The following letter written by Janet E. Smith, Ph.D. is filled with wisdom, truth, and charity. My husband and I agonize over wedding invitations from our godchildren, nieces, and nephews marrying outside of the Church. If you are in a similar situation I think you will find this to be a tremendous resource. Thank you, Janet!
Dear Linda (and Ted),
I was very pleased that your father called the other night to see if there was some way we could work to get me to your wedding. I do want to be there! I am sorry you are upset about the conversation you and I had a few weeks ago. I just tried to be honest with you about my thinking and feelings; I definitely did not mean to cast any shade on your preparations for your special day.
I continue to puzzle about the right thing to do. I talk about it with my friends and they ask me why you don’t want to get married in the Catholic Church, and I realize I don’t really know why you have rejected Catholicism. I really wish you would tell me. I sincerely would like to understand your thinking.
Maybe you are doing a lot to prepare spiritually for your marriage and I am just not aware of it. I don’t want to make assumptions that are false.
I often ask myself why I shouldn’t just accept the fact that you and I don’t agree on some fundamentals and go to your wedding. You certainly do have a right to your own values and opinions.
But this is where life gets interesting and hard. We need to be able to agree to disagree, but we also need to stick to our guns when we believe fundamental truths are in danger and when we believe people we love are making bad choices.
We now live in a time where males can say they are females and participate in women’s sports. A male can marry another male and a female another female. In some places, laws are being written to allow several males and females to marry each other. Some say a baby in a womb is just a bunch of tissue. All of those values and opinions are a terrible distortion of reality and lead to all kinds of trouble in this world.
The decision you are making is not, of course, equivalent to those examples; you have some of the most basic elements necessary for a marriage, and your relationship could participate in the fullness of marriage—it could be the real thing. But to truly be a marriage it needs to be fully blessed by God—for marriage is God’s creation. Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the strong attraction between a man and a woman to be the “raw material” of love which needs to be shaped in the right way and protected to develop into the love that will last a lifetime. He warned against “squandering” the raw material of love.
Are you writing your own vows? I would love to see those. What you are pledging to makes a very great difference. Some of those who get married outside of the Church do have valid marriages because of what they understand marriage to be. There is such a thing as natural marriage, which is between an unbaptized man and a woman who vow to have an indissoluble and faithful union open to children. If the parties getting married are baptized, the marriage is a sacramental marriage—though it is not valid or sacramental if one of the persons is a baptized Catholic getting married outside the Church.
Many baptized Catholics have a hard time understanding why they need to abide by Church teachings even if they no longer accept Catholicism. In fact, they may never have really accepted it—they were baptized as infants and then just did what they were told. It is not an altogether easy thing to understand. A useful analogy can be with citizenship—we are born into a country and that brings with it all sorts of obligations—for some even the obligation to fight for their country whether they want to or not; whether they agree with the war being waged or not. We also have to live with the name we are given. Though we can change our citizenship and name, it is not necessarily easy to do.
For those of us who are baptized and understand the promises of Christianity, baptism is a gift, not a burden. Few people think it unfair if they are born rich or beautiful. Baptism is something infinitely better than being born rich or beautiful—it sets us on the path to salvation.
Let me further lay out what my thinking on marriage is.
I am very happy that you have met Ted, a man who makes you so happy. God, who is Love itself, made us to love and be loved, and finding true love is one of the most wonderful things in this life. God made the whole universe for our delight and wants us to go through life delighting in it with beloved others. You are off to a good start.
Apart from deciding whether or not to follow Jesus as our Savior, there is no more important decision we make than whom we marry and how we marry—a happy marriage makes every joy greater and every hardship easier to bear. At the same time, there are few greater challenges in life than sustaining love throughout marriage. It can be done but only by those who work hard at it. That work is tremendously easier if God is part of the picture. A famous priest, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, wrote a wonderful book—Three to Get Married (I am sending you a copy)—in which he spoke of marriage as being between the man and the woman and God.
God loves love and loves marriage. He uses the image of marriage throughout Scripture. The Bible starts the story of mankind with a marriage—between Adam and Eve. Jesus performed His first miracle at the wedding of Cana. God speaks of Himself as our bridegroom and spouse. Heaven is described as a wedding feast.
And here is something to consider: marriage is a sacrament because it is a sign of supernatural realities. Marriage is a sign of the bond between Christ and the Church—Christ has made an act of complete self-giving to the Church, one of unconditional, indissoluble love. Priests are a sign of the radical love commitment Jesus made, and therefore they don’t get married in part so they can be a source of love to all. Spouses represent Jesus’ love and commitment to the world in a different way—they pledge to love their spouse unconditionally and thereby to help each other and the children they may have to get to Heaven. Both the priesthood and marriage are vocations—callings to live out the Christian commitment to complete self-gift and radical love and to be a sign of that life to the world. Good marriages bring great good into the world for everyone.
