This time of year wedding invitations start showing up in mailboxes and Catholics begin facing difficult decisions about whether or not to attend the weddings of lapsed Catholics. At Catholic Answers, we hear from the relatives and friends of fallen-away Catholics who are planning their weddings outside the Church. What is a serious Catholic to do?
The law of the Church
When any Catholic—even a lapsed one—gets married, he must have a Catholic wedding ceremony in order for his marriage to be valid. The Code of Canon Law states: “Only those marriages are valid which are contracted before the local [bishop], pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and before two witnesses” (can. 1108 §1). If a Catholic wishes to validly marry any other way (e.g., in his fiancé’s Protestant Church) he must obtain a dispensation from his bishop to not have a Catholic wedding. (This is ordinarily handled through his local pastor.) If he fails to obtain a dispensation and proceed with a wedding outside the Church, his marriage will not be valid.
Unfortunately, it is somewhat common these days for a lapsed Catholic to simply ignore his obligations in the Catholic Church and get married in a Protestant wedding or a civil ceremony instead. He might think, “I’m no longer a Catholic so I don’t have to worry about it.” This is wrong thinking. Once a person is a Catholic, he remains bound by the laws of the Church even if he falls away. Canon 1117 states, "The form prescribed above must be observed if at least one of the parties contracting the marriage was baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it.” No exception is made for a lapsed Catholic.
Imagine an American citizen proclaiming, “I no longer consider myself to be an American, so I don’t have to worry about breaking federal laws.” It doesn’t work that way! A citizen cannot arbitrarily exempt himself from justly enacted laws. The same applies to state laws. If a man fails to get a marriage license, the state will not recognize his marriage. He might move to another state, but he will then become subject to the laws of that state. Being a citizen of the Catholic Church is somewhat similar, but there is no place to where one may move that he is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church: The Church has universal jurisdiction.
How can the Catholic Church defend such a claim to universal legal authority? It is God-given authority. Jesus gave the Church the authority to enact laws that bind her citizens. He said to Peter (the first pope) and then later to all of the apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18; 18:18). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
The power to "bind and loose" connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom (CCC 553, emphasis added).
The teaching of the Church
This being the case, the Church authoritatively states in canon 11, “Merely ecclesiastical [Church imposed] laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age.” Thus, Catholics ordinarily must have a Catholic wedding ceremony in order for their marriages to be valid.
Why does the Church impose such a law? The Catechism explains:
Several reasons converge to explain this requirement:
- Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church;
- Marriage introduces one into an ecclesial order and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children;
- Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses);
- The public character of the consent protects the "I do" once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it (CCC 1631).
Even so, lapsed Catholics often ignore the Church. Their weddings do not result in valid marriages, yet the couples begin living together, and they expect others to treat them as though they are validly married. This creates difficult situations for family members and friends who are serious Catholics.
Should I attend the wedding or not?
The Catholic Church does not explicitly address the question of whether or not to attend a wedding that will not result in a valid marriage, but it does more broadly address words and attitudes which encourage and confirm others in objectively wrong behavior. The Catechism states:
Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another's vices or grave sins. Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech. Adulation is a venial sin when it only seeks to be agreeable, to avoid evil, to meet a need, or to obtain legitimate advantages (CCC 2480).
Additionally, scandal (i.e., leading others into sin) must be a considered. What would attending the wedding say to the couple and to others? The Catechism explains:
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.
Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. 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." Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep's clothing (CCC 2284-2285).
Therefore, in consideration of all this, I cannot recommend attending a wedding that will not result in a valid marriage. Instead, I recommend charitably explaining the reasons for declining the invitation as well as expressing hope and offering guidance for the couple in amending their plans.