ASK FATHER: Should I attend or avoid a civil marriage of a Catholic?

From a reader…


Is it wrong for a Catholic to attend a wedding that is a civil ceremony only….even if she is my sister? I know you are very busy…answer if you can…I apologize for asking a question that I should already know the answer to…I am so very confused lately..Thank you and God bless You.

It is likely that this now common scenario will become even more common in the future. As relatives and close friends fall away from active practice of their faith, and as poorly catechized young people come to be over marriageable age, we will face situations of loved ones, who had been baptized Catholic, marrying outside the Church. Our response to these situations will need to be serious, and will need to take into consideration our own faith and practice of the Faith.

First, Canon Law.  The Church’s law does not prohibit Catholics from attending invalid weddings. There is no penalty attached to attending such a wedding.  A Catholic in good standing, who does so, remains in good standing after the wedding.

Moral law is more subtle.  It calls calls heavily upon the virtues of prudence and fortitude. There is no clear universal answer.  Every situation will call upon our reserves of prayer, discernment, and evaluation. A good confession before making any decision is always a good idea.

As we decide we need to ask questions.  Why is the Catholic party marrying outside of the Church? Is it ignorance, apathy, antipathy, or some other motivation? Is this person marrying outside the Church as an act of defiance against the Church (“I’m a ‘recovering Catholic’ and won’t let those old white men in dresses tell me how to live my life!”)?  If so, a faithful Catholic should not attend. Similarly, any situation which makes a mockery of the Church’s teaching on marriage, such as “same sex marriage” or “plural marriage” or marriage before a “woman priest”, must be avoided like the sham and embarrassment and sacrilege that they are.  Offer prayers for the deluded souls participating in them.

Most situations are much more subtle, much more difficult to deal with. Catholics might marry outside the Church out of pure ignorance.  Again, questions must be asked.  Did they go to Catholic school?  Were they ever taught that Catholics must marry before a pastor or duly delegated priest or deacon? Do they understand the significance of marriage? Have they lapsed in their faith out of laziness? Might a kind word from a trusted friend or relative open them up to the error of their ways?

We must ask: If the ultimate goal is to draw the erring person back to a regular practice of the Faith, what response from a faithful Catholic is most likely to accomplish that goal?

If I attend the wedding, will my lapsed Catholic loved one think that I (and therefore the Church) approves of the union? Will my presence then harden the person’s will against repentance?

If I don’t attend the wedding, and let my Catholic loved one know that I’m not attending because the wedding is not a Catholic one, will that stir his conscience to repentance and reform? Or will it drive him further away from the Church?

If I attend the reception, but not the wedding, and make a gift of a Catholic Bible, with a holy card inside directing the couple to the nearest Catholic Church, will that be seen as kind and gracious, or overbearing and meddling?

How will my actions be seen by other relatives, especially younger relatives?  More importantly, how will children view the choices of their parents? Parents are responsible for the moral rearing of children.  They must set good examples.

Considering all the variable parts in these situations, it is no wonder that people become confused.

Some priests – even very good priests – often fail to acknowledge the subtleties and either recommend, “Do not go, under any circumstance! Stand strong in your faith!” or “Go! Keep peace in your family and keep the door open to repentance and reconciliation!”

The reality is that each situation needs to be carefully, and honestly approached.

Notice that I am not telling you what to do, other than to weigh all these elements.  If you have a wise and trustworthy priest in your area, you might make an appointment to talk about what to do.

In the meantime, pray in a special way to your Guardian Angel and their Angels to move hearts and minds to do the right thing according to God’s will.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. raininnewark says:

    Father – this response is much like one you gave going on almost two years ago and I found it to be extremely helpful. I just wanted to say I appreciate all of what you laid out here and to let you know, that your past response, along with speaking to many priests helped me in a similar situation.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    A CATHOLIC PRIEST attended the certainly-invalid “wedding” of my brother. He was a friend of the non-Catholic “bride.” When my mother told me there was a Catholic priest there, I looked him up. This priest had put a photo of the ceremony on his facebook page and refused to remove it or acknowledge that the wedding of a Catholic at the botanical gardens without dispensation from form is certainly invalid, and as I recall he is the archbishop’s secretary in that diocese. My mother used this priest’s presence to try to counter my conviction that the marriage is invalid. My dad, a practicing Catholic, does acknowledge my brother is not validly married in the Church.

