Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A wedding proposal

As The Deacon's Bench reports, Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe has issued a pastoral letter on cohabitation which reminds people that the Church sees marriage as between one man and one woman, that living together in a sexual relationship outside of marriage is gravely morally evil, and that it is very important for those who wish to be united to the Church via the sacramental life of grace to take steps to regularize their situations, should the be in the unhappy position of living in sin with a partner.

Overall, I think the letter is tremendously good, and I hope it produces good fruits in the archdiocese of Santa Fe and elsewhere. I would like, though, to look at this one section from the letter:
We have three groups of people who are living contrary to the Gospel teaching on marriage: those who cohabit; those who have a merely civil union with no previous marriage; and those who have a civil union who were married before. These people are objectively living in a state of mortal sin and may not receive Holy Communion. They are in great spiritual danger. At the best - and this is, sadly, often the case - they are ignorant of God’s plan for man and woman. At the worst, they are contemptuous of God’s commandments and His sacraments.

Of these three groups, the first two have no real excuse. They should marry in the Church or separate. Often their plea is that they “cannot afford a church wedding” i.e. the external trappings, or that “what difference does a piece of paper make?” - as if a sacramental covenant is nothing more than a piece of paper! Such statements show religious ignorance, or a lack of faith and awareness of the evil of sin.
While I agree with Archbishop Sheehan that many people simply make excuses about why they can't stop cohabitating and get married, the statement "We can't afford a church wedding," does bear some investigation.

When I took a brief tour of a few parish websites of parishes in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, I found that the amount of money expected by the parish for a wedding varied from just under $600 to $1000 or more. I have discussed this before, and have heard from some Catholics--indeed, from some priests--a statement like this, "Well, people spend between $10,000 and $30,000 on a wedding these days. Why shouldn't the Church get a thousand dollars? There are lots of expenses involved in a wedding Mass, after all."

I'm sure that's true. However, what's not true is that every Catholic couple is planning to spend at least ten thousand dollars on a wedding. Especially in these days, a frugal wedding with a simple backyard reception is slowly becoming a more popular option for young Catholic couples (and, indeed, for other couples as well).

I mentioned this over at The Deacon's Bench, and a commenter there pointed out that the Church can't charge for the sacraments; that these fees and stipends are voluntary and that no one will be denied a Church wedding over the inability to pay a set price.

Again--true. However, if you were one member of a cohabitating couple slowly rediscovering your Catholic faith, and you looked at your parish's website to get wedding information and read the following, what would you think?

You will initially meet with the Parish Wedding Coordinator who will walk with you through the preparation of the Sacrament of Marriage. The pastor will preside at your wedding. A deacon may preside at the ceremony with no Mass.

The couple is responsible for all proper legal papers from the city and state. Below is what is required by the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Please Note: The time & date of your wedding will be scheduled tentatively. All paper work, stipends and fees must be provided before a time & date is secured. [...]

Donations & Stipends

There are many expenses involved in running a parish and in the preparation of your wedding. Below is a list of the donations and stipends for weddings.

· $175.00 for accompanist and cantor (Checks are made out in their names.)

· $100.00 stipend for priest or deacon

· $250.00 donation for the use of the church

· $10.00 for each altar server (2 for a Mass)

· $100.00 for the flower arranger & the cost of the flowers (optional, unless you are bringing in your own flowers)

· $50.00 for the church wedding coordinator.

If you read that, wouldn't you think that a) the archdiocese itself requires the payment of stipends and fees before your wedding can be scheduled, and b) most of the money (e.g., the stipend for the priest and wedding coordinator whom you must use, and the donation for the use of the church) is actually required, and not negotiable?

I think a couple might be forgiven for thinking so--and in that case, for deciding that they "can't afford" a church wedding when they can "get married" at city hall for considerably less money.

