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Marriage & Wedding Planning

Dear Father,

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 robynlee@catholicmatch.com. 

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26 Comments

  1. Carol-1017436 June 24, 2014

    Not all of the teachings of our Mother the Church are easy. But our Mother wants what is best for us and it may at times seem at odds with what we say we want. This is such a difficult situation. So many times we wonder why our friends and family walk away from the Church (equivalent to running away from home) but never ask. It is hard as a friend to minister with love…”truth without love is cruelty”… Having sought out the guidance of the Church is an amazing first step. When I have to encounter people even after I have sought counsel and still not real sure what to say or do because of my deep conviction potentially driving other further from the Church rather than drawing them in by showing them what they are missing or giving up, I ask the Holy Spirit to use me as an instrument of His peace if that is His will…

    It sounds as if your friends truly love each other and want a marriage that will last. Maybe you could offer that they could gain that surety especially for their future children by linking into the power and support giving to them by the Church and all the graces that come from the Sacraments. Why wouldn’t they want to set themselves up for the maximum chance of success in this secular world set out to destroy families? To have something solid like our Mother Church to support us at least maybe they will have a greater chance.

    Unfortunately, the beauty and power of a sacramental marriage covenant isn’t well taught anymore. Maybe even giving your friends a copy of an easily readable by accurate book on Theology of the Body or Pure Manhood or How to find your Soulmate without Losing your Soul, as a gift prior to their proposed wedding date…giving it over dinner with absolute care and pouring out of your love for them…demonstrating your desire for wanting them to have all that God has in store for them and not just a second rate version…but the Best!

  2. Mary-583970 June 24, 2014

    I have been in many weddings, and the maid of honor in two weddings, in which none of the parties were Catholic. I believe it has to do with intent. I told all my friends ahead of time, especially those for whom I was a maid of honor, that I was not witnessing their marriage in front of God, nor did I consider it a valid marriage- rather that it was a favor for them, as they regard me as such a close friend. Every single one of them understood this and embraced it. If they were Catholics marrying outside of the church, I would have to decline, but would still attend. One of my best friends is a Catholic and is lesbian, and if she were to ask me to be in her civil wedding I would have to say no, and no to the ceremony- though I would probably attend the reception– but again, she knows 100% what I believe: only a sacramental marriage is valid.

    However, I have also been taught to believe that whether or not the sacrament is Catholic is not of matter. An Orthodox marriage is as valid as a Catholic marriage, just as an Orthodox Eucharist is valid (this is fact FYI). In this same manner, it is not against Catholic doctrine to believe in natural marriage. Following this vein, I see the same validity of marriage in, say, an African broom-jumping ceremony. The point being, the marriage is not for purpose of state.

  3. Carrie-529869 June 24, 2014

    Mary: non-baptized people can have a valid natural marriage without it being a sacrament. When both parties are baptized (protestant, orthodox, or Catholic), it is a sacrament.

    Fr.— canon law changed several years ago that a Catholic cannot anymore formally leave the Catholic church.

  4. Gary-978995 June 24, 2014

    With all due respect, I find this article to be ridiculous. So principled Christian living is more important now than ever, but only when it doesn’t offend someone? Come on. I don’t think that’s what Jesus would say. He said we would be hated because of him. He didn’t tell his disciples to witness to his truth only when it is convenient and it doesn’t offend anyone.

    • Meesch-691047 June 26, 2014

      “Am I now currying favor with human beings or God? Or am I seeking to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ.” (Gal 1:10) I think the St. Paul was way ahead of you ;) Also, I agree with you. Jesus told us “Follow me… and I will make you fishers of men” asking for an act of obedience rather than agreement. And, the apostles left EVERYTHING, including their nets, to follow Jesus according to Matt 4:19-20. This is our call as part of the Church, no pleasant or popular, but an act of obedience and love. If you continuously seek God through His Word and His Church, He will not let you stray (or stray far).

