ASK FATHER: Should Catholic parents attend wedding of daughter outside the Church?

From a reader…


Father, should Catholic parents even attend the wedding of their Catholic daughter to a non-Baptized man outside the Church? Unitarian, to be exact.

The father is going to walk his daughter down the aisle, and Catholic family members will attend.

Advice, please for this prevalent situation in this day and age . . .

~ A distraught grandmother ~

Alas, I’ve answered this question many times on this blog.  It is a widespread problem.

I’ll leave aside the issue of dispensations, etc.

There is no “one size fits all” answer.  Every case must be considered according to its own circumstances.  Each family has its own set of dynamics.

While I think that it is possible to attend a shower and a reception in most cases, what about the wedding itself?   It depends.

Must depends on how parents and grandparents and godparents and extended family have lived their Catholic faith and provided a Catholic environment in which children matured.   Did they give their children the Faith?   No? And then are they shocked that they are not living the Faith they never got?

Another point.  Will staying away from the wedding do more harm than good in the relationship insofar as being able to have future influence is concerned?

Perhaps in some distant decade it was easier to form a more standardized answer.  Today, however, I don’t think it is wise or possible.

My advice is, whatever decision you make about attendance, find the best way to keep a strong line of communication open with the couple so that you can still have some influence.

  • Be kind, but be clear.
  • Always express joy about your Catholic Faith and demonstrate it in your own way of living.
  • Be inviting to them about Mass or devotions.
  • Never underestimate the power of an invitation.
  • Be prepared always to answer all manner of questions, concerning doctrine, practices or controversies.
  • Pray for them and offer mortifications for them.  Ask their Guardian Angels to guide them.

Best wishes.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    How about striking a deal with the Catholic son or daughter: I’ll attend IF you attend X number of Masses in the next year. Or, you raise the kids in the faith, and I’ll witness your marriage. If those are deal-breakers for the couple, well then….who could complain that missing the marriage ceremony is such a horrible thing?

  2. Ave Maria says:

    My 30 year old son, always faithful, met a strong Evangelical girl. He left the Catholic Church this year and was recently married in a very small ceremony in her protestant community. I and my siblings did not attend. Traditionally we were not to attend and condone such a union which is not valid in the Catholic Church. I explained this to my son and his fiancée. He might have gotten a dispensation but was told enough gory details about the present condition in our Church that he said it was not impressive. This after being raised and never missing Sunday Mass for 30 years! Of course he has been out of my home for some years now. My spiritual also forbid me to attend.

  3. e.e. says:

    So much depends. I have relatives who are so devoted to the faith and did everything they could to pass the faith on. They’re the most inspiring folks I know. One of their daughters fell away from the Church, was no longer attending Mass, and married a divorced Protestant man out of the Church. All the Catholic relatives did attend the wedding. They let her know, we love you very much and we will be there for your wedding, but we do really wish you’d be married in the Church. Fast forward a couple years and the couple is attending Mass (her every week, him about once a month) and seeking a declaration of nullity of his prior marriage so they can have their marriage convalidated. They’re hoping to be blessed with children soon and intend to have their children baptized and raised Catholic. It is amazing.

    But for many families, attending the wedding wouldn’t draw a bride or groom back to the Church. And certain weddings outside the Church wouldn’t be a good idea to attend — same sex couples, couples who clearly don’t agree with the Church’s idea of what marriage is (permanent, exclusive, open to children). The only wedding outside the Church that I didn’t attend was one in which the bride and groom (one of them a friend of mine) had a prenuptial agreement. If my own children marry outside the Church… well, that would hit a little closer to home and be harder, no doubt.

  4. PostCatholic says:

    I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I’ll just add that in a UU service, you will not be asked to make confessions of faith, participate in liturgical prayers beyond perhaps a response reading or adding an “Amen,” nor be invited to and thus need to decline participation in a communion service (as you might in mainline Protestant denominations). As we’re a creed-free faith, it should be easier to sit quietly through our service without repudiating your own beliefs than it is in many Christian churches. I hope that’s useful information to your decision-making.

  5. JGavin says:

    Well said Father. I keep St Monica in mind.

  6. PostCatholic says: I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I’ll just add that in a UU service, you will not be asked to make confessions of faith, participate in liturgical prayers beyond perhaps a response reading or adding an “Amen,” nor be invited to and thus need to decline participation in a communion service (as you might in mainline Protestant denominations). As we’re a creed-free faith, it should be easier to sit quietly through our service without repudiating your own beliefs than it is in many Christian churches. I hope that’s useful information to your decision-making.

    In all seriousness, I must ask: if your faith is creed-free, what is the point? In fact, how is “creed-free” not an oxymoron?

  7. JARay says:

    I think that PostCatholic fails to understand that one’s very presence at a non Catholic service is in fact a physical support of that non Catholic service, creed free or not!

    [Not true. We can go to funerals and weddings of non-Catholics. You can even be employed by a non-Catholic Church as, for example, a musician.]

  8. PostCatholic says:

    I’ll answer your question with a snippet of a 1984 statement from the North Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (i.e. the Quakers), Anita Moore, so that you do not feel that I am proselytizing. Unitarian Universalism is just one of several churches and faiths that do not require its adherents to agree to shared formulae of belief; the Quakers are another.

    “For many unfamiliar with Quakers, the way we speak of our faith and the diversity of belief found among us may be perplexing. Even those who have been among Friends for a while may find it challenging to sort out our theology. This difficulty arises in part from the fact that the Society of Friends is not a single, homogeneous group but a large spiritual family with several branches that have evolved in different directions over the past three centuries. Another part of the challenge in understanding Quaker faith derives from our attitude towards creeds or other formal statements of faith. Friends do not make a written creedal statement the test of faith or the measure of suitability for membership.

    The lack of a creed has sometimes led to the misconception that Friends do not have beliefs or that one can believe anything and be a Friend. However, most Quakers take the absence of a creed as an invitation and encouragement to exercise an extra measure of personal responsibility for the articulation of faith. Rather than rely on priests or professional theologians, each believer is encouraged to take seriously the personal disciplines associated with spiritual growth. Out of lives of reflection, prayer, faithfulness, and service flow the statements of belief, both in word and in deed, which belong to Friends.”

    Obviously I don’t expect a Catholic to agree with that statement, but I hope it answers you. I just wanted to let the original questioner know what (not) to expect if s/he does attend that wedding.

  9. ArthurH says:

    I hear you and many years ago when I was not yet really back in the Church, just approaching I would have done it and, in fact, I did it. The closer I got to my faith, however, the more unthinkable did that become and I regret my attendance for what it said about my little faith.

    I agree fully with your comments on ways to try to keep the “door open” and why that is a good thing; and, also about the mitigating factor of just how “catholic” the girl is, for if not really “Catholic” then…. why would it be otherwise? It is nonetheless a scandal, though, for the parents to be there if they are serious Catholics..

    For where does it stop re “keeping peace”? At attending a gay catholic marriage or a shower for a lesbian who has been impregnated artificially? I know “catholics” who have done both, incl one who fancies herself “devout.”

    The problem here, I believe, is not a quantitative but a qualitative one and what is wrong is well, wrong.

  10. TonyO says:

    As we’re a creed-free faith, it should be easier to sit quietly through our service without repudiating your own beliefs than it is in many Christian churches. I hope that’s useful information to your decision-making.

    Just to bring you up to speed: In Catholic teaching and law, the main problem with a Catholic being married in a ceremony where his / her vows are not received by a priest or deacon, (and where they did not get a dispensation from this canon law requirement): the marriage ceremony is irrelevant, there is no actual marriage taking place. The validity of the marriage itself hangs on meeting certain requirements.

    The consequences are messy: it means, first, that the new so-called husband and wife when sleeping together are NOT engaging in the marital, conjugal act, but in fornication.

    It means that all those Catholics who formally cooperate with them in their failure-to-marry are also doing serious wrong. It also means that all those who cooperate with their failure-to-marry in the way of remote material cooperation without due reason are also doing something wrong.

    Because normally attending and participating has the implication of approval, the above points imply that attending and participating carry a degree of scandal with them: simply by being there you lend the appearance that “this is all good here”, which isn’t true. Thus others are led to believe that “this is all good” meaning they too can marry without canonical form, i.e. they too are led to sin. This sort of downstream effect can be mitigated by various things, but the default (without any mitigation) is another reason Catholics would reasonably not attend.