I'll grant you that the vast majority of couples wishing to get married in a Catholic parish have the ability to pay a reasonable sum to the parish, and indeed ought to, considering the amount of trouble a Catholic wedding can be for a pastor (particularly when the people getting married haven't been in the church building since their Confirmations--but that's another blog post).

But for those who really don't plan for their weddings to be a costly spectacle in which Bridezilla fulfills every Oscar Night/Red Carpet fantasy she's ever had--and especially for those who value the sacrament as they value their faith and their regular practice of it--could there not be a better, simpler, less costly option?

It seems that someone could come up with a proposal for Catholic weddings that would make more sense, especially for those for whom an extra thousand dollars or so isn't that easy to come by. I've heard of a few dioceses experimenting with Sunday Mass weddings, in which the couple's Nuptial Mass is celebrated with the parish at a previously scheduled Mass time; the readings, etc. are for Sunday, but the Nuptial blessing is given and the couple allowed some small say in the music, reserved seating for a reasonable number of guests, and so on. I don't know if, generally, the Church approves of this practice or not, but it might be a way to decrease the expectation that one's wedding day is one's own property instead of a sacrament being witnessed (representatively) by the whole Church.

In any case, when people say that a Church wedding is too expensive, they might be under the impression that the fees and stipends are mandatory--an impression we should be careful to correct, especially when the couple in question are cohabitating and seeking, with humility and repentance, to place themselves in the arms of Christ so He may lead them forward into holy matrimony.


Alice said...

I got married 4 years ago this month. Our parish wouldn't let us book a date unless we had put down a $200 deposit on the church and we had to pay at least $150 for premarital classes (which required me taking a day or possibly 2 off work). The stipend was $100 for the priest. Plus, you had to have contributed at least $200 since joining the parish. Since our parish ONLY does weddings on Saturday afternoons, we couldn't cut back on costs by having a weekday wedding either.

Oh, and did I mention, this was the "easy" parish? The parish I'd belonged to since before First Communion didn't return phone calls, was too busy to begin marriage prep when we finally got a hold of them, wouldn't let us book a date, and wouldn't discuss how we could work marriage prep if I took the out of town job I was pursuing.

My sister, on the other hand, hired a Scientologist minister and had a backyard wedding. The entire ceremony and cake reception cost less than our church fees. And priests wonder why so few Catholics get married in the Church.

Red Cardigan said...

Alice, thank you for your comment. I really appreciate hearing from people who've been through this. I don't think some bishops realize how difficult it can be to jump through all the hoops in pursuit of a Catholic wedding.

Anonymous said...

You ask whether the Church approves of couples being married during regularly scheduled Sunday/weekend Masses.

Yes, it can be done and in fact WAS done at a parish I frequently attend, whose pastor is very orthodox (and Traditional Latin Mass friendly, to boot):

"Neither family could get many people to Springfield on such short notice (the couple were both in the military and the groom had only a short leave). Chris’s (the groom's) parents couldn’t come.

"Lucy (the bride's mother) wanted the wedding to be special for her girl. The thought of a handful of people in that big church saddened her.

“I wanted it to be like she was really getting married,” Lucy explains.

"She asked (Fr. David) Hoefler if the wedding could be held during Saturday’s Mass. There is nothing liturgically in the church that prevents it, so Hoefler said, “Why not?”

If you read the complete story, you will see that it worked out beautifully.


As for the topic of this post (cohabiting couples) I would suggest that they be required, or at the very least strongly encouraged, to get married outside of Mass with a minimum of ceremony if they are not going to live apart before the wedding. Older Catholics may remember when this was the common practice for "mixed" Catholic-Protestant couples since the Church wished to discourage mixed marriages but couldn't entirely forbid them.

Cohabitation may indeed be a source of scandal and objectively a grave sin, but it is NOT a canonical impediment to marriage and IMO shouldn't be treated as an absolute bar to marriage in the Church.

