ASK FATHER: What to do if marriages are not allowed until the pandemic passes?

From a reader…


I was wondering if, given the circumstances and churches not allowing\ marriages to take place, if the Church permits a civil legal marriage to afford the couple the legal rights of a married couple and hold off on a valid sacramental marriage until this all passes assuming they live a brother and sister in the meantime?


Canon 1116 talks about the Extraordinary Canonical Form of marriage (not marriage using the Extraordinary Form of the Ritual, i.e. the ritual in use in 1962). This canon states that Catholics without recourse to a legitimate marriage officiant (a priest, deacon, or bishop with the proper authority) who are in danger of death, or in a situation where “it is prudently foreseen that the situation will continue for a month,” can validly and licitly contract marriage before witnesses only.

In many places right now, it could be prudently foreseen that the current situation – the lack of the public celebration of the sacraments – might continue for a month.

Thus, if John and Susie are itching to get married, and Father Cyril is unable to officiate at that wedding, from the Church’s perspective, they could enter into a valid, binding, sacramental, canonical marriage in the presence of witnesses alone. And as a valid, binding, sacramental, canonical marriage, they would not be expected to live as brother and sister – they would have every right to enjoy the goods of marriage.

Now, civil law is another matter – but if John and Susie can’t get hitched by Father Cyril, but Judge Fontaine is willing and able to do it with two witnesses, that wedding would be considered canonical valid and sacramental.

It would be worthwhile, in such a situation, to contact the local chancery and ask, flat out, will the diocese be permitting the public celebration of marriages on May 18, 2020. If the answer is absolutely yes, then you have to wait. If the answer is absolutely no, then you can feel free to call Judge Fontaine.

If the answer is, well, we’re not sure, we have to wait and see… then that pesky “prudence” comes in to play.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in 1983 CIC can. 915, One Man & One Woman and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Imrahil says:

    With all due respect, and while the question of being able to contract a real marriage with all it implies when the possibility of “normal” celebration is absent really is both interesting and, in this time, very pressing – and perfectly answered -,

    I think the question was a different one.

    The question was: “We are, in fact, willing to sacrificially abstain from being properly married unless we can be married by the Church’s rite and within a proper celebration (with some guests less, we guess). But, for technical reasons, we need the legal status of a married couple as regards civil law, and that one right now. So, we’d have the registrar’s marriage now and the real marriage as soon as we can. It is clear that with consummating the marriage we have to wait for the latter point of time. Are we allowed?”

    I can’t properly answer that one (nor am I asked, of course). But in countries that absolutely require a registrar’s marriage before the ecclesial (and real) one, or at least to get said legal status (such as Germany and France), precisely this is – even without circumstances so pressing as the current pandemic – an established practice for all sorts of reasons. Nor does the Church mind (by which I mean: clergy does not speak out against it) as long as there really is a plan to really marry (in, say, a year or so or even a bit more). I personally cannot see anything wrong with it either (but that’s the least important thing about it).

  2. JPCahill says:

    I had to smile at the question. Good luck getting a civil marriage out here; the county offices are closed up tight. If you can’t transact your business on-line, well, you’ll just have to wait.

  3. Alice says:

    People are getting married civilly. I have a couple of friends in different states who got married before their officiant and witnesses in the past few weeks and I know of another couple doing the same thing next week. That the bishops are refusing to allow priests to do what Protestant pastors and judges are doing just shows me that they care more about appearances than they do about their flocks.

  4. Jones says:

    This virus has certain thrown a monkey wrench in a lot of martial plans. I know it did mine. Our county is allowing marriage licenses to be completed online then faxed/mailed in. That didn’t happen until just a few weeks ago. Our priest will still perform the nuptials thank the Lord.

  5. Hb says:

    At present, in the Philadelphia Archdiocese weddings and funerals are up to the priests. Most of us insist on people spreading out and preferably keeping numbers around ten.

    Of course, things can change quickly in this environment.

