ASK FATHER: My lapsed son to have a “humanist” marriage. Can I attend?

From a reader…

My Son, who has lapsed from the Faith, is soon to be ‘married’ in a humanist ceremony. I and my wife have been invited but I am conscious of giving credence to the event. I am committing a sin by attending the ceremony.

Hmmm. A “humanist” marriage. One wonders what sort of ceremony that might be.

These matters are best discussed with a trusted priest close to your situation.

There is no canonical prohibition against attending an invalid wedding, but one must use the virtue of prudence to determine whether to attend or not.

Would attending – after expressing to your son your disappointment that he has abandoned his practice of the Faith – be a means to keep the door open to his return to the Faith, or would it be seen as tacit approval of the unfortunate situation?

Would refusing to attend demonstrate the seriousness with which you take his apostasy, or would it shut the door off to any future reconciliation?

Marriage, in our contemporary world, has become a cultural battlefield. Satan hates good, solid, Christian marriage and will do everything he can to undermine and discredit it.

This makes it all the more important that we do all we can to raise our children to understand the importance of marriage, the importance of choosing a good, faithful, Catholic marriage partner and and the need to follow the Church lead to prepare for and to contract marriage. We must do all we can to support young people who marry, and to assist married couples who struggle in their marriages.

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  1. pelerin says:

    This dilemma is particularly close to my heart as my youngest son married in a civil ceremony a couple of years ago. He explained to me that he did not regard himself as ‘religious’, nor his future wife and I respected his honesty at not being hypocritical and did not try to persuade him otherwise.

    This put me in a dreadful dilemma remembering how I felt when my own mother chose not to attend my wedding. I realised I could never do the same to my son but went to the Priest for advice as I was torn between my love for my son and the thought that I might be going against the Church if I attended.

    To my great relief the Priest put my mind at rest by telling me to ‘go and enjoy the day’. If he had said otherwise …. ? but he did not.

  2. anilwang says:

    Have you considered inviting your son to a Catholic wedding preparation class? (You may have to pay for it).

    Even if he is lapsed and it resistant to any faith, from the practical perspective it can be argued from the secular perspective that marriage preparation can provide a lot of valuable information on planning, relating, finances, etc that will help strengthen the marriage an may reawaken his love for the faith. There are also many options such as retreats, online, and home study, so if your son is uncomfortable in groups, something less personal is possible. Afterwards, you can mention that many lapsed Catholics who marry outside the faith often relapse with a vengeance, usually after the first child is born, or around first communion time, or a tragedy, or the spouse “gets religion” or becomes radicalized against religion. Afterwards, returning to the faith may become more complicated.

    If after discussing with your priest, you do decide to go, you can make it a requirement that the future couple know what they are getting into by taking the marriage preparation course. Even considered secularly, marriage is a big decision that can have a lasting effect on one’s life. A good decision can bring a long happy life. A bad one can affect you negatively for years.

  3. gatormom says:

    I would just share an observation I have made in my family. My parents have accompanied my brothers who have fallen away from the faith basically immediately following confirmation and the train wreck continues to get more horrifying to behold yearly. Now, children have been brought into the world and are not baptized and my parents are still best pals with all. Baby mommas, step children, illegitimate children, families are moving in and out and nobody gives a second thought to God. No reconciliation is needed for them, one big happy family. I pray for them but they seem very comfortable on their path. The lesson I take is I would not accompany my children as they turn from God but I will always be willing to throw a whopper of a feast when they return to His friendship and therefore mine.

  4. APX says:

    A “humanist wedding ceremony” is really one of those customized wedding ceremonies. Kind of like building your own burger. Obviously you need the basics that make it a wedding, but after that, pick and choose whatever you want to give it special meaning to you. You write your own vows, add your own ceremonies (ie: unity candles, unity sand, and whatever else your mind can come up with to make it personal), choose your own venue, your own celebrant depending on whether or not you feel you all jive and if they look okay to you, etc.

