Thursday, November 3, 2011

No Easy Answers: Attendance at Invalid or Immoral Weddings

In our increasingly confusing and pluralistic modern world, one question that seems to come up time and time again in the Catholic blogosphere is the question of wedding attendance.

Certainly there is no question about a presumably valid Catholic wedding in a Catholic church. Nor would any sane authority object to passively witnessing valid marriages (Sacramental or merely natural) outside the Church, be it the wedding of two baptized non-Catholics, a Catholic to a non-Catholic (baptized or not) with canonical dispensation, the wedding of a Christian to a non-Christian, or the wedding of two non-baptized Jews, Muslims, pagans, atheists, etc.

As long as one maintained mental reservation and remained a "passive" observer and did not take any sort of communion or actively assent to any heretical or blasphemous rites or prayers, natural marriages (or even the Sacramental marriages of Protestants) are certainly good in-themselves to some degree and a Catholic need not worry about attending. Simply examining the complex history of Christian marriage and intermarriage with the pagans would be enough to demonstrate this.

However, the question gets admittedly trickier when it's a question of presumptively invalid marriages. What if I'm invited to the wedding of a Catholic outside the Church without dispensation? Does it matter if they've formally apostatized or not? What if I know the Catholic has been married before without annulment? What if it's the non-Catholic one who was previously married? What if the previous marriage in question was only a natural marriage? What if it's two Protestants (who have no concept of annulment) but I know one has been married before (and thus, by the Church's standards, the marriage is invalid)? What if it's all simply non-baptized parties and natural marriages involved? What if it's a homosexual "marriage" ceremony?

These are admittedly hard questions, and most even conservative Catholic sources (such as the Catholic Answers posts I linked above) will tell you there is no one-size-fits-all answer. (Though it is worth being reminded that since the change to canon law in 2009, it no longer matters in terms of validity if a Catholic has formally defected; the new canonical principle is essentially "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic" in terms of being bound by canonical form or dispensation requirements.)

The basic advice is: is what you are doing scandalous? Does it constitute encouragement of sin? Most conservative sources seem to take the position that one is safest to err on the side of not attending, but then also say the Church does not forbid "observing" (with mental reservation) a presumptively invalid marriage, and that it's really a case-by-case thing.

However, there are some double-standards evident in the sort of advice you'd probably usually get. For one, if it involves a Catholic, one is likely to get a more negative reaction from Catholics. Attending the invalid marriage of two people who have never been Catholic (but, say, one has been previously married and divorced) is unlikely to raise as many objections from conservative Catholics. I suppose the logic goes that the Catholic framework (of no divorce and remarriage without annulment) is foreign to these people anyway, that they thus won't consider your attendance or not in light of such a framework, and thus that it is in some ways beyond our concern to be imposing an understanding of marriage internal to our religion onto this external situation. "We'll cross that bridge if either of them converts to Catholicism" seems to be the attitude, and I suppose this is my instinct too.

It's not that I don't believe our moral code is universal or our Truth absolute, the behavior of non-Catholics can certainly be judged for the most part by the same standards (except for the Precepts of the Church, it's not like we have a Mosaic Law for us insiders and a much looser Noahide code for the "gentiles.") But, at the same time, if they aren't even Catholic (or, in our world, even any sort of informed or practicing Christian at all really)...then I feel like we have bigger fish to fry. Objecting to their (objectively) adulterous or fornicatory union seems a misplaced priority if that marriage is taking place in a schismatic or heretical or pagan or utterly godless secular millieu! And yet, we've said that attendance at such services (for, say, valid marriages; or even just out of "anthropological" interest) is not forbidden and does not in itself (if done as a "passive" observer with mental reservation) constitute affirmation of schism, heresy, idolatry, or atheism. If such attendance does not constitute affirmation of the religion or ideology in question, why should it anymore constitute an affirmation of the by-Catholic-standards validity of the marriage?

And, generally, Catholic sources will tell you it doesn't, necessarily. However, as I began saying above, conservatives seem to sing a different tune in two cases: A) if it involves a Catholic (however lapsed), or B) if it's a homosexual union. Then suddenly people get a lot more wary.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I suppose the logic is that if a Catholic is involved, then the Church's standards for marriage do suddenly become a lot more relevant. No longer can the mental fence be drawn distinguishing between "outsiders" with a different framework from ours (which we can't "impose" on them) and ourselves. If there is a Catholic, suddenly that sort of pluralistic hairsplitting raises more cognitive dissonance for the conservatives.

