How are Catholics to Handle Attending Problematic Weddings?
Does the Catholic Church prohibit Catholics from attending weddings that the Church does not recognize? If a Catholic is invited to such a wedding and can attend, is it permissible for him to be in the wedding party? The Catholic Church does not explicitly prohibit Catholics from attending weddings whose validity she does not recognize. There are certain moral principles, however, that should be considered before a Catholic decides how to proceed. Most importantly, Catholics must avoid any actions that cause scandal or encourage others to sin. In today’s society, many couples live together before marriage, and divorce and remarriage are common. In addition, many Catholics marry outside the Church. Couples in these situations commit the sins of fornication or adultery. Because of these objectively sinful circumstances, Christians are often left in a quandary when they are invited to weddings the Church does not recognize–particularly when friends or relatives are involved. The way in which one prayerfully responds to these invitations must witness to the truths taught by Christ. Our actions must encourage and promote the salvation of all.
In continuing the work of Christ, the Church–without compromising her own holiness–embraces sinners and cleanses them with her sacraments (cf. Catechism, no. 827). Following Jesus’ example, we need to associate with fellow sinners, yet do so in a way that is ordered to their salvation and ours. If we allow or participate in the sin of another, we share that sin and its consequences. As the Catechism teaches, “Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them by 1) participating directly and voluntarily in them; 2) ordering, advising, praising, or approving them; 3) not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so; and 4) protecting evil-doers” (no. 1868).
Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!” [Lk. 17:1] (nos. 2284, 2287). Fornication and adultery are grave violations of the Sixth Commandment (cf. Catechism, nos. 2331–2400). Those who persist in these sins endanger their salvation. Living together before marriage typically implies fornication (cf. Catechism, no. 2353). The subsequent marriage of the couple does not blot out the sins they already committed, nor does the wedding itself necessarily change their attitudes or habits toward chastity and purity. Remarriage following divorce is an act of adultery, whether or not the “spouses” are Catholic (cf. Mk. 10:10–12; Catechism, no. 2384). When a Catholic marries outside the Church, the union is considered illicit.
If a Catholic is asked to attend the wedding of a couple whose marriage is not recognized by the Church, he should ask himself: “What message will I send by my attendance? Will attending such a wedding encourage or hinder the salvation of others? What will not attending accomplish? If I go, will others consider my presence to be affirming of the sin? Will I commit scandal? How can I best witness to the truth?” A Catholic should not affirm fornication or adultery, nor should he give the appearance to others that he condones the acts. Such appearance can cause scandal. If his actions affirm or encourage the sin, he participates in the sin.
There is a real concern that if a person refuses to attend the wedding, a rift in friendship could occur. This division could hinder any witness to the truth, and this concern is especially serious if the wedding involves a close friend or family member. This concern alone must not hinder our witness (cf. Lk. 12:51–53), but it can guide our actions as we fulfill our obligation to bring others to Christ. It could be that not attending would destroy any possible chance to witness the truth to the persons involved, especially if no reason is given for not attending. It could also be that not attending, and giving reasons for the absence, will help the couple choose the way of Christ. If a Catholic chooses to attend, he will want to ensure that no one considers his presence to be an affirmation of the sin.
These principles apply whether one is a member of the wedding party, is attending the wedding, or is simply attending the reception. Participating in the wedding party, however, is more visible and will generally be understood as an affirmation of the union. It would be very difficult for a member of the wedding party to attend without affirming the situation or at least giving the impression to others that he is doing so. All who attend the reception should consider that discussions about the couple and their life together will arise. This may be more difficult for some people to handle without affirming the couple’s situation or bringing scandal to others. If one plans to attend the reception, one should consider what one will say about the couple’s situation when the merriment begins and everyone is talking about how wonderful this “marriage” is.
Morally speaking, there are many factors to consider before we judge such participation to be scandalous. Some situations are more conducive to scandal than others. Before we can witness to the truth, people must be open to what we have to say. In the same way, before our actions cause scandal, people have to consider our actions worthy of notice. What is important to remember is that we must prayerfully consider the situation, our response, and the probable reaction of others to our response. Using the teachings explained in the Catechism, we should ask ourselves, “How can we avoid participating in their sin, yet encourage their salvation? How can we avoid scandal, yet encourage the salvation of others?”
It is wise for anyone in this situation to discuss the matter with a spiritual director or confessor before making a decision. Whatever one’s decision may be, a Catholic should strive to give a clear and charitable witness to the faith. The Church does not teach whether we must or must not attend such a wedding. Christ does say we must witness to the truth in a charitable manner. If loved ones or friends go through with the wedding, a Catholic should look for opportunities to maintain contact and witness to the truth. Above all, our decisions and actions must promote the salvation of souls. In fostering the salvation of souls, the two great commandments are fulfilled.