To church or not to church
June 13, 2007 7:48 AM   Subscribe

How do we go about choosing a priest for a catholic wedding when I am lapsed and he is atheist?

I was raised Catholic, but have found myself questioning my beliefs for the last 10 years. As a result I am generally lapsed and have become Catholic-lite. Christmas/Easter only. My fiance is entirely atheist, but very respectful of my beliefs.

We're getting married in late 2008, and we're at the stage where we need to choose a location as well as an officiant. While neither he nor I have any strong feelings about a religious ceremony, my family has expressed very very strong feelings about a religious ceremony. We feel, ultimately, that who says "I now pronounce you..." is immaterial, and we feel it'd probably be easier to go along with our families wishes. Any words of "you'll regret it if you don't do exactly what you want to do," will be less than helpful.

What I really need to know is how to approach choosing a priest and church. I vaguely know the priest at my mother's church, and I plan to start there. However, how can we go in and ask to have a priest marry us when we aren't active parishoners? How can I avoid the "why aren't you going to our church every weekend" guilt-trip?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You might avoid the parish and contact one of these guys first.
posted by klarck at 7:58 AM on June 13, 2007

You may need to shop around. The priest that married my husband and me expected to see us in church every Sunday, while the priest that married my cousin was okay with the fact that just her parents and grandparents went to the parish.

I guess it'll be just like finding the right caterer or florist. Pick up the phone and start calling. Just explain the situation and ask what they think. If they start guilt-tripping you cut the call's obviously not what you're looking for.

If you absolutely can't find a priest that suits you, remind your family that you can always have a priest approve of your marriage later. A friend of mine had a non-denominational church and later went through a workshop sponsored by the diocese to make her marriage officially Catholic. I know it's not ideal, but it might be a good Plan B.

Good luck!
posted by christinetheslp at 8:16 AM on June 13, 2007

If you get married in the CC, you'll go through marriage counseling. Usually, it's more of a "make sure you're on the same page and fit for each other" deal than it is a "you better go to Church every Sunday or else!" session.

Check around the local parishes and be up front asking the Priest if he'll marry you two. Some are a lot more liberal as far as these things go. In Minneapolis, there's a Catholic church whose ministries are headed by a male gay couple, while some parishes won't allow gays to even help lead praise and worship. As with most things, YMMV and will have to ask various parishes. Catholic friends who might know about local churches would help, too.
posted by jmd82 at 8:17 AM on June 13, 2007

Is this more to please your mother or you?

There are many priests who would do the ceremony, but if you're looking for any old Catholic priest, why not get a woman priest ordained by a woman bishop with apostolic authority. You can find ways to contact woman priests at

It is easy to rent a church that is non-denominational or non-catholic for the ceremony (you'll need to make some calls).
posted by parmanparman at 8:18 AM on June 13, 2007

My friends were married in a Catholic church, by what I believe to be a Catholic priest, in a kind of Catholic-lite or fairly generic ceremony. I believe that higher-ups in the church will usually not do this sort of ceremony, but it sounded like many churches are more than happy to do such a thing as long as you go through their pre-marriage counseling sessions. YMMV, though. When you talk to the priest at your mother's church, be honest about the situation and see what he says.
posted by mikeh at 8:19 AM on June 13, 2007

Often you'll be required to go to some pre-marriage classes, be expected to show up at church every Sunday, have an explanation of why you haven't been going to church, promise to raise the kids Catholic, etc. Many Catholic priests won't even consider officiating a wedding where one of the participants is atheist. Shop around, but good luck.

Here's a backup plan where nothing can go wrong: find someone who can marry you who would be ok with dressing up in priest garb then have the ceremony somewhere nice but not in a church. Be sure to keep his phone number for the fake Baptisms if you have any kids.
posted by mikepop at 8:26 AM on June 13, 2007

Friends of mine (she - lapsed Catholic; he - culturally but not religiously Jewish) were married in a interfaith ceremony by both a Catholic priest and a rabbi. The wedding was not in a church. From what I recall, they had a more difficult time finding a rabbi willing to perform an interfaith ceremony than finding a priest willing to marry an interfaith couple outside a church. Start making calls, because it is possible. If your family is not insisting on a church wedding (that is, they'd be fine with you getting married on a beach or wherever, as long as a priest performs the ceremony), it may be easier yet.
posted by rtha at 8:31 AM on June 13, 2007

I'm not sure if mikepop is kidding around or not, but almost nothing that he said is accurate or useful.

