by Fr. William P. Saunders
You wrote a column about how Catholics are required to be married in the Catholic Church or have special permission from the bishop to be married in another Church. Well, I have a problem. I have been invited to a wedding of a relative who is a lifelong Catholic. Sadly, the couple has chosen to be married outside the Catholic Church, without preparation in or permission of the Church, because one needs an annulment first. Worse yet, the bride’s father, also a Catholic and a judge, intends to officiate at the ceremony. Should I go? They are my family, yet I know that I have an obligation to my faith and that people will see my presence as support of this action which I believe is wrong.
Unfortunately, the scenario presented in the question is becoming less uncommon. The primary reason is that some couples do not want to wait for the final resolution of the "Annulment Process" for the previous marriages of either or both parties. A secondary reason is that some Catholics are ignorant of their obligation to be married in the Catholic Church. The best way to answer this question is to approach it step by step.
First, if a person is a practicing Catholic, then he should want to be married in the Catholic Church. To be married in the Catholic Church is indeed a requirement of Church law (unless the bishop grants permission to be married in another Church for a good reason). Nevertheless, a practicing Catholic should want to celebrate the sacrament of matrimony in the Church where he worships, most likely since infancy. To just abandon the Catholic Church because one does like a particular regulation reveals a lack of faith. Moreover, such a union would be considered invalid, and the couple would be living in a state of mortal sin which deprives them of holy Communion.
Second, if one or both parties is a practicing Catholic but one or both has already been married before and the former spouse is still living, then the first marriage must first be resolved by either a Declaration of Nullity or other canonical process. Keep in mind that the first marriage took place in a public setting — before God, family and friends — and vows were exchanged which in some way stated "until death do us part." Therefore, some public declaration by the Church must be made stating that this person is now free to marry again before he can marry another person. Without this public declaration, the second marriage is an act of adultery: Our Lord taught, "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The man who marries a woman divorced from her husband likewise commits adultery" (Lk 16:18). Adultery is a mortal sin, and this adulterous union would deprive a couple of holy Communion. We cannot simply disregard what our Lord taught about marriage. So please, let no one say these are "man made" or "Church made" rules as we sometimes hear.
A good, practicing Catholic whose first marriage unfortunately has ended in divorce should want to have a public declaration attesting to his freedom to do so before seriously considering marriage again. Moreover, a good, practicing Catholic would also realize that there is no guarantee that a Declaration of Nullity (or other canonical declaration) will be granted; rather, he may be bound to his first marriage until "death do us part." Better to wait and resolve the first marriage, than enter an adulterous union and jeopardize one’s salvation. While the process of obtaining a Declaration of Nullity may seem onerous, the Church is simply trying to help a person whose marriage sadly ended in divorce by determining if the exchanged vows are binding while upholding the Gospel truth.
Worse yet, as in this particular question, to have the bride’s supposedly Catholic father, who happens to be a judge, preside at a civil marriage of his supposedly Catholic daughter is simply scandalous. Remember what our Lord taught: " ... 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). This judge is clearly committing mortal sin for defying the Gospel teachings regarding marriage, for sanctioning his daughter’s adulterous union, and for scandalizing all of those present, particularly those Catholics in attendance.
This brings us to another point. So what then is a good, practicing Catholic relative actually witnessing when he attends the marriage ceremony of a practicing Catholic outside of the Catholic Church? Whatever one wants to call it, it is not a marriage in the eyes of God and the Church. Most importantly keep in mind that when a person attends a wedding, he is not simply attending but participating in that wedding: He is witnessing the exchange of vows, asking God to bless the union, and rejoicing with the whole Church for this "new creation" of husband and wife. Therefore to participate in a ceremony which is invalid in the eyes of the Church and which places the couple in a state of mortal sin is wrong. Such witness gives tacit approval of sin, violates one’s own good conscience, gives scandal to others and may lead astray those who are weak in faith. Think of the message such an action gives to young people present at such a wedding who see the approval of grandparents and other relatives who are respected and trusted.
I once had very devout Protestant couple ask me about attending the marriage of a Catholic friend who had been divorced, but was now getting remarried in a Protestant Church. They were hesitant to attend because of our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel. They asked me, "We thought the Church disapproved of these things?" I had to explain what our Church does teach on this issue, which reassured them. They did not attend the wedding, and were disappointed in their Catholic friends.
Some relatives fear alienating the relative getting married invalidly, and so they attend the wedding. The rationale here is that by attending the wedding, they hope to persuade the couple to have it later "validated" in the Church. The tragedy here is that the couple is entering into a state of mortal sin and depriving themselves of holy Communion. If by chance this couple died and were deprived eternal salvation, what then would the relatives think and how liable would they be for their complicity? This language might sound stern or old fashioned, but it is Gospel reality.
Perhaps when these difficult circumstances arise, a wise, trusted, respected and faithful relative might say or write to the Catholic in question: (I don’t pretend to be "Dear Abby," "Dr. Laura," or "Dr. Phil," but here goes — )
Dear So and So: You know that I love you very much. I am writing this to you because I am concerned for your spiritual welfare. You are a member of the Catholic Church — baptized, confirmed and a regular recipient of holy Communion. As a member, you should be married in the Catholic Church. This is our Church. Why then are you getting married elsewhere? To be married now in another church is wrong. Your marriage will not be recognized by God or the Church, and you will be in mortal sin. I cannot bear to see you commit such a sin. Why not wait a few months, resolve your first marriage, and then be married in the Church? Why not talk with a priest and see what can be done to help in this situation? Is it not better to do what is right in the eyes of God and our Church than to risk your soul? I hope that you will consider this plea. I love you, and I will pray for you, but right now in good conscience I cannot attend your wedding because doing so would contradict my beliefs.
Granted, these words may seem hard, but then the Gospel is hard at times. Just as the martyrs faced the challenges of faith with great fortitude, so must we, even when it involves our loved ones. If more Christians, including Catholics, took that Gospel message more seriously, we would not be in the dire straights of moral relativism and apathetic Christianity today. Moreover, maybe our divorce rate in America would not be at 50 percent during the first five years of marriage.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved.