Editor's Note: This story was updated on Aug. 11.
There has never been a marriage debate — no matter what the Supreme Court has decided on the constitutionality of same-sex “marriage” — in the Catholic Church.
“Many people want it to be a debate, but you can’t call it something it’s not — it’s not marriage,” said Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa, author, apologist and host for EWTN Radio and TV, of same-sex “marriage.”
According to him, there is only one marriage debate for Catholics, and it’s something that comes up regularly on his radio show: “Is it okay to attend a wedding when a baptized Catholic gets married outside of the Church?”
The reason behind the debate is because the Code of Canon Law states: “Only those marriages are valid which are contracted before the local [bishop], pastor or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them who assist, and before two witnesses” (1108 §1).
Canon law does not prohibit Catholics from attending invalid weddings, Father Pacwa explained, but he said that Catholics must discern carefully. “Every situation will call upon our reserves of prayer, discernment and evaluation,” he said. “And a good confession before making any decision is always a good idea.”
According to him, maintaining peace within families is very important, but there is also the question of motive: “Are they trying to put me in an uncomfortable position to prove their point? Or do they simply not see that there is an issue at stake?”
A third situation, he said, involves people without any faith who do not consider a religious ceremony.
Father Angel Perez-Lopez, formation adviser and assistant professor of philosophical ethics and sacred moral theology at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver, explained that a Catholic is bound by the canonical form of marriage, even if he or she strays from the Church.
According to Father Perez-Lopez, this whole issue demands an exercise of the virtue of prudence. A great number of important circumstances may change the moral scenario. On the one hand, one certainly wants to avoid cooperation in evil and scandal. “By attending these marriages, you don’t want to give the impression that you approve of their not following the canonical form of marriage,” he said. “You need to make it clear you do not agree with that. Moreover, one should avoid being an active participant of the ceremony.”
On the other hand, under certain circumstances and keeping with what was said above, there could be good reasons to attend such weddings, Father Perez-Lopez pointed out. In some case, Father Perez-Lopez said, a civil marriage may be the first step for a couple in recognizing the importance of marriage.
Recognizing that step, and inviting couples to the sacrament of matrimony, could be valuable, he said. “You want to maintain a good relationship to keep the door open to help lead them back into the Church.”
Rita Ciavarella of Bismarck, N.D., said she and her husband, Rick, made the decision not to attend invalid weddings.
“When our four children were young, I told them that Dad and I would always love them, but if they married outside of the Church, we would not be able to go.” All four married in the Church, but when nieces and nephews began marrying, it often put them in a difficult position.
“How could we go when we had told our children we would not attend their weddings if they married outside of the Church?” she said. “At first, we struggled with each one, but then just decided it would be best not to attend any, since there would be hurt feelings if we attended some but not others.”
Ciaverella said she feels it is the best decision for them. “I’ve told our grandchildren the same thing: ‘I love you, and I would give my life for you, but if you get married outside of the Church, I won’t be able to come.’”
Michael McKeown, deacon at St. Mary’s Church in Seaforth, Minn., said that in discerning whether or not to attend, he looks at the intention of the invitation.
“As a deacon, I have to be careful that my presence isn’t seen as a stamp of approval by the Catholic Church. If I felt this to be the case, I wouldn't attend.”
If it’s a close relative getting married, and it is a Christian wedding, he said he does his best to attend because maintaining family relationships is important.
Nine years ago, John Anthony (not his real name) of Davies, Fla., said that when his sister married outside of the Church, he attended with his family, but declined to have his children participate in the ceremony. “The whole thing was very awkward, and I’m sure my parents, as well as others, looked at us as judgmental and un-Christian,” he said. “I know we made the right decision, but I would not want to be put in the same position again.”
For their part, Mike Splonskowski and his wife, Karen, from Lake Park, Minn., taught their 13 children that getting married to another Catholic in the Church increases the chance of marital success by receiving all possible graces. Thus far, all 10 of their married children have followed that advice.
When it comes to attending weddings of relatives, Splonskowski said he decides on a case-by-case basis. “There has been times it may have strained the relationship if we had not showed up,” Splonskowski said. “In some cases, we did not attend the service but went to the reception to show respect that the couple did not just ‘shack up.’”
For the times Splonskowski chooses not to attend, he said he lets the couple know why, adding that he and Karen still love them and want to stay in contact. In at least one instance, he said a couple mentioned his family not attending their wedding as a contributing factor to their later deciding to get their marriage blessed.
“We don’t want to make harsh judgments and don’t believe in making enemies,” he said. “Everything has to be done in charity.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.