From a reader…
May a Catholic elope? Is this a valid marriage? If not, how did one correct it?
GUEST PRIEST RESPONSE: Fr. Tim Ferguson
May a Catholic elope? Presuming said Catholic has a paramour of the opposite gender, sufficient finances to pay for the bus fare, and a free afternoon, certainly!
May a Catholic elope and have it considered to be a true and valid marriage? That’s perhaps a bit more complicated.
Catholics understand that marriage is a contractual, covenantal arrangement. Catholics understand that, between baptized persons, marriage has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. Catholics understand that a wedding – the sharing of consent between two persons to bring about their lifelong commitment – manifests a living symbol of God’s love for His people, Christ’s love for His Church, and a remedy for that soul-achingly angsty question asked by each and every human soul: despite our uniqueness, we were not made to be alone. Marriage – and the wedding that sets it off – is not “about the couple” despite what decades of Hollywood and Madison Avenue solons have attempted to say. Marriage takes place within the context of a community. It belongs to all of us. Your family, friends, colleagues, compadres, associates, well-wishers, fellow parishioners, and even a few disinterested strangers have a reasonable expectation that they will be included in the wedding, and allowed to bask in the effluent grace emanating from your act of matrimonial consent. It need not be a big, complicated, and expensive affair. Flowers are optional, as are an elaborate ball gown, a rented tuxedo, a harpist, professional photographer, silken bags of Jordan almonds, and diminutive tumblers with bells on their slippers.
Centuries of literature about elopement demonstrate that there are situations and circumstances where a marriage can be done in this manner, and sometimes there are circumstances that warrant it. Personally, I think those circumstances are quite rare. If your father would fly into a murderous rage at the thought of you daring to marry a Montague, perhaps running off to Friar Lawrence (though I’m not sure that barely turning 14 is a good time for making such a life altering decision). If your village elders rigidly refuse to allow persons with considerable melanin in the basal layer of their epidermis to marry persons with very little melanin in their epidermis, traveling to the next county where more reasonable laws prevail might be justified.
Regardless, for the marriage of a Latin Catholic to be valid, the couple will need to marry in the presence of at least two witnesses and a qualified minister of the Church. The law presumes that the couple will marry at their own parish church, or at least at the parish church of one of them (canon 1115). If not, the couple should get permission from their pastor to marry elsewhere. If the couple were to elope without seeking their pastor’s permission, the marriage would still be presumptively valid, if they marry in the presence of the pastor of the church where they wed, or in the presence of a priest or deacon delegated by that pastor. Most pastors aren’t going to take kindly to a couple simply showing up on the front porch asking to be wed – some form of marriage preparation is customary, and in some dioceses, legislated. Six months seems to be the common average. Marriage is not something to rush into.
If a couple has eloped without getting their marriage officiated by a priest or deacon who is qualified to do so (e.g.,, if they ran off and got married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator), they will need to have their marriage regularized. See your local, friendly pastor for advice on the steps that need to be taken to fix the situation, as there may be particular wrinkles that need to be ironed out.