Many Catholics struggle with how to handle situations where family and friends, who are Baptized Catholics but do not practice, choose to celebrate events in their lives that are not in alignment with Scripture and Church teaching. Such situations include marriages outside of the faith, non-religious secular marriages, and remarriages, among other things. Becoming more common is Catholics being invited to attend same-sex “weddings.” While it is clear what an informed Catholic should believe regarding such situations – we defer to Scripture and Church teaching – what to do when invited is not as clear as the Church Herself has not explicitly laid out a clear prescription.
Applying Church Teaching Regarding Marriage
I am not going to spend much time on how the Church views marriage because that information is readily available. But the essence is thus: A marriage is a covenant between one man, one woman, and God. Even if only one of the parties is a Baptized Catholic, the marriage is still not only governed by Divine law, but also Canon Law (Can. 1059).
The difficulty in situations where one is marrying outside of the Church is not so much about the law itself, but rather on how to apply it when family and friends are involved. Devout Catholics want to follow their faith, but they too want to express love for their family member or friend. They may want to converse with said loved one, and express that they are concerned for their soul and eternal salvation. But they also might understand that the person may have little interest in hearing about their abandoned Catholic faith, and that it may potentially create great conflict to discuss it. And then there is what one of my relatives refers to as “family harmony.” Sometimes we do uncomfortable things in the interest of keeping the peace, and not damaging family relationships. We will often hear rationalizations for attending such events, and sometimes even engage in them ourselves, saying such things as, “It’s my son,” or “It’s my only niece,” or “We’ve been friends for 25 years.”
On an intellectual level, it may be easy for some to make a decision, but it is indeed tougher for those who have faced it personally. I too have struggled with this decision on a few occasions, and admittedly did not handle those situations as well as I could have. In most of the cases, I just simply did not attend the event, without providing much of an explanation. I was not spiritually close to the couples, was convinced my opinion would have had no impact, and did not want to cast a pall over their inevitable celebration. Not attending created some initial hurt feelings, but looking back, while I would alter my methods, I would not change my decision.
Insight from Authorities
Over the last few years, I have spoken to priests about the best way to handle these difficult situations, and I have read much from Catholic authorities and authors. Most seem to agree that attending such weddings or events sends the wrong message to both the couple and others in attendance. Yet more clarity came to me after some prayer and reflection, and after watching A Man for All Seasons, a depiction about then Sir Thomas More (now Saint), who was beheaded for standing up for his Catholic principles. One exchange from the movie struck me.
In this exchange, the Duke of Norfolk is imploring Sir Thomas to accept the unlawful annulment of Henry VIII, and celebrate Henry’s new wife, Ann Boleyn.
The Duke of Norfolk: Oh confound all this. I’m not a scholar, I don’t know whether the marriage was lawful or not but dammit, Thomas, look at these names! Why can’t you do as I did and come with us, for fellowship!
Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
Thomas More’s response is nothing short of brilliant. If someone wants you to ignore your conscience to appease them, and you are condemned for it, will they join you in hell after that condemnation? Not likely. It illustrates perfectly what people are in fact asking those of us to do who have conviction of conscience regarding such matters. Albeit it is often done unwittingly, without malice, and in situations where they are doing something perhaps in line with their own values. But nonetheless, it is in opposition to the informed conscience of a practicing Catholic who wants to avoid potential scandal.
Quoting Saint Thomas More probably will not help in situations where someone has rejected or dissociated from their faith, or all faith. But as a practical matter, when someone is asking us to respect their choices, should they not also respect ours? Respect is not a one-way street simply because one person is doing the inviting. It should be two-sided, all the time, in any genuine relationship. In fact, to put the shoe on the other foot, one could feel the mere invitation to such an event is disrespectful, if the person inviting knows the recipient has religious objections to attending such an event in the first place. Though that may well be the case, expressing an objection in such terms is not likely going to provide a helpful response to one’s upset loved ones.
Rejection of Loved One, Or Love of Christ?