Though some would argue that even the ability to "suspend our belief" when dealing with non-Catholics, and to expect only a sort of minimal decency based on the "common" morality of secularism, is already a concession to the World and a sign that religion has become essentially "privatized," removed from the public sphere...I would somewhat disagree. A distinction was always made, even at the height of the Middle Ages, between the Jews and Muslims and pagans who had never been Catholic on the one hand, and heretics on the other. Say what you will about how we treated heretics, the non-baptized were always pretty much (at least in terms of official policy) supposed to be left to their own devices when it came to things like regulating marriages. I don't think the Church tried to stop Jews from remarrying after divorce in the Middle Ages, for example.

And given that nowadays we no longer treat Protestants as anything more than "material" (as opposed to formal) heretics, no longer hold them to the standards of Catholics...I really see no reason why lapsed Catholics should be treated any differently either. Most of them are not particularly "informed" heretics. They fall away because they never really internalized Catholicism in the first place but got caught up in something else (usually secular culture, or possibly some sort of evangelical Protestantism). To treat lapsed Catholics differently from how we treat Protestants on this matter seems absurd. Unless we know the person knows what they are doing is wrong and is defiantly pursuing it anyway, I'd think we can give lapsed Catholics remarrying invalidly just as much "benefit of the doubt" in terms of ignorance, and in terms of assuming our passive attendance won't be understood in the framework of scandal (by people who obviously aren't thinking in that framework in the first place.)

I think that Catholic Answers takes such a hard-line on homosexual unions (after being sort of accommodating for objectively adulterous heterosexual ones) is likewise a double-standard. The outlook here seems to be essentially culture-wars political. Like their absolute stance against voting for any pro-abortion politicians (without even taking into account the possibility of voting for one in a situation where that position of theirs will not effect the status quo, and where you cast your vote even while disapproving of that position of theirs), this refusal to accommodate a modern reality or to touch it with a ten-foot-pole seems like a "politically" inspired absolutism. And certainly it seems like a homophobic double-standard along the lines of those cases where homosexual couples weren't allowed to have their children baptized or sent to Catholic school (even though plenty of divorced and remarried people, even Catholics, are).

The message seems to be: well, divorce and remarriage is an issue already "lost." That's already no longer part of the "common" secular morality, so we don't have to impose it on people outside the Catholic context or framework. But the question of homosexuality (like abortion) is potentially (the conservatives think, naively) still "on the table," still something with a fighting chance at remaining part of the public "lowest common denominator" morality, and thus we should still try to impose that standard on everyone else so as to not lose the "culture war" on that question.

I find this approach problematic to say the least. While I don't think we should ever stop publicly fighting against abortion (because that involves real defenseless voiceless human lives being taken, the fundamental right to life being violated) or ever take an attitude of "abortion is tolerable...for non-Catholics who don't share our assumptions or framework," I think it's pretty clear that on the question of homosexuality we've lost the culture war, or at least I don't particularly care to fight it in that sphere. At this point, expecting us to pretend like that's a standard assumed by everyone, or like our attendance at such a ceremony will be interpreted according to that framework (as scandal) in a way that it for some reason won't for divorced and remarried Protestants...seems like a stretch.

Yes there is a Natural Law that should be common to all people, it does not just apply to Catholics, but at the same time we seem to live in an age where the two alternatives are Revealed Religion and Atheism (as opposed to Revealed Religion and Natural Theology.) Somehow, ironically, it seems like more and more the natural law and natural theology can only be known in the light of revealed religion, and so try to impose certain moral principles on non-Catholics piece-meal without having them adopt the whole system...seems bound to fail and inconsistent. If they don't have the Faith, and yet we're not worried fraternizing with them (or even attending their ceremonies) constitutes some sort of scandalous participation in unfaith...why should we suddenly, and contradictorily, worry just that very thing about their sexual immorality?

In all these cases really, I don't think we have too much to worry about when it comes to attending weddings usually, for two reasons. For one, because as discussed above, in a pluralistic society our attendance won't even be considered by most people according to the framework of scandal, our paradigm in that sense is external to their lives (they may even be ignorant of it), and if they aren't even (practicing) Catholics, then there is that bigger fish to fry already. Worrying about a prior divorce, or even about sodomy, at a non-Catholic ceremony, rather than worrying about the fact that it's non-Catholic, seems to be picking specks and leaving logs. If I attend a Unitarian Gay Marriage and my biggest concern is that it's a gay marriage rather than that it's Unitarian...I have my priorities misplaced (and yet, Catholics can clearly attend Unitarian services sometimes).

Even fraternal correction of fellow Catholics is not usually obligatory, and imposing our own moral assumptions (even if we do believe they are universal) on non-Catholics (or lapsed Catholics who are the equivalent), or acting like our mere presence at something they (not coming from our framework) already assume is unobjectionable constitutes scandal...strikes me as naive. We must remember the result of the debate in the early Church about keeping kosher with the Jews vs. when eating with the Gentiles.

