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To Attend, or Not to Attend

When people find out I have been an apologist with Catholic Answers for more than a decade, they sometimes ask, “What is the most-asked question you receive?” That’s an easy one: “Can I go to this wedding?”

This question has been asked so often, in fact, that in 2007 I created a checklist for people to decide if they could go to a particular wedding. In the years since, that checklist has been viewed more than 75,000 times on the Catholic Answers Forums (forums.catholic.com). Since I turned it into a blog post for the Catholic Answers Blog, the checklist has accumulated nearly 10,000 more views.

Despite the wide variety of circumstances in which people marry, that checklist is still relevant. It required just one substantive change in the years since it was drafted, after Pope Benedict XVI ruled in his motu proprio Omnium in Mentem that a formal act of defection from the Church no longer freed a Catholic from the obligation to marry according to Catholic marital law:

The Code of Canon Law nonetheless prescribes that the faithful who have left the Church “by a formal act” are not bound by the ecclesiastical laws regarding the canonical form of marriage (cf. can. 1117), dispensation from the impediment of disparity of cult (cf. can. 1086), and the need for permission in the case of mixed marriages (cf. can. 1124). The underlying aim of this exception from the general norm of canon 11 was to ensure that marriages contracted by those members of the faithful would not be invalid due to defect of form or the impediment of disparity of cult. . . . I decree that in the same Code the following words are to be eliminated: “and has not left it by a formal act” (can. 1117); “and has not left it by means of a formal act” (can. 1086 § 1); “and has not left it by a formal act” (can. 1124).

The wedding checklist

  • Catholics may attend all presumptively valid marriages of Catholics, non-Catholics, and non-Christians.
  • For Catholics marrying other Catholics, a non-Catholic Christian or a non-Christian, a wedding is presumptively valid if it is done in accordance with Catholic marital law. Catholics marrying non-Catholic Christians or non-Christians need the necessary canonically appropriate permissions to marry the non-Catholic party and to marry in a non-Catholic ritual (if applicable).
  • For non-Catholics and non-Christians who are marrying other non-Catholics or non-Christians, a wedding can be considered presumptively valid if there are no known impediments to the marriage. The most common impediments wedding guests are likely to know about are previous marriage, close blood relationship, or same-sex partners. If none of these impediments are known to exist, a prospective guest may presume that the wedding will be valid.
  • The Church does not explicitly forbid Catholics from attending presumptively invalid marriages. Catholics must use their own prudential judgment in making the decision, keeping in mind the necessity to uphold the Catholic understanding of the sanctity of marriage. To make such a judgment, you might ask yourself if you believe the couple are doing the best they can to act honorably and according to the truth that they have. For example, you might decide to attend the presumptively invalid wedding of a couple who is expecting a child (thereby attempting to provide a family for that child), but you might decline to attend the presumptively invalid wedding of a couple you know to have engaged in adultery (thereby destroying previous marriages and families).
  • While there may be just reason to attend a presumptively invalid wedding, I cannot recommend participating as a member of the wedding party in such weddings. There is a difference between attending as a nonparticipating guest and actively involving yourself in the wedding.
  • If you are not attending the wedding as a matter of principle, then I cannot recommend attending a reception or giving a gift. I do recommend writing the couple a letter in which you express your love and prayers for them. (If prudence suggests it, it is fine to withhold from them what you will be praying to God that they obtain, such as the grace of repentance and conversion.)

In the case of “same-sex marriage,” the Church has spoken so strongly against it (see “The Church’s Position on Same-Sex Unions,” p. xx) that I cannot recommend attending or celebrating a “same-sex wedding” under any circumstances.

Just say no

Years after creating the checklist, I received a question from a priest who wanted to know how to decline attending the non-Catholic wedding of a family member. He wanted help in drafting a letter to his family to explain his position. I responded:

I think you are right to avoid attending this wedding. Clergy and consecrated religious are, among other things, the public face of the Church and so have to be even more careful to avoid giving scandal by appearing to approve of presumptively invalid marriages. I disagree with you only in the idea you had to send a letter rather than meet personally with your family.

