You know how we’ve all been told in the last few decades that we may attend a Catholic loved one’s invalid “wedding” as long as we discern and pray? Turns out, that advice is not connected to any Catholic teaching or moral principle.
Before I rebut the arguments used to justify attending, I want to clarify that I will be discussing baptized Catholics only and their canon-law obligation to marry in the Church. I hope it goes without saying that no Catholic may ever attend a “gay marriage” (sodomy) or a “marriage” where the party/parties were married previously, without nullity (adultery). Attending a “wedding” in either of those situations does not require even a moment of discernment—it is morally wrong, period. If a priest says you may attend either a homosexual “marriage” or an adulterous one, run away, and do not trust him again.
Now, let’s get to the issue that is a stumbling block for even fervent Catholics: the case of a man and a woman who are free to marry, in which either or both had a Catholic baptism, and who are getting “married” outside the Catholic Church without a dispensation from the bishop. This includes lapsed Catholics and “ex-Catholics.”
Prior to the 1970s, no faithful Catholic would dare risk his soul or cause scandal by attending such a “wedding,” and no priest of Jesus would give permission to do so. Today, however, it happens all the time. What changed? Nothing changed, except our modern unwillingness to do the hard thing and to suffer for fidelity to Christ.
We’ve become so used to Catholic priests and influencers telling us that we may go to these invalid “weddings” that we’ve forgotten to question the premise: What is the authoritative source for that advice? Upon what Christian principle does it rest?
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Let’s look at the nine main arguments used to condone attendance at invalid “weddings”:
1. “My priest told me I could go.”/“Lots of smart, well-known, and holy priests say it’s okay.”
We know that even good priests can be wrong about all sorts of important matters, so a priest’s green light is not sufficient. After all, we are talking about grave matter; simulating marriage is deadly sinful.
Without a Catholic teaching or moral principle to back them up, even the most trusted priests are simply giving their opinion. Those giving erroneous advice may have good intentions, but with souls at stake, that’s not good enough. If you ask a priest to give you the principle or teaching behind their (bad) counsel, the answer is usually one of the next eight points.
2. “Attendance is a matter of prudential judgment.”
And yet, making a moral decision based on prudential judgment would never involve any transgression of the moral law. If one uses the “prudential judgment” argument as a way to skirt the moral law, then one has misused the principle. We are never permitted to sin, even venially. God doesn’t condone even the smallest sin (much less a grave one!), even for the best of reasons. The fundamental question is, “May I attend a deadly sinful event?” We can easily discern by looking at the traditional nine ways to be an accessory to another’s sin:
By praise or flattery
By defense of the ill done
A few apply here, including: by praise or flattery (“You are a beautiful bride!” when she is not a bride); by partaking (that one is obvious); and, by defense of the ill done (“Good for them! It’s a step in the right direction!”).
There is no exception in the moral law to do something bad in order to bring about a good. Christian Morality 101 holds that good ends do not justify bad means, and even the best intentions cannot make an immoral act moral.
3. “The principle of double effect applies.”
In the principle of double effect, the act chosen must itself be good or at least neutral. For one’s presence to be neutral, one might stand away from the congregation offering somber prayers of reparation, but one certainly could not participate as a guest. Perhaps one’s presence could even be a moral good, if one showed up in sackcloth and ashes, and with a countenance as sorrowful and tearful as one whose loved one(s) may be risking Hell—because they are.
“Attendance” as a mournful objector could be licit because there would be no chance of scandal, no confusion, no way that others would mistake your presence as anything other than dissent.
The opposite disposition speaks for itself: Did you get your hair and nails done? Buy a pretty dress? A fancy new tie? Are you at the reception clapping, toasting, drinking, feasting, doing the Electric Slide? Did you bring a gift for the happy couple? Do you appear joyful, celebratory? Then you are partaking in and consenting to the evil done, and the principle of double effect does not apply.
4. “The couple doesn’t know it’s a sin.”
If they don’t know, then tell them! We have a moral obligation to tell the truth to those who are about to commit grave sin. However, if you are a concerned parent facing this situation, it is likely that your child already does know that Catholics must be married in the Church (because you raised him to know), but he doesn’t care or doesn’t believe it. Maybe he renounced his faith at some point since his Catholic baptism. But rejecting or disbelieving the truth doesn’t let one off the hook for what one knows. A sin doesn’t cease to be a sin just because we don’t believe it’s a sin.
It may be that some Catholics really don’t know. They may have been baptized Catholic as an infant and never raised Catholic. It may seem unfair that such folks still have an obligation to be married in the Church (or receive a dispensation from the bishop). However, a baptized Catholic is forever a Catholic, and that can never change. And canon law—part of the “binding and loosing” authority that Christ gave to the Apostles and their successors—is binding on every baptized Catholic, without exception.
But even if the couple doesn’t know it’s a sin—you know! And because you know, you are culpable. Substitute any other scenario involving grave sin: “My daughter doesn’t know that abortion [or getting an IUD, or cohabitation, etc.] is wrong; therefore, I can support her choices or facilitate those acts.” We all know that’s absurd. You are not permitted to drive her to the abortion clinic, help her get an IUD, or decorate the apartment she’s setting up with her boyfriend. Don’t commit mortal sin and condemn your own soul just because others “don’t know” what you know.
5. “You don’t have to approve, but you can attend as a guest to show them that you love them, and for moral support.”