    Part of Fr. Z’s point, I suggest, (and I hope he will correct me if I am wrong) is that if parents or grandparents or siblings do decide to go to the wedding (or less directly involved things like a shower or reception), that you first of all make sure that your motives are correct: (a) you cannot formally approve of their not-marriage, which (I think) necessarily implies that you participate only passively at most, not actively (i.e. show up, but not doing readings and that kind of stuff), and (b) even any remote material cooperation you cause should be for a reason that outweighs the (maybe mitigated?) possibility of someone taking scandal from your attending. Such as the hope of ‘bringing them around’ back to the faith in the future. Some do return to the Church, but a hope that this couple will do so by way of annulling a former marriage and getting this union validated is itself pretty thin, seemingly defying the presumption in favor of the first marriage (and yes, there are circumstances and exceptions, I grant you).

    Anecdotal point: I had a nephew who got married without canonical form and without a priest or deacon (and without approval), for the drippy reason that he wanted to marry outside kn a garden and did not get a dispensation. In spite of (what we had thought was) a fair Catholic upbringing – apparently that raising did not include anything about “the Church has good reasons for rules about the sacraments”, I guess. I sent a letter explaining that we were very sorry but we could not pretend that this not-wedding would bring into being a marriage (in nicer language), but the couple leaped to the conclusion that I was lying through my teeth and that I didn’t want to attend out of some animus against him and his family. I sure had not anticipated THAT result, though I had certainly assumed the couple would be bothered and displeased at the content of the letter. I am not sure how I could have anticipated that outcome.

    Second anecdotal note: if some of the good Catholic families don’t come at all, thus testifying to the Church’s important teaching and rules on marriage, but another good Catholic family decides it’s sufficient not to attend the wedding ceremony itself but it’s OK to attend the reception, this latter decision can (a) confuse people who are already confused enough as it is, and (b) can completely unwind any practical and foreseeable good effect the first group might have achieved by their witnessing to the Church’s teaching. I had this happen too. Whatever steps you take to witness to the Church’s teaching by rejecting formal cooperation and carefully limiting even remote material cooperation is more effective done in conjunction with all others who are known to be faithful Catholics.

  11. BrionyB says:

    Fr. Z leaves aside the question of dispensations, but surely the obvious first thing for a Catholic parent (or grandparent) to do is advise the daughter to seek a dispensation so she can have a valid marriage. She might well refuse, of course, or there might be a reason the dispensation cannot be granted in this particular case, but there’s a good chance she simply doesn’t know that such an option exists. Many Catholics, sadly, have little knowledge of canon law regarding marriage, and don’t realise the implications of what they’re doing by marrying without proper form.

    Also worth mentioning are the options for putting the situation right in the future, should she wish to do so (e.g. convalidation). Often people don’t know about this either.

  12. byzantinesteve says:

    To me, the primary question that needs to be answered is: did this individual ever have an even remotely adult-level understanding of the Catholic faith? If they left the church sometime in high school or effectively were nominal Catholics their entire adult life attending mass only periodically, no one can expect that these folks are making an adult decision to apostasize because they weren’t mature Catholics to begin with.

    If the answer is in the gray area and perhaps they arguably could have had an adult level understanding of the faith, then one must consider the prudence of attending: is my presence going to convey to this person and others that I support this decision? Who is expected at this wedding who knows me and what will their perception be of my attendance?
    Would not going cause more harm than good?

    Lastly, if the individual did have an adult level understanding of their faith and has chosen for some reason (e.g. marrying a divorced person, catering to non-Catholic spouse, want to get married quickly, etc) to not be married in the church, I don’t think there’s really a case to be made for why you would attend. That being said, depending on your closeness to that individual, you may owe them a charitable explanation for why you cannot come. This should always be respectful and not come across as angry or condemning. That person should know there is a pathway for them to be welcomed back to the church and that they can later have their marriage convalidated. Being angry, harsh or judgmental could mean that they resolve never to come back to the faith.

  13. APX says:

    You can even be employed by a non-Catholic Church as, for example, a musician.]
    Our priests say otherwise on account of actively participating in non-Catholic worship services, not to mention getting involved in playing for same-sex “marriages”. I was even told I shouldn’t even participate in an orchestral concert held outside of their worship time as “it could create confusion and be misinterpreted as support”.

    [With due respect, that priest is wrong.]

  14. maternalView says:

    Some 30 years ago I had a sibling raised Catholic in a believing family who married outside the church following an unplanned pregnancy. Our pastor refused to allow the marriage at our church. None of our family attended the wedding. To double-check I actually wrote to the column Catholic Replies in The Wanderer. And yes I was assured I could not attend the wedding and further should not otherwise participate such as through a gift etc.

