The law considers a marriage valid if there are at least two witnesses’ signatures in the official documents and licenses. Same applies to the Catholic Church where marriage is a sacramental union; hence, there must be witnesses. Two parties and the presiding priest/bishop (who acts as the church’s witness and official celebrant) sign the legal documents. Often, a couple may wish to appoint a Non-Catholic to be a witness at their wedding. We delve deeper to find out what happens in such cases.
So, do witnesses at a Catholic wedding have to be Catholic? Typically, the maid of honor and the best man serve as witnesses in a marriage; however, there is no particular law that dictates that they have to be Catholics or Christians for that matter. The couple may choose anyone in attendance to be their witnesses regardless of their denomination or religion. Since their primary role is to sign the legal documents that validate the marriage, the church allows any member to serve in that capacity.
With interactions between Catholics and members of other religions, a couple may wish to include other people with different affiliations in their ceremony. Hence, the question is whether one can have Non-Catholics to serve as witnesses.
So, we went on to investigate whether there are any specific guidelines for one to be a witness at a Catholic wedding. We also checked the criteria used by the law and the church to check the legibility of a witness. Read on as we differentiate the facts from the misconceptions.
Witnesses and Their Roles in Weddings
According to the church, anyone attending the wedding is a witness since they are part of the ceremony. However, for the marriage to be valid, the law and the church require that the celebrant and two other witnesses should sign the official marriage documents. These two signees then form part of the church’s record of that particular marriage.
The church considers a witness as any adult who approves of the wedding and the subsequent marriage. There are two categories of witnesses at any wedding. First, there is the celebrant who is the main witness in the union; in this case, it is the presiding priest, bishop or deacon.
This is a role given by the church and in extension, by God. Besides the religious authority, the couple also has to appoint two people to be their witnesses, but most couples choose their best man and the chief bridesmaid.
Once the witnesses append their signatures on the documents, the wedding is legally validated. However, this role is more of a civic duty than it is a religious obligation. The Catholic Church, for instance, sees the entire congregation as the witnesses while legally, the key witnesses are those who sign the legal documents.
In some cases, the witnesses may give the rings at the main ceremony or give a speech during the reception, but this depends on the couple’s preference. This small task is one of the essential functions of any wedding. It is honorable to be part of the few people called upon to help legalize the marriage; a role not to take for granted.
The number of witnesses varies according to the laws of the particular country/ state; one can have two to four witnesses at the wedding, so you can consult before picking the witnesses.
Who Can Be a Witness in a Marriage?
When planning your wedding, one key decision is who to involve in the ceremony, from the presiding priest, the procession, the witnesses and the general members to attend. Traditionally, the best man and the matron serve as witnesses mainly for the sake of convenience; however, you may wish to have another person to sign the document. Not only is this thoughtful, but it also makes the person feel included in the ceremony.
Once the marriage is official, the couple, the celebrant and two other witnesses need to sign the document that legalizes the union. The religious leader/ celebrant is the principal witness at the ceremony; apart from witnessing the vows exchange, he/ she also signs the official document.
Sometimes the couple may wish to have another priest or deacon from a different parish to preside at the wedding (the church can allow this with the parish’s priest’s approval).
For the other witnesses, the law and the church require that they need to be of legal age (18 years) to sign the document. This is essential because it is a civic obligation; hence, all parties should be adults of sound mind and able to make informed decisions. This way, in case of any eventualities, the witnesses can testify when and where the wedding took place.
The church does not restrict anyone from witnessing the ceremony; the same case applies to the law. Often, the couple may appoint another member who is not part of the procession, for instance, a sibling, a relative or a friend, to be an official witness.
This makes them feel included in the occasion even if they were not part of the bridal party or the readers. The bride and groom may each pick anyone they consider close to them. Hence, the two witnesses don’t need to know each other or even be a couple.
The Catholic Church’s Guidelines for Witnesses
Besides the priest, deacon and bishop who is the celebrants of the wedding and the official church’s witness of the ceremony? The Catholic Church also allows two other people to sign as the witnesses. These two will not only be signees of the official licenses but are also part of the church’s records of the ceremony. The following are some guidelines provided by the church regarding witnesses.
- Any person known to either of the partners can be a witness. It may be a family member, relative, friend or colleague.
- The witnesses must be of presumably legal age, with the ability to reason and comprehend the entire process.
- The witness can be anyone of any religious affiliation (an unbaptized Catholic, a Non-Catholic or a Non-Christian).
- Canonically they do not sign any church documents other than the civic forms, but the church registers their names in their marriage records.
- For civil obligations, the witnesses sign the marriage certificate or license; there are no other duties of the witnesses other than signing the legal documents and attesting that the marriage took place.
For the marriage to be legal or valid, it has to meet the canonical laws of the church and the civic rules of the respective country/ state. This is why the church must adhere to the civic regulations besides their guidelines; otherwise, the marriage may not be valid according to the law.
The Catholic Church does not bar anyone from attending any of their ceremonies; this includes weddings. A wedding being a celebratory occasion, the couple may wish to have even non-Catholics and Non-Christians to help them mark this special day. Therefore, when they decide to pick someone to sign as a witness, they can choose any attendee regardless of their religion or denomination.
The witnesses do not actively participate in the ceremony other than signing the legal document and affirming that the marriage has indeed taken place. Therefore, the church has no reservations in matters of who is eligible to stand in as a witness. If you previously had any doubts about having a Non-Catholic signing as a witness at your wedding, you can be sure that the church will not interfere with your decision.
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