I would suggest that if short, simple ceremonies outside of Mass became the norm for cohabiting Catholic couples, it might actually help to alleviate some of the social pressure such couples currently experience to postpone getting married until they can afford their "dream" wedding. It might also do more to assure poor couples, or couples that just aren't into large or lengthy gatherings, that a Church wedding need not be expensive or elaborate.


Red Cardigan said...

Elaine, what a beautiful story in that link! Thanks so much for sharing it here.

Liz said...

Our parish charged nothing for the use of the church, the stipend for the priest was a suggested amount only, and the organist got paid $50 if I'm remembering correctly. We actually had family members doing some of the music, but the organist did the liturgical pieces ( The Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, and the Great Amen) since my Calvinist BIL wasn't familiar with these. We were at a time of transition in our parish (had just gotten a new pastor a month before) and my daughter and her husband used a priest from the parish in the town where they were both living (not cohabiting, they had separate apartments)as well as a transitional deacon who was a friend, so our current pastor was only responsible for closing the church up after the rehearsal. It was a great wedding, and there were really no hassles getting things arranged. Of course we don't live in a major urban area (small Vermont city). We had the reception at a local restaurant and the tab for the entire wedding, rehearsal, reception, flowers, cake, guest favors, invitations, photographs, clothing, etc. came in well under $10,000. I don't know what they paid for their engaged encounter weekend, but as far as I'm aware pre-Cana isn't expensive here and some couples simply do pre-marital counseling with the priest.

We even had the rehearsal dinner in the parish hall for no charge (we provided our own food, table linens, paper plates, etc.). Now granted we'd been members of the parish for over 10 years at that point and we contribute weekly, but our parish has been really generous with the use of the parish hall by members of the parish.

I think one of the problems we've seen is that a lot of couples look at a Catholic church simply as a great venue for a wedding, and some parishes have seen that as a reason to begin charging as if they were a venue. I know that around here couples can still get a fairly simple marriage ceremony outside of Mass and not pay for anything more than the priest's stipend.

Of course our parish doesn't have anything like wedding coordinators, or flower arrangers. I suppose that doing the flowers would be a service the parish could provide at a fee, but most florists around here will do it for you (also for a fee) or you can simply have someone in the family pick up the flowers and place them. Frankly, our parish church is so lovely it really didn't need a lot in the way of flowers, so they went with just one arrangement.

I think that for a couple planning a huge event that there are other places they could cut the budget. The problem comes in the belief that they need the huge production in the first place. I suspect that if they actually approached a parish priest and explained that they wanted a really simple ceremony and couldn't afford huge fees, that he'd find some way to accommodate them. I don't know of any priest who'd prefer couples lived together until they saved up enough money for a posh wedding.

Erin said...

Ugh! And when you look at the St. Charles Borromeo website, it says that due to contractual obligations, you HAVE to use the parish musicians. So that $175.00 is non-negotiable...

And I wonder how much all the required marriage prep stuff costs? Like Pre-Cana? During the year we were engaged, my husband was working a minimum wage job and I was serving as a full-time, live-in volunteer for a Catholic homeless shelter in Chicago. We were both broke, and didn't have any financial support from our parents.

So, we were married by Presbyterian pastors we had known since college, who performed the service as their gift to us, and gave us marriage counseling as part of the package. Six months after the wedding, our marriage was blessed in the tiny parish chapel. I think the cost was $100.00. Since we were technically cohabitating. I thnk the priority was for us to have a sacramental wedding ASAP, and the other requirements were waived.

$500 for a wedding is outright simony.

Erin said...

Also--and I am opening a can of worms here--it seems to me that there is an inverse relationship between Catholic orthodoxy/orthopraxy and income.

I mean, I am currently a participant in the 40 Days for Life vigil here in Chicago, and I have met several Catholic volunteers, students, and stay-at-home moms who are also participants. These are the people who attend church weekly, go to confessdion regularly, take their faith seriously, etc., and they are also generally living on very litmited incomes!

