The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Thoughts on a mid-air marriage

Popes have jurisdiction for the external forum anywhere on earth (cc. 134, 331, 1108), so Francis can officiate at a wedding anywhere, anytime. But officiating at a wedding means something specific.

Pope Francis performs an impromptu wedding ceremony for Latam Airlines employees Carlos Ciuffardi Elorriaga, 41, and Paula Podest Ruiz, 39, aboard the pontiff's flight from Santiago, Chile, to Iquique Jan. 18. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Show of hands! Who wants to rain all over the sentimental paradelining up behind (what is being presented as) the pope’s facilitation of married love? Anyone? Anyone?

I thought not. Oh well.

Readers of this blog know that I am no fan of canonical form for marriage (cc. 1108, 1117)—a cure that has far outlived the malady (clandestine marriage) it was designed to treat—but canonical form is still law for Catholics and that law goes to the validity of Catholic marriage. Based on the reports offered here and here, I cannot tell whether the ‘wedding’ that the pope put together for an unsuspecting couple satisfies Church requirements on marriage, and several other laws impacting the liceity of marriage seem simply to have been disregarded in the event. As happened several times under earlier administrations, a representative from the Vatican Press Office assures us that “everything was valid”. Such assertions by canonically unqualified and unauthorized PR staff carry, of course, no weight. Real questions worthy of real answers are still raised by this event.

Before getting into details, however, let me say that I am sorry for Paula Podest and Carlos Ciuffardi, two perfectly pleasant flight attendants who paid a courtesy call on their celebrity guest and, next thing they know, their names, faces, and rather odd marriage history are being broadcast to the world. They did not ask for a wedding and were astonished when Pope Francis suggested it. This was not their idea.

Now, about the matter itself.

Popes have jurisdiction for the external forum anywhere on earth (cc. 134, 331, 1108), so Francis can officiate at a wedding anywhere, anytime.

But officiating at a wedding means something specific: it means asking for and receiving the consent of the contracting parties to marrying each each other (c. 1108) here and now. Per the Rite of Matrimony consent is sought from each party individually and must be oriented to marrying the other party at this time; the request is not posed as a joint question to the couple about being married, akin to, ‘do you two want to be married?’, but rather is framed ‘do you marry him/her?’ at this point in time. If consent (the heart of marriage per c. 1057) is not adequately asked for and received, it is not exchanged, and such a couple would not be married (and, No, ‘Ecclesia suppletcannot make up for a failure in what is actually sacramental—as opposed to canonical—form). The above reports mention, as far as I can see, only the pope’s broaching the topic of marriage by asking the couple whether they wanted to be married, placing their hands together, saying a few inspirational words about marriage, and pronouncing them husband and wife. But such a sequence describes, not at all, a present exchange of consent by the parties. Let us hope, then, that in the actual event considerably more was said than has been reported.

Second, canonical form demands two independent actual witnesses to the exchange of consent, meaning that five persons must be immediately present for the wedding—not folks who heard about it a few minutes later, or who saw something happening and wondered, hey, what’s going on back there?—but five persons acting together and at the same time: a bride, a groom, an officiant, and two other actual witnesses. While reports are unclear as to how many people actually witnessed this event, and while this photo shows four people in the event (plus a camera man?) and four signatures on a document, another photo shows five names on the marriage document, so one may presume (c. 1541) accordingly.

Third, several canons impacting the liceity of weddings (norms on ‘liceity’ often being regarded as wink-wink rules in Church life, especially when higher-ups model the wink-winking) were apparently ignored here, including: the requirement for serious pastoral preparation prior to a wedding (c. 1063), administration of Confirmation before Matrimony (c. 1065), urging of Penance and holy Communion before a wedding (c. 1065), verification that no obstacles to validity or liceity are in place (c. 1066), securing evidence of the contractants’ freedom to marry (c. 1068) upon pain of acting illicitly without it (c. 1114), an expectation that Catholic weddings be celebrated in a parish church (cc. 1115, 1118), and making use of the Church’s treasury of liturgical books for celebration of the sacramental rite (c. 1119).

As this story reverberates ‘round the world, now, deacons, priests, and bishops who try to uphold Church norms fostering values such as deliberate marriage preparation, an ecclesial context for a Catholic wedding, and the use of established and reliable texts for expressing consent will, undoubtedly, have the Podest-Ciuffardi wedding tossed in their face as evidence that, if Pope Francis does not insist on such legalistic silliness and only cares about whether two people love one another, why shouldn’t they do likewise? The ministry of conscientious clergy in this regard just got harder.

As mentioned above, I would be happy to see the requirement of canonical form for marriage eliminated, this, for several reasons, one of which is that—long story omitted—we could actually make higherdemands of Catholics who want to marry before our clergy than we can currently demand. But the pope’s example of a spontaneous, zero-preparation, wedding is not at all what I and like-minded others have in mind. This couple undoubtedly gave more thought and attention to what they did by civilly marrying before a magistrate back in 2010 than they could have possibly given to what the pope suggested to them, on a few seconds’ notice, while at work, high above the Andes mountains.

If I have to say it, I will: I hope Podest and Ciuffardi are married and that they live happily ever after, but I worry whenever momentous life decisions are taken on a minute’s notice and under circumstances bound to contribute to one’s being carried away by events.

The pope has opined, apparently more than once, that “half of all sacramental marriages are null”. Here’s hoping that Podest and Ciuffardi beat those odds.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.


  1. Wow. This essay essentially says “the pope is a boob.” I never thought I’d live to see the day we are now living in! President and pope both seem determined to demean the office they inhabit. And get themselves good photo oops. Sad!

