff or refuses to associate with those who are subject to him. The two factors, submission to the Pope and association with persons subject to him, are to be taken disjunctively. Either resisting papal authority or refusing to participate in Catholic life and worship induces schism, even without further affiliation with another religious body. Like heresy, schism is formal and culpable only when the obligations are fully realized.

  19. gramma10 says:

    In my searches I found this and never have read it. Looks good so it is now on my list.

    E book by GK

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    Thank you for the detailed and clear response, and especially your first paragraph! You say, ” I don’t understand the decree as being retroactive”, which had occurred to me, too; you also say, “they were valid unless the couple had petitioned for and received a decree of nullity”, about which I had not thought, as such: by this you do not mean that having been “clandestine” would in and of itself be grounds for a decree of nullity, but simply refer to any and all grounds for such a decree, if I am not mistaken.

    Thomas Shahan has an interesting (1907) article on “Banns of Marriage” in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, including details about how Trent confirmed a canon of the Fourth Lateran Council on clandestine marriage (with, at New Advent, a link to James O’Neill’s 1908 article on the historical complexities of validity and “Clandestinity (in canon law)” up to that date).

    The dangers of clandestinity in openness to abuse, are illustrated in “A Mysterious History. Being the Strange Adventures of Theresa, Viscountess Avonmore” in the 1902 edition of Charles Warren Stoddard’s In the Footprints of the Padres (as scanned at Internet Archive) – a world-famous ‘case’ in its time which I do not remember ever hearing of, until I met with this account accidentally.


    Thank you for the Chesterton quotation and link! (I see What’s Wrong with the World is also available as a free, volunteer-read audiobook at

    Grumpy Bear,

    Thank you for your thoughts and information about the meaning of “witness” (and so, also, “officiant”) in this context – and for your Chesterton recommendation and link (also read out at LibrVox, I see)!

    The complexities of validity and schismatic, heretical, mixed, and clandestine marriages encountered in the Catholic Encyclopedia articles I note above, rather leave my head spinning.

  21. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Grumpy Beggar,

    Please excuse my ursine error!

  22. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Venerator Sti Lot says:
    “Grumpy Beggar,

    Please excuse my ursine error!”

    @ Venerator Sti Lot : LOL

    I’m not so sure it’s an error if we’re looking at character traits Venerator Sti Lot . And I’ve been called much worse. I honestly think it’s better than my chosen user name , but I guess it might be a little too late to change it now ( I have to make sure I get blamed for as much trouble as possible).
    If worse comes to worse, and I start to become depressed about it, I guess I could always become an online park ranger then trap myself, and go and set myself free in the wild.

    Den again, since the first time you used it, I’ve come to consider it a term of endeerment . . . nothing grisly about it and my paw didn’t seem to have any objections either. Besides, you know what they say : “Bears can’t be choosers.”

    Please feel free to use it whenever the Spirit moves you – it never fails to draw a smile on this end.
    And God bless you.

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Grumpy Be(gg)ar,

    I suppose flatter will get me no picnic baskets, but you are not only smarter than the average bear, but punnier, too!

  24. PMK says:

    How timely this post is for me. My sister, a practicing “catholic”, recently became a minister of some church so she could be the officiant of the “wedding” of two of her gay friends. I am heartsick and do not know how to go about handling this. Should I inform her pastor, it would have to be by phone or email since we do not live close. Inform the archdiocese? Approaching her would obviously be what I do first, but I don’t think she understands what she is doing. She attends a church that, according to my oldest son, you are guaranteed to clap along with the music at least once during the mass.

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