80. The Canonical form of Marriage
80. The Canonical form of Marriage

80. The Canonical form of Marriage

Canon 1108 of the 1983 Code of Canon law provides that

“§1. Only those marriages are valid which are contracted before the local ordinary, pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and before two witnesses. §2. The person who assists at a marriage is understood to be only that person who is present, asks for the manifestation of the consent of the contracting parties, and receives it in the name of the Church.”

The above refers to the ‘canonical form of marriage’, which is one criterion for a valid marriage contract in the Church.

However, historically, the canonical form of marriage has not always been required for the valid celebration of marriage among Catholics.

The Jewish form of marriage recorded in the scriptures is somewhat like customary marriage. The marriage between Isaac and Rebekah shows the various stages in the marriage process and how the man and the bride’s parents (not the bride) exchange the matrimonial consent (Genesis 24). Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel further clarifies this point. Jacob worked for Laban for seven years to marry Rachel, but Laban gave out Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob had to work for another seven years before he could marry Rachel (Genesis 29:20-30).

Among the early Greeks, the marriage contract included paying the bride price at the woman’s house and in front of witnesses, the bride’s father handing over the daughter to the groom, and the wedding ceremony with music and dancing. The bride’s father also performed a sacrifice as a form of blessing. With Christianity, the converts involved a priest to bless the marriage. As St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the early Christians, “But it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust. Let all things be done to the honour of God”.[1]

In Roman law and culture, marriage was monogamous. Consent was exchanged between the male heads of the families (pater familias) of the man and woman in the presence of witnesses and accompanied by public acts. Marriage was also considered a civil contract, and, therefore, could be dissolved. In the absence of a Christian rite, the early Roman Christians adopted this format for Christian marriages. They transformed the traditional religious ceremony (confarreatio) into a Christian rite of blessing after the civil contract. A priest or bishop was invited to the marriage ceremony to give the priestly blessing. 

By the fourth century, there were explicit references to Christian marriages celebrated with priestly blessings. When Christianity was officially recognised as a state religion in the fourth century, the Church insisted on having its own marriage law and form of celebrations distinguishing it from civil and customary marriage laws existing then. In any case, the priest’s or bishop’s presence did not constitute an essential element for the validity of the marriage. Local customs and state civil law continued to regulate the validity of the marriage bond.

During the Carolingian period in the ninth century, Emperor Charlemagne made the public celebration of marriage before a priest obligatory in the empire. Since there were other marriage forms within the empire, this decision was not used as a criterion to determine the validity of a marriage.

In the wake of increased clandestine marriages and the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent in 1563 AD, through its decree, Tametsi, imposed the canonical form of marriage as the only juridical form for the valid celebration of sacramental marriage. The decree says:

“Those who shall attempt to contract marriage otherwise than in the presence of the parish priest or of another priest authorised by the parish priest or by the ordinary and in the presence of two or three witnesses, the holy council renders absolutely unable of thus contracting marriage and declares such contracts invalid and null, as by the present decree it invalidates and annuls them… Furthermore, the same holy council exhorts the betrothed parties not to live together in the same house until they have received the sacerdotal blessing in the Church… Finally, the holy council exhorts the betrothed that before they contract marriage, or at least three days before its consummation, they carefully confess their sins and approach devoutly the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist.”

Tametsi was binding on Catholics and baptised non-Catholics. When this posed some problems, the Sacred Congregation of the Council (now the Dicastery for the Clergy) issued a supplementary decree, Ne temere, in 1907. The decree restricted the obligation of the canonical form to only baptised Catholics of the Latin Church, those who are received into it, and those who wish to marry them.

It is important to note that before the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Tametsi decree was binding only in dioceses and countries where it was promulgated. For instance, it was introduced in the entire German empire in 1906 with the decree, Provida Sapientique cura.[2] However, this changed with the 1917 Code, promulgated for the universal Church. Canon 1094 of the 1917 Code codified the canonical form of marriage in Tametsi and Ne temere. Canon 1108 of the 1983 Code cited at the beginning of this post retains the form of canon 1094.

Therefore, the canonical form is a merely ecclesiastical law and not a divine law. In other words, it was established by the ecclesiastical authority and not by Christ himself.

This distinction is significant because it is the basis on which the ecclesiastical authority grants dispensation from the canonical form. One can only modify, abrogate, derogate, or dispense from a law that one has created.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


[1] The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp, Chapter 5, available at URL: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0110.htm

[2] “In universo hodierno Imperio Germaniae caput Tametsi Concilii Tridentini quamvis in pluribus locis, sive per expressam publicationem sive per legitimam observantiam, nondum fuerit certo promulgatum et inductum, tamen inde a die festo Paschae (idest a die decimaquinta Aprilis) huius anni millesimi nongentesimi sexti omnes catholicos, etiam hucusque immunes a forma Tridentina servanda, ita adstringat ut inter se non aliter quam coram parocho et duobus vel tribus testibus validum matrimonium celebrare possint”. Pio PP X, Decree,  Provida sapientique cura, January 18, 1906 in ASS 39 (1906) 81-84.

English translation: “Although the Tametsi chapter of the Council of Trent has not yet been published and introduced in several places, either by express publication or by legitimate observance, it must nevertheless apply to all Catholics throughout the German Empire from the feast of Easter (i.e. April 15), including those who hitherto were not required to the Tridentine form, so that they will not be able to celebrate a valid marriage except before the priest and two or three witnesses”


  1. collins ndukwu

    Thank you so much Fr, for this precise teaching. My concern now is with our local marriages, otherwise known as Traditional Marriage. Since the presence of the Church (in the person of the priest) is important in the validation of a catholic marriage of the Latin Rite, would it not be pastorally helpful, canonically appropriate and liturgically precise to have the priest present during our local celebration of marriage? Rather than have parishioners, who having undergone the traditional marriage practice, and are required by local law to live together, stay away from the Eucharist, on the grounds of cohabiting…until they undergo another marriage ceremony (Christian Marriage) in the Church? Can the Church (CBCN) not be tutored to give legal status to our Local Form and bid the Priest attend the ceremony in the village? Or would it be better to dispense our people from such canonical requirement since it is an ecclesiastical law and the situation warranting it (clandestine) is no longer prevalent in our time…marriages, for the most part, are more or less public functions than private. Even those who want it low key, still make it pubic.
    Fr Collins

    1. Thank you dear Fr for reading. You raised a very valid point, noted by many people. Many have also studied on how to resolve this without creating a canonical or pastoral challenge. Posts 81 to 85 present my recommendation and analysis of my recommendation on the way forward. I recommended a juridic-pastoral approach drawing lessons from the Italian Bishops’ Conference.






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