My wife and I got married in Miami (I mention this because Miami, like Boston, is a largely Catholic city and so any Catholic hang-ups are certainly going to be evident), at the time I did not attend any parish regularly and she isn't Catholic. So we were in much the same situation as you are. We went around to various churches (maybe 6-10) looking for a place that we wanted (our criterion was mostly aesthetic). Not one of the priests asked whether or not we went to church regularly. Not one priest gave us a guilt trip about missing mass (perhaps they made a passing comment, but if so, it went by unnoticed).

They were pretty much interested in two things. First they wanted you to attend the marriage seminar. It's a day long group thing that centers almost exclusively on non-religious topics like finances and having respect for each other. Honestly, it was a pretty good seminar. They even tried to make it fun by having us play games and take quizzes and such. It is nothing to be worried about. You might even learn something. Second, they wanted you to agree to raise the child Catholic. This more or less boils down to having the kid baptized and confirmed. But if your family is insisting on a Catholic wedding they'll more than likely want a Catholic child. So, agreeing to this isn't necessarily a big deal. Further, they do not make you promise to keep you child ignorant of non-Catholic ideas. You can always promise to raise in your child in the church and teach him or her that there are otherways to see the world too. (Thus letting your kid, eventually, make up his or her own mind.)

I would advise getting a list of the local churches and driving around until you find one you like. Go inside ask to speak with someone about having a ceremony there. It should be very straight forward from there on out.
posted by oddman at 8:45 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

My sister is pretty darn Catholic. My bro-in-law is non-militant atheist (raised Catholic, tho). They were married in the Church, full mass. He took communion (though in theory he shouldn't have been given it). One of the promises in a Catholic wedding is that any children borne of the marriage will be raised Catholic. He went along with that.

Some friends of mine, the guy was raised and is practicing. The gal was made to convert before they were married *in the church* (they'd been married years before in a civil ceremony). The theory in this case is that the mother, at least, must be a practicing member.

Personally, you need to figure out whether you're lapsed due to inconvenience (not getting around to attending church) or nonbelief. If it's notbelief, you really shouldn't be getting married in the church, no matter what your parents say. If you were of Scottish heritage, but didn't identify with it, would you be expected to do the full-kilt formal?

I was asked to be godfather to one of my nieces. As a pragmatic agnostic, I declined, citing the clause in the baptism ceremony wherein I would promise to raise the child in the church should something happen to her parents, which I could not promise to do. I've also declined Communion while standing in every wedding party I've been in. My crazy-Catholic mom has told me that although she wishes I were in the church, she is proud that at least I'm not a hypocrite.
posted by notsnot at 8:51 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm atheist/lapsed Catholic and my husband is non-religious. I was married in a Catholic Church. I approached the priest of the parish my mother was in (in this area it is almost impossible to get permission to be married outside your parish) and he agreed to do the wedding even though I had not been inside that church for ten or fifteen years. We lived in another town while my hunny was in school and I think he presumed (or I implied) that I attended another church. He was more concerned about us beng interfaith to be honest, even though my parents are interfaith. I just ask him for all his reasons to not marry us and we discussed the issues. He ultimately refused to announce the Banns because we were interfaith which I thought was pretty crappy of him but at least he agreed to the wedding. The marriage counselling with him was a real breeze, the only hiccup was when we had to answers questions like "Are you comfortable with your partner's sexual orientation" and "Are you comfortable with the amount your partner drinks" and my hun said he was uncomfortable with my drinking - which is funny since I am a teetotaler; he mis-heard the question. I don't think I came right out and said I was an atheist but I know I did say something to the effect I didn't believe in Jesus. After my pregnancy started to show during the counselling sessions he didn't make any big deal of it (nor of us living together either). This was an old, conservative priest too. he turned out to be cool and stuck around even when I was late to my own wedding (had to stop to nurse the baby). Priests are just people, if the person you approach says no, then you can tell your family the Catholic ceremony is not happening and go with plan b. Anglicans might be a good compromise.
posted by saucysault at 8:56 AM on June 13, 2007

There is a key difference between your situation and oddman's. One of you is openly an athiest -- does not simply not attend mass regularly, but actually is not a believer. In our area of Virginia, this is one of the questions that a priest will ask you before agreeing to perform a catholic ceremony, and if the answer is no (or if you won't agree to raise children Catholic) then the priest is supposed to refuse to marry you. There may be some wiggle room depending on your relationship, but supposedly that's the rule, at least in this region. Oddman may not have encountered this difficulty because there is nothing in his post about being an athiest.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2007

onlyconnect is right: you are most likely in for a lot of questions and possible refusal.

