Anna Abbott is a graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has written for Catholic World Report and Canticle. She had a weekly column on religion for four years at the Napa Valley Register, the Weekly Calistogan, the St. Helena Star and the American Canyon Eagle. She is aunt and godmother to two boys, as well as a newborn girl. She currently resides in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Last January, Pope Francis wed a couple onboard a flight to Chile. The Pope wasn’t a pioneer in exotic wedding venues; he was simply following the trend. The Diocese of Helena (Montana) was ahead of the curve in allowing weddings outside churches, with some restrictions, beginning in June 2016. This past June, the Archdiocese of Baltimore followed, permitting weddings outside — again, with restrictions, and on a case-by-case basis.
Removing the sacrament of matrimony from the sacred space of a church poses some questions that go to the core of Catholic identity, the nature of evangelization and the centrality of doctrine to the faith.
Traditionally, Catholic marriages were unique in that they were allowed only within churches. Marriages in non-Catholic churches were permitted only with special dispensations. While the common argument is that God is nature’s Creator, churches are special, since they are truly God’s home, where he resides, his Real Presence in the tabernacle. This is a distinction with a profound difference. So why has there been a change?
Dan Bartleson, communications director for the Diocese of Helena, explained, “Bishop (George Leo) Thomas instituted the policy after consulting with advisors and a combination of pastoral outreach to young people and the ethos of the gorgeous outdoors of Montana.” He added, “More and more young couples are requesting outdoor weddings. If a proper Catholic wedding can be done outdoors, it’s a practical new outlet; it can help the process of formation.” (It should be noted that Thomas, who made this change, was transferred to be bishop of Las Vegas in May 2018. Currently, the Diocese of Helena is awaiting his successor.)
This raises the question of “formation,” and why couples who have had marriage preparation would still insist on an outdoor wedding.
It also raises the question of what Bartleson calls a “proper Catholic wedding.” Already moving the sacrament to an outdoor setting makes it inappropriate. So the operating philosophy here must not only be one of accommodation, but reductionism. How little must we have to do to have a licit sacrament? Is this evangelism, or defeatism?
Currently, fewer couples having church-officiated weddings (Catholic or Protestant) or getting married at all. A recent study shows that more children are being born to unmarried couples, including outside the United States. Marriage has decreased worldwide, but does making the sacrament more “accessible” make it more attractive? When Catholics can have outdoor weddings like everyone else, will couples and families eventually choose Catholicism, or will they do their own thing, just as they did at the wedding? Is “do your own thing” Catholicism really Catholicism?
Outdoor weddings are very much in vogue. By allowing outdoor weddings, are the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the Diocese of Helena trying to follow St. Paul’s dictum to be “all things to all people,” or is it a painful case of attempting to be hip and a fear of saying no?
When couples ask for an outdoor wedding, are they simply responding to the sad state of post-Vatican II architecture? Modern church architecture is often uninspiring. The Blessed Sacrament is concealed; there is Mass “in the round,” and “holy simplicity” is the excuse for a lack of imagery. Instead of being drawn heavenward, the modern sanctuary is as bland as a big box store. It is not shocking that couples even go for “church” weddings in deconsecrated sanctuaries, like the Sonoma Mission, Santa Rosa’s Church of One Tree, and St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island in Vallejo. They give at least the appearance of sanctity. They serve as event venues rather than as places of worship. If couples are simply looking for a place of beauty, perhaps parishes should respond by adorning the local church with the awesome, majestic loveliness that is appropriate for the “source and summit” of our faith. If churches were designed to be as awe-inspiring as the outdoors, this excuse could be dispensed with.
When couples ask for outdoor weddings, it shows not only a disconnect from the parish, but the Church in general.
Capitulating to a couple’s desire for an outdoor wedding poses a problem. “Accompanying” a couple to do what has always been prohibited except for extreme cases sets a precedent. By responding to the requests of couples to wed outdoors, the centrality of the faith, and the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament, is devalued. The nuptials become all about the couple and their feelings, instead of the sacrament. It also sets the precedent of leaving the sacrament subject to caprice.
When Bishop Thomas allowed outdoor weddings, the reasoning given was that it would aid evangelization to couples and families. But this turns the sacrament of matrimony from its actual nature as sacrament into a pedagogical tool. Catholicism holds the highest and most demanding doctrine of marriage in the world. Lowering it to an instrument to be used — even for the noble goal of evangelization — validates the idea that weddings are simply a “celebration” where “dreams come true” and imaginations show the “uniqueness” of the couple’s personal narrative. Rather than calling couples to higher standards, the Church sentimentally stoops to their level.
“Accompanying” sounds ostensibly noble, but it turns the Church’s norms into unattainable ideals. The Church’s teachings on marriage end up aspirational. They end up being unreachable ideals, rather than norms.
As a vocational sacrament, could it be imagined that others would follow suit? Could a Marian Sister of Santa Rosa request to take the veil in the vineyards because of the “ethos” of the gorgeousness of the Sonoma Valley?
The concept of “ethos” is highly subjective, if not a form of aestheticism — the worship of beauty for its own sake. Will priests want to be ordained outdoors on a case-by-case basis? When Church doctrine is subject to “case by case basis” and the feelings of the people involved, it is no longer reliable. Instead of being a house built upon the rock, it is one built upon sand. The current controversy over weddings reflects the current crises in the Church that began at least with “Amoris Laetitia” and the nature of doctrine itself. It leaves one asking the question if there are any limits to “accompanying,” and when it becomes a bridge too far. In Scripture, weddings are not merely sentimental celebrations, but a foretaste of Heaven. The Bible concludes with these words (Revelation 22:17): “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come.’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come.’” It is the greatest wedding of all — the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.