  6. JennyU says:

    Here in Denver these matters have been left to the discretion of the pastors. A couple were married in one of our local parishes yesterday in a private ceremony with only their parents and the best man and maid of honor present, along with Fr., keeping the total just south of the ten person ceiling. There was a “reception” parade of cars waiting for them outside the church with people holding signs out the windows and sun roofs of their cars. Sad but also joyful.

  7. Josephus Corvus says:

    And don’t forget to pray for at least some parish priest to be given strength not to bow before Caesar and restore normal celebration of the sacraments.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    Ahem, why is it John and Susie? Shouldn’t that be Johnnie and Susie? Proper parallelism, Fr. Ferguson, proper parallelism. Don’t make the angels cry.

    I guess I’m just in one of those moods, today, but all I can think of is having a marriage ceremony with proper social distancing and the microphone goes out:


    Johnnie: “EH?”


    Johnnie: “AWFULLY DEAD, WHAT?”

    At this point, the priest, wearing gloves and a face mask, writes the question on a sheet of paper and throws it at Johnnie.

    Johnnie: “OH. YES.”



    The priest shakes his head, pulls out his cell phone, and hold it up for all to see. Johnnie and Suzie pull out their cell phones and the marriage cell-abration continues.

    The Chicken

  9. Bender says:

    The problem is that, with most courts being closed to public interaction, the marriage license bureaus are closed for the time being. And in most states, while you might be able to get a sacramental marriage, without the license it is not legally recognized.

  10. Hidden One says:

    I wonder if some couples might have small weddings after the pandemic voluntarily.

  11. GHP says:

    Is Fr. Ferguson channeling the Beatles when he writes: we have to wait and see… then that pesky “prudence” comes in to play.

    Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
    Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
    The sun is up, the sky is blue
    It’s beautiful and so are you
    Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

  12. Semper Gumby says:

    Masked Chicken: Good one.

    Fr. Ferguson as the Impressive Clergyman:

    Mawwiage. That blessed arrangement, that dweam within a dweam.

  13. Ages says:

    It seems to me there are three things here:

    1. The sacramental church marriage
    2. The government paper civil marriage
    3. The “moral” marriage

    The church law in extremis does not seem to require either 1 or 2. If you have got to be married right now and it’s not possible for anyone (neither priest nor judge) to officiate within a month, it seems that vows exchanged before two witnesses would suffice for a couple to be “morally” married.

    Now, for legal purposes (for marriage laws to apply–although with marriage rates as they are today, courts often decide that cohabitation is effectively marriage anyway) it would need to be redone civilly later, and a pious couple would want it blessed by the church when it’s possible to do so, but in such circumstances a valid and licit matrimony can be achieved with just witnesses.

    At least that’s how I’m reading it.

  14. amyo1233 says:

    So does that mean any lack of form annulments would not apply during COVID-19 time?

  15. Ultrarunner says:

    Joseph Zwilling, Spokesman
    Archdiocese of New York
    “Staten Island wedding in midst of coronavirus lockdown draws ire of Archdiocese”
    March 23, 2020

    “Any wedding scheduled to take place during a pandemic that’s hit New York City harder than any place in the country should be postponed unless it ‘is an emergency situation,’ Zwilling said Monday. Even then, he said, only the bride, groom, two witnesses and the officiant should be present. We will be sure that all priests are given clear instructions.”

    Cardinal Timothy Dolan
    Face the Nation
    April, 12, 2020

    “The decision that I would make about opening our churches, and please God it’s as soon as can be, is that we have to listen to the experts. We have to listen to the physicians, the scientists. We have to listen to our civic officials because they’re on top of things.”

    Andrew Cuomo
    Mayor of New York
    April 18, 2020

    “I am issuing an Executive Order allowing New Yorkers to obtain a marriage license remotely and allowing clerks to perform ceremonies via video conference.”

    Based on the analysis provided by Father Ferguson, given that NY chanceries statewide will not allow Catholic marriages over the next 30 days, it appears video conferenced marriages performed over the Internet are now “canonically and sacramentally valid” in NY.