    Priests: ought to go without saying, but even moreso than us lay people you need to take reasonable due diligence not to attend invalid weddings.

  3. Uxixu says:

    My Baronius Breviary (with Imprimatur) lists Six Precepts of the Church with the last being:

    6) Not to solemnize marriage at the forbidden times nor to marry persons within the forbidden degrees of kindred, or otherwise prohibited by the Church, nor secretly.

    Yet this is not one of the Five listed in the CCC. Presumably the legislation changed at some point between 1961 and the promulgation of the new CCC, but my Google-Fu is failing me. Can anyone elucidate?

  4. PatriciusOenus says:

    I would like to second what Elizabeth D said. I won’t bore you with the details, but I had a very similar experience.

    Priests or those in religious life are not doing us any favors when they set the bar very low. The Catholic part of my family who resisted assisting at the sacrilege of a simulated sacrament was made to look ridiculous and sanctimonious, because a member of a religious order decided to attend.

  5. iamlucky13 says:

    There’s a scenario I want to make sure I understand right.

    A Catholic is bound to marry in the Church.

    But a non-Catholic married outside the Church is still validly married, as I understand it. I recognize it is not a sacrament, but the Church does consider it valid as a natural marriage, and their living together not sinful.

    So what about a person baptized Catholic, but fallen away? If it is possible where is the dividing line? I presume if somebody professes to be Catholic, even though they don’t really practice it, they’re still denying what they profess, and that would general be pretty serious. But if they’ve joined another religion? Or simply quietly fallen away and don’t identify themselves as Catholic? [Those who are baptized in the Catholic Church are bound to the Catholic form of marriage.]

  6. vetusta ecclesia says:

    I don’t get your point about women priests. Are you referring to women purporting to be RC priests? Nearly half the clergy of C of E are now women. Surely that is not a consideration when attending a C of E wedding? After all the minister witnesses rather than confects the sacrament.

  7. pelerin says:

    Last year I was faced with this dilemma. I went to see my wise and trustworthy Priest and was so relieved when he told me that yes I could attend and to go and enjoy it. My son had explained that he was ‘no longer religious’ and I respected the fact that he was not being hypocritical by having a civil ceremony although of course it saddened me greatly but I tried not to show it. However we are still very close and I am sure that if I had refused to attend, from personal experience I know that my relationship with both him and his wife would have suffered greatly.

  8. This is becoming less of a problem as many couples just don’t bother to get married at all. I even suspect that if the same-sex marriage crowd manages to destroy the institution practically altogether, they won’t even bother with it themselves after they’ve ruined it for everyone else. The only question that remains then is when, if ever, one should say something about a couple not getting married if one is not asked directly about his opinion on the subject.

  9. Ellen says:

    My son no longer practices his faith. He married in a hotel. I went but was not happy. Now the marriage is broken and they are divorced. I pray for him every day.

  10. madmatt says:

    I’m a recently ordained priest and am faced with this very situation. My sister who was never confirmed and does not practice wIll be married outside the church. I offered to celebrate a valid Catholic marriage but she doesn’t practice the faith at all and didn’t want to go through any of the marriage prep. Its caused me a lot of anguish. Do I refuse attend and upset her to the point that she never looks to the Church again, or attend as inconspicuously as possible and hopefully keep the doors open that she may come back to the church at some point? [Father, for priests the bar is higher. Your presence could be confusing. I can’t speak to your exact situation, but it seems to me that attending the wedding could give the impression to a lot of people that you approve of how they are doing this.]

  11. JefZeph says:

    I was in this situation a couple of years ago with my brother. He and his “bride to be” had each been previously married in the Church with neither having received a decree of nullity. At the time, I was in the midst of the annulment process myself.

