My recent letter to my goddaughter about why I could not attend her wedding outside of the Church led some to question why I might be willing to attend the reception.
Below is an email exchange with Fr. Joe (a pseudonym) about this matter, occasionally with his text and my response inserted back and forth.
Fr. Joe: Janet Smith does a fine job of staking out the terrain for this difficult issue. However, I believe she undoes a lot of what she accomplished by suggesting that she might agree to go to the wedding reception. What is the reception, if not a celebration of what Dr. Smith (and the Church) regards as an invalid ritual? It seems to me that presence at the reception gives a personal validation to the objectionable ceremony.
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Prof. Smith: Fr. Joe, Thank you for this feedback. I certainly understand your concern and share it to some extent. But I think you may not have considered all the prudential elements involved.
You say that “presence at the reception gives a personal validation to the objectionable ceremony.” “Validation” here seems to mean “conveying approval,” for no technical validation is happening: one is not signing a certificate giving the marriage any official status.
To speak in precise moral theology terms, the primary objection to a faithful Catholic’s attendance at a ceremony that brings into existence an invalid marriage is that by “conveying approval” one would be causing scandal, scandal meaning that one’s presence threatens to confirm some in their already sinful ways or lead others into sin. But is that necessarily the case?
While I think it is a reasonable assumption that those who attend a reception are approving of the marriage, it is not always the right assumption. I don’t believe attendance inherently means approval even if it will generally be interpreted that way. If one does not mean to convey approval, certain steps can be taken to prevent that conclusion from being drawn.
[I am switching to the impersonal second-person pronoun for the sake of ease and felicity of expression.]
Certainly if you have clearly conveyed to the couple participating in the wedding ceremony that you believe their marriage to be invalid and that that is the reason you will not attend the ceremony, they won’t be able to draw the conclusion that you approve. As far as the rest of the attendees, those who know you and your views realize it would be impossible to conclude that you approve. They may wonder why you are there, but they wouldn’t think it is because you have suddenly come to approve of invalid marriages. Those who don’t know you well enough to know your views likely won’t be much influenced by your presence in respect to which marriages are valid and which are not.
But why would someone attend the reception for a wedding ceremony for a marriage he or she believes to be invalid? Are the goods sufficient to warrant the risk of scandal? The reason generally given by those who do so is that they are “keeping the lines of communication open,” not just with the couple getting “married” but with all the others who might think one’s refusal to attend even the reception shows that the Church is a hateful institution that won’t respect the values and opinions of those who don’t accept the Church’s view of things.
Although it is an erroneous conclusion that the Church is hateful, it is a common one and very harmful. We should do what we can to prevent others from drawing such a conclusion. Not going to the ceremony but attending the reception may in fact serve to convey that you do not approve of the marriage but want to stay in good relationship with the couple and others. That’s a good thing and may serve to help people’s attitude toward the Church. I think it possibly more harmful to the faith of others to refuse to attend the reception than to attend it.
I know parents who have attended the invalid wedding ceremony of one of their children out of a conviction that some of their other children would leave the faith if they refused to attend. All involved knew very well that the parents disapproved of the marriage and also that the parents quite emphatically did not want to attend, but they made the sacrifice of attending precisely for the sake of the souls of others, especially of their other children. Some sit at the back of the church.
I have struggled with these issues for years, and each time I get an invitation I think everything through all over again. I wish there were a policy I could set that would take the pain out of the decision-making for me, but it seems nearly each one has unique features that need to be taken into account.
I didn’t go to the wedding or reception for a dear friend for whom I was to be the maid of honor. The man she was marrying had not received an annulment, but a priest was going to perform the ceremony in an interdenominational chapel under the appearance of a Catholic wedding. I considered that a sacrilege and, in fact, called the diocese to report what the priest had offered to do. I was told “no priest would do that.” An investigation was done and the priest was forbidden to perform the ceremony. A Methodist minister, a friend of the family, was called in at the last minute to help out. I was in some considerable hot water for quite a long time with others involved. Amazingly, the dear friend understood why I did what I did and did not hold it against me.