I guess my point is that people who would most appreciate and benefit from the sacraments, are the least likely to be able to "afford" them!

I am living on fixed income as a new stay-at-home mom, and would love to be able to take the postpartum NFP class in our area--but since we are on a fixed income, I can't really afford it right now, so I am making do with the book I have and the help of NFP message boards.

Bathilda said...

You left out the funniest part of the St. Charles wedding information: Weddings are only on Saturdays at 10:00 AM! mmmmmk....
I remember jumping through a few paperwork hoops for our wedding, as we got married in my husband's home parish, but we were attending our college parish at the time. It wasn't difficult. My father in law paid for the church, and I want to say it was a fee of $250 (19 years ago) I am not sure if this parish even wants to do Weddings! 10 am on Saturday only!? Please.

Someone said above that it is likely many priests would do whatever it took to make it work if a couple asked to trim the costs for a more modest marriage ceremony. I have to agree with that. The prices are likely set based on what is reasonable based on what people are spending on weddings in general.

I know that there are a couple of larger "pretty" churches downtown here that charge a TON for weddings because frankly, they can. They have a tiny amount of regular mass goers, and the people getting married there aren't parishioners, they are Catholic, but just using the facility for the photo op and the nice proximity to downtown reception locations.

Oh, and fun wedding tidbit: My bff from college was married in the beautiful church at Notre Dame University. (groom's parents were parishioners) The "fee" was $2,000 They schedule three weddings every Saturday. The three couples had to meet and agree on flowers, as the decorations in the church could not be changed during the day. She has some funny stories about the bridezillas in the room for that meeting. She was pretty low key about the whole thing. This was in may be different now.

Tony said...

I don't know if, generally, the Church approves of this practice or not, but it might be a way to decrease the expectation that one's wedding day is one's own property instead of a sacrament being witnessed (representatively) by the whole Church.

I think that not only does the Church approve of this, but it is the preferred method of celebrating the sacrament. A marriage does not just involve the couple and their family, it involved the whole community. It's the same with baptisms. These are not private family affairs, they involve the whole community.

On the issue of cohabitation, we encountered it not only in the couples when we presented pre-cana, but in the presenters, some of who spoke glowingly of the discovery while living together.

How do you encourage fidelity to Catholic teaching without alienating the couple forever?

As far as your stipend list. I'd scrape up the $100 stipend for the priest, and ask that he marry us on the Church steps. Forget all the rest of it.

Angela C. said...

I'm from Albuquerque, and it made me laugh out loud when I saw that you linked to St. Charles, because my husband and I were married there 10 years ago. It wasn't (and isn't) my local parish but the priest who officiated was more than generous to my husband and me in waiving any kind of stringent requirements at that time. All we needed was to produce baptismal certificates; we sat through a few hours of pre-Cana with him, we had a runner, guests showered us with bird seed. I believe the stipend was around $300. He even obtained an Apostolic Blessing for us! But I must note that Fr. Normand had a very long history with my family, as well as other things which are too long to mention here.

I was glad to read the letter that Archbishop Sheehan wrote, and I have hope for the diocese. Many priests who had been sent to the Servants of the Paraclete program were then reassigned to parishes in this diocese, which has made things difficult (to say the least).

Cristina said...

I am recently engaged and am currently facing this dilemma. My fiance and I bought a home and moved in together about 10 months ago. Since then we have been attending our local church every Sunday. This is the church that we want to start our married life at. BUT,it's going to cost us $700 just for the ceremony. $200 for music and gifts for the priest $75 and altar server $40 each. This is what is printed up in black and white on the paperwork that was given to us at orientation for wedding preparation. Not only do we have to pay $700 for the ceremony, but they want the fees up front to save the date. We are on a tight budget as it is. I work for the state and currently have mandatory furloughs, my fiance was laid off and going to school to change careers. I cried because I was so devastated when the church secretary flat out said no, we do not take payment arrangements. We want to get married on 7-7-12. the number 7 has significant meaning to the 2 of us and that is THE day we want. The date is available as of right now, but I am afraid that by the time we scrape up the money to pay the fees in full, the date would have been taken by someone else. I am so heartbroken and wish there was something I could do, but the church secretary made it sound so black and white. I feel hopeless and really don't know what to do. We really wanted to get married in our new home church, but we just can't afford it at this time.

