Can I Attend the Marriage of a Catholic Outside the Church?

Q: My brother and I have a disagreement. We are both Catholic and have a decent understanding of what is required for a Catholic to marry outside the Church, including canonical form (which is well explained in some of your responses on your website).

My brother posits that attending such a wedding, in which the Catholic spouse had not obtained permission from his bishop, would be considered “intrinsically evil.” Since the Church would not consider such a marriage valid due to a lack on canonical form, the attendee would be helping to celebrate and be offering at least tacit approval of a marriage that the Church does not consider valid.

For reasons I cannot fully articulate, I don’t think the attendance can be considered “intrinsically evil”….  Can a Catholic attend the marriage of another Catholic that takes place outside the Church, when that Catholic has not received permission from his bishop to do so?  –Sharon

A: This is a question which is often asked of canonists, because it is generally presumed that the issue is a legal one.  In actuality, the Code of Canon Law is silent as to whether a Catholic can/should attend the invalid wedding of another Catholic, celebrated outside the Catholic Church.  While the question of course touches on the laws regarding marriage validity, it also involves aspects which are theological and pastoral in nature.  Let’s look briefly at the validity (or not) of a wedding involving at least one Catholic, which is celebrated in a non-Catholic ceremony; and then we can examine the separate-but-related issue of a Catholic friend or relative attending that wedding.

To begin with, Sharon is correct that a Catholic is required by law to marry in a Catholic wedding ceremony, in accord with canonical form (c. 1108.1).  This has been discussed many, many times before in this space, in “Why Would a Wedding in Our College Chapel be Invalid?” and “Can a Catholic Ever Elope?” among others; but in a nutshell, Catholics marry validly only in a Catholic wedding ceremony, celebrated by the pastor of the parish or the diocesan Bishop, or by a cleric deputed by either of them, and in the presence of two witnesses.  When a Catholic marries in a civil ceremony, or in a wedding celebrated in a non-Catholic place of worship, the Church does not recognize it as valid—with the exception of a marriage between a Catholic and a member of the Orthodox Church, celebrated in an Orthodox ceremony (see “Why is a Catholic Permitted to Marry in an Orthodox Ceremony?” for more on this).

That said, it is possible for a Catholic to obtain in advance from the diocesan bishop a dispensation from canonical form, and this would permit him/her to marry in a non-Catholic ceremony, which would be considered valid in the eyes of the Church (c. 1127.2).  (The notion of a dispensation—the relaxation of an ecclesiastical law in a particular case, as per canon 85—was discussed in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”)

As we saw in “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” a diocesan bishop may dispense a Catholic from observing the canonical form for marriage, if he determines that it would lead to “grave difficulties.”  Thus it could very well be that a non-Catholic wedding ceremony, involving one Catholic spouse, is indeed valid as far as the Church is concerned.

Unfortunately, there are lots of Catholics out there with weak faith, who view the question of marriage validity with indifference.  Such Catholics can easily be swayed by the preferences of their non-Catholic spouses-to-be, and agree to hold the wedding in a non-Catholic venue; and if a Catholic of this type can’t be bothered to approach the pastor of his parish, to ask that he request a dispensation from canonical form from the diocesan bishop, then the wedding will definitely be invalid. Close relatives and friends who are Catholics themselves might be well aware of the situation—and like Sharon and her brother, they would understand that after the ceremony, the couple will not be married in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

So what is a Catholic supposed to do, when he receives an invitation to attend a wedding like this?  Worse, what if a Catholic is asked to participate in the wedding, as a bridesmaid or groomsman, or in some other active capacity?  Many Catholics are surprised when they discover that the Church has issued no official, binding rules on this subject.  Strictly speaking, therefore, there’s no law against attending an invalid wedding.  But the fact that something isn’t illegal doesn’t automatically mean that it’s morally okay!

Think about it: weddings are normally occasions for celebration.  A man and woman have now become husband and wife, and are about to embark on a new life together.  But if they aren’t truly married, this means they are about to embark on a life of grave moral evil together—since they will be living together as husband and wife, but outside of marriage.  Why would there be any reason to celebrate this?  If anything, such an occasion ought logically to be viewed by a Catholic as one more suitable for mourning than for celebration.

