The outdoor wedding, stuff of girlhood fantasy and bridal-magazine photography, has long been off-limits to most Catholics.
No beachside ceremonies or mountaintop nuptials: The code of canon law, straight from the Vatican, says that marriages performed by a priest are meant to be celebrated in the bride or groom's parish church.
But some U.S. dioceses are starting to test the boundaries of that law, which says that with permission of the proper Catholic authority, a priest can perform a marriage in "another suitable place." The Archdiocese of Baltimore began testing a new policy in February that allows priests and deacons to request to marry a couple somewhere other than their parish church.
Archdiocese Chancellor Diane Barr said priests have asked to marry 50 couples in venues such as hotels and museums, and Barr's office has approved all the requests. About a third of the requested venues are outdoors, she said. "There are some really beautiful wedding venues," she said.
Barr said the archdiocese still urges couples to consider their parish church first. "That's the center of our church activities. You would like them to get married, essentially, in the church's living room," she said. "That's where all the other sacraments happen: baptism, first Eucharist, penance."
But priests came to the chancellor's office saying more and more young people were skipping Catholic marriage ceremonies altogether because they wanted a personalized venue. So Baltimore decided to take a route that the Diocese of Helena, Montana, took two years ago - allowing priests to perform wedding ceremonies in an array of locations, including outdoors.
Barr said that some other dioceses do the same on a sporadic or case-by-case basis but don't publicize the policy. The Baltimore Archdiocese officially changed the policy on Valentine's Day this year but did not publicize it online until last week.
Priests can make a request for a nonchurch wedding on behalf of any couple they wish to marry, provided that at least one member of the couple is Catholic and resides in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and that the couple agrees to go through the church's preparation for marriage, Barr said.
There are still some restrictions: No weddings in bars or clubs. Boats are out, too. "You actually have to list where the wedding takes place - the individual parish, in the parish territory," Barr said. "It's very difficult to say where exactly a wedding took place if it's on a boat. You see what I'm saying?"