Most Japanese couples desire the romantic exoticism of Western weddings. (Photo: Unsplash)
For about five decades, Catholic priests in Japan have conducted wedding ceremonies for couples neither of whom is Christian and who have no connection with the Church besides asking for the ceremony.
The traditional Japanese wedding is a rather low-key, even boring, affair. Most couples desire the romantic exoticism of the white dress, organ music and other accoutrements of Western weddings that they see in movies.
So, permission was sought to conduct ceremonies for non-Christians. When I first came to Japan, I was told that it was ad experimentum, as an experiment.
A scientific experiment is a time-limited activity intended to test a hypothesis and there are criteria for determining the results. However, in the Church, “experiment” means “we want to get around a restriction without changing any rules or risking refusal from higher-ups, so we’ll call it an experiment and do what we want or need for as long as we want or need.”
And so, the experiment of conducting weddings for non-Christians began. There were two conditions set by Rome. The first was that a different ceremony from that used for marriages involving Catholics must be composed. That never happened.
The second condition called for premarital instruction so that the couple would know the Catholic vision of marriage even if they did not subscribe to it. In some cases, this condition was taken seriously by parishes and priests. In others, it was nothing more than a pre-ceremony rehearsal.
One effect of the practice was that such weddings became a major source of income for many parishes in a country where high costs and small congregations make maintaining a parish a challenge.
Lately, these church weddings for non-Christians have become less common as those who run wedding halls that cater receptions realized they could increase their profits by adding chapels to their facilities and making a movie-style Western wedding part of their sales package.
They dress someone (preferably a Westerner) in robes and the whole wedding can take place in one venue for one price and without any prenuptial lessons. They can even add dramatic touches like fog machines.
Since in Japan marriages are registered at a municipal office and religious ceremonies have no legal force, it does not matter that the “minister” is a counterfeit.
So far as I know, nowhere else do churches conduct wedding ceremonies for those who have no connection with Christianity. However, this Japanese anomaly may offer a sort of template for a wider experiment.
The Japanese practice shows that the Church is capable of providing some ceremony and blessing upon a marriage that is non-sacramental and even totally unconnected with the Church and its faith.
Marriage is a biological, emotional, erotic, anthropological, cultural, legal and social reality with different customs and forms in different times and places. What we take to be the norm — one man and one woman — is not universal. Even in the history of the People of God, polygamy was once common, as the examples of Abraham, David and Solomon among others show.
The Church's involvement with marriage developed slowly. As the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church took on many civil responsibilities by default, including the regulation of marriage. There was also a problem of women being kidnapped or otherwise forced into marriage, and the Church tried to curb that.
Even so, weddings were not a church affair. People married according to local law and custom and then went to the door of the church where the bishop would meet them and bless them. Eventually the blessing moved inside and evolved to what we have today.
In many countries, even “Catholic” ones, the system remains pretty much like that. The marriage takes place as a civil matter and then the couple goes to the church for the sacramentalization.
Pope Francis recently reminded us of the two realities, the social/legal and the sacramental. He said that those who are in committed relationships, specifically same-sex ones, are in justice entitled to the legal protections that civilly and socially recognized commitments provide.
“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family,” he said. “They are children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it. What we have to have is a civil union law — that way they are legally covered.”
Might they not also be entitled to know that God’s care for them does not depend upon their choices or who they are, and that the Church can join them in turning to God to ask for divine assistance?
Can we not develop some sort of blessing for non-sacramental committed relationships in those cultures and areas where they are common?
This would be no more an endorsement of same-sex or other relationships than the Japanese Catholic practice is an endorsement of unbelief. It would have no bearing upon the sacrament of Matrimony which has its own meaning and requirements.
Instead, it would be a declaration that God’s loving care is not limited by human choices. It would give witness that no one is beyond the caring concern of the Church.
Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and is based in Tokyo, Japan. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.