Q. 1. According to the teachings of the Catholic Church, a priest or deacon is the church’s official witness to the Sacrament of Marriage. The bride and groom minister the sacrament to each other by their vows and their commitment to a communal life together.
When is it permitted for witnesses to witness the Sacrament of Marriage?
A. 1. According to the Code of Canon Law # 1116
"1116 §1. If a person competent to assist according to the norm of law cannot be present or approached without grave inconvenience, those who intend to enter into a true marriage can contract it validly and licitly before witnesses only:
1/ in danger of death;
2/ outside the danger of death provided that it is prudently foreseen that the situation will continue for a month.
§2. In either case, if some other priest or deacon who can be present is available, he must be called and be present at the celebration of the marriage together with the witnesses, without prejudice to the validity of the marriage before witnesses only."
In simple English,
A. The official Catholic Church appointed witness of the Sacrament of Marriage is a priest or deacon.
B. If a priest or deacon is not available, in danger of death, a layperson can act as a witness to the Sacrament of Marriage.
C. If a priest or deacon cannot become available within a month, outside the danger of death, a layperson can act as a witness to the Sacrament of Marriage.
D. If the condition is met in both "B" and "C" above, than the Catholic Marriage is valid and licit before witnesses only. Otherwise, it is invalid and illicit as a Catholic Sacramental Marriage.
The regular practice in many parishes of appointing a layperson or a religious sister to witness Catholic Marriages is forbidden according to Canon Law when:
- The parish has a pastor or deacon appointed to its parish, and
- The parish has a pastor or deacon available to its parish for the administration of the Sacraments on a regular basis.
- There is a priest or deacon available from a nearby parish which is within a reasonable travelling distance.
Marriages witnessed by laypersons or religious sisters under the above circumstances are not true valid and licit Sacramental Marriages.
Such a practice must immediately be stopped. Those who participate in this practice shall be answerable to God for implying they are witnessing true valid and licit Sacramental Catholic Marriages when such is not the case. Those who believe under these circumstances that they are married, they are not. Consequently, any intimate relationship that follows is considered "living in mortal sin" outside of marriage.