A family friend was raised in the Catholic Church and her family goes to my parish. She received her Confirmation, but when she went away to college she fell away from the Church. She stopped going to Mass and moved in with her boyfriend for several years. About a year ago she and her boyfriend got engaged and this week I received the invitation to their wedding in the mail. To my surprise they weren’t getting married in the Catholic Church, but in a non-Catholic ceremony. My question is, as a practicing Catholic can I attend this wedding? Or the reception? Or even buy them a gift? When I raised this question with my friends they asked why would it matter because she isn’t practicing the Catholic faith anyway, so wouldn’t it be more of a slap in the face if she did get married in the Catholic Church? I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I also want to honor the sacrament of marriage as it should be.
—BLANK RSVP CARD
Your desire to “honor the sacrament of marriage” is praiseworthy and important. On the assumption that your friend has never formally left the Catholic Church, her marriage will not be valid because for a baptized Catholic, the only valid marriage is a sacramental marriage that has come about through the celebration of the sacrament of matrimony according to the ritual prescribed by the Church for that celebration. Even if she had the required ecclesiastical permission to marry a baptized non-Catholic, in principle, there would have to be very serious reasons for the Church to dispense the couple from the requirement of marrying according to the Catholic ritual (following ‘canonical form,’ to use the technical term).
Now, this couple certainly loves each other, they are publicaly committing their love to each other, and they will be legally married. Almighty God can bless them with children, and can give them particular graces to grow in their love and fidelity to each other, notwithstanding the confusion in which they both find themselves immersed with regard to religious truth. Yet, they will be lacking the unique sacramental grace that flows through the sacrament of matrimony, the grace powerfully intended “to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1641).
The context in which we have to answer your questions is precisely that of the current state of confusion, ambiguity, and relativism with regard to the nature of marriage, and the demands that fidelity to religious truth places on our choices, actions, and customs. For you to attend the wedding, the reception, and to buy the couple a gift, when many of the persons involved know that you are Catholic—a committed, practicing Catholic—would only contribute further to the climate of relativism. The need for committed Christians to witness to moral and doctrinal truth clearly and unambiguously has always been essential, but in an age so deeply shaped by the denial of objective truth, principled Christian living is more important than ever.
The moral requirement to witness to the truth in these delicate situations has to be balanced, however, in light of the further moral requirement of what protecting and nurturing your friendship with your friend entails. This all requires prudence. On the one hand, as you say, you want to “honor the sacrament of marriage.” Witnessing to the truth would require you to refrain from any gesture that could be interpreted as affirming your friend’s renunciation of Catholic faith and practice. On the other hand, your friend will undoubtedly experience your manner of proceeding as offensive; it will very likely be hurtful and angering. And that could cause a real harm to the friendship. So, it all depends on your approach, how you “package” your moral response here.
So, in principle, fidelity to religious truth requires you to refrain from attending the wedding, the reception and from buying a gift. But depending on the nature and degree of your friendship (or in the case of parents or siblings, the degree of proximity in your relationship), one might prudently proceed differently. In the case of a parent or sibling, for example, if real danger of irreparable harm to such a relationship would be the result of refusing to attend, a parent or sibling could reasonably attend (and even participate to some degree, such as a father walking his daughter down the aisle) if they have otherwise made it clear to all those immediately involved that they disagree with what the child or sibling is doing.
In addition, Christian charity and the good of friendship require you to be honest with your friend about your reasons for not attending. But again, prudence will have to indicate to you the when, where, and how of communicating those reasons.
For example, your friend might be in a state of antagonism toward the Church, and/or living her life so much under the sway of her passions, feelings and emotions that she really lacks openness to a dispassionate and reasonable dialogue about faith. So, now might not be the time to communicate your convictions.
In fact, if she would be highly adverse to your true reasons for not attending, it might be just simply prudent to find some reasonable excuse that will preclude your participation.
When eventually—say, over coffee or in a Christmas card—you share your convictions with her, do so in a manner that affirms all the good that your faith allows you to affirm: let her know that you support them in their love for each other, that you will pray for their true happiness, and that you hope and pray that one day she and her legal husband will joyfully rediscover the Catholic faith and have their marriage blessed in the Church.
While you would not be giving them a wedding gift, it would not be inappropriate, sometime after the wedding, to invite the couple out to dinner, for example—not in a celebratory manner, but just to foster friendship, especially if doing so could be a steppingstone toward conversion.
Finally, you asked whether it is not somehow better that she does not get married in the Church. One might be easily tempted to agree. Of course, it would not be good for her or her partner to simply ‘go through the motions’ of a Catholic ceremony when both are bereft of actual faith in the sacrament or the Church.
Yet, we cannot deny that, objectively speaking, neither is it good for her to be seeking marriage in a non-Catholic ceremony. The latter is not “better” than the former; both are undesirable situations. As in many cases today, let’s just pray that God will still work through the imperfect union into which they are entering so that one day that could come to enjoy the fullness of the grace provided in sacramental marriage and the joy of living the Catholic faith.
Editor’s note: Do you have questions for our “Ask a Priest” column? Email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.