Wedding Bell Blues
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man 'against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's enemies will be those of his household.' "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. – Matthew 10:34-39
... It would be better for anyone who leads astray one of these little ones who believe in me, to be drowned by a millstone around his neck, in the depths of the sea. What terrible things will come on the world through scandal! It is inevitable that scandal should occur. Nonetheless, woe to that man through whom scandal comes!" (Mt 18:6-7).
A few months ago, my niece announced that she would be getting married next September. The wedding was to be held in a small parish church that she had been attending since moving away from home several years ago. Her betrothed was baptized Catholic but not raised in the faith. They were attending marriage preparation classes, and the entire family was excited at the news. My wife and daughter immediately offered to host a bridal shower and plans were made.
Recently, my sister informed us of a change in the plans. The parish priest was refusing to marry the couple. Apparently, situational disclosures made during the pre-marital instructions led the priest to find impediments to a sacramental marriage. Instead of being married in the Church, they couple decided to be married outdoors by a non-denominational minister my sister knew. My sister and her husband were supporting this decision in the hope that the marriage would be blessed in the Church at some time in the future.
My sister and I exchanged a number of messages by email in which I expressed my dismay at this situation. I thought she failed to grasp the seriousness of a Catholic marrying outside the Church. At one time during the discussion, she proposing the idea that her daughter might still be able to receive the Eucharist since they would be legally married. I felt like I was walking on eggs in trying to convey the implications of such an action without driving a wedge in our relationship. My wife and daughter also took the news with some indifference. They continued planning the bridal shower. When family members began to ruffle at my protests, I decided to take some time to review the Church’s stance in such matters.
Canon law, like civil law, can be difficult for the layman to understand. From what I have read, a Catholic marriage requires canonical form (Canon 1108) which says that the marriage must take place before a priest or deacon, and there must be two witnesses. The wedding celebration must also take place inside a church (Canon 1115). Lacking canonical form, a marriage is invalid. Dispensations from canonical form can be granted by the bishop, but only in the case of a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic. Strange at it may seem at first glance, the marriage of two baptized non-Catholics by a non-denominational minister in an outdoor setting would be a valid marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Only Catholics are subject to Canon law.
In the case of my niece, she is Catholic. She is subject to Canon law. It is my understanding that her fiancé was baptized Catholic. If he were not Catholic, it might be possible for a dispensation to be granted by the bishop so a valid marriage could take place. The wedding is not taking place in a Catholic Church, thereby also requiring a dispensation. Since no dispensation has been granted, or even requested as far as I know, the marriage cannot be valid. I am encouraged to know that a priest in our diocese had the courage to do the right thing. He recognized an impediment to receiving the sanctifying grace given in a sacramental marriage. Too often, couples are improperly disposed to enter the marital covenant. It is no wonder so many decrees of nullity are issued these days.
So, how does a Catholic family-member who loves his faith and tries to practice it react to this situation? Is it permissible for me to attend the wedding? Several Catholic apostolate websites have forums where such questions can be addressed to priests. The ones I value most are thoroughly orthodox and generally conservative. One can search the Catholic Answers website or EWTN and find numerous questions about invalid marriages. The consensus seems to be that attending an invalid marriage ceremony is scandalous. Father Mark Gantley of EWTN’s question and answer section says, “One should not be present to support and give witness to an invalid marriage ceremony. This is a moral matter, not a matter strictly of canon law.” His stance is typical of many others I found.
My niece’s wedding is less than three months away, and this dilemma is eating away at me. I cannot attend her wedding ceremony in good conscience. I also do not want to cause a rift in the family. I do not want my absence to be interpreted as snobbish or self-righteous. On the other hand, I feel a moral obligation to express my concern. The difficulty is in doing so in a way to achieve the best possible result. Responding to someone in similar circumstances, one priest suggested writing a loving letter to the couple explaining the problem for a faithful Catholic. It is this approach I will likely take, addressing my sister first.
I suspect I could find many priests who would say to go to the wedding in the belief that maintaining an open relationship with the couple may lead them to realize the importance of a sacramental marriage and seek to eventually have their union convalidated. They might say that attendance does not mean one approves of the wedding. It is likely that many Catholics will attend this wedding without giving it much thought, and any behavior to the contrary on my part will appear uncharitable.
In trying to explain myself to my sister and her family, words must be chosen carefully. I am not refusing to go to my niece’s wedding. Rather, I am unable to stand in witness at the ceremony performed contrary to canon law. I am not trying to make a statement by my absence. I would prefer that my absence go unnoticed. I must do what my own conscience tells me is right, and I cannot take responsibility for other Catholics who may attend either through ignorance or defiance of Church teaching.
Our spiritual journeys are life-long, and we are all at different points on that journey. Some will not be in a position to yet understand what others have come to understand. Great peace comes to those who embrace complete submission to the teachings of the Church Jesus established. I pray that someday, my niece and her husband will find that joy. Above all, I want them all to know I love them unconditionally and will continue to pray for them each day. I wish them much happiness. In fact, I wish them eternal happiness, the happiness we will all gain if we embrace the loving truth of our Catholic faith.