  5. polycarped says:

    I say a) make sure he knows very clearly how you feel but equally that you love him unconditionally and b) attend but very visibly hold (and of course pray) your Rosary throughout the ceremony. Very difficult situation. Not easy. And one that is becoming more and more of a common dilemma for many of us.

  6. Gerard Plourde says:

    This truly is a sad and difficult situation. It calls for prayer on our part to ask Our Lord to guide this anguished parent to make a good decision that may enable God to lead his son (and daughter-in-law) in right paths.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    Unfortunately, humanism is, often, code-speak for a way of thinking where the rules are arbitrary and not really anchored to reality. It is, often, offered up as a rationalization for engaging in sinful behavior. Cardinal Kasper chides the simplemindedness of the African bishops because they don’t live in a world where Einstein has to be explained, but, in reality, it is Kasper’s group-minded Nouvelle Theologie that can’t keep up with Einstein, but is really good an promoting humanism. It won’t help with the marriage situation, but the best defense against humanism is Aristotelian-Thomistic thinking. I think something like Peter Kreef’s, A Summa of the Summa, might be a good gift to give as a wedding present (hide it in a new suitcase for the honeymoon :) )

    The Chicken

  8. ies0716 says:

    My extended family has dealt with several issues of this type and I’ve found that while in theory “attending the wedding while making it clear you don’t approve” quickly becomes “hey, Great Grandma attended the wedding so she must be OK with this.” The wedding is really the only public opportunity to offer a protest against an immoral act, and once the wedding is over we’ve found that everyone is just accepted back into one big happy family. Everyone then treats the invalidly married couple (even the one same-sex couple in my family) as just another married couple and the matter is never discussed again. I’m now in a position where I have to explain to my six- and five-year-old daughters why Grandma and several of her siblings are on their second marriages and why their second cousins of around the same age live with two “mommies.” My grandparents had the opportunity to make a stand against same-sex marriage some years ago but on the advice of a religious brother they attended my cousin’s same-sex “wedding” and ever since my family is basically for all intents and purposes on board that bandwagon.

  9. Benedict Joseph says:

    I offer my prayerful consolation to the writer. Are any of us any longer out of the range of these events – even in the Church, where personal notions replace the practice of the faith?
    Something of an aside, but not entirely unrelated, was a segment on “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” on PBS this past weekend, focused on the “Divinity” Schools at Harvard and Yale. These loci of “theological” research are quite comfortable with the formal presence of atheistic humanism (seems like an oxymoron to me – can there be humanism divorced from Jesus Christ?) exerting itself in “theological” research. Of course, this is not new, but it appears they are no longer veiling it in a sort of “progressive christianity.” There appears a nostalgia amongst atheists for comforting ceremonies surrounding their personal events. Can we expect now that religious observance is in full speed deconstruction, the emergence of full blown rituals emerging out of the atheistic impulse? Color me stupid, but perhaps this has been in the works on a parallel track since the mid-sixties?

  10. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Benedict Joseph,

    Your observations concerning the presence of atheists at the Harvard and Yale divinity schools and musings regarding the lomgimg for ceremony (should we substitute the word ritual?) among the non religious reminds me of the faith journey of C.S. Lewis whom God called out of atheism to become one of the great Christian apologists of the 20th Century.

    We can and should hope and pray that those who seek truth (and there are many atheists who do this while at the same time blinkering themselves to the conclusion that the existence of objective truth must lead to) will be pursued and cornered by the Hound of Heaven.

  11. Sword40 says:

    I disagree with any priest that “soft-peddles” this issue. [“soft-peddles”.. is that so…] I have been told by several FSSP priests and a traditional Jesuit priest that my wife and I could not attend such a wedding. One of our sons, a baptized Catholic just did this. Then one of our grand daughters did the same thing. Each time we agonized over the situation. Then we consulted our FSSP priest. He told us “No” we could not attend. [Fine. You consulted your priest in your situation. That’s what he said. Every situation is different. Also… that FSSP priest might just be WRONG.]

    My wife’s brother, a baptized Catholic is marrying a Jewish woman in an Anglican church. He does not understand why we won’t attend.

