Q. In the state in which I live, a marriage ceremony must be witnessed by two people (I figure this is the norm across the United States). My question is, was this adapted from religious tradition? I guess I’m asking, what’s the Church’s rule on number of witnesses needed?
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
The Church’s Code of Canon Law specifies an “official” witness must request and receive the consent of both parties who wish to marry. This witness is a bishop, priest or deacon assigned to the territory or parish of at least one of the persons (Canon 1108). A commentary on the law adds that two other witnesses must also be present. These may be men or women, and although they need not be Catholic (or even Christian), they must be capable of understanding what is taking place.
This provides a rather chilly description of the sacrament St. Paul describes as a visible sign of Christ’s love for the Church, so we might turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which offers a further reflection: “Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses); – The public character of the consent protects the ‘I do’ once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it” (No. 1631). Each wedding guest is a witness; her or his presence signifies a willingness to help the couple live out their commitment to be a sign of the Church should this prove more difficult than on the wedding day.