  16. TonyO says:

    Chicken, you could write a dystopian novel with that kind of material. But please don’t, we have enough to be depressed over already.

    Ultrarunner, it sounds like Joe Zwilling is talking out both sides of his mouth: the COVID quarantines constitute a perfect exemplar case of “emergency”, and should not be discounted as being some kine of “second class” emergency that “doesn’t really count, you know.” Given that there is no such thing as a person needing a marriage as an emergency in the sense that he might need some stitches right now to prevent death, the Church’s canons on marriage when a priest is not available constitute the framework for what the Church herself intends about the unusual situation of a priest not being available.

    In addition, Zwilling refers to “scheduled” weddings: given that all dioceses in the US require a couple to wait 6 months (and have counseling / teaching about marriage), and the typical situation where most couples spend a good deal more than 6 months waiting and planning, any couple that had already gone through that process, and had long since scheduled a wedding for April or May has (by that date) been waiting 6 months or even considerably longer, it is not reasonable to demand that they change their planned wedding date out to some indeterminate future date (who knows how long it will be before we can get together in LARGE groups, or what the parish’s schedule will be?), when canon law provides precisely for this situation by saying that they can marry without the priest, just with the witnesses. Let them get married already.

    What I wonder about is whether the Church has thought about what the canon prescription of 30 days does to the diocesan rules that couples wait at least 6 months, during which counseling should occur? If a couple got engaged on March 1 (before any quarantine rule), and was just beginning to think about talking to the parish to start the 6-month (minimum) waiting period, but had not yet done so, can they now get married today because as of today (in some states, at least, including mine) the authorities have said the quarantine rules will remain in place for at least a month (and the diocese is following like a sheep)? Do they get to skirt the 6-month waiting period because canon law rule about 30 days without access to a priest ?

    @ Ages: I would clarify about your #1: although the wedding before the witnesses (but no priest) is a “moral marriage” under the rules of the Church, it would also be a sacramental marriage, and treated so by the Church. The Church position is that when a baptized couple marry validly, that marriage is automatically a sacramental marriage, in that it is the two spouses who are the ministers of the sacrament, (not the priest or deacon). True, it would not be a “church” wedding, since it did not occur in a church, but the Church would treat it as valid in all the ways that she treats “church weddings” as valid. There would be no ecclesiastical distinction.

  17. ryanbilodeau says:

    Letting friends and family know our wedding ceremony this June will now have to be private in light of the coronavirus has been a sad and disappointing undertaking. But it has also put for us the sacrament of marriage in perspective. The reality is that matrimony isn’t ultimately about the pomp and circumstance humans create, but what God divinely creates in us as a couple. – Ryan Bilodeau,

  18. Semper Gumby says:

    Ultrarunner: Interesting.

    “The decision that I would make about opening our churches, and please God it’s as soon as can be, is that we have to listen to the experts. We have to listen to the physicians, the scientists. We have to listen to our civic officials because they’re on top of things”

    Well, the Cardinal who stated that is also an expert who can be listened to…

    Another observation. The Cardinal was obviously speaking in a certain context. Though, generally speaking, there is something debatable about his statement. Scientists, civic officials and experts should be listened to sometimes, and sometimes not. Scientists, civic officials and experts provoked a nine-digit body count during the 20th century.

  19. Hidden One says:


    I think it should be clear that Mr. Zwilling was speaking of an “emergency” in terms of the timing of wedding, not about the general situation. Sometimes delaying a wedding for a month or three is not much of an inconvenience. Sometimes it really, really is.

  20. Kate says:

    Does this mean that pre-Cana waiting periods do not need to be followed during this time?

    And if an individual is waiting to receive an annulment so they can be free to marry?

    Are tribunals anywhere taking action during these days to issue decrees to assist individuals with getting on with their lives?

  21. supercooper says:

    I second the pre-cana question. What do you do with a mandatory six months of pre-cana? Does that diocesan required six month period go against the spirit of the Canon 1116?

Comments are closed.