  5. Melissa-415139 June 24, 2014

    Let`s be practical. If you choose to go to the wedding and the reception and do not give them a gift that is just as inappropriate as not going at all.

  6. William-607613 June 25, 2014

    A Catholic who marries outside of the Church commits a grave sin. All of us have a moral responsibility to tell such a person that his or her actions are gravely sinful.

    How are we sticking to our guns on this matter if we then turn around and give witness to a grave sin through our presence at the wedding?

    For those who suggest attending the reception and not the ceremony, what would be the point? Someone just committed a grave sin in front of dozens, if not hundreds, of people. What on earth would we be celebrating?

    Our standing firm on this matter might be the one thing or perhaps even the ONLY thing that our friend keeps in mind, after the wedding is said and done, the friends and family have returned home and the honeymoon is over. When he or she is lying in bed at night looking at the ceiling contemplating the brevity of life and the length of eternity, our principled stand (as well as our prayers for this individual) might be enough to keep him or her awake for just a few minutes longer what is needed.

  7. Bryan -551515 June 25, 2014

    Let me see if I got this correct.If two people are Catholic it is a grave sin if they don’t get marriage in the church, if one is a Catholic and one is not it is a sin for the Catholic but not the other person and if two people are not Catholic it is perfectly OK ( no sin) for both not to get marriage in the church? One has to wonder if God looks down upon us as Catholics, Baptist, etc or does He look upon us as His children,,, and children who try to live a good life.
    Just so you know, I was married once we were both Catholic and we got married in the Church.So I have no dislike for the Catholic church at all but maybe sometimes we get so caught up in religion that we forget about God. I was taught that there was only one true religion, the Catholic religion ,but I doubt God looks at His children that way… I don’t mean this to put down the Catholic Church by any means just saying maybe we should look at things a little different. I look at things like this , there is GOD and religion is the way in which a person or people praise God. Some people need their religion to help them praise God more than others.Yes, there are some that have “concocked ” a or their religion to do just the opposite of what religion was meant to do.
    I tend to see things for more than just one side I once, a long long time ago, third grade I believe that The Catholic religion was the only true religion which I took to mean that all other who died would go to hell! I asked my teacher, well what about the natives in Africa who didn’t have churches and didn’t know about God.( Remember this was 50 years ago and had no racial tones whatsoever. It’s just that natives in Africa were as far away as I knew…at least in the Tarzan movies didn’t have churches, the buildings…) Anyway never was fully explained why but had to stand in the corner for saying it! LOL I have not remmaried since the death of my wife but maybe one day!

    • William-607613 June 25, 2014

      This is a little bit winded, Bryan, and it’s not clear what you are saying, but we do hope that you come around to embracing the teachings of Holy Mother Church. Life is short; tempus fugit.

    • James-1082060 June 26, 2014

      I really don’t mean to put you down, but the thoughts you’re expressing do read, as you say, as if they are coming from a third grader. What you’ve described as part of the Catholic religion is no more Catholic than anything the most militant of evangelicals or Jhv Wtns would write about Catholics. Because you haven’t taken the time to personally read, think or discuss with your pastor basic topics of theology does not mean that there aren’t simple and powerful answers to them. For example, grave sin is committed when someone knowingly commits a serious sin. You can apply that to the examples on marriage you gave or to the example of souls that never come in to contact with the faith; i.e. – well formed Catholics know better and are held responsible for this knowledge. In the case of ignorance of God’s law, the Catholic Church does not say there is no sin, but as Father says “it is an undesirable situation” and the Church strives to change this lack of understanding. Father’s point in this article appears to be that a Catholic should understand the nature of the grave sin and then weigh the response in light of specific circumstances. Nothing complicated there at all.

