This article was previously published in Sword and Spade magazine.
Around the issues of belonging and communion, marriage is front and center. Setting aside the flagrant disregard for the obvious nature of marriage today, Catholics of goodwill can still be more than confused in regards to what weddings they can/should attend and which they ought not. To answer some of these questions we asked Fr. Bryan Jerabek, Canon Lawyer, Pastor & Rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Birmingham (which sponsors a large Fraternus Chapter), for some clarity.
In the first place, what is the “purpose” of attending a wedding?
A Catholic marriage ceremony—whether it’s a full-blown Nuptial Mass or only a Liturgy of the Word—is first and foremost an act of worship of the Triune God. The way that most marriages are celebrated today tends to obscure this fact. For example: How often is it the case that people do not stand when the priest and servers enter, but only when the bride enters? This phenomenon is quite widespread and is a clear sign that many couples (and possibly many priests) have not sufficiently reflected on the primary aspect of the marriage liturgy, which is worship. All of this to say, our primary purpose for attending a Catholic marriage is to offer praise and thanks to God—indeed, for the couple that is getting married, for God’s work in their life, asking for God’s blessings upon them, etc. But God must be first. A secondary purpose, then, is obviously to support the couple and express our well wishes.
Non-Catholic marriage ceremonies often do not have worship as their primary purpose—or as a purpose at all (think, for example, of a marriage conducted by a civil marriage in a secular setting, like a park— this is not an act of worship). Whenever we might legitimately attend a non-Catholic marriage ceremony (whether in a church or in a secular setting), the primary purpose is that of expressing support to the couple.
What is the most basic reason we would not attend a marriage?
We would not attend a marriage if it was offensive to God (because the couple was not following His laws for marriage) or if it was otherwise unlawful.
In what way do past divorces affect whether or not a marriage is valid? And how does this affect us attending? And how do annulments play into this?
Marriage is between one man and one woman until death. No human power may break the bond of marriage: “What, therefore, God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). We need to understand that divorce is not one of God’s categories: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord” (Malachi 2:16). Divorce may well be permitted by the State and have civil effects, but that does not mean that it breaks the bond of marriage that was formed by God. Therefore, the Catholic Church always presumes a marriage to be valid (that is: having been a true marriage), until it is proven otherwise.
The Church has the nullity process (commonly called “annulments”) precisely to help an individual determine if his or her prior marriage, which is presumed to be valid, really was a true marriage. Divorce attempts to end a marriage. A decree of nullity tells us that a marriage never truly happened to begin with. This applies to Catholics and non-Catholics. Since non-Catholics may enter into a valid marriage also, if one who is divorced wants to re-marry a Catholic, he or she needs to go through the annulment process and find out if his or her marriage was invalid, to know if a new union is possible before God. All of this to say, we should not attend a marriage where either the bride or groom (or both) was previously married and did not receive an annulment. To attend such a marriage would be tantamount to expressing support for something that God hates.
Now, in the case of two non-Catholics, we must also recognize that there is immense confusion about marriage. Most non-Catholic churches today either openly support divorce (even as they claim to be Bible believers) or at most turn a blind eye when one of their members divorces. Divorce and remarriage rates may be similar between Catholics and non-Catholics—divorce is surely a societal problem that affects all groups—but Catholic Church teaching is consistent with scripture and is widely known by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The Catholic Church is the “last man standing” when it comes to teachings on marriage and procreation.
Do you think we should make some exceptions?
Many moralists will argue that in cases where there is confusion and ignorance (such as in non-Catholics who are divorced and re-marrying), we may make a prudential decision about whether to attend their wedding or not. “Perhaps it would be better to attend—to avoid alienating their friendship and so still have a chance of drawing them closer to the Church.” “Maybe it would be better to attend, lest they think that Catholics are intolerant.” While in the past I was more sympathetic to such nuance in these cases, I am increasingly of the opinion that we Catholics need to stick to our principles and recognize that bearing witness to them sometimes (or even often, today) means the loss of friends, human respect, and even family support. (See Luke 12:49-53.)
How would you handle that? Deciding between hurting the relationship and attending the illicit wedding?
If I were to receive an invitation to a wedding that was a remarriage situation, I might write a nice card to the couple first of all expressing my regrets, wishing them well, and gently reminding them about our Lord’s teaching. “Although I have always valued your friendship and still do, and I certainly want you to be happy, I must express my regrets about your invitation, since our Lord forbids divorce and remarriage in the gospel and St. Paul teaches similarly in his New Testament letters. I am praying for you and want you to know that I love you and will be glad to answer any questions or help in any way.”
