Matt C. Abbott
November 4, 2009
Catholic weddings and...simony?
By Matt C. Abbott

I received the following e-mail in response to my Nov. 1 column:

    'Not to worry. Some priests have no difficulty in charging what they think the sacrament is worth, notwithstanding the pesky prohibition on simony. Guess we need a reformation every 500 years. Below is a redacted copy of a letter to my bishop.

      'Your Excellency:

      'I am writing to you concerning a very serious matter involving the administration of the sacrament of matrimony at St F parish. As you of course know, simony is 'trafficking for money in 'spiritual things.'' (Wikipedia). Moreover, for the 'giving of the temporal as the price of the spiritual' to be simony, 'it suffices that the determining motive of the action of one party be the obtaining of compensation from the other.' (The Catholic Encyclopedia)

      'I believe that my parish is committing simony in its charges for marriages. In the church itself, immediately following the rehearsal for my daughter L's wedding, I was approached by one of the parish priests and told (in front of my daughter's future father-in-law, his brother, my brother-in-law and several other people) that unless I paid in full a fee of $500, he would 'hold the marriage license.' I had already paid the parish $200, my daughter had paid an additional $50 as a deposit, and I had envelopes with stipends for the organist and cantors ($125). I was told by the associate pastor that notwithstanding what I had already paid, he would 'hold the license' until the additional moneys were paid. The priest also said the charge was 'set,' was 'upfront' and was 'due before the wedding.'

      'In response to my objections, the priest insisted that the $500 fee was not for the sacrament, but for the 'use of the church, the lights,' etc. But since outdoor nuptial Masses are (rightly, in my opinion) prohibited, the church has to be used for the marriage; and therefore the sacrament of marriage is effectively prohibited unless the fee is paid. It would seem to be merely sophistry to say that the $500 isn't for the sacrament, but is for the use of the church building when the parish itself requires that the sacrament take place inside the building. In his threat to me, the priest did not say, 'We'll have to have the wedding in the parking lot,' or 'We won't be able to use the lights, or the parish wedding planner, or the organist, etc.' if the fee isn't paid. Instead, he threatened that he would 'hold the license.'

      'In the face of this threat, the next morning, hours before the scheduled wedding, I brought the additional funds the priest had demanded. There is a principle of law that holds that what cannot be done directly, cannot be done indirectly. If a fee cannot be charged for the sacrament (and, of course, it cannot be), that prohibition cannot be circumvented, intentionally or otherwise. It is not the intention that matters here, but the fact of what is done. There is a factual difference between a fee being charged and a freewill donation being made. Otherwise virtually all prohibitions against simony could be easily circumvented.

      'I am sure you will agree that the Church must make sincere efforts to avoid even the appearance of simony. It is my understanding that some parishes for this very reason charge no fee for the use of a church for marriages, although they have a 'suggested donation.' St. J's did not charge a fee for my daughter R's wedding there a few years ago. I, of course, made a donation to the parish (as I did for my first daughter's wedding here at St. F's several years earlier). Of those parishes that do charge a fee (and perhaps it is wrong of them to do so), most charge around $200. A charge of $500 is out of line in more ways than one. I have to wonder what St. F's is charging for a funeral mass (after all, the use of the building, its utilities, organist, etc. are roughly equivalent to that for a wedding ).

      'Sincerely,

      'J

      'P.S. It is most unfortunate that the priest choose to make his threat in front of my and my daughter's family and others. Several of those scandalized were non-Catholics. These included the non-Catholic husband of a Catholic. He had agreed before their marriage to raise their children Catholic. His remark after witnessing my being shaken down for money was 'Why should we raise her in a faith that acts like that?''

I asked Father James Farfaglia, a priest of the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, and author of the forthcoming book Man to Man — a Real Priest Speaks to Real Men About Marriage, Sexuality and Family Life, to comment on the above e-mail.

Father Farfaglia's response:

    'It is true there are expenses a parish has to deal with for a wedding. Just the cost of air-conditioning or heat causes a nightmare for many pastors. However, I don't believe a parish should use weddings as a way of making money. Parishes should consider what the costs are for a wedding and leave it at that. I avoid these problems by marrying only parishioners who come to church every Sunday. For this reason, I have very few weddings each year, but they are good ones. I know the couples very well. In most cases, we've become very good friends and I give them the use of the church as my wedding gift. It's a good way to help out a young couple getting started. They do need to pay for the music, though; church musicians do a lot of work for a wedding and they have to eat, too.'

I received the following e-mail from Peggy Espinda of Atlanta, Georgia:

    'I read with great interest your [Nov. 1] column. My fiancé (74-years-young) and I (68-years-old) are busy planning our wedding, which will be November 28. From the day of our engagement (July 16) to now we have been concentrating on the sacredness of the ceremony and how we can impart to our families and friends the importance of what we are doing and how important it is to 'do it right.' We don't travel together (except for one trip to meet each other's children; at each child's house the parent of that child stayed with the child's family and the other stayed in a motel) and we make sure our friends who are doing otherwise are well aware of our commitment to God and each other to 'wait until marriage' and, as my 45-year-old son said to me, 'It's hard, isn't it, Mom?' And it is hard, but well worth it. At our wedding and on our wedding night we truly will be able to have God with us as we have a special gift to give to each other.

    'We are having a very large wedding (we can afford it) — all his six kids and 17 grandkids and my two kids and six grandkids will be among the guests. I have been single for 34 years and he for four years (he was married for 49 years), and all my friends, when I tell them my story about how God brought us together (the only explanation) say 'I have hope now' of finding that special person.

    'We go to 7 a.m. daily Mass and stay to say the rosary; we met outside church. His interest in me as piqued when I asked the rosary group if they would come on Sunday, May 17 to say all four sets of the rosary — the same time the Notre Dame commencement ceremony was beginning. We prayed for Barack Obama and Father Jenkins. (I have done a lot of work with the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform and had planned to go with them to protest, but they didn't need me to drive, so I stayed home and orchestrated a protest in front of Jesus in the Tabernacle.)

    'We are careful to emphasize that being chaste has its rewards and we are hoping that the many guests who attend the wedding will be inspired to come closer to God through our witness. We are not perfect, but our emphasis in life is to get to heaven. The column was great, I laughed a lot, but it was truly very sad also — and so true. Thanks for publishing it; it is very timely for us.'

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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