Monday, May 12, 2008

Catholics and Weddings

It's that time of year again! The weather is getting warmer, we've had Mother's Day and Pentecost and First Communions and Confirmations and graduations and so on, and will keep having them for the whole month.

And before you even have time to put your special event outfit away (c'mon, I know you've got one!) they'll start showing up in your mail box.

Wedding invitations. And all the many complex questions and issues and problems they bring with them.

I don't think anyone I know is getting married this year, which makes it easier for me to reflect on weddings. It's harder to step back and observe the wedding industry when you're caught up in wedding season.

You might say that wedding season got off to a big start this past weekend, with the wedding of Jenna Bush to Henry Hager. I have to say that I'm kind of impressed--Jenna's dress, while sleeveless, wasn't strapless, and both Mr. Hager and his father-in-law appear to be wearing suits, not tuxedos, a very appropriate and tasteful option that I hope will catch on like wildfire. It's not that I wish any ill to the tuxedo-renting industry, but if people whose social obligations never require them to wear a tuxedo and who therefore don't own one would quit thinking tuxedos were necessary for weddings it would be a big step in the right direction, in my mind--and if girls who see the new Mrs. Hager's gown could understand that there' s no special merit attached to dresses like these, we'd all be a lot better off in the long run (though I'm still hoping for the reappearance of sleeves).

But of course, if you were a Catholic invited to a wedding like this one, there'd be a lot of questions, especially if either the bride or groom was or ever had been Catholic. Can you go to an outdoor, non-church wedding? Can you go to a non-Catholic wedding? Can you go, but not participate? Can you participate? Is it different if the happy couple includes a Catholic who presumably ought to know better? Is it different if the former Catholic is a close relative with whom you've exchanged acrimonious words about his or her abandonment of the faith (and/or loose morals)?

These questions are above my level of expertise, but there are quite a few good resources now to find the answers. Not only are there lots of good Catholic bloggers with actual credentials blogging on topics like these, but forums have delved into the answers as well. If you can't figure out your particular circumstance, ask a good priest whom you trust for advice, and then follow his advice in a spirit of obedience.

Frequently families will confront situations like these, and in our time of declining etiquette it's a lot harder to respond to a wedding invitation with a simple refusal, even if the wedding is the out-0f-state second marriage of a cousin who has left the church and is marrying without an annulment in a Buddhist ceremony on a beach at twilight. No matter how politely you word your regrets, somebody's probably going to call you and want to know just why you aren't coming, and to tell you how this is Lulia's special day, and how dare you ruin her special day, and she wanted your son to be ring bearer, and there isn't anybody else the right age except your cousin Patrice's son who hasn't yet gotten over his irrational fear of sand, so you simply have to come. And that's when you end up being forthcoming about why you're not coming, and things get ugly. Or uglier, depending.

In a politer age, not only would a wedding under circumstances like the ones described above be considered a shameful thing by most of the family, but also no one would dream of badgering guests who said they weren't able to attend. But as the importance of marriage has declined in our society, the importance of the wedding has proportionally increased, until now it's quite common even for Catholics to exaggerate the significance of the wedding and to think and act as if it's perfectly appropriate to demand the attendance of guests, to spend lavish amounts of money--or, more likely, to incur lavish amounts of debt--on the day's festivities, and to grow sulky and complaining if things don't go Exactly According to Plan, or if the Catholic church where the wedding is to be held sets down rules forbidding the releasing of doves after the ceremony, or the lighting of a "unity" candle in the midst of the nuptial Mass.

I hope that Catholics will come to their senses on wedding matters, and even perhaps lead the way toward some sort of wedding-day sanity. Until then, perhaps a few guidelines in no particular order will help:

1. A Catholic wedding is not the bride's "special day" (nor is it her mother's special day, or her groom's special day, or anybody else's). A Catholic wedding is a sacrament. The point is to be married in the eyes of God and to receive the sacramental graces which are going to be pretty darned necessary over the next fifty or so years. Everything else is just a detail--and within those details it's important to respect that the church you're getting married in does not belong to the bride and can't be expected to allow deviations from the ritual, inappropriate music, or anything else just because the bride (or her mother) wants it.

2. A Catholic woman's wedding dress should be appropriate attire for Mass. It's not a "hot" white prom dress or an Oscar-night cleavage-baring gown. Nothing should be revealed that it's not appropriate to reveal in church. This goes double for the bridesmaids, whose attire should be modest and simple, not flashy or slinky.