It may come down to a choice of:

1. pretending you're both rank-and-file Catholics so the priest doesn't get all shirty


2. pissing your family off and doing something more secular.
posted by chuckdarwin at 9:08 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is very similar to the situation my wife and I were in (lapsed Catholic/atheist, but with relatively little family pressure for a religious wedding). You don't mention whether your families want a religious ceremony or specifically a Catholic wedding, but if you can get by with any denomination marrying you then you will have a number of options. In our case we got married here; since it was a second wedding for both of us we just wanted something quick and cheap. Depending on where you live there might be something similar nearby (South Carolina has a thriving "wedding chapel" industry due to the fact that in the past it was quicker and easier to get married there than in neighboring states). Although it was quick and easy, the officiant who married us was a protestant minister and the service had enough religious trappings to satisfy the churchgoing members of the family, but not so much to bother me as an atheist and certainly no pressure to join or attend a church.
posted by TedW at 9:09 AM on June 13, 2007

Just saw saucysault's post -- this is why it is helpful to know the athiesm ban going in. You may be able to be sufficiently vague to get around the question, whereas if you came in announcing it right off, the priest might not be able to help you.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:09 AM on June 13, 2007

I am speaking as a non-religious person, raised Catholic, who went through much the same questions as yourself. The following information I got straight from my good friend, an RC Priest, or from other priests, so it's pretty reliable:
1) Officially, if you are to be married in the Church, you are to be married inside a church, in a full mass. Any other arrangement (vows-only ceremony sans mass, or held outside a church building) is technically not a legal ceremony according to Church Doctrine.
2) You don't both have to be Catholic to get a Church wedding, but the Catholic partner will need to affirm that he/she will raise the kids in the church and continue to try to convert the non-Catholic partner.
3) Now this is an important point: Just because your intended is an Athiest doesn't mean he isn't Catholic. According to Church Law, once you are baptised (and especially confirmed) in the Church, You Are Catholic, and entitled to all privileges thereof; unless you formally and in writing renounce your faith to the Bishop of your Diocese. This means that if he was "Raised Catholic" you are entitled to the full church wedding without any of the nonsense that accompanies the Church's "mixed" ceremonies. In my experience, this can be accomplished with a minimum of vagueness in dealing with the priest.
4) All official Catholics being married will need to be members of the parish where you get married. If you were raised catholic, you will be technically a member of the Parish where you were baptised, regardless of where you do or do not attend mass. In my case, joining the parish simply involved fetching my baptismal certificate from the original parish and delivering it to the new one and filling out a form.
5) Most priests are so happy to see you show up at all, they will not interrogate you about your absences. My wife has never once been asked about my absence in the pews.
Good luck and don't fear the church's dissaprobation.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 9:19 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

It very much depends on the individual priest. My brother was told he'd need to convert to marry his Catholic wife in the church (which to me makes sense, really). A friend of mine is getting married to a Catholic soon, and her fiance's priest required them to go to the counseling sessions, but she didn't have to convert. It looks like there's a huge amount of variation, so shop around!
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:20 AM on June 13, 2007

I (atheist) and my ex (semi-lapsed catholic) were married in a Catholic church by a member of the local Theological college - an academic priest, so to speak. Obviously he didn't have an axe to grind re: attendance, etc. He didn't care that I was not religious, but looking back, he did ensure that I had been Christened (Anglican) or had some kind of soul-validation - so maybe if I had come at it as "I am an atheist and I will be married in your church so HA" that might not have gone so swimmingly. The main issues that arose were:

#1 by far -- I had to agree that children would be raised catholic. Not just agree -- sign on the dotted line. In some ways that seemed to be the only thing that mattered.

#2. I asked that my mother, who gave a reading, be allowed to do it from the King James version (she is lapsed Anglican and hates all other translations with the white hot heat of a cauldron of brimstone). This raised some eyebrows which I later realized must have their origins back in some schism or other, Henry VIII, chop chop. But that went fine.

We had a thundering organist and there was holy smoke. Most of the wedding was not to my taste nor my desires but I just focused on my bride and tried not to get caught up in the public spectacle, before, or during.
posted by Rumple at 9:30 AM on June 13, 2007

Someone else probably said this, but many (most?) Catholic parishes won't marry you if you're

1) Not parishioners
2) Not planning on raising the babies Catholic (don't lie about this. That's just... kind of gross.)
3) Not willing to take pre-Cana classes

And I get that familial pressure to have a certain kind of wedding can be strong, but really, why on earth do you want to have a wedding that is considered a sacrament (or is it a sacramental rite? I can never remember) if neither of you are adherents?

