My daughter, much to my dismay, has just announced that she is to “marry” in a garden with a civil celebrant. Naturally I am very upset about this, but I think I should somehow show her my support, as I have always done. Can I attend the ceremony?
Of all the questions we priests are asked, I suspect this one is the most frequent. And the most messy. I have been considering answering it in this column for a long time, and have finally decided to do so.
It is not an easy question and there is no simple answer.
There are two strong, irreconcilable goods at stake and choosing between them inevitably leaves one of them wounded. The two goods are of course respect for the truth about Christian marriage and love for one’s family and friends.
Over the years I have read articles on this question which take a strong line against attending the wedding in all cases. I am not prepared to accept that position. But let me explain.
Attending the wedding of a Catholic that is not going to be recognised as valid by the Church is an instance of what is called cooperation in evil. I leave aside the question of whether the person getting married actually regards their action as sinful. They may not, but it is still objectively wrong.
According to traditional Catholic moral theology, one should ordinarily not cooperate in the sinful deeds of another, but there are circumstances in which one may do so.
First of all, one can never cooperate formally; that is, agreeing with and accepting the sin. This would be the case of someone who saw nothing wrong with attending an invalid wedding.
In your question you make clear that you do not agree with what your daughter is doing, so your cooperation would not be formal, but rather what is called material.
Secondly, one can cooperate materially only if there is a proportionate reason to do so.
And the more proximate, as distinct from remote, the cooperation is, the stronger the reason one needs to justify cooperating.
For example, in a civil celebration the celebrant, the best man and the maid of honour cooperate more proximately or closely than those who merely attend. Without their cooperation the wedding would not go ahead, because a celebrant and two witnesses are necessary for the validity of the marriage.
Normally, one should never cooperate with this close degree of cooperation.
Those who merely attend the wedding are cooperating more remotely, since even if they do not attend, the wedding will still go ahead.
And they can justify attending if they have a proportionate reason to do so. Such a reason would be their judgment that if they do not attend they will seriously harm their relationship with the person who is getting married.
This is not easy to determine in many cases. Sometimes, only after they have failed to attend do they see how seriously they have harmed the relationship. This very uncertainty can argue in favour of attending, in order not to risk endangering the relationship.
Thus the closer the person considering attending is to the person getting married, the more reason there can be to attend. If one is a close relative or a close friend, there can be more reason to attend than if one is only a distant relative or a casual acquaintance.
If having considered this criterion, someone decides to attend the wedding there are still two more matters to be taken into account.
Firstly, they must make clear to the person getting married that they do not agree with what the person is doing, and explain that they wish the person would change their mind and get married by the Church.
Secondly, they must avoid giving scandal to others by their attendance. For this it is normally sufficient to let others know that they disagree with the wedding but feel obliged to attend in order not to jeopardise their relationship with the person.
Even with this criterion, it can still be very difficult to decide whether or not to attend. Sometimes members of the immediate family are divided on the issue. In this case they can always consult their pastor for help in deciding on the best course of action.
At least, people should know that it is not always sinful to attend.