      You’ve conveniently left Jesus Christ out of your examples and questions about the tenants of the Catholic Church. Without him, we would just be the same as any other faith, struggling to come to grips with right and wrong. But because of him and the clear examples/words he gave us it is possible to look at One True Faith and to have a more concrete idea of how God wants us to live our lives. The description you’ve given of religion is a personal one, I understand, but it is so generic that one could believe in nothing and do nothing and still qualify as being “religious” (an extremely broad definition, you must admit, that really requires nothing and will likely fulfill its requirements). You’re on a Catholic site, so I’m assuming you have belief in the Catholic faith, and that you understand each of the statements made in either the Apostles Creed or Nicene Creed. The reason it’s referred to as the One True Faith is owed to its Author and what its principles and visible traits are, and not because it’s just another “team” to cheer for on Sunday morning.

  8. Tom-1003011 June 25, 2014

    let those without sin cast the first stone.

    • William-607613 June 25, 2014

      The old stand-by; what thread would be worth reading if it didn’t have this line as one of the responses?

  9. Michelle-989480 June 25, 2014

    This is an important blog post as many of us will find ourselves in the position of “Blank RSVP Card”. As A Catholic, I do not consider marriage outside of the Church to be valid although I acknowledge it to be legally binding. Two of my best friends were married in civil ceremonies (both were raised Catholic) and both woman asked me to be in their wedding parties. Since they were friends, they knew my religious convictions and when I declined to be their bridesmaid they both understood. Before both of these woman were legally married I spoke my mind to them about being married outside of the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, I make known what I have learned about my faith but I find a way to do that with “the love thy neighbor as thyself” mentality.

  10. Sally-981827 June 26, 2014

    I am so discouraged by this conversation on marriage.
    It makes me want to leave the church it is so judging and lacking in love.
    Rule after rule. It is like you want us so religious we no longer are spiritual people.
    There must be a better approach here I pray.

  11. Mark-687718 June 26, 2014

    Respectfully, I feel that some of the suggestions made here, although surely well-intentioned and canonically correct, are lacking in real-world practicality. The friend made the decision to walk away from the Church as an adult and of her own free will. How is it surprising that she’s choosing not to get married in the Church? Reminding her that her marriage will be considered invalid by the Church will carry absolutely no weight. Why would she care? Finally, if you feel strongly enough about it that you are willing to tell your “FRIEND” that you are boycotting her wedding because you don’t support it, then realistically, you should really just tell her that you can no longer be friends with her at all, because 1) that is so insulting, she probably won’t want to be friends with you anymore anyway, and 2) it’s really not only the wedding you don’t approve of, but her whole apostate lifestyle, so you should also be telling her every time you see her that you don’t approve of her living with the boyfriend before marriage, and every Sunday that you don’t approve of her not going to mass that day. Sounds ridiculous and meddlesome? Of course it does, because it would be, even though well-intentioned. Think of all the occasions our Lord associated with sinners (like accepting the invitation to dine at Levi’s house or allowing the sinful woman to wash his feet at the Pharisees house), at the objection of the Pharisees who told him by Jewish law he shouldn’t. They were correct, by the book, but Jesus always chose love and compassion over living by the book. Bottom-line, we all have to go by our consciences. If you really feel you shouldn’t go to the wedding, then by all means, do what you have to do. But just be prepared for the consequences.

    • William-607613 June 27, 2014

      Mark,

      We do have an obligation to point out when someone is committing a grave sin. No, we don’t shout it from the rooftops and yes, we do it very carefully, but the obligation is still there.

      All we have to do is put the truth out there. It may be DECADES before it sinks in; we may never know. We just put it out there.

      BTW, in all of those cases where Jesus associated with the sinners (and let’s be thankful that He did), He never refrained from stating the truth about any of their lifestyles.

      • Tom-1003011 July 1, 2014

        Its not up to us to judge others .everyone’s judgment day will arrive.

    • Nicholas-976717 June 27, 2014

      I’m with you, Mark.

