“Father, my sister is getting married by a protestant minister in a beautiful outdoor service on the top of a mountain! Can I attend the wedding?”
If your sister was baptized Catholic or has been received into the Church, and she didn’t get permission from the bishop, then I say, “No, you most certainly must not attend.”
Although Canon Law makes no stipulation regarding whether a Catholic may attend an invalid wedding ceremony, moral law most certainly prohibits Catholics (and, sometimes, also non-Catholics) from attending.
In this article, we hope to shed some light on what can be a rather difficult question. Difficult not only because of personal ties to those involved in the wedding service, but also because many priests spew forth variant opinions which (howsoever subtle and delicate they appear) lack any substantial foundation in moral law or the Catholic tradition.
What makes a marriage invalid?
Before going any further, it is necessary to recognize what makes a marriage to be invalid. Under the current law of the Church, the marriages of non-Catholics are not bound by canonical form. Thus, the marriage of two protestants in a protestant hall, or even before a justice of the peace in a Vegas drive-thru, could be a valid marriage. Furthermore, if this marriage is valid, it is also sacramental.
The marriage of two non-baptized persons (or of a protestant and a non-baptized person) is likewise not to be presumed invalid simply because it is not witnessed by a Catholic priest – here too, the Church recognizes these marriages as valid (other factors being equal). Hence, if a protestant marries a buddhist in a Vegas chapel, the marriage is valid – yet, because one (or both) are not baptized, it cannot be a sacrament.
However, those who have been baptized Catholic or who have been received into the Church are bound to follow canonical form. Even if a person has since left the practice of the faith and no longer considers himself to be Catholic, according to Church law, he is bound by the law of the Catholic Church from the moment he has once become Catholic (either by baptism or by conversion).
This means that one who has been Catholic must be married in a manner recognized by the Catholic Church. Usually, this entails being married before a Catholic priest or deacon, in a Catholic Church – however, the Bishop can permit for a protestant minister or any other person to witness the marriage. Thus, if a Catholic is not married according to the Law of the Church, the marriage will be invalid – it may be a civil marriage, but it is not a marriage in the eyes of the Church or in God’s eyes.
It is also good to note that the marriage of a Catholic and an Orthodox Christian before an Orthodox priest is recognized as valid, though perhaps illicit without the permission of the Catholic bishop (other points of law being followed). (Cf. Can. 1127)
Additionally, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the natural law regarding marriage holds true: Second marriages (in which the first marriage has not be declared null and the spouses are still living) are presumed to be invalid, marriages between members of the same sex are invalid, marriages between close relatives are invalid, etc. Hence, when a protestant attempts a second marriage (the former spouse still being alive and no annulment having been granted), this second marriage is presumed to be invalid; and the same holds for those who are not baptized.
To make this point very clear: When two baptized protestants are married in a civil ceremony, that is a valid and even a sacramental marriage (assuming that it follows natural law). When a protestant and an atheist get married in a civil ceremony, that is a valid non-sacramental marriage. However, as soon as a Catholic (or, rather, one who has been Catholic) is attempting marriage, the law of the Church must be followed.
What not to worry about
Firstly, let us point out what we ought not to worry about when deciding whether to attend the non-Catholic wedding ceremony of one who was baptized Catholic. Although Father Zuhlsdorf [here] and many others seek to pry into the hearts and minds of the couple attempting marriage – seeking their motives and their knowledge, their upbringing and their experiences – we state that all such is truly irrelevant to the question of whether we should attend the service.
“Why is the Catholic party marrying outside of the Church? Is it ignorance, apathy, antipathy, or some other motivation? Is this person marrying outside the Church as an act of defiance against the Church? […] Did they go to Catholic school?” (Father Z)
How do these questions in any way pertain to the question of whether a Catholic should attend an invalid marriage of another Catholic? Such questions seek to make a judgment upon the persons attempting marriage – either to acquit or condemn them. But who am I to judge the soul of another person?
What is truly at stake is the question of scandal, and of encouraging another in objective sin. We need not make a judgment upon the soul of the Catholic who is attempting the invalid marriage, but we must rather stand back and make an objective consideration of the matter.
Praising and approving sin
“Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them: by participating directly and voluntarily in them; by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them; by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so; by protecting evil-doers.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1896)
Among the ways in which we may be guilty of cooperating in sin, the Church lists praising or approving sin. Now, attending a wedding service, especially if we give a gift for the wedding and/or attend the reception after, clearly constitutes an act of both praise and approval. This is the objective effect of being present at a wedding – we are there to show support to the two individuals, not just in a general way, but specifically as they are wed.
Hence, even if we were to approach the couple ahead of time and tell them that we do not approve of their invalid attempt at marriage, presence at the ceremony itself communicates support and approval of the event. It is part of the very nature of the act of being present at a wedding – it shows support and praise for the attempt at marriage.
Scandal – Leading others to sin
“Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. […] Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2284 – 2285)
To cause scandal does not really mean to shock or surprise another, but rather to cause another to think that something which is sinful is not sinful or, at least, not that sinful. This is precisely what happens when we attend the invalid marriage of a Catholic.
Not only do we praise and show approval for the sinful act of the persons contracting the marriage, but by attending the wedding service we lead others into the false opinion that the invalid marriage is acceptable. This is yet another reason why it is not enough to simply tell the would-be spouses that, “I disagree with your choice to marry outside the Church, but I’ll attend the wedding because I love you” – because anyone else present at the attempted wedding would still be scandalized and led into the mistaken idea that there is nothing sinful about attempting an invalid marriage or praising an invalid wedding.
Hence, as a parish priest, I often counsel people: “In order to attend the wedding, you would have to let all those present know that you disagree with the attempted marriage, that it is not a marriage in God’s eyes, or the Church’s eyes, or your eyes, that it is a grave sin and that the couple are not husband and wife but rather are living in sin.” Anything less than a public statement to this effect would cause others to think that we were supporting the marriage ceremony – and, indeed, our presence at the wedding does show support and praise.
Clearly, the only option is to not attend the service.
From all that has been said, it should be clear that a Catholic ought not to give a wedding gift or card in praise of an invalid marriage. Furthermore, a Catholic should not attend the reception afterwards – the couple is entering into manifest grave sin, what is there to celebrate?
Additionally, one can make the obvious connections regarding other invalid ceremonies: If Catholics must not attend the invalid marriages of fellow Catholics, even protestants and atheists should not attend those marriages which are invalid due to violations of the natural law. This is why no one is permitted to attend the attempted marriage of two persons of the same sex. Furthermore, this would also preclude all from attending second marriages.
A sermon on this topic