If you're unable to resist this pressure, what will you do when babies happen, and Aunt Maude expects them to be raised Catholic?

I'm cranky and old-fashioned, and I think that religious weddings are lovely-- for religious people. If you're not, many other kinds of officiants are available, and you can have a wonderful wedding in a wonderful location and not feel like hypocrites the whole time.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:43 AM on June 13, 2007

I'd call up the local UU church, explain your situation, and ask if they know any cool Catholic dudes. UU's are not going to hassle you.

Or if you happen to be in the Milwaukee area, send me an e-mail. My mom and stepfather got married by a cool Catholic dude.
posted by desjardins at 9:51 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

my family has expressed very very strong feelings about a religious ceremony.

Everyone else has covered the fact that you may be in for a lot of questions and may get refused.

I just want to point out that you may want to think about drawing the line at a specific place and sticking to it regarding your family. I've had an awful lot of friends who started out wanting a simple nonreligious ceremony who found themselves in pre-wedding counseling and classes and a full Catholic Mass, communion, and a presentation to the Virgin on their wedding day.
posted by desuetude at 9:55 AM on June 13, 2007

I'm not sure if mikepop is kidding around or not, but almost nothing that he said is accurate or useful.

I was (hopefully obviously) kidding in the second part, but not kidding in the first part, at least based on experiences with Roman Catholic churches in the NY area around the time when a lot of people I knew were getting married. I'm glad others here had an easier time of it.
posted by mikepop at 10:00 AM on June 13, 2007

You're getting a lot of variety in the answers because the specifics of how weddings are handled are set by the bishop of the diocese you're in. (In other words, there's no single correct answer for the U.S., or any country, really.) Some bishops are controlling, some leave it more up to the priest's judgment, some are conservative, some are liberal. Here in Kansas, for example, there are 4 bishops, and their policies differ. I used to work in a Catholic student center on a college campus, and know many engaged couples who "shopped" between his parents' diocese/her parents' diocese/the local diocese for the practices that worked best for them.
posted by donnagirl at 10:17 AM on June 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

BigLankyBastard's answer made me scratch my head over a few things (amongst other things, according to it I'm not really married), but it raises a point about baptismal certificates.

In the diocese where I was married (or not), both parties being able to present a baptismal certificate from a Christian (not necessarily Catholic) church, plus my agnostic spouse's willingness to go along with the other usual requirements, made for smooth sailing. If your fiance has a baptismal certificate, all of this may fall into place easily.

As you can probably see from the diverse answers you're getting, it's likely to depend on the diocese, the priest, and possibly the parish. If you have any practicing Catholic friends or family who understand the issues on the same level you do, it might be worth asking them for recommendations.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:28 AM on June 13, 2007

jmd82:If you get married in the CC, you'll go through marriage counseling. Usually, it's more of a "make sure you're on the same page and fit for each other" deal than it is a "you better go to Church every Sunday or else!" session.

They did this at my wife's family catholic church and I didn't have a problem with that. The people who ran it were genuinely committed to having an open, non-judgemental environment during the sessions. I had my doubts going in, but they won me over.

The church itself was another story. Amongst the questions they asked was if we had any medical condition that would prevent us from having children. Yes, the church would turn us away if we couldn't produce new catholics.

Worse, they asked if either of us were on any psychiatric medication or receiving mental health care. My wife does take anti-depressants and felt funny about lying to a priest so she said yes. This put our petition on hold until a representative from the diocese could call my wife's doctor and ask if they are mentally capable of making a life-long commitment of marriage.

As others have said, this may vary from diocese to diocese, but be prepared for the second coming of the Spanish Inquisition if you go this route.
posted by dr_dank at 10:46 AM on June 13, 2007

You might find a priest from the Independent Catholic church. They're quite open.
posted by frobozz at 11:06 AM on June 13, 2007

(Forgot to link - website.)
posted by frobozz at 11:09 AM on June 13, 2007

Look into a Jesuit priest if you want a Catholic wedding. They are much less uptight about the details of you and your partner's faith. Your fiance should probably not mention his atheism though. That may be too much even for the Jesuits.
posted by caddis at 1:08 PM on June 13, 2007

oddman's & rumple's experiences match what I observed at my brother's wedding in the 90s. His wife is Catholic, but my brother is a born-and-raised, never-baptised atheist.

He had to sign the "raise the kids Catholic contract," (which he's stuck to, by the way), and they couldn't have the full wedding Mass. On the other hand, the officiant was a Catholic priest, and the ceremony was in a Catholic church in Chicago. As others have said, different churches are going to have differently policies on the details, but I don't think anyone can bend the "no Mass for atheists" rule.
posted by faster than a speeding bulette at 1:08 PM on June 13, 2007

Catholic married to a Lutheran here.

