In an effort to integrate young Catholic couples into the parish community and educate them in the Faith, Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Diocese of Helena has decided to allow some weddings to take place at suitable outdoor locations, provided the couple commits to a thorough marriage preparation program and to participate in parish life before and after their wedding.
Why is this news? Because an increasing number of Catholic couples opt against getting married in the Church due to the requirement of nearly every diocese in the United States that marriages take place in a consecrated church. Outdoor weddings, or weddings outside of a consecrated church, are permitted by canon law at the discretion of the local diocesan bishop. Therefore, this is a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. While creative approaches to marriage preparation and adult faith formation are an ongoing trend in the Church, Bishop Thomas’s decision is unusual. My speculation is that, after a period of discernment and debate, more bishops will likely follow the Montana bishop’s lead.
So what might be the reason behind Bishop Thomas’ liberality? The answer seems clear, judging from the article: He and his brother bishops have taken Pope Francis’ “theology of encounter” to heart and are finding ways to put it into practice. As Bishop Thomas notes, “The Holy Father’s example is: ‘You meet people where they are; you accompany them’— and in this case, my hope is that by allowing this relaxation in the wedding policy that we will accompany them right into the heart of the Church.”
Here, returning to Cardinal Dulles’ Models of the Church (which is a primary lens through which I’m commenting on trends in the Church) we can see an emphasis on the importance of the Church as “mystical communion,” the Body of Christ lived out through the communities of families that constitute each parish and diocese. Couples who feel isolated from such communities can be drawn into a relationship with their parish by this new policy, a relationship that would help them to grow in and live out their faith. We can also see the role of the Church as “herald” through Bishop Thomas’ effort to provide better catechesis prior to and following the reception of the sacrament.
At the same time, we should consider why the Church traditionally requires weddings to be celebrated in a consecrated space: While a beautiful outdoor area may not be inappropriate for a wedding, the church building itself is a public place set apart and dedicated to God, and a wedding within such a building carries a natural significance that might be neglected in another location. As the article mentions, however, many couples want to get married in churches primarily for aesthetic reasons, with little awareness of the holiness and gravity of the sacrament. In addition, because a nuptial Mass is not yet permitted at outdoor weddings, a couple misses out on the most important reason to be married in a church.
While the Diocese of Helena’s policy will be a good testing ground for these kinds of disciplinary compromises, I am sure that all curious parties would agree that reverence for the sacrament remains at the forefront of couples wherever the sacred ceremony takes place.