But secondly, I would like to add, because attendance at a "wedding" doesn't necessarily involve approbation of the sex. We know divorced and remarried couples can live "as brother and sister" (especially if, say, small children are involved) and we should view any such ceremony among non-Catholics as in large part about celebrating a relationship, a partnership, and not focus on the fact that it is (probably) a sexual one. There may be much to celebrate in these relationships and commitments even if they contain a tragic moral flaw when it comes to their sexual expression. Whether it's a correct outlook or not (and we do have to be wary of reducing the essence of matrimony to romance as opposed to mating) most people nowadays would tell you their wedding was about a social expression of the love, not a legitimization of the sex.

Having said all this, I must admit I still remain a gut sort of uncomfortableness about attending invalid or objectively immoral marriages (and, indeed, I have a hesitancy about attending non-Catholic worship of any sort in general, or any expression of opposed ideology). And I don't think this uncomfortable feeling is bad. I have consistently said above that "mental reservation" is necessary in any such attendance. That, while we may out of a sort of secular courtesy attend these services for friends and family who already do not share our framework, we must nevertheless not let this undermine our own framework, must not let such recognition that not everyone shares our framework "normalize" such things for us personally, must not let ourselves buy into the "lowest common denominator" of the secular morality, must at least in our sphere (however semi-private it may now be) maintain our own moral standards and recognize them as (objectively) absolute. As such, I think we should feel uncomfortable at such events, and should remind ourselves and any fellow practicing Catholics who know about it that our own theoretical disapproval (ie, internal to our own framework) does remain intact, even if we do suck it up for the sake of not alienating people (if only so that we can remain witnesses in their lives down the line).


Anonymous said...

I too have a "gut" aversion to attending non-Catholic religious services or weddings I have doubts about. I know I have no real danger of loosing the Faith for observing the practices of heretics and schismatics or of providing any real scandal for showing up at a "wedding" reception. Hell, when I was a seminarian, I had doubts about pretty much every "Catholic" wedding I went to. Even the ones with the proper "stamp" I always wondered if they had anything really resembling the proper understanding of Catholic marriage. Some have (unfortunately) proved my doubts well founded.

I think a lot of that aversion comes from the old basic moral theology manual teaching on the subject. Back in a Catholic world, if you got married outside the Church thant was a big deal and those of us still in the Church could bring the full brunt of your former world down on you in tongue-clicking disapproval. Now days, that simply is no longer the case because most Catholics no longer know what the Church teaches about marriage (or anything for that matter) and if they ask their parish priest, he'll probably tell them some fluffy B.S. to skirt the issue, leaving someone with a traditional understanding of Church teaching with egg all over their face. If Father (it matters not that the man is, at least, a material heretic) says its OK, must be, no?

Really, it seems to me that it doesn't really matter any more in the sense that its awful hard to "scandalize" anyone by going to heretical and/or schismatic services or attend the probably invalid weddings of people who have absolutely no idea of what marriage really is even if they show up to a nominally Catholic church on Sunday. I personally rather not go to any wedding any more unless its between two Trads or otherwise decent Catholics who have some idea of what they are getting themselves into.

I always liked funerals more, but really, what's the difference between a funeral and a wedding in the NO? One your in a box and the other you aren't. Same crap vestments, same crap music and same apathetic people showing up to show some sort of natural affinity toward you and gorge themselves on the free food. If I happen to kick off any time soon and I end up with a "Celebration of Life" fun-fetti stole NO funeral, I really hope I can come back and haunt people...


Luke Togni said...

Doesn't scandal have the meaning not of "scandalizing" in the common usage, but of leading others into sin. Is it possible that by showing our consent by our presence we are leading others, often unwittingly, to do the same?

A Sinner said...

Are we though, Luke? Whom are we leading into sin in such cases? Our non-presence isn't going to STOP these weddings from occurring, and the people involved usually have no notion that there's anything wrong with what they're doing.

What the non-Catholic participants will end up thinking when you refuse their invitation is not, "He's not attending because what we're doing is wrong." No, they'll think, "He's not attending because HE THINKS what we're doing is wrong." Which ends up making the Catholic in such cases look absurd because, after all, no one is asking US to get involved in an invalid marriage ourselves, so it looks like "punishing" people who DON'T hold our moral code (as objective/absolute as it may be) for breaking OUR moral code, or rather like punishing OURSELVES for the (objective, but probably not subjectively imputed) sins of people who don't even hold our framework in the first place.

If attending an invalid Protestant wedding must be seen as "consent" or "scandal" regarding the invalid marriage...why isn't attending a VALID Protestant wedding seen as "consent" or "scandal" regarding their heretical worship!?