3. Catholic men should consider following the president's example and wearing a nice suit. If, of course, your family is a wealthy Catholic family whose frequent philanthropic activities require you to own several tuxedos which you wear on many occasions then go right ahead and wear a tux--but for the rest of us, is it really necessary to keep dressing men in late 19th century clothing every time they're in a wedding, whether as the groom or as father of the bride or as a groomsman? Especially considering that they have to borrow the clothes?

4. Catholic families should consider seriously their budget for the wedding festivities, and not get swept up in an "everybody does this" mindset that starts with embossed cocktail napkins and ends in penury. The requirements for a Catholic wedding, from the Church's point of view, are all about whether the couple are free to marry, whether they are adequately prepared for the marriage, and whether they have been obedient to the Church's authority in seeking marriage, obtaining required dispensations and so on. There's nothing in any Church regulations about providing three hundred people with prime rib or lobster cocktail, trust me. A simple and elegant party, a gathering of family and close friends to pray for the couple and wish them well, is possible in any budget. Care should be taken that the celebration doesn't devolve into debauchery, and for heaven's sake don't hire a band if they're liable to play obscene or immoral music.

5. If you were raised Catholic, but have decided to marry outside the Church, don't badger your Catholic relatives to attend. They have good reasons not to--you have my word.


Daddio said...

I agree on everything but the tux. I suppose it's possible for a suit to look formal enough. But I am growing to dislike how informal everything is becoming. Seems to me that suits rather than tuxes is just following Hollywood trends. It'll probably go back the other way before too long.

This was a big decision for us before our wedding. We eventually decided that a tux would "match" the bride's gown (it would have felt weird if she was so much more formal than I). Also, when we look back on the photos in 50 years, I know we'll be glad that we chose a classic look and not something trendy (same thing with the rings - we did go for platinum rather than gold, but the style is very simple and classic). I don't think a nice dark suit and boring tie will ever be looked back on as trendy, unlike the "zoot suit" tuxes that were so popular, or the little collar buttons in place of bow ties that we thought were so cool for our senior prom. But the boring suit may one day appear to have been too casual in retrospect.

Anyway, to each his or her own, but I think most women still like tuxes, and most men secretly want to look like James Bond for a night.

Daddio said...

I'd add that the concept of renting a tux for one night is no more silly than buying an expensive white dress for a single use. I think my point is that I agree that a wedding shouldn't be too much about pomp and circumstance, but unless the bride is dressing down to match, boring business suits still strike me as somehow wrong for the occasion.

Like I really care. Just sharing my 4 cents.

Red Cardigan said...

Feel free to share anytime, Daddio!

I guess my aversion to tuxes comes mainly from the fact that most people have to rent them. Now, when Mr. Cardigan and I got married he did wear a tux, as did the groomsmen--and my dress was too elaborate, and if I had to do it over I would have gone for more simplicity.

And that comes from my belief that for far too many people what starts as a vague notion that tuxes would be nice ends in five-figure debt and accompanying tears--whether it's the parents of the bride or the couple themselves who have to handle that doesn't much matter.

It's a struggle for Catholics, I think, because a quite natural desire to celebrate weddings with the solemnity owed to what will be a one-time event quickly veers into the territory of sinful or imprudent materialism.

And your comment about a woman's dress is justified--in the not-so-distant past all but the richest elite were married in a "best dress" or suit that then went on to serve as the woman's Sunday best for years! In fact, in the 1800s most middle or lower class women selected gray as the color of their wedding dress because it would be a serviceable gown to wear to church for years to come. It really wasn't until the late 1800s to early 1900s that brides stopped wearing their wedding gowns more than once, even though that's hard to imagine today!

John Thayer Jensen said...

(on the lesser matter :-))

My understanding was that a dinner jacket (so-called 'tuxedo') is informal wear, worn with a black tie. I thought wedding dress for men was supposed to be white tie and tails (not that I did - I wore a cheap off-the-rack suit as we were poor).

(on the business of splash)

I encouraged my older daughter to get married in our local parish with a modest afternoon-tea type feed (she didn't). Ours was still a cheap wedding as such things go - about $5,000 - but we are constantly very tight for money (which is what happens when you are committed to mum doing her job - homemaker - instead of working as a wage slave, THEN coming home to try and make something of the mess)

(on 'do you go?')

My word, the hardest hardest hardest ones are your own children. I am possibly facing one with my younger daughter in the next year. Anyone who prays for wisdom for me and my wife will earn eternal honour and glory (in Heaven).


Alexandra said...

We had a very informal wedding in the little chapel at our parish. I wore a modest formal green dress and my groom wore his dress uniform(Lt. in fire department). We had niblets and cake at a friend's home.