    I strongly suggested to him that he not go through with the “wedding” without petitioning for the two annulments first. He thought about it, but rejected it because he didn’t want to pay the $500, even though he could have easily afforded it. I knew then, that with that level of obstinance and apathy, I could not attend. It was a very difficult decision. He seemed to take it well, though I know that other family members and friends were deriding me at the ceremony.

    When I saw the pictures later, I knew I had made the right decision. They had it at a friend’s house by the pool. They were dressed in shorts and flip-flops. It was an absolute farce, and had I been there, I would have found it difficult to retain any of my stomach contents.

  12. Marc M says:

    I really appreciate this piece for not dismissively oversimplifying a complicated issue. I listen to a lot of apologetics, and I always cringe when I hear the standard “Do not go! The Church says not to go!” response. I was once the poorly-catechized young man attempting marriage outside the Church. My fiancee was not Catholic, and although I knew vaguely that the Church said I had to have a Catholic wedding, and my parents wanted me to, I had *no idea why*!! And nobody gave me a reason other than a vague and inaccurate “it just doesn’t count if it’s not Catholic.” But never any reason WHY. If my parents had refused to attend!? It would have driven me away from them, and even farther from the Church. I had already fallen away. That would have only made it worse.

    This is the fruit of decades of awful catechesis. I remember, as a kid, literally learning from a Protestant about the Real Presence. “You Catholics believe this!” My response was, “that’s crazy, no we don’t!” I remember going home and asking my parents about it and being shocked to learn that the Eucharist was not just symbolic. I sure didn’t learn it in CCD on Sunday mornings.

    So with that kind of foundation, what do we expect people to do? Drive a wedge between families because people fail to follow what they, completely rationally, can’t help but see as arbitrary and superficial rules? Sure, there are people choosing to marry in such a way as to purposfully give the middle finger to Rome. But there are many who are honestly acting in good faith and doing what they believe God wants, because they were never taught otherwise. Dealing with questions of how to respond in this immediate situation is only a band-aid. The wound will only be healed when we TEACH!

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  15. Diane at Te Deum Laudamus says:

    Excellent post, Father Z, with very good questions for discernment.

    I think it was different back in, say, the 50’s and 60’s, for baptized Catholics getting married outside of the Church. Chances are, those Catholics were catechized, and they were taught from the pulpit (i’m making a presumption here so people old enough from that era can correct me if I am wrong.

    Today, we probably all have close family members and friends who are baptized Catholics, and whose parents didn’t set foot into a Church other than for a funeral or wedding. Therefore, the kids, outside of making their First Communion, and possibly their Confirmation, did not have the benefit of the catechesis given to prior generations.

    So, it seems difficult to me to handle the situation of a couple who are in their early 20’s today, the way we might have handled a couple of the same age in 1958. Not attending a wedding and reception back than might have carried a greater moral obligation. Today, if you tell a young couple you aren’t coming because they are baptized Catholics, not getting married in a Catholic Church, the door may forever be slammed shut to ever discuss the faith with them.

    Things are messed up and while a couple may both be baptized Catholics, one distinction I consider is where they raised Catholic. If I don’t at least attend the reception, do I scandalize them? Perhaps an opportunity presents itself in a given case at the wedding to invite them back to the faith. However, the opportunity may come sometime after the wedding, especially if one or both encounters something in life that typically might have them reconsidering a relationship with God. Who might they come to first to discuss it, if not someone who didn’t tell them, “well, since you were baptized Catholic, even though you weren’t raised Catholic, I cannot attend your wedding without giving scandal”.

    I think we need to have more of these discussions. I just don’t think it is as clear as it would have been back in the 1950’s and 60’s.

  16. danno2281 says:

    If it is sinful for a Catholic to attempt a civil “marriage,” it would seem necessary that we at least voice our disapproval before attending the “celebration” since love “does not rejoice over wrongdoing.”