My friend Leila Marie Lawler gets to the heart of this issue by reminding us that attendance at an invalid “wedding” directly breaks one of the Ten Commandments, namely, the eighth commandment that prohibits “bearing false witness.” There are, of course, the official witnesses at every wedding, those who sign the marriage certificate; but the Catholic guests in attendance are witnesses as well, silently giving assent to something that they know is a lie. To attend a fake or simulated “wedding” as if it were real is bearing false witness—an offense against God and His direct command.
And we mustn’t forget the witness to our children! While people in general will look to us as witnesses to our Catholic Faith (a huge responsibility), the children will internalize the witness of their parents. If we bear false witness while they are watching and learning, the scandal—and sin—is severe.
6. “You may attend if you don’t want to cut off the relationship.”
Who’s cutting off the relationship? The sad truth is that often in these heartrending cases, it’s not the potential attendee who is poised to cut off the relationship but the offended couple. Many good Catholic parents struggle precisely because of the veiled (or overt) threat that if the parents don’t go to the “wedding,” their child will sever the relationship.
By contrast, those wary of attending a sinful “wedding” are generally not intending to end relationships or cut anyone off; they simply wish to excuse themselves from one event (ceremony and celebration) on one day. Opting out of a sinful event for reasons of conscience does not equal disownment. If a relationship is ended over an issue of attendance, it is often the decision of the offended couple, who will not forgive what they perceive as an inexcusable insult.
7. “You may attend in order to preserve the bonds of charity; not attending would be divisive.”
The constant refrain is that attendance at an invalid “wedding” is permitted if it will “preserve the bonds of charity” with the couple. But it’s literal nonsense to say that we can cooperate with sin in order to show charity! Sin and charity are diametrically opposed. In a short video entitled “Shame,” Fr. Chad Ripperger bluntly addresses this very issue:
There is a lack of shame when the child will insist on getting married outside the Church and expect the parents to come to the “wedding.” And when the parents do the honorable thing and refuse, the children will then try to shame—imagine that—the parents by telling them that they are being “divisive” and “uncharitable.” It is the children who are being divisive and uncharitable, because they are trying to force the parents to choose [between] doing what they know is the right thing to do—that is, not to attend a “wedding” which they know is invalid and offensive in the eyes of God—and placating their own children whom they love. It’s contrary to charity! And this is the height of impiety, because it dishonors the parents, and it actually asks them to do something dishonorable.
It is disingenuous to imply that the Christian life is about avoiding divisions. Here are Christ’s own words on the matter:
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division…they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother…. (Luke 12:51-53)
According to another faithful priest, in a video entitled “Weddings Outside the Church: Don’t be Afraid to Sacrifice Everything & Everyone for Christ”:
The truth is divisive…. We should be divided if we disagree on fundamental truths…. If you are going to be divided over anything, be divided over Jesus.
He warns that we must never make moral decisions based on future hypotheticals. Trying to discern the will of God based on “what ifs” is folly. None of us knows the future, and our Christian obligation is to do the good in the moment, not try to force or manipulate an outcome for that unknown future. Outcomes are God’s domain.
In reality, nonattendance is the only charitable response to a couple who is risking Hell. Our nonattendance will likely reverberate in the couple’s conscience in the decades that follow, and may, with the aid of grace, cause them to correct their error before it’s too late.
8. “You will push people away from Christ if you don’t attend.”
This is the cruelest argument of all. It burdens the folks trying to do the right thing with the fear that, if they do not cooperate with grave sin, their loved ones will be in spiritual peril. This is inverted! It is a lie from the pit of Hell, and it amounts to emotional blackmail. Think about it: no saint in the history of Christendom would willfully participate in a grave offense against God, and yet we would never accuse the saints of pushing people away from Christ because of that fact.
We bring people to Christ by loving them—even loving them enough to tell them the difficult truths. We bring them to Christ by living our Catholic Faith without compromise, by carrying our cross with humility, and by witnessing to the hard things, even if that witness means our own social shame and rejection. And we bring them to Christ by loving God more than any creature, including our own children, including our own selves. No saint did otherwise, and no prodigal will return if his father goes into the muck with him.
9. “Canon law doesn’t forbid it.”/“Canon law is silent on the issue.”
This last-ditch argument is as frustrating as hearing, “But Jesus is silent on gay marriage!” As faithful Catholics, we understand that just because specific words are not explicitly stated, that doesn’t mean a thing is permitted. After all, Jesus doesn’t say anything explicit about child sex trafficking, but we are 100 percent certain that He’s against it.
Canon law, unlike the Ten Commandments (the moral law), covers issues of Church discipline. Canon law is not expected to discuss all sins—because it presupposes acceptance of the moral law! For example, canon law is “silent” on whether a Catholic can drive the getaway car for a bank robber; however, the moral law is very loud on the issue!
We can understand the moral law by the light of human reason alone, without divine revelation or mental gymnastics. If someone is gravely sinning, we may not take part in the sin. Period.
Let us guard ourselves from becoming legalists in order to skirt the moral law and give us cover to do the wrong thing. Our litmus test should not be “What is the bare minimum I can get away with?” (based in fear/comfort/pride) but rather “What is good and pleasing in God’s sight?” (based in trust/sacrifice/humility).
Now, having said all of the above, perhaps the quicker route would have been to go straight to the old Baltimore Catechism (#298):
When a Catholic is “married” at a civil or non-Catholic ceremony, other Catholics are not allowed to be present, or even to send gifts or show any approval, since this is not a real marriage, but simply a terrible agreement to live together in sin.
Love Jesus? Hate sin.
Do good, and avoid evil.
Let’s commit to being Catholic again.