To whom will we give an account at the end of our lives? Our Lord? Or the couple that we might offend by our standing with Christ? We need to look at these, and many other things, sub spécie æternitátis (“under the aspect of eternity,” or “through the lens of eternity”).
Should a Catholic attend a marriage where one is a Catholic and the other not? (Does it matter if the mixed couple is married by a priest or Protestant clergy?)
A Catholic may marry a non-Catholic with either a dispensation or a permission from his or her bishop (typically obtained by doing marriage preparation with his parish priest). A dispensation is a relaxation of the law, and is required whenever a Catholic wishes to marry a non-baptized person, this is called a Dispensation from Disparity of Cult (“cult” in this case being a synonym for “worship”) or whenever a Catholic wishes to marry a non-Catholic in the non-Catholic church instead of in the Catholic church (this is called a Dispensation from Canonical Form). Catholics may ordinarily never get married in a “venue” like a social hall, beach, park, etc. (Very few dioceses make exceptions in this regard.) If a Catholic needs a dispensation to get married (either to a non-baptized person or in a non-Catholic church) but does not get it, then his or her marriage is invalid. A permission is required when a Catholic wishes to marry another baptized but non-Catholic Christian. This is known as a “permission for mixed marriage”. In either case—of a dispensation from disparity of cult or a permission for mixed marriage— the Catholic party has to make an oath in which he swears to safeguard his Catholic faith and also raise his children Catholic.
If a Catholic does receive a dispensation to marry a non-Catholic in a non-Catholic church, it is not required for a priest to attend. Many Catholics in this case will still invite their priest, and the non-Catholic minister may also ask the priest to do a reading or have some other honorary part in the ceremony; but this is not strictly required. When the dispensation from canonical form has been granted, it is understood that a non-Catholic minister will be conducting the ceremony.
(Please note, I know of no bishop who would ever grant a dispensation from canonical form for a Catholic to get married to a non-Catholic in a questionably-Christian church. When this dispensation is granted, it is because they plan to get married in a Christian church that will very likely use a standard Christian wedding formulary.)
We should exercise reasonable caution when we receive an invitation to a non-Catholic church wedding, when a Catholic is involved. If we know that the Catholic practices his or her faith, then we may reasonably presume that he or she obtained the necessary dispensations and/or permissions. If we know that the Catholic is not very committed or otherwise weak in the practice of his or her faith, then it may be wise to ask a question. A good way to ask the question is simply, “Hey, what priest did you do your marriage prep with?” If they met with a priest, it is reasonable to assume that they got the required permissions or dispensations.
Should a Catholic attend a marriage of two Protestants?
We may attend the marriage of two Protestants, if it is the first marriage for both and if neither of them is ex-Catholic. If one of them abandoned the Catholic faith (consciously, freely, deliberately) to become Protestant, we should not attend. A different situation, however, is when they perhaps drifted away from a faith that they never really lived out. It is fairly common today that someone who was baptized Catholic never really lived the faith of their baptism; when they were older and came to serve the Lord, they did so in a Protestant context. In such a case, I might take the opportunity to remind them that they were baptized Catholic and that the Church is waiting for them to own their baptism, but I might still attend their wedding, since they have not really consciously rejected the Catholic Church. Let us be clear: the Catholic Church is the Church that Christ founded. Let us stand with our Lord.
Should a Catholic attend a marriage of Catholics that is held outside of a Church (i.e. on a beach)?
Two Catholics may not marry outside a church in normal circumstances. In fact, apart from situations of danger of death, the dispensation for two Catholics to marry outside of a Catholic church may only be granted by the Vatican—and I understand this is rarely, if ever, given. Let us suppose that two Catholics are marrying in a for-rent chapel before a justice of the peace. I would not attend that wedding.
Different is the situation where a Catholic is marrying a non-Catholic Christian, and is doing so in a non-Catholic church. In that case, what I said before about reasonable presumptions and questions that may be asked applies.
Is a marriage valid if there is no priest or deacon officiating?
Two non-Catholics are bound to follow the law(s) of their own churches to get married. Most non-Catholic churches have very few laws (if any) about marriage. Most, in fact, simply follow what civil law allows. Therefore, it is not at all uncommon for non-Catholics to elope, marry in a courthouse, marry in a “venue,” or marry before a non-Catholic minister. Such marriages are presumed to be valid—again, if neither party is Catholic.
“…we must live our lives sub spécie æternitátis—in light of eternity…”
When a Catholic is involved, the marriage must be before a priest or a deacon with two witnesses, ordinarily in a Catholic church, unless permission(s) or dispensation(s) were obtained. The most common is when a permission for mixed religion (to marry a baptized non-Catholic) and a dispensation from canonical form is granted by the bishop of the Catholic party: then he or she may marry before a non-Catholic minister in the church of the non-Catholic party. See above for reasonable presumptions in this regard.
The Church does have a provision (valid only in missionary territories or in other extreme cases) by which a Catholic may marry before a lay witness instead of before a priest or deacon. With the possible exception of Alaska, this does not apply in the United States.
If you have a reasonable doubt that is not addressed in these replies, there is no harm in resolving your conscience by asking the Catholic party: “Did you meet with a priest to organize your marriage?” “Did you get a dispensation to marry before the Protestant minister?” etc.
Again, it must be noted that two Catholics may ordinarily never get married in a Protestant church or venue. The exceptions to this are exceedingly rare and in some cases require the intervention of the Holy See. Life here is generally not that interesting! In such cases, we should ask what is up.
What about attending “weddings” of homosexual couples?
Most of us know practicing homosexuals or even have them in our families. As the Catechism says, persons with same sex attractions should be treated with dignity. That said, homosexual acts are always forbidden by divine law—by God himself— and this prohibition is absolute. They can never be accepted or permitted, much less celebrated. Marriage is between one man and one woman. God established marriage in the beginning and wrote it into human nature. Everyone has a natural right to seek marriage.
No one is free to redefine what marriage is (whether such redefinition allows for divorce and remarriage or for two people of the same sex to “marry.”) Two men or two women, therefore, cannot actually be married, just like one can’t marry their dog. It isn’t that it’s not permitted—it’s impossible.
Again, we must live our lives sub spécie æternitátis—in the light of eternity—and consider to whom we will render an account for our stewardship. If we should find ourselves in the situation of being invited to a homosexual “wedding” we would in fact have the (perhaps difficult) opportunity to bear witness to the truth. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).
From all of the foregoing, it should be clear that it is well-nigh impossible to imagine a case where any God-fearing individual could ever, in good conscience, accept an invitation to a homosexual “wedding.” To do so would not only be extremely offensive to God (thus, a mortal sin), but it would also give scandal (i.e., lead or teach others to sin, another mortal sin in this case).
What if a couple was living together before marriage?
Fornication is clearly a mortal sin— even if “everyone’s doing it.” If the couple is being prepared for marriage by a priest, we may have some reasonable hope that he has challenged them in that regard and exhorted them to make a good confession before they get married. Besides confession, marriage is also a remedy for their situation.
Let us suppose in such a case that you are the uncle of one of the parties to the marriage. In that case, you have some sway, and it would not be out of line for you to say to them, privately, “Hey, you guys shouldn’t be shacking up. Are you at least sleeping in separate rooms? Have you gone to confession? I hate for you to start off your marriage in serious sin.” In other words, the classic rules for fraternal correction usually apply in these cases (and this goes beyond the scope of this article).
The bottom line is that if the couple is otherwise lawfully pursuing marriage (according to what has been said above), we may have some moral obligation to admonish them about their cohabitation (or even if we don’t have an obligation, we may be able to get away with goading them about it and helping them to reform their situation), but we may still attend their marriage.
Another consideration is when children are involved. Let us suppose that you were invited to their wedding along with your entire family, among which are teenage children who know that the couple were living together. There again, you need to make a prudent decision. Part of which may well involve your having a frank (age appropriate) discussion with your teenager(s) about how what they were doing is wrong, but that marriage is ultimately a good thing, and since they are seeking to contract marriage lawfully, we may attend it.
If we can’t attend a wedding, is it prudent or allowable to honor friends or family in another way?
If we cannot attend a wedding because of moral objections, then it would seem to follow that we may not “honor” it in any way, either. However, we may consider what charity may require or counsel. Perhaps instead of sending a cold “no” to an RSVP, we can write a personal note that, from the heart, explains our reasoning. Maybe we can follow-up after the wedding to try to invite the couple to a further discussion. Whatever the case may be, we must avoid giving any impression that we approve of that which is displeasing to God.
Any other tips for this touchy subject? Should we just ask the priest involved?
It is often helpful to speak to a priest whom we know is both prudent and well-versed in Church teaching on these things. Sadly, we know that some priests did not receive good seminary training or that they have adopted a more permissive approach to moral questions. We should avoid such priests when seeking counsel.
Prudence is the “queen of the virtues” and we must pray for it. We live in difficult times. But the Lord has chosen us for these times and not for some golden age (which, in any case, probably never existed). He will help us to respond well to the challenges we face. It will involve coming face-to-face with the cross for each one of us, without exception. Our Lady and St. John stood faithfully by the cross to the very end; may they intercede for us, also, and obtain for us the prudence and courage we need to be faithful to our Lord in all things.