    In each case we love the people very much and welcome them into our home as visitors.
    So as far as we are concerned, the issue is settled. Our Faith comes first. The secular world takes “last place”. [I am reminded of Luke 18:9-14.]

  12. Marc M says:

    My prayers are with the questioner. My blood pressure rises when I hear radio apologists tell suffering parents that they must not under any circumstances attend such a wedding. If my parents had made a decision like that when I had fallen away, it would have caused massive damage to multiple relationships, and made it that much harder for me to come back later. My grandparents made that decision with my aunt’s wedding, and I know it became a genuine regret.
    One can’t be too quick to judge someone’s motives. Maybe a young man decides to identify as “humanist” because he likes the lack of rules, sure. But maybe he’s also confused as hell and can’t see the light of truth anywhere he looks. He’s still seeking to get married (rather than simply forgoing the “meaningless piece of paper”), and I presume that still involves a vow to give oneself to another, for better or worse, etc. Even if the world attaches a bunch of implied conditions to that, there’s still an acknowledgement of the existence of something deeper than pure selfishness there. Presumably he truly loves his fiancee and seeks her good, even if they’re confused about what “good” is. Presumably they want to do what is right, they’ve just bought into the world’s notion that you can make “right” up for yourself. Many of us were raised Catholic but effectively taught (by CCD instructors, priests, teachers, family members, irreverent liturgy, etc…) that the Church basically teaches some vague stuff about showing up on Sunday and not using birth control, but it’s ok if you ignore that stuff too. I have a hard time assigning full culpability to people that grew up in that setting.
    Communicating approval by your attendance is a danger, sure, but refusing to attend can be just as dangerous. If you effectively communicate that you love and welcome your son, but can’t take part in this ceremony, maybe. It’s very difficult, however, not to inadvertently communicate that you’re actually rejecting the good and true things your son might be seeking in this, in his confused way.
    WWMD? (What Would St. Monica Do?)

  13. The issue of whether or not to attend presumes the message being sent, one way or the other. The conventional wisdom says that by attending, we express our approval, and that by not attending, we both express our disappointment, and thus bear proper witness to a Faith that has been abandoned.

    Do we? That last part is the key. Is “bear[ing] proper witness to a Faith that has been abandoned” the message being sent, or will such a message be lost on them? Is our attendance a form of “cooperation,” or would the affair go on without it?

    I have a son who has no faith at all, with a fiancee who contends likewise. I’ve almost lost him at least once, and he is the only progeny I have. There are no illusions between us as to how I feel about certain choices he has made. My going or not going to a wedding will neither add to nor subtract from that message.

    I expect I’ll speak to a priest about it sooner or later. What I don’t expect is a simple answer in an online venue. With all due respect to the good Father, there is none.

  14. Benedict Joseph says:

    Gerard, I think I get your drift, and I would like to believe your perspective holds sway in this epoch, but tides and currents are far different now from the days when cult and culture provided the tides and currents conducive to conversion. Newman, Mauriac, Chesterton, Lewis, the Maritain’s, Stein, would not find the academy much of a spur to Christianity, let alone Catholicism. Having negotiated these waters from an administrative perspective , atheistic and agnostic cynicism – under any number of guises – hold pride of place and appear now to be required for credence in theological circles. I am fond of John Macquarrie’s definition of theology – “… the study which, through participation in, and reflection upon a religious faith, seeks to express the content of that faith in the clearest and most coherent language available.” It is not a speculative science engaged without faith – it requires “participation in” – ascent to doctrine, worship, right moral comportment. The individuals featured were committed to an entirely antithetical endeavor. Yeah, yeah, they are on a journey… It doesn’t cut the mustard with me anymore.
    I pray they will find their way home, but with Christians giving credence to atheism in “seminaries,” it a bit like giving the run of the nursery to measles.

