Wineries, rose gardens, lakes, mountains, beaches and the Staten Island Ferry all have one thing in common.  People want to get married there.  Catholic people want to get married there.

Priests, deacons, liturgists and musicians in the Catholic wedding enterprise have heard this request many times: “May we have the wedding outdoors?”  And many others have heard the winged flutter of a youthful dream soaring unpretentiously from heart to voice, “When I grow up, I want to get married outside.”

Fat chance if you’re a Catholic.

The main roadblock to the great outdoors comes from the Code of Canon Law.  We have many laws governing marriage, and the norms presume that a Catholic wedding will take place inside a Catholic Church.  After all, marriage is a sacrament.

Engaged Catholics know this argument does not hold water.  Lots of sacraments happen outside of church.  The eucharist may be celebrated in homes, backyards and major league sports fields.  The anointing of the sick frequently takes place at bedside.  Baptism and even confirmation may be given to an infant in danger of death, and the location doesn’t matter.  Priests have heard confessions in their cars, on park benches and on playgrounds.  So what’s the big deal with marriage?

Canon 1118 does not promote outdoor weddings, but it actually offers circumstances when, in theory, one could take place.  The scenarios concern marriages where only one partner is Catholic.  The law seems to hold the naive assumption that two Catholics will want their marriage in a Catholic church.  Why wouldn’t they?

Why, indeed?

This is perhaps the most important pastoral question to explore with the couple desiring marriage outdoors, whether one or both are Catholic.  They will want to know why this is not permitted, and you can answer with the norms of canon 1118, diocesan policy, parish policy and priest policy, but their question deserves more conversation.  Ask them.  “Why?  Tell me why the outdoors is important to you.”

Couples may not know how to respond to this question.  Not all can articulate the reasons behind their choices ranging from hairstyle to spouse.  They may have some very good reasons, but they may not have the words to explain them.  You can help the couple with questions that demonstrate your desire to understand them and to help them express their values.

A typical response is the following: “The outdoors is where I find God.”  Some church employees shake their heads and chortle at such a statement, but far more important is to hear more about it.

“How do you find God outdoors?  What do you experience?” Hear more about what is positive in their spiritual lives.  Then ask some other questions.  “Is it hard to find God in everyday life?  Do you find it necessary to go away someplace to find God?  What might that mean about our culture and about how you live in it?”  When people say they want a wedding outdoors because that’s where they find God, they make a spiritual argument.  It calls for a spiritual conversation.

Then swallow hard and prepare to take some lumps with some questions about Church.  These work if you have a good relationship with the couple and they trust you with their honesty.  Say, “I wonder if in finding God outdoors you’re also saying it’s hard to find God in church.  Are there some things about church that actually make it hard to find God there?”

They may have some contrary things to say.  That church limits their freedoms.  That they don’t agree with the Church about sex.  That the liturgies are boring.  That the preaching is irrelevant.  Just as some of the couple’s requests seem out of step with what we stand for, some of what we request may be out of step with what the couple stands for.

Very often, a couple’s desire for an outdoor wedding comes from some very good values.  They have discovered the link among transcendental experiences like love, beauty, unity and eternity.  They have fallen in love, seduced by beauty.  They desire unity that will last forever.  They discover the possibility of a forever.  They plumb the creative love of God that called them into being and helped them find each other.  They realize that God is eternal and love is eternal.  Heady participation in the loving embrace of transcendental reflections can take your breath away, and it stakes a claim on that elusive transcendental, truth.  True love lasts forever.  God, eternity and beauty are true.

Few couples will wax rhapsodic about these philosophical beliefs, but almost all couples experience them on some level.  Because these transcendental experiences are so foundational, some couples find they resonate best in nature.  Nature’s simplicity untainted by technology and opinion greets the emotions they associate with their engagement.

Besides, the great outdoors is just plain sexier than most of our churches.  Mother Nature, not Mother Church, thrills the natural beauty of a promised sexual relationship. 

Wanting an outdoor wedding is not the worst thing in the world.  It may demonstrate a couple’s desire for the very things the church holds dear: a loving union between committed partners, open to life, faithful until death, witnessed beneath the eyes of God, who will love, support and nurture this marriage.

But there is that pesky canon 1118.  If a Catholic marries someone who is not a Catholic, the wedding is supposed to take place in the Catholic party’s church or “in another suitable place.”  No such provision is mentioned if a Catholic marries a Catholic.  If the other party is baptized, the bishop determines what is a suitable place.  If the other party is not baptized, the bishop need not be involved in the decision.

Nonetheless, many bishops have involved themselves in the decision of what constitutes a suitable place.  Some dioceses flat out forbid weddings outdoors.  Is the great outdoors “a suitable place” for marriage?  It’s a judgment call.  To many couples, who in their marriage will become the primary locus of church, the answer is yes.  But to many dioceses, parishes, bishops and priests, the answer is no.  Long before a couple even raises the question, a generic answer has already been given.  No.

A couple won’t understand.  Their relationship seems unique to them.  They don’t see why their special relationship shouldn’t have special status in the Church.  They also live in a post-Christianized world where the value of a church wedding is no longer taken for granted.  They need good reasons to explain this decision to their peers.  As Church we must approach this situation with pastoral charity, not with punitive demands.

Let’s not demonize the law.  There are weighty reasons why the wedding should take place indoors – reasons mightier than the possibility of rain.  Under normal circumstances, a Catholic church is the building we use for the eucharist, for baptism, and for all the ceremonies that draw together a people of faith.  To be married in a Catholic church is to accept participation in the belief and mission of the people who gather there.  It wraps the marriage in the loving arms of a people with ideals about love, prayer, and unity.  It is a place that honors the same transcendental values that the couple experiences.

If couples are not finding truth, unity, beauty, love and God in our churches, there may be reasons for that.  We may not be able to offer them a wedding outdoors, but we can offer them a place where they can speak the truth, tell us what they see about us, tell us what they hope for us, tell us why this church is important enough to be part of their marriage process, but why we disappoint them.  And we can insist that our belief in God challenges us to love, to love them, to worship in a place of beauty, to serve the needy, to build a spirit of unity and to stay committed to our community forever.

That will open up a conversation of trust and hope as big as all outdoors.

This article first appeared in Ministry and Liturgy 19/2 (March 2002):18-19

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