When my parents were married in the 50's, they had a modest solemn wedding where my father wore a dark suit and my mother a modest white dress orginally meant for a bridesmaid, and this was in St. Patrick's Cathedral in NYC.

I so agree that it is about the sacrament, not a social event. I pray my children will do the same. In fact, thanks for this post...I'll begin drilling this into their heads. ;)

TNP said...

The post was timely. My spouse and I and our kids are in the hot seat for not attending my niece's wedding at a restaurant where she will wear a pantsuit, has written the ceremony herself and will be formalize her union to the guy she's been shackin up with for several years (the last of a long string of guys). A judge will make it legal.
We also did not attend her older sister's wedding - same scenario - and have not been forgiven for that one, either.
Many times I have to shake my head, wondering if we're crazy. Every other relative is going to this event and can't understand why we can't just shut up and keep the peace for the sake of "family." We'll be paying the price for a long time.

Matilda said...

I was going to say that there was a surprising lack of women commenting but I see that at least one came out of the woodwork. I agree... the focus should be on the marriage, not the wedding and that as Catholics we do have to fight against the accepted norm. That doesn't mean that you can't have a big wedding. We had lots of friends and family at our wedding, but I think we did a good job keeping everything else very simple (location, flowers, decorations, etc...).

As far as the tux issue goes, I could go either way. I think that if the groom wants to wear an outfit that compliments the formality of his bride's dress (and he doesn't have any need to own such an outfit) then renting a tux or formal suit can be a very reasonable option. I don't think that it should be required of the groomsmen or fathers since that can be a big (and mostly unnecessary) expense which ultimately is only for the sake of vanity. But I also think that bridesmaid dresses have gotten WAY out of control and that is an issue that should also be addressed. When did it become the norm to have attendants in the double digits? And who says they all have to match?

freddy said...

Mr. Jensen, you and your family have my prayers!

We couldn't attend a family wedding: Catholic bride was married in a protestant church on the advice of her parish priest as her anullment didn't "go through" on time & all the preparations had been made, etc. Though later they did have their marriage blessed so there's always hope! And eventually the family did forgive us....

tnp: Better to pay the price in this life than the next! And though family may give you grief over your decision, I guarantee there will be those who admire your strength and some good graces may come of it!

Matilda: I agree with you about the bridesmaids dresses! Also, photogs & other media types seem to be taking over many weddings, too. A Catholic wedding shouldn't be a media event!

God bless all.

Sarahndipity said...

I’m not sure if all strapless dresses are immodest per se, but strapless is not my style. I really liked Jenna’s dress. My wedding dress had cap sleeves.

As for tuxes, I don’t really think it matters one way or the other. My husband and the groomsmen wore tuxes for our wedding, but my dad and father-in-law did not. Neither of them are tux people. :)

We did have a big reception with dinner and dancing. My parents paid for it (yes, we’re quite spoiled). I LOVE to dance, and having a DJ was at the top of my list for what I wanted for our wedding. They mostly played all those cheesy dancing songs – Electric slide, YMCA, etc. I had a blast – never had so much fun in my life. We did not have a limo or a professional photographer, and we cut costs in other ways too – silk flowers instead of real ones, cheap programs printed ourselves. I actually really regret not having a pro photographer, but other than that our wedding was pretty close to perfect.

As far as attending other people’s weddings goes: what do you do when much of your family isn’t really Catholic to begin with? My mom and her four sisters were all raised Catholic, but my mom is the only one still practicing. My cousin is getting married in the next year or so, and I have no idea what kind of wedding she’ll have, but she wasn’t even raised Catholic, so I can’t imagine there would be any problem with us attending it.

My husband’s cousin got married last year to a Hindu and had a Hindu wedding. He was raised Catholic, but is also not practicing. We did attend the wedding, because it’s not as if he was leaving the Church to get married. He had left the Church years ago, and I don’t know if he ever believed in it to begin with. Is that any different than attending the wedding of two lifelong atheists getting married in front of a judge? I honestly don’t know. Your thoughts?

Red Cardigan said...

Sarahndipity, sorry I didn't see your comment sooner.

I think in a case like the one described you really have to use your discernment. If you click on the word "forums" in my post you'll find some of the clearest guidelines I've ever seen--but I'd still check with a good priest if in doubt.

Of course, you were speaking of a past situation, but since these things come up unfortunately frequently it's not a bad idea to look into them!

Kristen said...

Just a thought to add - I don't think the question is whether you can/should have a wedding that is - big/small, fancy/simple, etc but where is the heart of the couple getting married. Are they there just there to have a good time (which should is a celebration after all)party and be self-focused or are they ultimately there to glorify Him, seek His approval and ask Him to be the center of their marriage.