  17. JesusFreak84 says:

    I was recently in this situation with my cousin, who’d been my Confirmation sponsor in a parish that treated the Sacrament like Catholic Graduation. He’s been living with a vaguely-Lutheran divorcee for years, and had specifically asked me, “If we had a Catholic wedding, do we have to raise the kids Catholic?” I told him any priest worth his salt would say yes, I cited Canon Law, etc. At that point, he said there was NO way he’d marry in the Church, and I knew then that I couldn’t attend no matter what he did. (He considers himself Buddhist now and wants to raise his children accordingly.) They were married by a Lutheran minister, (she teaches at a Lutheran high school, so knowing her, I’d bet dollars to donuts this was about saving face at work,) earlier this summer. Since the entire family knows me as “the religious one,” I also knew that my attendance WOULD be taken as proof that “God approves.” They do that sort of thing all the time. Given all of this, I knew I couldn’t attend. Mom’s still furious with me, but I have enough to answer for before God.

    That said, I’m 99% sure I read somewhere that, in previous points in history, it WAS forbidden to attend non-Catholic weddings if either party used to be Catholic.

  18. Cafea Fruor says:

    I dunno. It’s such a hard thing. I have a really hard time justifying going. I guess it depends on the couple and on your relationship with them, but I’d be more than likely not to attend. Even if the couple were poorly catechized or were apathetic, I don’t see why that should make me compromise on what I believe, and I don’t see what point there is in going when there isn’t something to celebrate.

    When my sister, who is fallen away from the Church, had a civil wedding a few years ago, to a guy who’s also a fallen away Catholic, I did not go. I royally ticked off the whole family, but why should they have been mad at me? Why should it be OK for my sister to do what is in accord with her belief or lack thereof, and not OK for me to do what’s in accord with mine? She was the one to put me in a position of choosing between faith and family, not I.

    And if getting married outside the Church, no dispensations, etc., is objectively a sin, even if a couple aren’t culpable because they’re ignorant or whatever, how can I celebrate that? What is there to celebrate? Isn’t that a little like celebrating or supporting, say, someone who’s doing something else objectively sinful out of ignorance, like supporting their contraception habits or homosexual activity, just because they’re your brother or sister and are ignorant of what they’re doing? Is there something about the fact that your brother or sister is having a pretty ceremony with flowers and music and an attempt at marriage that somehow makes it OK? What’s the point of being there if I’m not supporting the attempt at marriage, anyway? To witness an attempt at marriage? I don’t see the point. And for me, since most people looked to me as an unofficial voice of the church in the family (I had just left the convent the year prior), I saw that, if I went, my presence might tell the family that I approved, and they might say to themselves, “well, if Cafea Fruor approves, then it must be OK,” and because I wouldn’t be able to tell everyone in the family that I was there but not approving, that could be scandalizing. So I told my sister why I was not attending, told her I would pray for her, and left it at that.

  19. chefd says:

    I have a brother that was remarried outside the Church without getting an annulment. I warned him before hand that the scandal this would cause especially the two young children that I have to protect from such things. Of course I got the misinterpretations from the bible, “who are you to judge” and all the rest from him. I still love my brother and try to meet with him whenever possible, and have him get right with God. But I keep my children from being involved with him and his illegitimate marriage as much as possible. Now, my children know about my brother and why we avoid contact with him, so that they know that actions have consequences. I don’t believe my actions have caused my brother to continue to stay away from the Church. His choices that conflict with Church teaching seems to be what keeps him from the Church. And when I feel like wavering I always remember Frederick Douglass’ quote,
    “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

  20. kaec says:

    I must comment on this. My uncle (and godfather) has been married twice in the Catholic Church. His first marriage was annulled. His second marriage was NOT annulled, though he and his second wife divorced. He then began living with yet another lady, and they decided to marry.

    His parish PRIEST told him to not waste his time nor his money getting another annulment. The PRIEST allowed a justice of the peace to come to the rectory and “marry” my uncle. After the “wedding”, the priest and couple and wedding guests walked next door to the church where the priest blessed their new marriage. (Sadly, this really, truly happened! My mother and grandparents and aunts attended and have pictures of the events.)

    My uncle still attends Mass and receives communion every single Sunday. His “wife” converted a couple of years ago. She rarely attends Mass. The RCIA director and priest (the same priest from above) knew she was in an invalid marriage and still allowed her to be baptized, confirmed, and to receive communion.

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