Pope Benedict says that too often couples see marriage preparation as a bureaucratic obstacle

Men and women have a natural right to marry, but that does not mean they have a right to a Catholic wedding, Pope Benedict XVI has said.

The Pope said that marriage for the Catholic Church was a sacrament that is witnessed by a priest or deacon, but performed by the couple who pledge their union will be forever and that they will be open to having and educating children.

Pope Benedict made his comments during a meeting with members of the Roman Rota, a Vatican-based tribunal that deals mainly with marriage cases.

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The Pope said: “The right to contract marriage presupposes that one is able to and intends to truly celebrate it, that is, in the truth of its essence as taught by the Church.”

He said that because the Church had a very specific religious understanding of what marriage is, “no one can claim the right to a marriage ceremony” in the Church.

In his annual meeting with the tribunal officials, Pope Benedict said he wanted to focus on the legal or juridical aspect of Catholic marriage preparation programmes, because too often engaged couples – and even those preparing them for marriage – consider the courses simply a bureaucratic hurdle to overcome before the wedding.

“In fact, often it is assumed that the priest must act with largesse, since the natural right of persons to marry is at stake,” the Pope said, but for the Catholic Church, there exists only one kind of marriage – sacramental – and the right of Catholic couples to celebrate the sacrament can be exercised only if they fully understand what they are doing.

Pope Benedict said anyone involved in marriage preparation programs, but especially the priest or other pastoral worker conducting the obligatory pre-marriage interviews with the potential bride and groom, had an obligation to ensure there is nothing standing in the way of a valid and licit celebration of the sacrament. For the marriage to be valid, the couple must understand the commitment being undertaken, he said.

Pastoral workers and marriage tribunal officials together “must work to interrupt to the extent possible the vicious cycle frequently noted of too easily allowing couples to marry without adequate preparation” and “the sometimes equally easy judicial declaration” that a marriage is invalid, the Pope said. Both approaches give people a sense that the Catholic Church no longer sees marriage as truly being binding forever, he said.

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