Answer: You're facing a problem that confronts many devout Catholics today. Data suggest that a significant percentage (perhaps even a majority) of Catholics are choosing to marry outside the Church. They may not know or even care that the marriage is considered invalid without a special dispensation (or permission) from their bishop.
The Church does not tell us exactly how to RSVP. Good Catholics are free to disagree on this issue, and they often do. You have several choices open to you.
1. Boycott the Wedding. Some Catholics will refuse to attend the wedding in order to send a clear signal that the couple is doing something wrong. This "tough love" tactic may get results, particularly if the boycotter is a parent who has an otherwise strong relationship with their child. We saw many couples in our pre-Cana program who chose to marry in the Church mainly because of family pressure. If the family relationship is weak, however, boycotting the wedding may fracture it irreparably.
2. Attend the Reception Only. Another option is to skip the ceremony but attend the reception. Believe it or not, some guests might bail on the ceremony and skip straight to the canapes anyway. You have a strong reason to stay away from the "I dos." The ceremony itself is the "wedding," and if you attend it might look like you're condoning something that you're not. What happens afterward at the reception is just a party.
3. Attend the Wedding after Voicing Your Objection Privately. Part of what makes this issue so tricky is that the bride and groom probably have no idea what the fuss is about. Almost everyone seems to have forgotten about the beauties and graces of a sacramental marriage. They don't see any difference between a church wedding and a civil ceremony except for venue and cast of characters. Perhaps no one has ever told them. God may have just volunteered you. But to spare them embarrassment, you can keep your objection private and go ahead and attend the wedding and reception to show family support and unity.
They may not think that they need God in their marriage now, but when crisis hits and things seem humanly impossible, they may finally seek God for whom all things are possible. Tell them that God is waiting for them and will always wait for them.
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We agree that calling a civilly married couple girlfriend and boyfriend seems severe and not likely to lead to a change of heart. They are at least legally married (an increasing rarity these days). Their situation can easily be resolved by asking a priest to convalidate the civil ceremony. It's never too late for your brother and his wife to grow closer to God. And if you stay close to them, you may play an important role in making it happen.
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