Attending irregular weddings

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One of the most frequently asked questions on "Calling All Catholics" is whether parents, family, and friends should attend a wedding ceremony for those who have separated themselves from the Church.

The Church has not provided definitive guidelines about this. Attending a wedding ceremony, in and of itself, is not "communio in sacris," that is, participating in a sacred act that in such a way that we would separate ourselves from the Church (taking Communion in a non-Catholic church would be such an act).

I use a set of guidelines for my own decision-making.

  • I will not attend same-sex "marriages." I do not consider such ceremonies to be morally neutral, and I do not want to give my family or friends the impression that I support the couple's view that such alliances are in any way normal or natural.
  • I will attend non-Catholic ceremonies where I judge that the relationship has the potential to become a true sacrament.
  • I will not attend a marriage ceremony in which one or both partners have been married in the Church and are not "free to marry" from the Catholic standpoint.
  • I will attend non-Christian marriages where I judge that my presence will not cause scandal to those who know I am a priest.

Marriage is a natural act

USCCB, "Between Man and Woman," 2003
Marriage, as instituted by God, is a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate community of life and love. They commit themselves completely to each other and to the wondrous responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them.
Marriage is both a natural institution and a sacred union because it is rooted in the divine plan for creation. In addition, the Church teaches that the valid marriage of baptized Christians is a sacrament--a saving reality. Jesus Christ made marriage a symbol of his love for his Church (see Eph 5:25-33). This means that a sacramental marriage lets the world see, in human terms, something of the faithful, creative, abundant, and self-emptying love of Christ. A true marriage in the Lord with his grace will bring the spouses to holiness. Their love, manifested in fidelity, passion, fertility, generosity, sacrifice, forgiveness, and healing, makes known God's love in their family, communities, and society. This Christian meaning confirms and strengthens the human value of a marital union (see CCC, nos. 1612-1617; 1641-1642).

Witnessing a wedding is not cooperation in the act

The couple are the ministers of marriage because they personally make the vows and consummate them.

Those who witness the wedding ceremony do not cooperate materially or formally in the marriage; attending the ceremony is not communio in sacris; it is not strictly prohibited by canon law and therefore cannot become a strict prohibition by analogical reasoning--only what is explicitly prohibited is prohibited.

Letter to a troubled parent

The Church does not have strict laws about attending irregular weddings. It is the kind of decision about which reasonable people of good faith may reasonably and faithfully disagree. No matter what you choose, you are liable to be criticized by family or friends for the choice you make.

You can tell your daughter and her husband what you mean by attending: you want to pray for their health and happiness, you want them to enjoy marriage as much as you have, but you are not endorsing their rejection of the faith. You can say that you really like her husband and his family, and that you admire their love for each other. They are all children of the same Father, even if they do not know Him.

The decision to marry outside the church is your daughter's decision, not yours, so you do not have to imagine that you are responsible for her choice. God will be present at the wedding. He is the Great Uninvited Guest, I suppose. You can go and keep Him company, without making too big a deal of it. You can say as often as you feel the pain of your daughter's separation from the Lord, "Father, forgive her, she knows not what she is doing." Or, if you need stronger medicine, you could say, "Father, forgive her for not wanting to know what she is doing." Or maybe the Spirit will give you something more consoling, even in "sighs and tears too deep for words" (Rom 8:26).

There is no cross-free path for you in this situation, and it's not your fault. If you attend the wedding, there will be one kind of suffering; if you do not attend the wedding, there will be a different kind of suffering. A lot depends on you and your estimate of your own character and that of your daughter and son-in-law. It's all God's fault that you don't have perfect clarity about this--if He wanted to, He could send you an angel in your dreams to answer your questions, or appear to you as He did to Paul. In the absence of such direct divine intervention, I think it is best to imagine that God will be with you no matter which cross you decide to carry.