Excerpted with permission from U.S. Catholic magazine.

For Bridget Carter of Boston, planning to be married in a Catholic ceremony seemed completely natural. Although her fiancé is not religious, Carter, 29, is a devoted Catholic and works for the church. (She asked that her real name not be used.) What's more, her fiancé supported her desire to have a Catholic wedding. And so, it seemed nothing should stand in the way.

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But as the couple encountered obstacle after obstacle, Carter began to doubt that her wedding would be all she had hoped. Several months before the October 2000 ceremony, they considered abandoning their plan for a Catholic wedding altogether.

"My faith is a huge part of my life. I could hardly imagine not having my wedding in a church," says Carter. "But it was so stressful and difficult that we had to ask ourselves whether it was really worth it."

The headaches ranged, she says, from the inability to have an outdoor wedding, to endless logistical issues related to their choice of church and celebrant, to the process of obtaining the "disparity of cult" dispensation required when a Catholic marries an unbaptized person. According to Carter, it was the latter issue that nearly became a deal breaker.

To hear young Catholics and some who work with them tell it, stories like Carter's are increasingly common. While the couple ultimately followed through on plans to marry in the church, there are signs that hurdles like the ones they encountered are starting to take a toll: New research indicates that fewer young Catholics than ever before are marrying in the church.

Not necessarily going to the chapel
Like other Americans, Catholics today are less likely to marry at all. This change alone goes a long way toward explaining why the number of Catholic marriages in recent years has not kept pace with the number of Catholic Americans. But it does not account for statistics uncovered by Purdue University sociologist James Davidson.

According to Davidson's findings, only about 40 percent of young Catholics involved in interfaith marriages are married in the church. That's a decrease of nearly 10 percent over previous generations. Even more striking, however, are Davidson's findings with respect to intrafaith marriages--those in which both parties identify themselves as Catholic.

"Among pre-Vatican-II Catholics, only 6 percent of those involved in intrafaith marriages were married outside the church," says Davidson. "For young Catholics today, though, our research shows that that number has risen to 28 percent."

It is difficult to say precisely what these findings mean. And it is at least as difficult to assess the myriad factors--both societal and uniquely Catholic--that lead young couples to choose non-Catholic ceremonies. A look beneath the surface, however, reveals some of the challenges.

A different kind of Catholic
Today's brides and grooms are closer in age to 30 than 20, and, more often than not, they have complicated lives and demanding work schedules. Many are transient or living far from home, and few have strong ties to a religious community. These factors can make a logistical headache of planning any wedding. A Catholic ceremony, with its time-consuming paperwork, planning, and mandatory preparation, often becomes a nightmare.

Years ago, a Catholic couple might scarcely have considered looking outside the church, no matter what obstacles they encountered. So what has changed?

In part, say observers, there is a decreased tendency among young Catholics to regard a church wedding as the only feasible option. To anyone who's tuned in to recent discourse about young adult Catholics, this should come as little surprise: Today's Generation X Catholics were reared in a culture that encourages them to rely on a personal spirituality rather than organized religion.
As a result, many young adults feel that God will be with them no matter what church they marry in--even if they marry on a hillside or in a courthouse.