  2. No one any longer takes this bishop seriously, do they?
    The buddy, buddy clown act is so very over.
    Pray for him when you get a chance.

  3. Thank the Lord for Edward Peters….as a canon lawyer he says consummately what I was crudely starting to think about.

    As I would be considered a Pharisee with my “legalistic” comments and would also be told to “go with the spirit of the thing.”

  4. Wow, Dr. Peters really hits the nail on the head with this essay.

    Pope Francis spends his 1st 4 years telling us that half of all Catholic marriages are invalid, and then tees off in year 5 with dishing out another one.

    I guess his message = “Nothing Really Matters…and I am going to make sure of it.”

  5. Thank you, Dr. Peters. I had the same thought when I first saw the story-about how this makes priests’ jobs so much harder now.… And the poor priests that run tribunals that are trying to uphold the sanctity of marriage. But I felt like a scrooge because everyone was gushing over it! Thank you for this reasoned take.

  6. Thank you, Dr. Peters. I had the same thought when I first saw the story-about how this makes priests’ jobs so much harder now.… And the poor priests that run tribunals that are trying to uphold the sanctity of marriage. But I felt like a scrooge because everyone was gushing over it! Thank you for this reasoned take.

    • Yes, precisely.
      The cameras were on, the spotlight was on and this bishop cannot resist either of them.
      Fast, loose and sloppy are the code words for the pathetic pontificate.
      God Bless Holy Benedict.

  7. I’m happy for the couple, but I question the wisdom of Francis doing this. From what I understand, free consent is essential to the sacrament of marriage. I would question how free this couple was when faced with the Pope asking to marry them in front of an international press corp. Talk about pressure! I also pray they don’t have any impediments to marriage (like a previous marriage).

    I know, I know, questioning this makes seem like a wet towel. I’m glad the couple got married and I pray they are happy and have every grace of the Sacrament. Its not really about them, but about Francis’ behaviour. It seems he likes to use people (this couple, the poor, homeless people, prisoners etc.) for photo ops and self-aggrandizement. I don’t like it. He could have have talked and prayed with them privately, encouraged them to get married and when they’ve done the proper prep with their local priest even offer to do the marriage for them as his personal guests at the Vatican or something. But it seems that wouldn’t grab the headlines. I’m growing increasingly tired of this papacy and its propensity to show off.

  8. So, I’m sure he checked it all out first right?
    They took the required classes to prepare for marriage.
    The bands were announced
    They confirmed that there were no impediments
    They made a good confession (since, presumably they’ve been living in sin)

    yeah, right.

  9. “The ministry of conscientious clergy in this regard just got harder” is the most insightful statement in this article. One truly has to wonder if Pope Francis has any regard for parishes trying to prepare engaged couples. Or one might wonder if the intention here is to disrupt such preparation. By one spontaneous act worthy of a starry-eye teenager, the Pope has once again directed his “friendly-fire” at those laboring in his “field-hospitals”.

    • The ministry of conscientious clergy got a lot harder when he said “Who am I to judge?”

      then it got harder when he gave his “breeding like rabbits” address

      then it got harder with publication of AL

      then it got harder with the in flight travesty

      what will he do next?

  10. I don’t like this thing that the pope did, because once again he shows that he disregards canon law. The law is there for good reasons, especially the importance of properly preparing a couple for marriage.
    It reminds me of that scene in The Bells of St Mary’s when Fr O’Malley first comes to the school, and promptly declares a holiday. The nuns are upset, and rightly though, while the kids rejoice. Seriously, I’m starting to wonder if the Pope is psychologically unbalanced.

  11. In ignoring what the canons require, the pope jettisoned true pastoring for the fake, sentimentalized appearance of being pastoral.

    If the couple were properly vetted, in accordance with the canons, by someone who wished to spring this on the pope for a photo opp, then the fact that this narrative of the populist pope who is spontaneous, pastoral, etc. was used anyways would say a lot about this pontificate as well.

    • Dr. Peters has an update at his blog and he reports that this indeed may not have been the spontaneous event that it has been publicized as.

  12. In 2017, there were no fatal crashes of commercial airliners. And yet, the outstanding Smithsonian Channel program, called “Air Disasters” in the USA and narrated for the USA by Bill Ratner, must go on. I suggest that the producers broaden the meaning of “Air Disasters”. It would be a treat to hear Bill Ratner’s always serious, never-over-the-top voice quote Dr. Peters.

  13. I am a retired priest. I am glad I am a retired priest. I was a rigid, neo-palagian, who tortured my parishioners with my lack of mercy by my adherence to the teachings of the Church following Canon Law. I alienated a fair number of young cohabiting couples by my….well, it’s just too horrible to relate. I was just a non-pastoral “Doctor of the Law”, and clearly failed to follow the example of our present Pope. When I retired, I am sure many were glad to see me go. I was glad to see me go.

    • Fr “Priest Forever” rest assured we’ll never know the value of our ministry and its ultimate effect on others until we’re dead and buried and are present before Christ. A former now deceased Military Archdiocesan Bishop mild mannered and good hearted exhorted me “Peter don’t worry about alienating by holding fast to the truth”. I’m not excusing overreaction however if Elijah can slit the throats of several hundred false prophets belonging to Jezebel then I think we as priests forever are given a little leeway. If we’re remorseful over what may have been, the ultimate outcome who knows how many returned to the faith because of your strong admonitions unlike the weak kneed ambiguous stuff priests give out today. Is it better to be Laissez Faire or rigid in obedience to Christ’s admonition to repent rather than Pope Francis’ doctrine of “Who am I to judge?”.

    • The sad thing is that while at most times in Church history we would know for sure that A Priest Forever was being sarcastic, these days there actually are priests dippy enough to think that way…

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