The 'why' of marriage rules

I recently received the following question about the Church’s requirements for weddings and marriages:


“My girlfriend is a Protestant, and her mother recently asked her a question that I haven’t been able to find much information on. She asked, ‘Why can’t a Protestant and a Catholic have a Protestant marriage recognized by the Catholic Church?’ My understanding is with the proper dispensation, it is possible. I couldn’t really explain, though, why a dispensation is required or what that entails. Can you enlighten me on how to explain what the rule is and why it is that way?”

The most common way to answer this is in terms of the canonical rules or sacramental requirements, but I think these sorts of answers, while being technically correct, miss the point. What does it really mean to say to a person that a “dispensation from form” is required for a Catholic to get married in a non-Catholic church? That often ends up sounding like this: “Catholics have a bunch of rules that have to be followed by everyone regardless of whether or not they’re Catholic … so there!” It doesn’t really move the conversation forward in any personally meaningful way.

I would like to suggest a more pastoral and practical answer.

The entire Christian walk, from baptism forward, is intended to be a process of discipleship in which we learn to answer this question: “How does God wish us to love him and each other?” Catholic marriage, which is all about living out this baptismal call to love, makes some very specific claims about what it means to be loving. Further, it requires a couple to spend their lives apprenticing to this Catholic vision of love.

From the Catholic point of view, because we are all broken and fallen people who really don’t know how to love each other, whatever the couple thinks their marriage ought to be, is more or less irrelevant. Instead, when a couple agrees to get married in the Church, they are agreeing to let the Church define their marriage for them as an intimate partnership dedicated to an ever deepening experience of love as a free, total, faithful and fruitful mutual self-gift. The couple that marries in the Church is, in effect, saying, “We recognize that we don’t naturally know how to love each other as God wants us to, so we promise to spend our lives learning how to love each other in the free, total, faithful and fruitful way the Church says we should. Also, we promise to bear witness to the world that this is the vision of love intended by God for all couples, everywhere, because it is the vision of love that best reveals Christ’s relationship with his bride the Church.”

A couple with radically different ideas about what married love should look like — in theory or practice — simply cannot share the vision that the Church asks the couple to share in order to have a valid marriage (that is, to do what the Church says marriage ought to do for the kingdom of God). Likewise, if a couple wants to get married in a way that is somehow different from the normal way Catholics usually make this promise to each other (i.e., a ceremony in a Catholic church), they need to demonstrate to a competent authority in the Church (usually the bishop) that they really do mean to do what the Church asks of them in marriage.

Although it is rarely explained, the fact is that all of the sacramental requirements and canonical rules that are in place regarding what constitutes a valid or invalid marriage have to do with protecting this unique Catholic vision of love as a witness to the kind of love Christ has for the Church. I believe ministers of the Church and Catholics in general could do a more effective job of helping people understand the uniqueness of Catholic marriage if we focused less on telling people how to color inside the canonical lines and, instead, focused on communicating these underlying truths about the Catholic vision of love and the promises couples make in Catholic marriage.

The rules are important, but they don’t exist for the sake of the rules. They exist to protect and preserve the integrity of the sacramental mystery represented by the godly love shared between a man and a woman.

This summer, as we attend weddings or make plans for our own in the future, let’s take our cue from Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) and spend at least as much energy teaching the truths behind the rules as we do the rules themselves.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the host of More2Life Radio and the author of “For Better ... Forever! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage” (OSV, $19.95). Visit him at