Where we live, Catholics are a small minority; most people are either nonbelievers or evangelical Protestants. During high school, our eldest daughter, Helen, gravitated toward the latter group. We approved, since her friends were decent young people, and there was no practical alternative. When Helen began participating in a Bible study and prayer group with some of her friends, we did not oppose it, though my husband did regularly talk with her about the ideas she was picking up, and we also insisted that she continue to attend the religious education classes at our parish.
Nevertheless, without our realizing it, Helen was being converted by her Protestant friends. Last year, just after her high school graduation, she told us one Saturday evening that she considered herself a born-again Christian and not a Catholic. She said she no longer believed in the Mass and could not go to church with us any more. At first we argued with her, and my husband got her to talk with our former pastor, a very good priest who retired some years ago. But she would not change her mind. Soon she was enrolled in a Protestant church and since then has been a very active member of it.
For several months, Helen has been going with a man, just a few years older, who was baptized and brought up in that church, and also is very active in it. Mark is a fine young man—mature, strong yet gentle, and very respectful and friendly toward us. He also has a good job in his dad’s business. So, when Helen and Mark told us recently that they are engaged, we would have been pleased, except that, as we had expected, they plan to get married in the Protestant church.
Helen wants us to finance the wedding and participate in it, as the bride’s parents normally do. My husband and I are not sure what we should do. In the first place, our former pastor told us he does not think Helen will really be getting married if the wedding is in the Protestant church, since Catholics normally must be married by a priest. But I talked with our present pastor, and he did not think that would be a problem, because, he said, the rule about being married by a priest no longer applies to people who leave the Church. Not knowing which priest is right, we are not sure whether Helen and Mark really will be getting married, though they certainly will think they are. In the second place, even if that is not a problem, we are not sure how involved we ought to be in this Protestant wedding. (Our worry is about what is right, not about money. The young couple already have told us they do not want a fancy wedding and have said they will pay any bills that would be a problem for us.)
Though I have examined my conscience and cannot see where we went wrong, I feel as if Helen’s leaving the Church and becoming a Protestant somehow were our fault. That makes me very anxious not to do anything to make her situation worse. My husband feels we did the best we could by her, but he also is worried about how far we should go in cooperating with the wedding plans, especially if she won’t really be getting married.
There are two questions: whether the marriage will be valid, and to what extent the parents should participate in the wedding. According to the present law of the Catholic Church, if Helen has left the Church by a formal act and no other impediment exists, she can be married validly in a Protestant ceremony. She probably has left the Church by a formal act, but to ease her parents’ concern, she could easily do what would certainly be a formal act of leaving the Catholic Church. Once assured that Helen’s marriage will be valid, her parents may finance the wedding and attend it, and may participate in elements of worship consistent with Catholic faith. A full response to the parents’ concerns also will offer advice about carrying on the religious dimension of their relationship with the young couple and helping them prepare for marriage.
Your former pastor is right: Catholics normally must be married by a priest—or, more precisely, must make their marital vows in the presence of the bishop or pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who asks for the couple’s consent to marriage and receives it in the name of the Church.122 Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which your former pastor no doubt studied and worked with, Helen would have been bound by this requirement, so that her planned marriage in a Protestant church could not have been valid. But your present pastor also is right in saying the rule has changed. It no longer applies to those who, though baptized as Catholics or received into the Church, have “left it by a formal act” (CIC, c. 1117). Your former pastor perhaps is not aware of the change in the law (which went into effect only in 1983), or, if he is, does not think Helen has left the Church by a formal act. Your present pastor undoubtedly thinks Helen did that, and so thinks she will be marrying validly in the Protestant church.
Neither priest is simply mistaken. Their disagreement can be resolved by answering the question: Has Helen left the Catholic Church by a formal act? Unfortunately, canon lawyers I have consulted say that nothing in the Church’s law precisely defines what counts as leaving by a formal act.123 Still, they do agree that some cases are clear. Merely ceasing to practice the Catholic faith, even if one sometimes participates in non-Catholic worship, is not enough. However, not only ceasing to practice the faith but notifying one’s bishop or pastor in writing that one has decided to withdraw from the Catholic Church and no longer considers oneself bound by her law would count as leaving by a formal act. So would ceasing to participate in the Catholic Church and being admitted to membership in a non-Catholic religious body by means of a ceremony in which one abjured Catholicism and promised fidelity to that religious body.
The church Helen joined perhaps has no admission ceremony in which she would have had to renounce her Catholicism. However, you say she was enrolled in it, and she clearly expressed her intentions the evening she told you and your husband she could not go to church with you any more; her actions since then have shown she meant what she said and is carrying out a firm decision. That evidence, it seems to me, indicates that Helen would have complied with any formalities the church she joined required of her, and this in turn implies, I believe, that she has indeed left the Catholic Church by a formal act. Otherwise, whether the Catholic Church counts someone as having left would be contingent on differences among other religious bodies’ various requirements for admission; and these differences are irrelevant to the relationships to the Catholic Church of people who choose to leave her.
Since Helen no longer considers herself Catholic, she is not likely to be concerned about this problem, but she should be able to see why it concerns you. You could explain to her that, though you hope she eventually will return to the Catholic Church, she would put your mind at rest regarding this possible impediment to her marriage if she would send your pastor a written statement of what she told you last year: that she considers herself a born-again Christian and not a Catholic, and that she does not wish to be counted as a Catholic or bound by the Church’s law. She should have no trouble doing that and, if she does, she certainly will have left the Church by a formal act.
