Q. Several news sources report that Pope Francis married a couple on an airplane. To have a marriage validated in the Church, doesn’t a couple have to attend marriage preparation and complete paperwork, like copies of their baptismal certificates? And doesn’t the marriage have to be done in a church?
A. It is true that, while in flight on the papal plane Jan.18, Pope Francis married two Catholic flight attendants after they told him they had been married civilly, but not in the Church.
A detail to note in these news reports is that they had been scheduled to be wed when the 2010 Chile earthquake hit, destroying the church where they were to marry. Therefore, although still highly irregular, this couple had at least planned to marry in the Church, but obviously did not.
Catholics are required by Church law to be married in Catholic form, i.e. by a qualified priest or deacon and two other witnesses. Therefore this Catholic couple’s civil marriage was invalid and hence the need for them to have a new celebration of their marriage in Catholic form, which is described by various terms as having a marriage “blessed,” a “convalidation” or “validation.” Indeed, Pope Francis said the reason he performed this wedding is because he hopes the publicity it receives will be a reminder for any Catholics who have married outside the Church, that they are missing out on the sacramental graces, and he invites them to approach their local parish to rectify their situation and again receive the sacraments.
The other requirements mentioned by the questioner are not required for validity, but rather for liceity, i.e. to be licit. And since the pope is the supreme lawgiver, he can also grant dispensations to any merely ecclesial laws (but not natural or divine laws).
In sum, for a valid marriage the parties who go through a wedding must be free to marry and have the proper intentions, and if they are Catholic they must exchange their vows before a qualified priest or deacon and witnesses. The other formalities normally required are ecclesial laws that can be dispensed, such as the law that requires the wedding take place in a Catholic Church building.
As they had planned to marry in the Church at one time, it is possible they had done the normal preparations and ascertaining of their freedom to marry. Note that freedom to marry is quickly ascertained by asking a few simple questions like if they had been married before; and when a couple has been married for many years the priest may shorten the marriage preparations if he finds the marriage to be stable and lasting.
When asked, the pope responded, emphasizing that he had questioned them quite a bit before marrying them and that they had undergone the necessary courses of marriage preparation.
Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.