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A note on convicts as witnesses at Catholic weddings

September 21, 2015

It’s not clear to me what exactly has happened here but it appears that the bishops of a region in Italy, one hard-pressed by the Mafia, have forbidden certain classes of criminals from serving in various ecclesiastical roles. Fine by me, of course, with one caveat.

It seems that some criminals are no longer allowed to serve as “witnesses” at Catholic weddings. That might be a problem.

The notion of “witness” has been confused by an intrusion into canon law of excessive ‘pastoral sensitivity’ (see, e.g., the novel, so-called “Christian witness” at baptism, an ersatz office critiqued by me in the 2008 CLSA Advisory Opinions 94-95), but the fact is that the designation of a “witness” is not about honoring the witness, but about his or her ability to verify a claim made by a third party. If there is reason to think that a given witness is mistaken or lying about what he or she saw, that testimony may be challenged, but basically, anyone over age seven and not stoned at the time can give canonical testimony about what he or she saw, or didn’t see, as the case may be. Whether “witnesses” to Catholic weddings should have a liturgical role is a different question, but it does not turn on whether convicted criminals per se can perceive and report on what words were exchanged between two people.

Of course, all of this is yet another complication of retaining canonical form for marriage, but that discussion is for another day.


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