    So as a consequence, over the years I have not attended the non-Catholic weddings of Catholic family members and close friends. Some were practicing Catholics until they decided they weren’t (often because they found the “one”). I’ve endured the criticisms of family members some of who would be considered devoted to their faith (at least in today’s environment). I explained my view. I wasn’t rude but just desiring to hold to my faith through all challenges. I heard all the arguments from they don’t practice their faith any more, they joined a different church, it’s a second marriage so obviously they’re not Catholic any more and even you can’t make them be Catholic by not going! The test was never on the bridal couple’s understanding of their faith but on mine! My children grew up knowing I wouldn’t be attending any of their weddings outside of the Church!

    The idea that I should now judge the couples’ intent or understanding of their Catholic faith is a kick to my gut. I just recently didn’t go to a family wedding because the groom decided not to get married in the Church (his family attends Mass and all their children attended Catholic schools). His Catholic parents participated! That was supposed to be proof I could go! The parents weren’t troubled by it. I wasn’t surprised as they seem to have a more Protestant view of Catholicism. It suggests that I was an idiot to have held fast to my duty to practice my faith and represent it faithfully over these many years.

    So what will it say to my family members if I start attending these weddings? That I “finally” came around? That they were really right about attending when I didn’t? That sticking to the Church’s teachings/rules/requirements are only for those who choose to believe them? In other words, those rules are for me because I want to follow them but anyone else who doesn’t want to gets a pass. The Church’s rules are only for those who want to believe them??

    Trying to make a judgment that somehow attending (even when trying to communicate to the couple any reservations) leaves the door open to the couple’s return to the church is misguided. (I am assuming that the approach is cordial and remains cordial after the wedding. If someone rejects someone outright because of the non-Catholic wedding then there are other issues!) It seems odd to compromise on attendance in the hope the couple finds their faith someday! I think one can evangelize without compromise. In fact, compromising smacks of accompaniment and pastoral mumbo-jumbo that seems to be prevalent about irregular marriages and reception of communion nowadays.

    There was one wedding years ago that I was intensely pressured to attend but I didn’t. That man now has two divorces under his belt and is in another relationship. Either marriage means something or it doesn’t.

    My sibling mentioned above, after many years which included more than one divorce and other things, finally returned to the Church. I don’t attribute it to my not going to his wedding. I do see it as proof that one should be patience with the faith’s obligations.

  15. BrionyB says:

    I suppose in many cases the problem starts well before the planning of the wedding (by which point it’s generally too late for relatives to have much influence). I wonder how many Catholic parents actually talk to their children (as teens and young adults) about dating and marriage – about a suitable choice of partner, about what marriage is for, what the Church teaches about it and why. Mine never did, maybe seeing it as an embarrassing subject or just none of their business, but looking back I wish they had given me some advice and guidance, rather than me having to figure it out for myself with limited experience/knowledge.

    Modern marriage tends to be seen as a purely individual arrangement between the two partners, rather than something that concerns whole families, as a social institution. The father ceremonially ‘giving away’ the bride seems to be the only vestige of the old ways (now regarded as a quaint custom at best, often considered outdated and insulting). Same with the prospective husband asking permission from the girl’s father before proposing to her. Not many would want to go back to that. But still..

    It’s a huge thing for a parent to be absent from their own child’s wedding. It’s hard to see how the relationship could recover. Yet maybe if the dynamics of family relationships were more as they should be in the first place, and we didn’t live in such an individualistic society, so inimical to traditional notions of authority, obedience, and obligation to others, it wouldn’t (often) come to parents having to make that impossible choice.

  16. APX says:

    The father ceremonially ‘giving away’ the bride seems to be the only vestige of the old ways (now regarded as a quaint custom at best, often considered outdated and insulting). Same with the prospective husband a
    It might interest you to know that this “Father giving the bride away” is contrary to what the Church teaches about marriage and is actually not found anywhere in the rubrics. The suggested and recommended Procession for weddings has the bride and groom walking down the aisle together as equals going before God. The Church makes allowances for customs in this regard, but it’s not what the Church suggests.

  17. Toan says:

    Dear PostCatholic: God bless you for reading this blog and for your obvious kindness. Please be assured of my prayers.

    On the issue of Fr. Z’s post, I was hoping the Synod on the Family might discuss the issue that baptized Catholics marrying outside the Church are not considered even naturally married, unless they have their bishop’s approval. The existing prudential requirement for the bishop’s approval seems very unhelpful in this day and age. I’d think this is an area where most everybody would be in agreement, so I admit that I’m probably missing something. If anyone would enlighten me, I’m all ears.

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