Driving home from clinicals this afternoon, I was hopping around the radio dial and ended up on a Catholic AM station. I would normally listen to NPR when I'm in the mood for talk, but they were discussing the new diet drug "Alli" and I've dealth with more than enough fecal incontinence to not need to hear about it on the radio. A caller revisited a topic the host had discussed in a previous show, wherein he told someone that it would be wrong for him/her to attend a wedding of a Catholic to a non-Catholic. The caller, who described her family as "very Catholic", was troubled by the host's statement because her son (himself apparently quite Catholic, as well) is engaged to a non-Catholic and she found the idea that she should boycott the wedding, and possibly the reception, to be "arrogant, harsh, legalistic and unloving." The host's response was rather lackluster and it wasn't entirely clear whether or not a Catholic marrying a Protestant or Orthodox is more acceptable in his mind than marrying a Buddhist or some such.
Initially, I favored the argument of the mother. How is it witnessing to the love of Christ to refuse to attend your own son's wedding? What kind of message does that send to the would-be daughter-in-law? I'm not one for an overly pragmatic view of things - what's right should be done regardless of how others perceive it - so the question is what's right? Is communicating disapproval of the marriage right? I agree there are some serious problems with the marriage of a believer to a non-believer, problems internal to the marriage, to the individuals and externally to the community of believers. So if the disapproval is correct, is this the best way to communicate that? Is showing love right? Of course, is that really showing love? If you truly believe that Christ is the answer to the most important questions and that the marriage relationship incarnationally expresses God's relationship with those who believe he is the answer, well then, it really isn't very loving to let someone go on thinking that they're okey-dokey without him. Denying your beliefs for the sake of some culturally-arbitrary definition of "loving" sure doesn't make the grade. But all of these questions are murky, with nebulous boundaries smudged by shoddy thinking and poorly grounded faith. I doubt that many people in today's America are really able to think clearly on these issues, especially not people of my generation. We've got too many different influences, most of them well-intentioned but still hopelessly wrong, to be able to chart a clear course. And if, by miracle or luck, we are able to faithfully and thoughtfully find a position we think corresponds to God's, it is highly unlikely that our arguments will seem convincing to many others. (I know this sounds pretty negative, but frankly, after listening to my peers discuss deep and difficult ethical questions surrounding the beginning and end of life, I realize that my generation not only doesn't have the intellectual and moral ability to think through these subjects, they don't care to even try.) So arguing, as the host and caller did, from a utilitarian perspective is, in itself, not very utilitarian; it just won't get the job done. One person is talking about hammers and the other about screwdrivers and they frequently don't realize they're on different subjects.
The questions raised by the caller made me think back to a few years ago when my wife and I attended a wedding of a Catholic to a non-Catholic (Protestant, in this case). It was held at a Catholic church, presided over by a Catholic priest and, contrary to what I thought was the norm, was over in less than 30 minutes. Probably more like 20. Anyways, the reason it was so short its because the Mass was not performed. There were vows, some music, an exchange of rings - you know, the traditional stuff. Except it isn't traditional at all. These elements were divorced from the truly traditional context of worship that culminated in the Eucharistic sharing of Christ, with the added significance of this newly forged marriage-relationship that is but a shadow of the relationship between Christ and His church. That service was not the spectator sport that weddings have presently become. It was an entrance into a sacrament, a new way of relating to God and to this wonderfully made spouse, experiencing like never before God's love for us. The ceremony I saw was essentially a civil proceeding being overseen by an official, who happened to also be a religious leader, who had been invested with the legal authority to witness 2 parties entering into a contractual relationship of a domestic nature, in front of a group of onlookers. Though both of these individuals were (and are) Christians and their marriage bears the fruit of that comingled faith, the ceremony itself was not Christian, not really. Though we were there as a community, we were not there to worship. Though we all (or only some)believed in Christ, we did not share in His body - either in communion or as a church.
This, I think, is where the host's argument should have been made. Thinking more broadly, the marriage of a Christian to a non-Christian isn't really "marriage" from the perspective of the church precisely because the joining cannot be made as, and in the prescence of, the church. It cannot be done in worship and communion. And if that is how marriage is supposed to begin - as a celebration of God's love and relationship with man - and if that is how it is supposed to be lived, then it is very difficult for me to conceive of any situation wherein such a wedding can have the sanction and blessing of the faithful. No ceremony or ritual can overcome the distance that truly separates these 2 people, or the church body from the non-believer. So participating in a religi-fied ceremony that takes on the trappings of the church's worshipful celebration without any of its content is problematic at the very least. Looking at things from this perspective, I tend to favor the host's view, though I see several difficult questions that our present cultural context raises and certainly agree that such a position can come off as harsh and arrogant.
Can Christians participate and/or attend purely civil marriage ceremonies? Is our presence an implicit blessing of that union? Or is it merely being a spectator and demonstrating our love for one (or both) of the parties involved?