Because, if they already don't hold our system, then what we're doing isn't scandal for them. If I attend a temple with my Hindu friend...this isn't scandalizing him into idolatry, because he's ALREADY an idolater and my presence or non-presence as a passive observer has no significance for him in terms of a (Catholic) framework regarding it which he's not even thinking in to begin with.

I think our attitude about this sort of thing does have to be "Don't put the cart before the horse." If someone isn't even a fellow orthodox Catholic, or Catholic at all, or Christian (depending on the circumstances any one of those increasingly broad frameworks could be relevant)...worrying about them sinning INTERNAL to those putting the cart before the horse.

Let's worry about getting them to BELIEVE something is, in fact, a sin before worrying about them committing it. Let's worry about getting them a conscience BEFORE worrying about them breaking a conscience they don't even have yet.

And while some may believe that taking a strong stand and not attending a wedding is a way to begin pricking someone's conscience back into life...I tend to think usually it will just alienate people and drive them farther away.

Trust me, friends who know you are devout Catholic likely already know your position on something like homosexual sex or "marriage," or have some notion that the Catholic Church would find their marriage irregular. But they aren't Catholic (yet) and likely find "punishing" them for things they see as internal to your system (even if we know they are absolute) as bizarre as if you were to get mad at them for eating meat on Friday (even though we know that's merely a discipline, outsiders are unlikely to see any difference; they are likely to see both as attempts to impose our internal standards on them).

There is a difference between a sort of passive "tolerance" with mental reservation and being complicit in heresy or sin.

I just thought of an analogy involving a BBQ and alcohol. I'll do a new post on that.

Luke Togni said...


You say that we cannot hold non-Catholics to Catholic principles. I think you are right. But what is framework from which we judge our actions in society? The established laws? Cultural conventions? Natural Law? Even nothing?

A Sinner said...

I feel like there is a certain conservative naivitee to this "not attending weddings" idea, along the lines of pretending sin or unbelief don't exist.

As I said, going to a gay union (and celebrating what can be good in the relationship while holding mental reservation about the sex as well as the non-Catholic context of the ceremony) doesn't force ME to have gay sex (nor to become a Unitarian or whatever).

So what does not attending accomplish except avoiding some Pharisaical idea of guilt-by-association? Nothing really. It's not stopping them from sinning (that will happen either way); you're not an accomplice in that sense. If you do not in fact consent internally to sin, then being there as an observer in neutral ways doesn't constitute rejecting the moral teaching or public denial of Christ (or else, as I've implied, the fact of passive attendance at a non-Catholic or even non-Christian ceremony would have to likewise be interpreted as such.)

Instead it seems like the idea conservatives have is something silly like, "If I don't see it, it doesn't exist." Like your mere toleration of someone else's participation in their sin. As if the mere witnessing or knowledge of something that has more or less remote bad elements (after all, it's not like being at a wedding is the same as actively helping them have sex) somehow causal of them.

But this isn't true. There is no positive obligation to always "protest" something objectively sinful that we know about, especially if such a protest will accomplish nothing. Your mere ambiguous presence at an event is not participation in it necessarily; there is no moral obligation to "see no evil" as long as we are not causal IN it.

A Sinner said...

As for what standards in a pluralistic society, I try to make this clear in my more recent post on the topic: ethics, not morality.

When it is a question of someone's RIGHTS being violated, when we believe there is a victim who needs defending (and that victim can be reasonably interpreted as wanting such defense)...then we must stand up for them even if the perpetrator doesn't agree. If I believe abortion is murder, I can't say to a woman "Well, but you don't believe it, so I'll tolerate it in you." As an attitude towards the state of her soul, that might be fine...but our primary concern in fighting abortion publicly isn't the SIN of the Mother and Abortionist (which is really none of our business)...rather, it's the CRIME being committed AGAINST the Child.

With issues of "victimless" morality, then, questions of notions of personal virtue...I'd say that even in a totally Catholic society, it is not anyone's job to hold anyone to these standards in a coercive fashion. It is the job of the Church (and of friends) to challenge a person in a pastoral/"medicinal" fashion, but where there is no question of ethics, of other people's rights being ultimately can't force MORALITY on people.

Unless we were to draw the line in the sand at the State of Grace and say "I can only deal with you if you are not in a state of mortal sin" (obviously impossible and unworkable)...drawing any other line of "acceptability" when it comes to what we can or should tolerate in terms of personal morality or arbitrary.

It's not our place to hold people to moral standards. We need to defend OTHER people's rights, certainly, but it's not our place to impose moral standards on people (though we may challenge friends who do share those standards certainly), as long as we do not participate ourselves in their sins.