I would like to state categorically that not going such an event has nothing to do with rejection of the persons themselves, be it friend or family member. It has nothing to do with hate, bigotry, nor politics. And it is not a rejection of their expressed love, nor does it mean that I do not wish them all the best in the future. In all such cases, in fact, I hope they find true joy. And in the situations I have experienced, I care for the people very much, and hope to accompany them back Home to the Church someday. Instead, what it means when I cannot attend a celebration to which I am invited, as a matter of my faith, is simply that I am putting my faith and trust in Christ first, where it belongs. As He is the center of my life, I do not wish to displease Him. My faith is integral to every part of my life, all day long, not just Sundays and when I need help. Every important decision I make I try to make as though I am making it with and for Christ, and I do so in an effort to truly follow Him and His teachings. Therefore I cannot do something that would cause me to disrespect Christ. That is true even if you, based on your own conscience, do not believe that is what you are doing. For me, celebrating an event absent Christ, or worse, in an intentional display of indifference to Christ and His teachings, would be an affront to Him.
Christ simply comes first, before me, and even before my children (yes, they know). It is a matter of conscience for me, as it was for Saint Thomas More. As More says to his daughter in the film, “When a man takes an oath, he is holding his own self in his own hands like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he need not hope to find himself again.” We are nothing without our morals and principles, and when we bend the rules, it is often irreparable.
There are a couple immediate responses a Catholic might hear when expressing an unwillingness to attend such an event. The first is that though the person in question was Baptized as an infant, they have never really followed the faith, and do not consider themselves Catholic. While that may well be true, it does not change Divine nor Canon Laws regarding marriage. In other words, we cannot bend Christ’s will, and the will of His Church, to fit the situation as a matter of convenience. Another response is that other Catholics attend such events all the time. That also may be true, and is a matter for the individual consciences of those Catholics, to the extent they are informed, and does not apply universally to all Catholics. In the absence of definitive Church teaching, people need to make decisions based on their own informed consciences, not based on what others may do.
It may be very difficult for family members to understand another’s deeply held religious beliefs, but so as to not be hypocritical, they must try. Not attending an event to which one believes his or her attendance will disrespect God is not an instance where anyone should take offense. One can disagree, and under the circumstances will likely do so, but it should not be deemed a personal offense nor rejection. If one wants me to accept their indifference to their Baptism and faith as not being disrespectful or an insult toward me, and by extension Christ Himself, they should thus appreciate that my discomfort in attending is not in any way an insult toward them. Instead, it is merely the application and following of one’s deeply held beliefs, and should be accepted as such. If you want me to accept that you love your betrothed with all your heart, and have the best of intentions, then you must also accept that my love for Christ is just as strong, genuine, and well-intentioned.
Ultimately, It Is Because I Love You
There is still more to this decision than a mere love for and desire not to displease Christ, though. It is also because I love you, friend, or family member. But how can that be? As Aquinas said, “To love is to will the good of another.” I truly want what is good for you and your life, so that you may indeed find your eternal reward in Heaven. And that means, as hard as it is, that I have to love you truly, when at times that may be exceedingly uncomfortable and inconvenient for me. In fact, I submit that I may be loving you better than those who may care little of your faith, or your soul. They love you by their understanding of love, of course, but real love is not expressed by doing or going along with whatever a loved one wants. Instead, it is often best shown by refusing to accept things where that loved one will be hurting themselves, be it physically or spiritually. For example, we do not give a bottle of Scotch to an alcoholic sister on her birthday, even if it would make her happy. As parents, we intervene constantly when our kids are about to hurt themselves. Though we usually cover other’s physical needs well, too often we overlook their spiritual health.
Marrying outside of what Jesus wills for us in marriage puts us in a state of sin. It distances us from Him, and necessarily the Sacraments. It is not something a “judgmental” Church imposes on us, but rather the result of something we ourselves choose when we put our desires before Christ’s. And though it would be so much easier to go along to get along, I cannot accept a false peace for the sake of harmony. Please understand that as a matter of elevating my love for our Creator above all else, as we are all called to do, I cannot attend any ceremony where I believe I will be disrespecting God by witnessing something of which He would unequivocally disapprove. Thus, I will do my best to compassionately and lovingly inform you, in an effort to guide you back onto the right path. Ultimately, doing so is the greatest form of love I can express toward you, and the highest form of charity. But if I do not succeed, and you pursue a path away from Christ and His Church, I will nonetheless still love you, pray for you, and still even lay down my life for you. I do not have to like your choices to love you dearly and unconditionally. But neither should you have to like mine to love me.