Gifts and challenges of interchurch marriages

An extraordinary general session of the world Synod of Bishops are meeting Oct. 5-19, 2014 at the Vatican.

Oct 10, 2014

By Daniel S. Mulhall
An extraordinary general session of the world Synod of Bishops are meeting Oct. 5-19, 2014 at the Vatican. Approximately 150 people, representing every bishops’ conference in the world, are gathering to discuss the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.”

The last synod on the family occurred in 1980. From that synod came Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World).

That text helped establish the Church’s current priorities and policies for working with families.

An area likely to be discussed during this synod is the issue of Catholics marrying people who are not Catholic, what in the past was frequently called a “mixed marriage” but today is more commonly called an interchurch marriage if a Catholic marries a Christian from a different denomination and an interfaith marriage if a Catholic marries someone who is not a Christian, perhaps a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist or Sikh.

The question of how the Church should respond to interchurch marriages is not new. In England during the late 1800s, for example, many Catholic churches built their own pubs as a way of encouraging young Catholic men and women to meet and marry other Catholics.

Church law requires Catholics who want to marry someone who is not Catholic to receive permission from the proper authority, and it conditions the permission on a sincere promise by the Catholic spouse to do all in his or her power to continue in the faith and to raise any children as Catholic. The non-Catholic spouse is informed of these promises.

While these requirements may seem difficult, they reflect a more positive understanding of interchurch marriages than that once expressed in Church law. Formerly Catholic spouses had to receive a dispensation before the marriage and the non-Catholic spouse had to sign a promise that any children of the marriage would be raised as Catholics. A nuptial Mass was not permitted and the wedding rite took place in the sacristy, not before the altar.

Nearly a quarter of all marriages performed by the Catholic Church in the United States today are interchurch weddings. Note that this number reflects only those weddings that take place in Catholic churches and not the total number of weddings that occur between Catholics and non-Catholics. According to the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the number of Catholic weddings conducted each year has fallen annually since 2001. Most people who marry today are not having church weddings, so there is no way of knowing precisely how many interchurch weddings take place each year.

While there are challenges present in all marriages, interchurch marriages present their own set of issues, so much so that divorce rates for interchurch marriages are higher than they are for marriages between two Catholics. (The divorce rate is even higher in interfaith marriages.)

This finding should not be a surprise: The differences between Christian communities are both theological and cultural, with differences in attitudes, beliefs, customs and values being the most problematic.

These differences can lead to disagreements over such things as each spouse's role in the marriage, whether women should work outside the home once children are born or how money should be spent.

Although the struggles interchurch couples face are real, it is important to remember that most of these marriages last a lifetime, their children are well raised and the spouses love each other dearly.

Daniel Olsen, in the article, How do We Raise Children in Interchurch or Interreligious Families?, ( reports on a gathering of interchurch and interfaith couples held in Chicago in 2013. According to Olsen, while the couples recognized the struggles that an interchurch marriage faces, they also could celebrate the gifts of such a union.

They found that their marriages emphasized the need for ecumenical outreach between churches and that they could be a source for such outreach as they lived it daily.

In working out their religious and cultural differences, the couples felt that they were “building bridges instead of erecting barriers to mutual growth.” The couples felt that their marriages helped them to grow in their personal faith journey and that their children benefited from living in a loving family despite the extra challenges.

Church law obligates bishops and pastors to care for spouses and children in interchurch marriages and to provide assistance “to foster the unity of conjugal and family life.” Perhaps the synod will examine what more the church can be doing to support and nurture these interchurch families.

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