Alice said...

The idea of treating cohabiting couples like mixed marriages before Vatican II sounds nice in theory, but it's not practical. Here's why. According to the current liturgical and canon laws, a wedding must be performed in the church. The rectory is no longer an option. Since the Church sees weddings as public ceremonies, limiting the number of people in the congregation isn't really an option either.

I think our diocese strongly discourages couples who are cohabiting from having a Nuptial Mass. This doesn't really do much, though, since even without Mass, a Catholic ceremony is already "long," so the couples who want a Nuptial Mass tend to be fairly devout. Plus, the largest parish in my area prohibits photography during confessions, which start 1.5 hours after weddings. For couples who do not want to see each other before the wedding, the choice is Mass or pictures at that church.

In "Death Comes for the Archbishop," Bishop Latour (or maybe his vicar, it's been a few years) comes to one extended family where all the couples are "shacked up" except for the oldest brother. See, he and his wife trekked to the nearest parish to get married and the priest charged them every penny he had saved to start his marriage as the stipend. The younger brothers didn't bother with the priest. The bishop was horrified and offered to bless their marriages. At the time, I read the book I was a homeschooled teenage idealist and was outraged at both the priest and the couples. I didn't realize how realistic the story was until I got married years later.

eulogos said...

testing my ability to post from here

eulogos said...


With trepidation, I ask if you have read the bishop's pastoral letter which was the basis of this thread?

Unless I misjudge your situation, you are telling us that you are among the people to whom it is addressed.

Am I mistaken? I don't want to say more if I am.
Susan Peterson

Charlotte said...

You want to see exorbitant charges and gobs of red tape? Check out the marriage requirements page on St. John Cantius' website in Chicago. (St. John Cantius is the gold-standard Latin mass community in the U.S.).

It's highway robbery! And, I suspect, a way for Cantius to fund the upkeep of their semi-recently refurbished church AND to make sure only the "right kind" of people get married there.

Am I wrong?

BTW, I agree that couples should be able to be married quietly in the church rectory like in the old days. And actually, I suspect it might even happen once in awhile today, very quietly and under the radar.....

NancyP said...

As a church musician, I can safely say that most church musicians would not do weddings if they were not paid for their time and talent. I'm not sure $175 is an appropriate fee - I think that would depend on 1) length of Mass; 2) number of pieces to be played and whether I already know them or must buy and learn the music and 3) geographical region - I know I would pay more where I live than, say, in my MIL's small desert community. When criticizing, please consider that some of the people providing "parish" services are lay people with families, professions and other obligations - even the altar servers, when you think about it. They should NOT be expected to give away their time.

Bathilda said...

My question is, if you are living together, but celibate, does that count? Christina above might have a darn good reason for living together with her fiance. I'm not saying that she and her fiance are celibate, because I don't know her from Eve....I'm just curious. Is it the intimacy of cohabitation that is sinful, or is it just the assumption of fornication part...? (really, I'm asking)

Erin said...

@Nancy: I am not saying you shouldn't be paid for your time & talent--I am saying that couples should not HAVE to use the parish musicians--which is what it says on the St. Charles Borromeo webpage. Many of the cash-strapped couples I have seen get married had friends and family who contributed the music as a wedding gift.

Erin said...

@Bathilda: I think that living together, even if you're celibate, is still problematic because it causes scandal.

If you publicly identify as a Christian, but your neighbors see you cohabitating, they will probably naturally assume you are sexually active, and will conclude that you are either a pretty bad Christian, or that standards for being a Christian are low.