Nothing is clearer than that God has definite ideas on how we are to use the gifts He gives us…clear from the Garden of Eden. When we live in accord with His plan for things, and thus in His grace, we will maximize our chances for happiness (sadly, given that it is a fallen world, there are no guarantees). If we don’t live in accord with His plan for things, we generally make a mess of things. Fidelity to what is true, good, and beautiful is key to our relationship with God and to marriage.
As delightful and important as your love for each other is, even more important is to love Jesus and to allow yourself to experience Jesus’ love. Jesus came to teach us how to sacrifice, how to be generous, and how to love. When you love someone, you want to chase after them, spend all your life with them, and make all your decisions with them. Doing so will actually make you more loving toward everyone in your life. The best ways to fall in love with Jesus are to read Scripture, go to Church, pray, and receive the sacraments. Spend a lot of time with Him!
I hope that someday those things will become a regular feature of your life. I wish your mother were alive to discuss these matters with you. As you know, she stopped going to Church for some time, and for that reason she would understand where you are right now. She came back with a vengeance when she started having kids and realized she needed all the help she could get to keep His kids out of harm’s way. Luckily, your dad was on board with that. You and your mother would be having intense discussions right now, precisely because she loves you so much. She would want to share with you the truths she discovered and found essential to being a loving wife, mother, and friend.
Much of marriage means bending your will to the will of your spouse and vice versa. Self-sacrifice and generosity are vital to a good marriage. They are also vital to our relationship with God. Every Christian church has teachings on marriage—teachings believed to come from God Himself; basically: sex belongs within marriage; marriage is for building an intimate, loving relationship and having children; marriage must be faithful; and it is never to end in divorce.
You and I have been born into Catholic families and were baptized Catholics. You may find that to be a burden. For me, it has been a blessing beyond belief. It has helped me understand Jesus better. During the times of my life when I was far from Jesus, I was confused and often miserable. The closer I get to Christ, the greater peace and happiness I find.
I know you haven’t decided just how religion is going to fit into your life. Deciding whether or not God exists, whether Jesus was the Son of God, and whether the Catholic Church was truly established by God are not decisions that can wait until we get around to it; for our whole lives—and our eternal salvation—will be determined by that decision. Jesus set up a Church and established sacraments that mark key points in our lives—and marriage is most certainly one of those key points. Jesus wants to pour graces upon us at each of those points to enable us to go in the right direction, to move forward in life fully “armed” with graces to face the challenges that will arise, and basically to live in accord with God’s will.
I have committed myself fully to living in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church because I believe doing so keeps me close to Jesus. Part of that commitment means that at all times I need to be a witness to what I believe to be true, even if it makes people angry with me…and even if it hurts those I don’t want to hurt.
As I told you, I agonize over all wedding invitations from those who have been baptized Catholic but decide not to get married as Catholics. To get married outside of the Church signals that one has left the Church. (The Catholic Church does permit getting married outside the Church, but it must be done in accord with norms set by the Church.) So, attending the wedding of someone who is getting married outside the Church amounts to celebrating someone leaving the Church and embarking upon a path not designated by God. Obviously, I have made some exceptions to that, as I explained to you…but the closer I feel to someone, the more important it is for me to be the witness I have pledged to be. You are my goddaughter, the daughter of my favorite cousin, and very dear to me. This is a serious business for me.
The reason I would like you and Ted to take a marriage prep course—Catholic or Protestant—is to give you every opportunity to have God in the picture. Many times, we just haven’t given full consideration to what God’s plan is. I know it will be hard to carve out time for it as you prepare for the wedding, but I am certain you will find it advantageous.
Last Sunday, I attended what is known as a betrothal ceremony, where an engaged couple pledges to get married and to devote themselves to preparing for marriage. It was even followed by a reception. It was wonderful, and I think you might enjoy seeing what it is all about.
The two marriage preparation courses I recommend are “Witness to Love” (Catholic) or Focus on the Family’s “Ready to Wed” (Protestant, which may be more acceptable to Ted). I would be happy to pay for either one (or both, if you want to do both!). Of course, you may find versions that would suit you better.
I would also be happy to recommend some good books and to discuss them with you if you wish. In fact, here are a few good articles that explain certain things: “What’s the Difference Between a ‘Natural Marriage’ and a ‘Sacramental Marriage’?”; “The Sacramentality and Indissolubility of Marriage”; and “Love and the Mystery of Sacramental Marriage.”
I would very much like to come, if only for the reception, and I hope we can find some way that the commitments of both of us are honored. I am sure it will be a beautiful event and I would love to be there with everyone.
As I said at the outset, I would love to understand better why you and Ted have made the decisions you have in respect to getting married. I would love to have a Zoom session with you, mostly for listening to your views—I have set out mine above. Please let me know if you are open to that.
I so hope this disagreement about the wedding doesn’t lead to a rift between us. It needn’t—we can respect each other and do what we think is right.
Love you lots, Linda, and am praying ardently for it all to work out.
Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., is a retired professor of moral theology.
This letter appeared in Crisis Magazine on January 27, 2022
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