It absolutely depends on the church. At the church where we were married, the church paper quite clearly states that you must be a registered member of the parish for 6 months prior to the wedding. We were not, but I was raised in that church and moved away; my parents are still members. Check the church bulletins or websites - especially if the congregation is large or the church is particularly pretty. They are used to these inquiries, and may have made the information easy to find. Or just call the office.

Our priest allowed a full mass, and allowed Lutherans to receive communion. Not all priests will do that.

In my experience, faster is wrong -- they specifically told my husband when we signed off on the paper about kids that it was absolutely not binding on him if something were to happen to me. It was simply his pledge to support me in my choice to raise our kids Catholic. At the time, I was comfortable promising that, and he was comfortable supporting it. That was two years ago, now I'm not as sure, but at the time I was.

We spent a weekend at Engaged Encounter, which I now recommend to everyone I know who is getting married, whether or not they are Catholic. The only truly Catholic thing about the weekend was the Mass we attended at the end, and the NFP speech on the second day (which actually contained helpful and interesting family planning information).

Please don't be discouraged by things you've read here. If you want more detailed info, or have specific questions, please send me an email anon. I might have some other suggestions for you if I know where you are.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:52 PM on June 13, 2007

Don't forget whose wedding it is.

Who (the officiant is), when, where and how are entirely up to you.

When you have your wedding, all those people are there to celebrate with YOU, and anyone trying to tell you and your fiancee what to do can go pound sand.

Would you really want to remember your wedding day being one that was a little awkward considering that you weren't much of a believer and your fiancee wasn't at all, but you went to a church because you felt you were supposed to?
posted by chimaera at 3:25 PM on June 13, 2007

There are many priests who would do the ceremony, but if you're looking for any old Catholic priest, why not get a woman priest ordained by a woman bishop with apostolic authority. You can find ways to contact woman priests at

Female priests are not any old Catholic priest. They are not recognized by the Vatican as ordaining females does not follow canon law (as far as the CC is concerned, part of Apostolic Sussession requires following canon law in the process of ordination). A marriage carried out by a female Priest will not be recognized formally by the CC.
posted by jmd82 at 4:24 PM on June 13, 2007

I was a lapsed catholic, my husband was a pentecostal anglican.

We decided since I had more family in the city we'd be living in, to go the Catholic route. This meant a catholic priest and church.

After looking around, we decided that my high school chapel would be a good place to do it (one of the older and more beautiful churches in this city). Fortunately, since it was a chapel and not a church, it didn't overly matter which priest officiated. We ended up contacting an old friend of the family who'd taken vows, and he was happy to do the ceremony for us.

We had a short face-to-face, where he asked the usual questions: are you active in the Church? (No, but we do ministry with high-school kids) will you raise your children Catholic? (we'll raise them christian, expose them to various denominations, and let them make their own decisions) have you done marriage counselling? (yes, with my finance's pastor).

It worked out well. Of course, we majorly annoyed the Pentacostal Baptists from his side of the family, because there was no fire and brimstone, the music was hymns and not rock, etc. Eh. My wedding, my rules.
posted by ysabet at 5:12 PM on June 13, 2007

You didn't mention which diocese you are in. As you may have guessed, different priests/diocese react differently. The pre-cana class is usually a must. There are other Catholic churches besides the Roman Catholic ones, and you might want to have a look at them.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:52 AM on June 14, 2007

I need to respond to BrotherCaine and parmanparman.
First: For the poster's purposes, there ARE no other Catholic churches besides the Roman Catholic Church. Any ceremony held involving one of the tiny schismatic groups that have broken ties with Rome will constitute a big fat "Eff You" to those in her family who want her married in The Church.
Second: Having a woman officiate the ceremony and calling it Catholic will also be terribly insulting to anyone in the poster's family who knows the first thing about Catholicism. My own position on the matter is not relevant here, so don't attack the messenger; but THERE ARE NO FEMALE PRIESTS in the RC Church. No Bishops neither. Any bishop who ordains a woman as a priest is asking to be excommunicated.
So, if pleasing her family is the objective, she will need to play this straight and find a parish and a priest who will help her.
To illustrate the position the Church takes on the woman-priest issue, I will quote the words of a Priest who frequently is called upon to defend the doctrine when the topic comes up for debate on TV: "We have a word for churchgoers who dispute the official doctrine on a male priesthood. We call them Protestants."
posted by BigLankyBastard at 6:52 AM on June 14, 2007

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