Also--if you are living with your fiance before the wedding, you are just tempting fate--it's just a matter of time before you will fall into some serious sexual sin!

Anonymous said...

wow, Erin, I don't know what to say to your post besides, you should not make presumtions about other people's sex lives. People can and do cohabitate and don't necessarily have sex. If you have made the commitment to not have sex, living together doesn't make it any more probable. Two adults can have sex at any time, not just in their own bed that they share (or don't share) I get what you are saying about what the neighbors will think, but don't presume that people can't go for long periods of time without sex.


Red Cardigan said...

NancyP--I also wish to comment on the idea that you must pay a fee for things which are required. What if a couple decides to have no music at all, or only music sung by the guests which is unaccompanied? So long as they follow the music guidelines of the Church (e.g., no secular songs, no recordings, etc.) there should not be a requirement to use and pay for parish musicians.

I also don't think most people quibble over the altar server fee of $20.00--it's the long list of 'mandatory' items which add up to anywhere from $600 to $1000 that bothers me. Should it cost a minimum of a thousand dollars to have a church wedding? How does that not amount to "charging" for the Nuptial Mass and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony?

But maybe I'm just out of touch--do parishes charge mandatory fees for baptisms, first communions and confirmations these days, too?

Erin said...

@Karen: Flee temptation, dude, that's all I'm saying. Don't move in with it before the wedding and expect to use your self-control to keep it at bay!

That is what we call an "occasion of sin."

And if you're NOT tempted to sin sexually with your beloved--you're probably marrying the wrong person. Normal, healthy engaged couples are generally attracted to one another! That's how God amde us. :)

Hector_St_Clare said...


I doubt that most people who live together before marriage do so because they can't afford to get married. (Especially because it isn't as though most of them are getting a civil marriage at the J.P). I would imagine that mst people who live together, or sleep together, before marriage are doing so because they don't agree with the Catholic Church about premarital sex, and they don't feel that they ought to live by its strictures in a matter in which they disagree. That's the simple truth, I think, whether you agree with the church or with the couple.

Now, I don't agree with your church either, but I certainly think the Catholic church has a right to make rules for Catholics, and that if they don't want to live by them then they should find a different church with which they do agree. However, I doubt that making marriages cheaper is going to change the minds of more than a tiny fraction of people. In the age of contraception, for better or worse, most lay Catholics simply don't agree with what their church teaches about premarital sex, and that goes much deeper than the cost of weddings.

Alice said...

I was the organist for a smaller Catholic church (<8 weddings a year) for several years so I can explain why many larger parishes have policies that require that the staff musicians play. Most of us as young, idealistic music directors thought that the family should play/sing if possible. Then we got bitten by reality. The reality is that the majority of family that wants to make music is unable to make music that belongs in the Catholic wedding ceremony. The reality is that the people who want to play/sing have to be instructed by the parish staff on everything from how to sing/play the instrument to the order of the Catholic wedding ceremony. The reality is that when a couple says "We don't want music" they mean that they plan to set up a CD player or iPod and use it because they don't know (or care) that this is against the rubrics. The reality is that guest musicians sometimes feel the need to mess with expensive sound systems and organs costing the parish repair bills and keeping the parish from using them that evening and the next morning for the Sunday Masses. After a few bad experiences many priests make rules to protect the ceremony and the parish equipment.

Anonymous said...

I am probably a minority, but my husband I celebrated the Sacrement of Marriage last year and we basically spent $100. Granted we were already legally married (both of us are recent converts) but we didn't feel it was necessary to have all the craziness. We spoke to our pastor, and he chose a night he was free and it was done. We had a few witnesses, but that was it. Not that we could have afforded much anyway as we are a military family on one income with 3 young children, but it is doable. It does help that our pastor is very kind and understood that money is tight for us and we were able to speak to him directly rather than have to deal with the "gatekeepers".