      • Costantino-643476 June 28, 2014

        I’m with you also Mark. My spiritually bankrupt uncle decided to remarry outside of the Church, even though I pointed out to him that to do so was a grave sin and his so called “marriage” would be invalid but he still proceeded to do so. My other spiritually bankrupt relatives attended the “wedding”. The “marriage” ended up in divorce after a year. What you sow is what you reap!

    • Mariella-959684 July 1, 2014

      Totally agree with Mark. God also tells us to love and forgive our peers.

    • Grace-1076130 July 3, 2014

      Amen Mark. When did we become elitist judges? Count me out!

  12. Costantino-643476 June 28, 2014

    I have a cousin who is planning to marry a woman from the Philippines and I’ve already told him that if he plans to marry in a civil ceremony the “marriage” will be invalid in the eyes of God and the Church and it will be a mortal sin. I’m still waiting to hear back from him. l met an Italian “Catholic” woman about a month ago who told me her “Catholic” son divorced and remarried in a civil ceremony and she described the civil ceremony as being “beautiful”. When I pointed out to her that her son had made a dreadful mistake and the “marriage” is invalid, she just shut her ears and didn’t want to know. This woman likes to think she’s a faithful Catholic but when presented with unpleasant facts she “shuts off”. Her son didn’t go through the annulment process because, “it would take too long”! Honestly, I give up on the majority of Catholics these days!

  13. Costantino-643476 June 28, 2014

    I forgot to mention also that this Italian woman told me that her son and his non Catholic “wife” go to Mass and receive communion. Once again, her son is committing a mortal sin.

  14. Cheryl J. July 1, 2014

    Sally, I agree. This conversation is very discouraging and lacking in love and understanding. The Jesus Christ I love deeply would spend his time showing his friends the love and acceptance of Our Lord. His example surely brings in more people to His circle of Love than the “holier than thou” attitude I see on this thread. I am a proud Catholic who has suffered through the judgement of other Catholics with this attitude and is has nearly prevented me from attending Mass. Because I do not sit around trying to make a decision whether I should go or stay home from an event where my loved ones or friends have decided to make a comittment to one another outside the church does not make me a bad Catholic. Worrying about the way men interpret God’s teachings does.

  15. Schultz S. July 1, 2014

    ” The Jesus Christ I love deeply would spend his time showing his friends the love and acceptance of Our Lord. His example surely brings in more people to His circle of Love than the “holier than thou” attitude I see on this thread. ” Cheryl J. July 1, 2014

    Sally and Cheryl both make an interesting comment. And yet others offer differing opinions. Who is right?
    We have to live by our conscience which is influenced by how we were brought up. Yes Catholics have many “rules” and most of them make great sense but are they all really “bound in Heaven”? God is the final judge. The Catholic Church tries its best to guide us and She does a great job in doing so but She does NOT rule over the Triune God.

    Showing love is important but refraining from occasion of sin is important too. However, sometimes we can get so caught up in the “rules” that we forget the intent of the law. Do we compromise our beliefs? No. But do we become like Christ? He came not to condemn but to save. Each of us should pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance and then do what we think is best after listening for an answer.
    One thing I do not agree with is often exhibited by Catholics who maintain that “I am in my fort, the right fort, and you will excommunicate yourself if you don’t live by all of our rules and since that may be your choice I will ignore you from now on.” Or similar sentiments.

    “We do have an obligation to point out when someone is committing a grave sin.” Really? Before you do this you should read the passage about the log in your own eye. We throw around words as if they were weapons. Remember this: “The yardstick by which you judge others will be used to judge you”.

    Lots of good comments above by souls trying their best to do and say the right thing, but don’t forget humility. Praying for others with love in your heart is much more effective than praying something like, “God please give them what they deserve”. What do we deserve? Do you think you deserve salvation? Salvation is a gift of love by a loving God and His loving Son. Please don’t forget this great love when another situation occurs for you to be an example for others.

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