I have gone to the weddings of second cousins (baptized Catholics) who hadn’t gone to church for over a decade—just to keep the lines of communication open. I have gone to the Catholic weddings of young people I know to be living together and contracepting—because at least they attended Catholic marriage prep (and, sadly, received very poor moral guidance there).
I recently went to a wedding of a beloved second cousin, a lapsed baptized Catholic, who married another lapsed baptized Catholic (a seemingly fine fellow). COVID restrictions prevented others from my side of the family from attending, so I decided to go to represent all of us. Upon recognizing me, a man who knew me from my writings ran over to say that he was surprised to see me there given my views. I said it was not easy for me to be there. He said he was the uncle of the groom and also his godfather and was upset that the ceremony was not Catholic (in fact, a lapsed Catholic was performing the ceremony). He showed me a copy of the beautiful letter he wrote his nephew/godson expressing his disappointment. We commiserated and hoped we were doing the right thing.
While such events allow me to visit with and build relationships with relatives I rarely see (and that is an important good that draws me), it is largely a sacrifice to go—I am uncomfortable that all is not as it should be. But, again, I think my attending the reception may open others to listening to my views and eventually making their way to the Church. I also hope my presence will keep people from hating the Church and perhaps help them to be more open to what the Church teaches about marriage and everything else.
Response from Fr. Joe: To be sure, this is a terrible quagmire. However, I still stand by my original assessment. Why?
There is no way to take a Gallup Poll before the ceremony or the reception to determine what folks think Janet thinks about the event(s). Most importantly, the couple (and their parents?) know what you think about the whole situation. Therefore, if they are even reasonably “thinking” individuals (granted, not to be assumed today), they will conclude: Janet is a hypocrite. She doesn’t believe what we are doing (have done) is moral, but she doesn’t want to rock the family boat.
Prof. Smith: I don’t think that is what the couple or parents will conclude, not after our conversations, my letters, etc. They know I am adamantly opposed to their choices. I will have already greatly rocked the family boat; people will have had many volatile discussions, and it won’t have been pleasant. They may think it wrong for me to come after I have caused so much trouble or, on the other hand, that it is generous of me to come since they know it makes me uncomfortable. But I don’t think they will think me a hypocrite—unless they simply want to.
As for others who are there who haven’t taken part in the conversations, my absence at the Mass but presence at the reception in itself will convey that something is amiss and their inquires may permit an important discussion to take place.
Fr. Joe: That said, there is one situation which I think gives “wiggle room”: Has/have either or both partners formally left the Church? If so, he/they are not bound by the law of the Church. Ergo, the marriage is not invalid!
Prof. Smith: I think suggesting to them that I could come if they left the Church would be disastrous; they would think I would rather have them leave the Church than for me to miss a family gathering. [Note: since posting this I have learned that it is no longer possible to leave the Church “formally”. See Omnium in Mentem by Pope Benedict XVI.]
Fr. Joe: Permit me to offer an analogy: to deny or not deny Christian burial (which I have never done). The law is clear, however: a priest cannot use the fig leaf of denying a Funeral Mass while participating in either/and/or the ceremony at the funeral home and grave. The funeral liturgy is of one piece: funeral home, Mass, grave. To be judged ineligible for one of the three is to be judged ineligible for all three. I think, mutatis mutandis, the same can be said of the wedding.
Prof. Smith: I don’t think mutatis mutandis applies here. All of those events are religious in nature, whereas a wedding reception is not. The priest would be presiding over prayers. The role of a priest is tremendously different from that of a layperson. A priest denying a burial but participating in other events is extremely confusing. That is why there is a law against a priest doing such things. On the other hand, there is no law regarding what lay people are to do in respect to these vexed situations. And since there is no law, explicit or implicit, laity are free to do what prudence guides them to do.
Fr. Joe, I appreciate your willingness to engage in this discussion. As I mentioned, I wish a black and white policy were available, but, alas, at this point, I think I will have to continue to struggle to discern what is the right action. Please keep me in your prayers.
[Image Credit: Unsplash]