  15. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Communicating approval by your attendance is a danger, sure, but refusing to attend can be just as dangerous. If you effectively communicate that you love and welcome your son, but can’t take part in this ceremony, maybe. It’s very difficult, however, not to inadvertently communicate that you’re actually rejecting the good and true things your son might be seeking in this, in his confused way.”

    We are so quick to be worried about what the soon-to-be married couple thinks, but do they give a care about what their parents think? It is a long discussion, but part of the problem is that of the definition of childhood. Neil Postman had an excellent essay on the subject:–%20The%20Disappearance%20of%20Childhood.pdf

    In the old days, children were raised to be miniature versions of adults. Since about the Industrial Revolution, children have been raised to be innocent. The problem with this is that they never learn how to access adult concerns until it is too late. Children understood about marriage (and could be married at a younger age) before the notion of childhood was developed, because they were participants in their parents marriage in a way modern children are not.

    We attempt to keep our children innocent, but as Postman argues, modern society will have none of it. Kids are aggressively marketed to and subversively socially controlled and parents just assume the best. Little wonder when children going to be married can’t explain themselves out of theological paper bag. Families need to discuss marriage and its theology by about the age of 10 in order for kids to have the time to grow into it. Unfortunately, many families, today, are broken and such discussions are nearly impossible.

    I have spent a great deal of time researching the statistics of marriage and it is perfectly clear that the breakdown at the beginning of marriages (the wedding day) is due to a virtual silence about people discussing the correct theology about marriage, leaving kids to get their information from their own misformed imaginings. The human race and, specifically, the Church, has accumulated a great deal of wisdom about marriage over the centuries, but kids think they can throw it all away, as if they were the first persons to ever get married. It is a form of anti-science, strangely enough, because they refuse to accept the results of rigorous experiments conducted over the course of 2000 years as to what works and what doesn’t for marriages. For all of the claim of being rational among the modern neo-atheists, if you scratch them just under the surface, you find that they are terrified of the truth and often resort to making it up to suit their fancy – and as long as they have money, society lets them get away with such things under the guise of privacy.

    Marriage will not change until the theology of marriage becomes the common coin of society, instead of a merely personal matter..

    The Chicken

  16. Luvadoxi says:

    Just something to think about. My husband’s uncle, back in the 1950s, fell in love with a Lutheran girl. He is a proud and honorable military man. His Catholic grandmother looked at him and said, “It would have been better if you had been killed in Korea.” He married his beloved and never returned to the Catholic Church.

  17. The Cobbler says:

    If people were reasonable, the sons and daughters would have the choice of whether to treat attendance as a sign of approval — in which case those who think it’s a bad idea for any reason should stay away and they have no right to complain because that’s just what they asked for — or as a sign of personal closeness — in which case those who attend don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to begin with — and then the parents wouldn’t have to choose between two bad options. Sadly, it seems (anecdotally anyway) that children who don’t keep the faith often don’t keep basic consistency either…

  18. Luvadoxi says:

    I want to add to my last comment that the children of that marriage grew up in a basically non-religious home; I don’t know if they regularly went to church or not–but as far as I know they aren’t practicing any faith. I can’t speak for their personal relationship with God, though–I just don’t know enough.

  19. JARay says:

    Fortunately I have not had to face this problem but my sons have never been in any doubt that if faced with such a situation then they know, and really know, that I would never attend such a “wedding”. Yes, even the youngest, when he got married, although he was not attending Mass, made sure that his wedding was in a Catholic Church and before a priest. He is the one whom I now agonise over and beg God every day for him to return to the practice of his religion. I have told him that I do not want to see both of us on the Last Day separated by that chasm which exists between those who are saved and those who are damned.

  20. alicewyf says:

    My very Catholic grandparents at first refused to attend our civil wedding ceremony. They were very disappointed that we did not have a sacramental marriage. They did end up relenting and attending. Imagine their joy when we asked them to stand up for us at our convalidation less than 3 years later. You never know what your prayers, charity, and good example may plant in the hearts of your loved ones.

  21. In the moderation queue people are starting to speculate about other people’s situations. There have been some good points, and we’ve gone far enough for now.

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