Catholics who are invited to the invalid marriage of a fellow Catholic also have to bear in mind that their attendance can cause scandal.  When a Catholic friend or family member agrees to be present at the marriage of a lax Catholic outside the Church, his attendance is often interpreted as approval.  After all, if you have serious moral objections to the wedding, then why would you agree to come?  If the Catholic spouse is seeking to soothe his guilty conscience, and trying to convince himself that he’s not really doing anything wrong, then learning that a good Catholic friend/relative will be there can provide exactly the sort of justification that he craves.  The Catechism has this to say about giving scandal:

Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.  The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter.  He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death.  Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense….  It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). (CCC 2284-2285)

For this reason, a Catholic who is invited to such a wedding must bear in mind that a decision to attend can carry with it tremendous moral responsibility, for the spiritual well-being of the weak Catholic who will be marrying invalidly.  Remember that your charitable refusal to be present at such a wedding could potentially constitute the spiritual wake-up call that the weak Catholic so desperately needs; and your failure to provide that wake-up call could perhaps amount to a final push toward his spiritual downfall.  Such a push would certainly be a strange way for a committed Catholic to treat a friend or relative whom he truly cares about.

Bearing all this in mind, there can, in certain limited circumstances, be a legitimate moral reason for a Catholic to attend the invalid wedding of another Catholic. As was discussed in “How Does the Presence of a Priest at my Non-Catholic Wedding Make it Okay?” there are occasionally some situations where it is reasonable to conclude that if a Catholic invitee refuses to attend the non-Catholic wedding ceremony of a weak Catholic, it will be interpreted by that weak Catholic as permanently shutting the door on him—and it could send the message that he is no longer welcome or even wanted in the Church.  This scenario certainly seems to be the exception rather than the rule, but it does happen!  Navigating such a touchy, delicate situation can be rather like walking a tightrope; it might conceivably be feasible for a practicing Catholic to say to the spouse-to-be something like, “You and I both know that what you are doing is gravely wrong, and so there’s no way for me in good conscience to condone it—but I will come to the ceremony and sit way in the back, and pray for you the whole time, because I love you and genuinely want what is best for you in God’s eyes.”  Depending on the relationship between the two, who knows, this might provide the weak Catholic with the impetus to return to the Church somewhere down the road, and seek to have his marriage-status regularized in the Church as well.  It is, however, probably best for any Catholic who thinks this could be the most appropriate way to deal with an invitation to an invalid wedding to consult a priest first—and thus get a second opinion from someone who not only has solid theological training, but also will presumably be more impartial and thus able to analyze the situation from a more objective standpoint.

Let’s now look at the opinion of Sharon’s brother, that attending the invalid wedding ceremony of a Catholic is “intrinsically evil.”  The term intrinsically evil is frequently bandied about by non-theologians in a sloppy, imprecise way—and yet precision is exactly what’s needed if it is to be applied in a manner that is theologically correct.

Briefly, an action is considered to be intrinsically evil if it is always evil, and there is never any situation in which it is not evil.  (Sodomy, for example, is a good example of an action which is never, ever morally acceptable, no matter what the circumstances, or who the persons are.)  Consequently, if you wanted to assert that “murder is intrinsically evil,” you’d first have to be sure that your definition of murder excluded things like self-defense, accidents, and military combat.  Otherwise, your assertion would be theologically unsound.

But how can one safely apply the term to “the invalid marriage of a Catholic outside the Church”?  Sometimes, for example, Catholics are so sadly uneducated about their faith that they genuinely don’t understand that their marriage in a non-Catholic ceremony is not really a marriage!  In other cases, a Catholic might be invited to such a wedding and falsely believe, due to some sort of miscommunication, that a dispensation from canonical form was obtained in advance—when in reality it wasn’t.  There are also parts of the world where the Church is being persecuted, and it might be impossible for a Catholic to even find a priest who could celebrate a Catholic wedding in accord with canonical form (for many decades of the 20th century, this was a reality in parts of communist eastern Europe, where Catholics frequently had no choice but to marry invalidly in a civil ceremony or one of another faith).  And of course as we just saw above, rare situations exist where it might conceivably be feasible to attend the invalid wedding of a Catholic outside the Church, so as not to send the message that he is cutting himself off irrevocably from the Catholic faith.

In short, this can get complicated—and so making sweeping, across-the-board statements that “attending such a wedding, in which the Catholic spouse had not obtained permission from his bishop, would be considered ‘intrinsically evil’” (to use Sharon’s words) is dangerous theological business.  Still, as we have seen here, it’s likewise dangerous to defer to personal sentiment, and decide to attend such a wedding—or even participate actively in it—because “he’s my best friend,” or “she’s my sister.”  These are, on the contrary, the very sorts of close relationships which ought to prompt a committed Catholic to put concern for the spiritual state of the friend/relative above all else, and thus to refuse to be present at any wedding ceremony that will not result in a real marriage!

We can see here that while canon law does not provide a direct answer to Sharon’s question, combining an understanding of marriage law with Catholic theology gives us a correct understanding of how to handle this situation.  True love for our friends and family members drives us to invite them to our wedding celebrations; but at the same time, that very love should prompt us to refuse to attend a wedding if we know it puts a friend or family member in spiritual peril.

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