QUAERITUR: Participating in wedding of sister to a married man

From a reader:

My sister is getting married next month. She has asked me to ‘give her away’ as our father is deceased. She has not practiced the Catholic faith for a long time. Although she was civilly married once before, and divorced, she was never married in the church, so no impediment there.
Her fiance (a fine man who I really like) WAS married before, in the church, and is legally divorce (no grounds for annulment). Ergo, they are getting married in an Episcopal church.
1- Is there a canon that would affect ME if I ‘give her away’ in an Episcopal ceremony?
2- Canon or no canon, would participating in the ceremony in this manner be sinful?

Canonically, there seems to be no prohibition against attending or participating in an invalid wedding. There are no penalties applied or suggested in Law for going to an invalid wedding, serving as best man, maid of honor, groomsman, bridesmaid, flower girl, etc. at an invalid wedding. The only penalty would be for the bride or the groom. By entering into an objectively invalid marriage, a Catholic thus deprives himself of the ability to receive the sacraments: Holy Orders, Confirmation, Penance, Anointing, and most importantly Holy Eucharist (danger of death can be a factor, but let that pass). Only when his marriage is regularized, or when he ceases to live in the invalid conjugal situation are the doors of sacramental grace open to him (after a good confession, of course).

Morally, however…

This is something that an individual involved must work out with his pastor and/or confessor. Those “on the ground” with the situation would know details, circumstances which would color and give texture to the situation.

Then one must ask: Which response would be more likely to bring the recalcitrant Catholic back to practicing the Faith?

If you say “No!” to participation, would it shock your sister into realizing the damage she is about to do to her relationship with the Church? Would it make her think twice about proceeding with the invalid wedding? Her intended spouse may be a fine man, but he is (if there truly are no grounds for a declaration of nullity) a married man, and therefore not free to marry.

Would saying “no” harden your sister’s heart and drive her even further away from the Church? Would it be possible to say “no” to giving her away to an already married man, but still attend the service out of sincere affection for your sister?  Would your answer set an example for your own children, if you have children?  They watch and learn about how important the Church is by watching you.

From the bare facts given, inadequate facts, my gut tells me – say “no”.  Do not participate.

But this is a moral question, not a canonical one.  You need input from your pastor, confessor, or trusted spiritual adviser, who could more fully work out with you some of the issues in this, your, particular care.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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12 Responses to QUAERITUR: Participating in wedding of sister to a married man

  1. Sword40 says:

    My youngest daughter left the Catholic church soon after high school. One day she came to me to ask me to “give her away” in a protestant wedding service. The young man is a wonderful young man and I really like him BUT I could not do as my daughter requested. It really tore my heart out to just sit there and watch some stranger to the honors.

    Follow your Faith, there is NOTHING greater.

  2. mamajen says:

    I feel bad for people who have to struggle with this situation. I’m the oldest of five and most of my siblings are lapsed. My brother married in the Episcopal church (thankfully neither he nor the bride had been married before, so at least that part was simple). I really struggled with what level of participation, if any, I could/should have. I have several good Catholic friends who declined the invitation, but a nice long discussion with one of them regarding my own involvement was very similar to Father Z’s answer here (my friend had been through the same and had discussed it with a priest). I expect to be faced with the same situation again, but I’m hoping that my other siblings come around before they’re ready to walk down the aisle. On the other hand, I have seen non-practicing couples get married in Catholic churches for completely the wrong reasons, and I don’t think that’s much better.

  3. TNCath says:

    Having dealt with this issue more times than I wish to remember in my family, I can only offer this forewarining: if you choose not to go to the ceremony (and I echo Fr. Z’s advice NOT to go), you will likely be recipient of a lot of criticism from even your “practicing Catholic” relatives who decide to go. Choosing not to go requires a lot of courage, and you will suffer for it. Nonetheless, your family will be watching you closely, so be consistent, don’t back down, but keep the lines of communication open between you and your sister. You never know how these things might eventually work out for the good by your sister’s eventual return to the Church.

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    “But this is a moral question, not a canonical one. You need input from your pastor, confessor, or trusted spiritual adviser, who could explore more fully work out with you some of the issues in this, your, particular care.”

    Which is why, despite hopping on one leg in my zeal to make a comment, other than encouraging everyone to prayer for the man, his sister, and her soon-to-be-invalid spouse, I will refrain from saying anything, although…if Bishop Paprocki’s recent letter on marriage could be slipped to the sister, I would not be opposed :)

    The Chicken

  5. frjim4321 says:

    . . . and is legally divorce (no grounds for annulment) . . .

    We’re not told what that means.

    Does this mean there was a petition for declaration of nullity of marriage and there was a negative decision (rare)?

    Also, maybe there was an internal form solution that the letter writer is not privy to.

    It’s always dangerous to make judgements about such things without having all the facts.

  6. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    I point people with this questions, and they are numerous, to Canon 209.

  7. New Sister says:

    I certainly understand the desire to be there for a fallen sibling, as a way of keeping some sort of tether by which he/she could eventually be pulled back. But then what does one say at the reception? “Congratulations”? And it’s not just a question of getting through the wedding. These situations get more and more tangled in untruth with time – e.g., how do you introduce them in the future? Can they stay in your guest room?

    My promised prayers for your reader.

  8. Elizabeth R says:

    I did not go to my son’s Protestant wedding, but did go to the reception as a way of expressing my love for both of them. I did ask, first, whether they would prefer I not come at all, and was pleased that they wanted me to participate as much as I felt I could. For what it’s worth, they are still not reconciled with the church, but our relationship is strong.

    And also FWIW, I was the ignorant Protestant bride of a lapsed Catholic, many many years ago. I vividly remember learning, after being received into the Church, that I was not, in fact, married. (We had the marriage validated.) Please be gentle, while being firm.

  9. Pingback: Faith Fiction | Big Pulpit

  10. Ellen says:

    My son married out of the church. I went. I wasn’t happy, but I went. I try to keep the lines of communication open and I hope that someday he will find his way back.

  11. pmullane says:

    What a heartbreaking situation, unfortunately one all too common in a fallen world.

    My only comment is that whilst the questioners sister may not be practicing at this point, and therefore may not feel that the Churches rules on marriage are all that pertinant to her, it may be that, in the future, her faith will be enlivened again and she will be drawn back to the Church. At this point the problem with her marriage will be a big obstacle. It will be important that she can turn to good Catholic sources and have the support of those who know her. More importantly, she will need the help of a good priest. A bad priest at that time will imperil her soul. A good priest may be able to save it. It might be worth doing the ground work by making sure you have good resources to your fingertips and a good priest on hand for her to consult if she ever needs to come back to the Church. And to pray hard, prayer is never wasted.

  12. Jim R says:

    Fr. Z really nailed it with this quote:
    “Then one must ask: Which response would be more likely to bring the recalcitrant Catholic back to practicing the Faith?” Fr.’s question is the prime question that must drive any such decision. It’s a question whose answer is simply not clear. I’ve come to the default answer that one always goes/participates absent an affirmative anti-Catholic attitude by the couple.

    The level of catechesis is just so abysmal that any other answer is simply counter-productive in the extreme. Better to participate and interact and hopefully bring them along over time than to not participate and almost certainly burn bridges.

    [OK, one could ask, and should ask in other situations, "Will this action cause scandal, i.e., lead others away from Christ?" However, in the USA today, I cannot see how this question could have any legs in a marriage situation like this.]