“Father, can you officiate my backyard wedding?” I get these calls several times a year. “No, I’m not allowed to celebrate a wedding outside a Catholic Church,” I explain. One US Diocese is temporarily permitting priests to celebrate outdoor weddings. It’s a one year experiment in meeting people where they are at (in the backyard, apparently). I understand the importance of meeting people where they are at. But I don’t think this is the right way to do it. Even if my Diocese followed suite, I would decline to celebrate outdoor weddings. Let me explain why.
Imagine for a moment a friend of yours inviting you to her son’s First Communion at the Hyatt Regional Inn and Suites in Green Bay. What about your Confirmation at the local courthouse? Traveling to Door County for a scenic Baptism? Attending the ordination of a nephew to be a Catholic priest — with a stage and altar set up in his parents’ back yard? This makes no sense to us. We expect Ordinations, Confirmations, and the other Sacraments to be celebrated in a church. So why would marriage be any different? If we understand marriage as a Sacrament, then it too should be celebrated in a church just like all the other sacraments.
A Catholic Church has one thing you can’t find elsewhere: the altar. The altar isn’t just a table; it is a place of sacrifice. In pagan religious traditions this meant literally sacrifice: animals were slaughtered on the altar. I’m grateful that’s not part of my job description. The Catholic church offers the “sacrifice of the Mass”, which is an unbloody participation in Jesus’ death on Calvary. At every Mass we stand at the foot of Calvary as Christ lays down his life for his bride, the Church. Jesus gives us his flesh and blood so that we can become “one Body.” Thus it is very appropriate that the man and the woman lay down their lives in front of the altar, in the same place where they gather every Sunday to become one flesh with Christ.
The Church teachings on sex and sexuality are deeply connected with our understanding of Christ, the Sacraments, and salvation. Because a Catholic Marriage is a sacrament and a sacrifice, that’s why a Catholic wedding should take place in a Catholic Church.