One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “May I attend the wedding?” And the answer is, “Yes, if it’s a real marriage.”

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In the wake of the breakdown of marriage and family life in the United States since the advent of the pill and no-fault divorce over 40 years ago, many Catholics today face bewildering choices when they are invited to weddings. On the one hand, they want to show their support for family and friends, but on the other they want to be faithful to Christ and His teachings on marriage. Sometimes, the two seem to come in conflict and difficult choices must be made. However, if we are faithful to Christ, this will always benefit our loved ones. We are called to “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” 

Jesus blessed marriage with His presence at the wedding feast at Cana, but He also spoke very clearly about the inviolable properties of unity and indissolubility of marriage when He said: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9, RSV). 

May I attend the wedding? Yes, if it’s a real marriage. You may attend, but you are never obliged to attend. 

Terminology

Before examining five wedding scenarios, it’s helpful to clarify some terminology. A wedding (or nuptial Mass) is not the same thing as the reception. And “to attend” is not the same thing as “to assist.” Technically, only one person “assists” at the wedding: the pastor (or his delegate) who witnesses the marriage. But in addition to the spouses and the pastor, two witnesses are necessary: the best man and maid of honor. All five (two spouses, two witnesses and pastor) are required to sign their names to the official documents for legal and canonical record. If the wedding ceremony will not constitute a valid marriage, no practicing Catholic can be part of this “group of five.” 

To “attend” a wedding usually means to show up in the congregation. No one is impeded by canon law from “attending” wedding ceremonies or receptions. However, natural law dictates that we should do good and avoid evil, and never condone evil by our words, actions or omissions. If your attendance at a wedding ceremony or reception would somehow condone an invalid marriage, then you would be partly culpable for the sin, whatever that sin might be. 

A Catholic may attend any wedding held in a Catholic Church. But often, Catholics face more difficult choices. Let’s take a look at five scenarios.  

Five Marriage Case Studies

Case 1: “Catholic wedding in a Catholic church.” Valid. All Catholics may attend. Fulfills natural law and canon law. 

You can assume that if a wedding takes place in a Catholic Church, then both spouses are free to marry because no canonical impediments are in the way and this fact has been established by the prenuptial forms and questionnaires that have been completed. Case 1 also includes non-Catholics who marry a Catholic in a Catholic Church. All are free to attend. 

Case 2: “Catholic wedding in a non-Catholic setting.” Valid. All Catholics may attend, but with reservations. Fulfills natural law and canon law. 

On occasion a practicing Catholic will fall in love with a non-Catholic and wish to get married in a non-Catholic church because — for instance — the spouse’s father is the minister of the local Protestant congregation. In this case, the Catholic requests dispensation from his/her bishop, and if the dispensation is granted, then the marriage can take place, but it still needs to be recorded in the Catholic parish. Additionally, as a prerequisite, the Catholic party must inform the non-Catholic spouse of his/her intention to raise the children as Catholics. If the Catholic spouse has the dispensation of the bishop to get married in a non-Catholic ceremony, and both spouses are also free to marry, then anyone may attend the wedding. However, if there is a communion service at the ceremony, Catholics may not receive communion in a non-Catholic ceremony. Under this category we can also consider Catholics attending weddings of any non-Catholic in any non-Catholic ceremony: Catholics may attend in good conscience if the spouses are free to marry — that is, not already married. 

Case 3: “Non-canonical form marriage of a Catholic.” Potentially valid. Catholics will have serious reservations about attending. Fulfills natural law, but does not fulfill canon law. 

This is a difficult case to assess and, unfortunately, it is increasingly common. This is the case of two persons who are free to marry (no canonical impediments), one or both having been baptized as Catholic and not having formally defected from the Catholic Church. One or both are “cultural Catholics,” but who likely do not practice the faith for one reason or another. They decide to get married, but not in a Catholic Church, and without the bishop’s dispensation from canonical form. These are the weddings in Protestant churches, or before a justice of the peace, or in a high mountain meadow, or in the rose garden of the country club, or wherever. Such weddings are potentially valid if both parties are free to marry and intend to marry with the properties of unity and indissolubility. If they were not Catholic, the marriage would be valid, but since they are Catholic, they are subject to Catholic marriage rules — that is, the canonical form.  

Is it a sin for a Catholic to get married outside the Church without the bishop’s dispensation? Objectively, yes it is. However, the “Catholic” person getting married outside the Church could be such a nominally practicing Catholic, and so poorly instructed, that he/she may well have no clue that it’s a sin. The only element missing for a valid marriage in this case is the canonical form (marriage in the presence of parish priest and two witnesses). Such a defect of canonical form is easily remedied. 

If your attendance at this wedding would push the Catholic spouse farther away from the Catholic Church, you may not attend. But if your presence might help bring them closer to the Catholic Church, I think you could attend, so long as you speak up and say something to the effect: “Remember, Joe, that you were born a Catholic and you should get this marriage blessed in the Church and put Christ at the center of your relationship with Sue. The sacraments of the Church, especially confession and the holy Eucharist, will help you immensely.” 

Case 4:  “Remarriage of a divorced person without annulment.” Invalid. Potentially remediable through annulment and sanatio (from the Latin for “healing”), which cannot be presumed. For purposes of clarity, an annulment invalidates a marriage, while sanatio validates a marriage. Practicing Catholics should not attend. Possibly against natural law; certainly does not fulfill canon law. 

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Because of the strong words of Jesus cited above (see Mt 19:9), I don’t see how a practicing Catholic in good conscience can attend a wedding ceremony that he knows will be an invalid marriage. His/her attendance seems to condone what is going on. Rather, he should explain to the individauls that he loves them and prays for them and wants the very best for them, but that he will not be helping them at all if he ignores the clear teachings of Jesus Christ. These can be very hard conversations. But remember what Jesus said: “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father” (Mt 10:32). That should be some consolation. 

However, some wise and prudent priests with many years of pastoral experience are of the opinion that there could be some cases in which one’s (passive) presence may be legitimate, especially so as not to cut oneself off from one’s relative. For this to happen, the principle of double effect applies: (a) action is good or indifferent (just being there); (b) the intention is good (keeping lines of communication open); (c) the good effect intended is not a consequence of the evil effect; (d) there is a proportionately serious reason. In that case it might be advisable to attend the ceremony and miss the reception, and indicate as well that one does not approve the union. 

Only time and the Second Coming will tell if you made the right choice.  

Case 5: “Attempted marriage of persons of the same sex.” Invalid. No remedy possible. No one should attend or witness this. Against natural law and canon law. 

Just as in the first case it is obvious that anyone may attend, in this case it is obvious that no one may attend. So, in this case, how do you “love the sinner, but hate the sin”? By explaining things clearly: marriage is about children, and two persons of the same sex cannot procreate children, so marriage is not possible. But friendship is possible, and friendship which leads to love of and imitation of Christ is good. And chastity is a great virtue which enables us to serve as Christ served. TCA 

Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D., serves as Executive Director of the national radio apostolate Relevant Radio