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Question 36: Should the family of someone marrying invalidly participate in the wedding?

I am writing on behalf of my husband and eldest daughter as well as myself. My second daughter, Irene, is about to attempt marriage with a should-be Catholic, Nick, who was married in the Church and then divorced. He thinks he can get an annulment, but he has not yet done anything about it. A college classmate of his who is now a minister will perform the ceremony at a Protestant church. Though Irene has no intention of leaving the Catholic Church, she agreed to this after our pastor told her that she could not marry Nick unless and until his first marriage is annulled.

Irene expects us to fulfill the social and financial responsibilities of the bride’s parents, as we would if she were marrying in the Church, and she also has asked her sister to be maid of honor. If Irene were marrying someone free to marry and marrying in the Church, we would have no problem with any of this, especially because Nick, apart from his marital situation, seems to us entirely acceptable. As it is, though, it does not seem right to act as if there were no problem. But if we do not go along with Irene’s plans, we are afraid she will never forgive us.

Should we cooperate? If not, should we even so much as attend the wedding? Whatever we do right now, we also are wondering how we should treat the couple afterwards. In the eyes of the Church, they will not be married. Still, we will want to have some sort of relationship with them.


This question concerns two things: material cooperation by family members with an invalid wedding and norms for relating to the couple afterwards. At all times, family members should maintain familial solidarity with their daughter and sister. But cooperating with the wedding, and even attending it, would have several bad moral effects. So, family members, in my opinion, should not cooperate with the wedding ceremony, attend it, or give the couple a wedding gift. Afterwards, family members should not treat the couple as married, but should treat the man as a close friend of their daughter and sister, and, without nagging, should encourage the couple to fulfill their responsibilities.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Despite Irene’s decision to enter a union that will not be a valid marriage, she is and always will remain your daughter and sister. You must continue to honor the reality and value of these relationships, and always treat her with familial affection and concern. No matter what else you do, avoid all harshness and do whatever is both morally permissible and otherwise possible to sustain good parental and sisterly relationships with her.

Nevertheless, in my judgment, you should not help organize, pay for, or participate in the wedding ceremony or any of the celebrations connected with it. I do not think you should give the couple a wedding gift, attend the ceremony, or do anything else that would be inappropriate if they were simply setting up housekeeping together without any pretense of marrying.126 Why? Because in this situation, as in all others, you should bear witness to the faith, which includes the truth about marriage’s indissolubility. To act as if an attempted remarriage after divorce were a real marriage is to belie the truth; to refuse to be involved is necessary to proclaim your faith about this matter, which, though not so basic as the truths that comprise the Creed, is as essential as any other truth of faith. Helping organize, paying for, or participating in the ceremony would imply that you approved, and your approval not only would encourage them but could give encouragement to other couples similarly situated to attempt marriage and so enter into ongoing nonmarital relationships. Even giving the couple a wedding gift or attending the ceremony would suggest that they really are marrying; moreover, you hardly could attend without seeming to approve unless you made your disapproval clear to everyone concerned, which very likely would be more alienating than simply staying away.

Someone might argue that you could cooperate in Irene’s wedding while at the same time making your disapproval clear to the couple. In support of that view, it might be pointed out that, if invited, you probably would attend the wedding celebration of a divorced non-Catholic who was a close friend and certainly would send a gift. In Irene’s case, however, you are certain that the attempted marriage will be invalid, while the significance of others’ attempts often is unclear. Even more important, toward your daughter and sister you have a responsibility you seldom have toward others: to try to dissuade her from going through with her plan. Your admonition will be undercut if you simultaneously agree to cooperate in carrying the plan out, and you cannot truthfully refuse cooperation while at the same time meaning to cooperate if she goes ahead despite your effort to dissuade her.

Moreover, attending a friend’s party and giving a gift manifests solidarity with the person as a friend without expressing a definite view about the occasion of the celebration. By contrast, a son’s or daughter’s wedding, though the beginning of a new family, is also in some way a completing of the parents’ work, so that normally they celebrate this fulfillment of their own marriage as well as the beginning of the young couple’s.

Then too, even in our society, parents and elder siblings generally have some influence upon a young person’s decision to marry. If therefore you conformed to social conventions about the family’s role in weddings, you would manifest approval and joy; whereas conforming to social conventions when one’s friends attempt marriage lacks that parental significance. One usually has nothing to do with their decision and is not celebrating one’s own fulfillment.

If you refuse to do what Irene wants, what should you do? In my judgment, your best approach probably will be to sit down with her and Nick, tell them you are not going to cooperate with or participate in the wedding, and explain exactly why, namely, because you consider yourselves bound in conscience not to act as if their legal relationship were going to be a genuine marriage. Tell them that you realize your course of action will cause them pain, as it does you, and express your regret about that. You should try to dissuade them from proceeding, but make no threats. Be prepared to remain calm and gentle even if they become angry and abusive. Make it clear you are not cutting them off, as if you expected never to see them again. But do not say how you plan to treat them if they go ahead, since that would presuppose they are going to proceed and so would undercut your effort to dissuade them.

Of course, they probably will proceed, and then you should consider communicating directly with Nick’s parents to explain to them why you will not fulfill the usual responsibilities of a bride’s parents. If you do communicate with them, tell them that you are not motivated by any antagonism toward Nick or them, and that you regret any pain or inconvenience your noncooperation with the wedding will cause them. Nick’s parents may distrust your motives and suggest that you are trying to evade your financial responsibilities. Such an accusation should not trouble you, but if it does, you might counter it by making a charitable donation in their name of money you would have spent on the wedding.

In the aftermath of the wedding, treat Irene with familial affection, keep in touch with her, and welcome her calls and visits. When the couple are together, you should treat them as you would if they were not married and the man were Irene’s close friend. Do not invite them to your home to stay overnight as if they were married. You may, however, invite them to family celebrations and may visit their residence. But you should discourage behavior in your presence that would be appropriate only if they were validly married. You may give gifts on occasions such as birthdays and Christmas that would be appropriate even if Irene were living by herself and the man were simply a family friend, but do not remember wedding anniversaries or give anything specifically suited to a married couple.

Irene and Nick still should pray and fulfill their other religious responsibilities, including going to Mass, but they should not receive Communion. When appropriate, encourage them to fulfill these responsibilities. If the couple have children, you should welcome them as your grandchildren and treat them accordingly. Encourage the parents to have their children baptized and to bring them up in the faith.127

All this is appropriate to maintain familial solidarity with Irene, to encourage the couple eventually to repent, and, meanwhile, to fulfill other responsibilities and avoid other sins. Therefore, I think you should explain to Irene, shortly after the wedding ceremony, how you plan to act toward her and Nick and your reasons for doing so. Over the long term, it will be hard not to treat the continuing situation as settled and entirely acceptable, especially if they get along reasonably well and have children, for there will be a real family bond between you and your grandchildren. But, without constantly nagging and scolding, you should resist the tendency to endorse the nonmarital relationship. While your rejection of it should be gentle, it should be sufficiently clear so that the couple never will be able to feel it has ceased to be a problem.

127. See CIC, c. 867, regarding parents’ duty to have children baptized; there need only be a well-founded hope that the children will be raised as Catholics (see CIC, c. 868, §2); and Catholic parents in irregular unions have a duty to raise their children in the faith—see John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 84, AAS 74 (1982) 185, OR, 21–28 Dec. 1981, 17.