It is no doubt far easier for you to counsel unrelated parishioners than it is to counsel family, but certainly your family is entitled to personal priestly counsel from you. They are free to accept or reject it, but at least you will have tried. Explain to them what constitutes a valid marriage for the Church, explain to them your own responsibility to uphold the sacrament of matrimony through your priestly ministry, and then explain that this means that, regretfully, you are unable to attend this wedding. Assure them of your love and prayers and your willingness to help should they decide to do what is necessary to marry validly.

But it is not just priests and religious who have questions about how to break the news to someone they care about that they will not be able to attend his wedding. We often get questions from Catholics who have decided they cannot attend a wedding about how they should explain their decision. They worry about the fallout from such an announcement and how to avoid rupturing relationships.

First, I think we should consider the closeness of the relationship to the bride and groom. For example, you have more of an obligation to explain why you are not attending a wedding if the invitation comes from your sister than if the invitation comes from a co-worker.

If the invitation comes from someone with whom you do not have a close relationship (e.g., co-worker, long-distance friend, acquaintance), there is a significant likelihood that the person will not care why you are not attending. All that the person really wants to know is whether or not to have a place set for you at the reception. In such a situation, you can fall back on the culturally accepted etiquette guidelines for declining an invitation, which often boils down to saying, “No, thank you” (see “How to Decline a Wedding Invitation,” p. xx).

When an explanation is necessary

Under ordinary circumstances, if the invitation comes from a family member or close friend, it is considered a matter of basic decency to attend that person’s marriage. If circumstances exist to make attendance impossible—and for the purpose of this article, we are considering only those reasons that arise from religious principles—then the family member or close friend deserves an explanation. The question then becomes the content of the explanation and how it should be delivered.

As a rule of thumb, you may want to ask yourself how likely the explanation you give is going to rupture the relationship. The more likely a rupture is, the more circumspect you may want to be in giving your explanation. You might even consider seizing on other reasons why you cannot attend, give those as your explanation, and mentally reserve the reasons likely to cause a rupture.

For example, if your brother is planning to “marry” his same-sex partner on a beach in Tahiti and is so sensitive to fraternal correction that he would disown you for not attending, you could explain to him that you cannot afford the trip. (Don’t be too specific about what aspects of the trip that you can and cannot afford, just in case your brother offers to pay your way.)

Of course, there are times when you must explain your position on same-sex marriage, especially if you have not done so up to this point. I once heard from a grandfather who had never made his position on homosexuality known to his adult lesbian granddaughter who had been living a homosexual lifestyle for several years. He had assumed she would “outgrow” it, but now she had just invited him to her “engagement” party celebrating her upcoming “marriage” to her girlfriend. I said to him:

It might be best to start with an apology, and ask your granddaughter’s forgiveness for turning a blind eye to this situation for so long. It seems only logical for your granddaughter to have sent you an invitation to her same-sex “engagement” party when she has never been given reason to believe that you disapprove of her actions or consider them immoral. Under these circumstances, she evidently would have legitimate cause to be bewildered if you simply boycotted her “engagement” party without explanation. . . .

Once you apologize and ask her forgiveness—which might startle her enough to take seriously what you should say next—then explain to her your position on homosexual activity and that you cannot support it in any way by supporting her plans to mimic marriage with her homosexual partner. Assure her that you love her and that you will help her leave the homosexual lifestyle if she ever desires it.

Sometimes I am asked why the Church does not simply tell Catholics they cannot attend non-Catholic marriages. It would be so much easier to put the blame the Church for not being able to attend a family member’s non-Catholic wedding. I think there is wisdom, though, in the Church’s relative silence on this matter.

One, not all marriages outside the Church are conducted under the same circumstances, and it would be unjust to treat all non-Catholic marriages as if they were pressed from the same cookie cutter. Two, it forces Catholics to take responsibility for their faith. They must evaluate a given situation and make the best decision they can in charity and using prudential judgment. They must be the ones to say, “I love you, and I wish I could witness your marriage, but my conscience will not allow it.”

If Catholics avoid blaming the Church for their decision not to attend, perhaps their loved one will want to know what the Church has to say about their marriage—and, if so, perhaps seek to regularize their marriage so that Catholic relatives may attend in good conscience.

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