Should I attend a wedding when a baptized Catholic gets married outside the church?

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Q: My oldest son informed my husband and me that he was getting married. After our initial excitement, we learned that he would be getting married outside of the church. My husband and I are deeply divided about this issue; I think that we should attend, but he refuses to go. What should we do?

A: This is a dilemma that many modern Catholics are grappling with: Should I attend a wedding of a baptized Catholic who chooses not to follow the proper canonical form for their wedding? In other words, should I attend an invalid wedding?

The Code of Canon Law says that a baptized Catholic is bound by the canonical form of marriage: “Only those marriages are valid which are contracted before the local ordinary, pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and before two witnesses.” (Can. 1108)

Although canon law directs and sets the parameters for the celebration of matrimony, it does not prohibit Catholics from attending weddings that are, in canonical terms, “invalid.” So there is no right or wrong answer to your question!

In short, there are no specific church teachings that direct our response to these situations. If we attend the wedding, it could give the impression that we are condoning it. But if we refuse to attend, it could cause irreparable harm to relationships (especially familial).

To begin with, we have to bring this to prayer and follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit who will inform our conscience and will help to direct us in making the right choice. Next, we should carefully weigh the options before us: to attend or not to attend.

Church teaching can offer some guidance during this crucial part of our discernment. There are some good reasons to consider not attending. Participating in the wedding could be seen as approval of an “invalid act.” This is an important consideration because baptized Catholics are prevented from participating in the sacramental life of the church as a consequence of an invalid wedding. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some strong words regarding this: “Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins.” (CCC 2480)

Sacramental marriage is a beautiful and powerful public act which is a tremendous blessing not only for the couple but also for the church and ultimately all of society. When a baptized Catholic chooses not to enter into a valid marriage, they will not receive the sacramental graces that help a couple successfully live out their lifelong commitment to each other. So it is a serious matter if our actions give the appearance of personal approval to a baptized Catholic who has chosen to marry outside the church.

On the other hand, there are some good reasons to consider attending a wedding even when a baptized Catholic has chosen not to follow the proper canonical form. With the precipitous drop in weddings throughout our church and society, the fact that a couple is willing to enter into a committed or vowed relationship together, although imperfect, should be seen as a step in the right direction!

There is a certain degree of good and value in the natural institution of marriage as opposed to simply cohabitating. By attending their wedding, you may be able to help the couple see that their marriage is good and could be something much greater. By maintaining a positive relationship with the couple, it’s possible you could become a voice of conscience that could motivate them to seek a sacramental wedding in the future.

Our response should navigate between the extremes of relativistic approval and outright rejection. There are minefields down both paths. If you elect not to attend, it will be important to let the parties know, in a charitable way, your reasons. If you decide to attend the marriage (but not participate), it also will be important to explain the church’s teaching and the reasons for your decision.

At the end of the day, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, only you can make the “right” decision!

May God’s blessings be with you today and always!

Northwest Catholic - October 2015

Father Cal Christiansen

Father Cal Christiansen is pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mountlake Terrace. Send your questions for “Ask Father” to editor@seattlearch.org.

Website: www.nwcatholic.org/spirituality/ask-father