You might hesitate to ask Helen to send such a statement to the pastor, feeling that doing so would make her break with the Church irrevocable. But she already has made clear her present position, and her written statement will pose no obstacle to returning to the Church if she comes to see that she should not have left.
The requirement discussed thus far, as you are no doubt aware, is by no means the only one for a valid marriage. Attempted marriages can be invalid for many other reasons—for example, because one or both parties remain validly married to someone else despite having obtained a civil divorce. Before concluding that Helen’s marriage to Mark will be valid, consider other possible impediments that would apply to non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Your former or present pastor will be able to give you a check list and, I am sure, will advise you about how to carry out the suggestions I shall make about helping the young couple prepare for marriage.
Having assured yourself that Helen and Mark really are getting married, you and your husband, as the bride’s parents, may finance the wedding and attend it. However, though you should assume that Helen has been following her conscience and should not press her to act against it, you should not do anything to suggest that her leaving the Catholic Church was objectively right or that both faiths are equally good ways to follow Christ, for any such suggestion would be at odds with your own faith. To avoid that, you also should leave planning the Protestant ceremony, carrying it out, and paying any stipends connected with it to the young couple themselves and those who share their beliefs. Moreover, though a Catholic attending a Protestant service may join in it insofar as it is compatible with Catholic faith, Catholics should never receive at a Protestant communion service or join in any prayers or hymns at odds with Catholic doctrine.
In planning and limiting your involvement in the wedding, you and your husband should discuss any problems with the young couple, and ask them to respect your consciences as you will respect theirs. Bear in mind that Helen and Mark still share genuine Christian faith with you, and, like other faithful Protestants, are not entirely separated from the Catholic Church (see UR 3–4). Learn about their religious outlook and try to understand it as sympathetically as possible. Encourage Helen to help Mark understand your Catholic convictions and practices. Such communication will help everyone concerned appreciate how much you share in common. Pray together, using mutually acceptable prayers; you also might visit the young couple’s church occasionally. At the same time, take care always to make it clear that you firmly hold everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches. In this way, you will practice genuine ecumenism in this difficult family situation.
Since both Helen and Mark are Christians, their marriage, if valid, also will be a sacrament, even if the young couple do not think it is. You should rejoice at the prospect of their marriage and support them in preparing appropriately for it. Encourage them to be chaste during the engagement period, to discuss with each other and resolve questions about how they will handle typical problems such as finances and child spacing, and to prepare to commit themselves unconditionally to an unbreakable union.
In offering them this help in preparing for marriage, you should try not to make issues of matters on which their Protestant beliefs diverge from Catholic teaching—for example, concerning contraception, the sacramentality of marriage, and marriage’s indissolubility. Non-Catholics can form valid sacramental marriages despite holding erroneous views on these matters. (A couple’s plan sometimes to practice contraception does not invalidate a marriage, though their determination entirely to exclude children would; similarly, a Protestant couple’s taking for granted their church’s views on divorce does not invalidate their marriage, though limiting their consent to exclude an indissoluble relationship in their own case would.)
Rather than talking about the sacramentality of marriage, you might discuss with the young couple scriptural passages bearing on marriage (you will find a good collection of such passages in the Lectionary of the Mass).124 If Helen and/or Mark tell you they are planning to practice contraception, you might point out to them that some Protestants regard it as gravely immoral.125 In any case, give the reasons for practicing natural family planning (NFP) instead and point out the negative aspects of various methods of contraception—for example, that IUDs and contraceptive drugs in any form sometimes prevent births by acting as abortifacients. Likewise, warn them that, once married, they are likely to encounter difficulties that will challenge their love and faithfulness, and tell them that, by self-sacrificing mutual love and individual self-control, they must resist all such temptations, beginning with the temptation to wish they had not married or had chosen someone else—a gravely bad thought that spouses always must put aside firmly (see LCL, 619–20).
Like many parents today, you feel guilty that your child has left the Church. But everything you say about your relationship with Helen and your concern about her indicates that your responsibility for what she did was very limited. Your husband probably is right—you did the best you could. No doubt, you were not perfect but made some mistakes and were guilty of some venial sins of commission and omission. Having examined your conscience, however, you are not aware of anything you should have done differently. So, there never was a time when you were aware of some grave duty toward Helen and chose not to fulfill it.
Your heart should be at peace. Pray constantly not only for Helen, as I am sure you are doing, but for Mark too. Thank God that they believe in Jesus—many young people have entirely abandoned faith—and pray that they will faithfully live according to what they believe true. If they do, they will be faithful to Christ, and you can hope with confidence that they will live and die in God’s love, so that all of you will be able to love one another as Jesus wills, both in this world and forever in heaven, where all divisions will be overcome.
122. See CIC, c. 1108, §1. The requirement admits of certain exceptions, and can be dispensed by the bishop (see CIC, cc. 1116 and 1127), but these provisions are not relevant to the present problem.
123. For discussion and references to some studies, see The Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland in association with The Canadian Canon Law Society, The Canon Law: Letter and Spirit: A Practical Guide to the Code of Canon Law (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995), commentary on c. 1086, §1).
124. The relevant passages, together with sound marriage preparation guidance, are in: John F. Kippley, Marriage Is for Keeps: Foundations for Christian Marriage, wedding edition with marriage rite and readings (Cincinnati, Ohio: Foundation for the Family, 1994).
125. Charles D. Provan, The Bible and Birth Control (Monongahela, Penn.: Zimmer, 1989), presents nine scripturally based arguments against contraception and cites many Protestant theologians against it from the Reformation until recently.