Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
How to Help
Although this Catholic Update
often focuses on the two partners in an interchurch marriage, it
is a valuable tool for all of usfamily members, friends and
fellow parishionersas we reach out to support them in their
faith journey. Many Catholics married to persons of other Christian
denominations feel left out of parish activities because they don't
fit the profile of the "normal" Catholic marriage. This Update
can remind the whole Catholic community of the vital role interchurch
couples can play in the working toward full unity of those whose
common bond is Jesus Christ. That these marriages succeed is the
concern of us all.
For Catholics about to set out on the
journey of marriage with a person of another Christian denomination,
the path ahead may seem fraught with perils: dispensations to be
obtained, in-laws to placate, serious faith matters to ponder, such
as the religious education of children.
But couples who have lived creatively
and faithfully in such a marriage counsel that what may look like
obstacles can actually lead to real growth in this exciting journey
of love together.
Working toward Christian unity
"Couples in interfaith marriages don't
like to see their marriages treated like problems," says Father
George Kilcourse, professor of theology at Bellarmine College in
Louisville, Kentucky, and author of Ecumenical Marriage.
"The problem is not their marriage, but the division between the
Churches into which they've been baptized. We need to start putting
the emphasis where it belongs: Christian Churches' indifference
Since the Second Vatican Council, one
of the most important thrusts of Catholic Church teaching has been
ecumenism, a vision that some day Christian Churches will return
to the unity that marked the early Christian Church. "No place does
this occur more deeply than in homes where married Christians of
different Churches live and share the faith, trying to understand
what they have in common," affirms Father Dohrman Byers, pastor
of Old St. Mary's Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Raised in the Presbyterian
Church before his conversion to Catholicism, Father Byers served
until recently as Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations
for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The obstacles facing couples entering
interchurch marriages haven't deterred too many from that path.
In fact, such marriages seem part of a growing trend, say Steve
and Jo Ann Schweitzer, a Cincinnati couple in a Catholic-Presbyterian
marriage. When they first presented a workshop 13 years ago on what
canon law still refers to as "mixed marriages," their session was
little more than a chat: One couple attended. Today similar workshops
sometimes draw 75 couples, almost half of those attending Pre-Cana
Family Life Office personnel who coordinate
marriage preparation in the Cincinnati archdiocese estimate that
about 46 percent of new marriages are between Catholics and other
Christians. National statistics are more elusive. Faithful to
Each Other Forever, a 1989 handbook for marriage preparation
issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicates
that 40 percent of American Catholics now enter interreligious marriages
(not necessarily marriages between Catholics and other Christians,
but between one partner who is Catholic and one who is not).
Regional figures vary greatly, according
to Father Kilcourse. In the South, where the Catholic population
is small, those statistics often climb as high as 75 percent, while
in areas with a high Hispanic and traditionally Catholic population,
the percentage plunges.
'What's in a name?'
Still, the numbers represent such a surge
over the past 20 to 30 years that Church leaders struggle to name
and define the phenomenon.
Interdenominational, ecumenical, interreligious,
interchurcheach term carries its own nuances and its own advocates.
"Mixed marriage," the term used in canonical documents, loses hands
down among many married couples, say the Schweitzers, because it's
"nondescript, too secular, imprecise and could be confused with
racially mixed marriages."
Some involved in ministry to such couples
prefer "interchurch" (the term we are using) because it defines
each partner's commitment to remain true to his or her religious
heritage while working to restore unity among Christian Churches.
No matter what you call them, these marriages
can enrich both partners and their Churches if couples, along with
their faith communities, acknowledge early on that they'll have
to work to keep both faiths intact. They'll endure and flourish
only with a strong commitment on the part of each spouse "to share
a mutual faith in Jesus without taking the easy way outgiving
up," believes Tom Mack, a Cincinnati Catholic. He and his wife Bonnie,
who was raised in the Methodist Church before converting to Presbyterianism
as an adult, have made that commitment. Along with the Schweitzers,
they have been trained by the Cincinnati archdiocese to help couples
entering interchurch marriages make the most of their unions.
Eight pointers for success
There's no easy way and no one "right"
way, say couples whose interchurch marriages have succeeded. But
many agree that a few basic principles can serve as guidelines.
1. Start your marriage with a wedding
that fits you. Although family and friends may have their own
ideas about what your wedding ceremony should include, you have
to make decisions that won't offend the religious traditions of
both families and their guests. Although celebrating the Eucharist
is the norm for a marriage between two Catholics, many dioceses
advise against Mass in interchurch marriages, says Father Byers.
He observes that having a Mass in such a situation presents an inherent
contradiction: "joined then divided." He explains: "We have two
baptized persons being united as they celebrate the Sacrament of
Matrimony, then, because of a division between Churches, they're
not joined in the Sacrament of the Eucharist."
If the couple nevertheless chooses to
celebrate their marriage in the context of Mass, they can invite
the Protestant minister to offer a greeting, a blessing or a prayer.
If no Eucharist is involved, the minister, with permission of the
local ordinary, can read a Scripture lesson or preach.
In some cases, a dispensation can be
obtained from the Catholic "form of marriage" and the ceremony may
take place before a minister of another Church or even before a
civil official. The Apostolic Letter on Mixed Marriages lists
the following as reasonable causes allowing for this: "to achieve
family harmony or to avoid family alienation; to obtain parental
agreement to the marriage; to recognize the significant claims of
relationship or special friendship with a non-Catholic minister;
to permit the marriage in a church that has particular importance
to the non-Catholics."
Couples about to be married and those
in the early years of their interchurch marriage sometimes come
to the Schweitzers and Macks tearful and angry because they feel
their parents are interfering in their marriage and faith lives.
They gently advise:
2. Be respectful, but it's your marriage.
Be comfortable with the faith journey you've mapped out. That doesn't
mean you shouldn't listen to your parents' fears and concerns. When
they offer advice, it's usually with your happiness in mind. But,
especially if both parents are of the same religion, they're unfamiliar
with many of the tensions you're facing. They've shaped their own
marriage, and you deserve the same choice.
3. Don't let the nonessentials blur
your vision. Because each partner brings a lifetime of religious
traditions and rituals to the marriage, adjusting to the other's
"history" and practices can often be a stumbling block in dealing
with larger faith issues. Visiting one another's church can be a
jolt, especially if the two denominations vary greatly in styles
of worship, preaching and interior design of the church building.
Tom Mack remembers that the first time
he attended services at Bonnie's parents' Methodist church all he
noticed were the differences: "no kneelers, no statues, no sanctuary."
His wife, in turn, felt she had been transported to a different
country the first time she participated in a Mass, with its Latin
prayers, incense and vestments and prayer style foreign to her Church.
Although such things as Advent wreaths,
prayers before meals and bed, religious artifacts in the home and
other religious customs become the focus of disagreement, they're
only symbols of the faiths the families are trying to nurture. They
should be aidsnot obstaclesin developing a family's
4. Get to know and respect your spouse's
faith. Because your spouse may have lived several decades under
the strong influence of his or her religion, getting to know that
religion can provide a strong foundation for your marriage. Attending
adult education classes and lectures at the parish, or joining a
Bible study group with members of the other Church can help you
understand much about your spouse and his or her faith life. Rather
than threatening your own faith, this effort at understanding might
enrich it, revealing how similar yet how distinct each expression
of Christianity is. Then, like the Schweitzers, you'll come to realize
that "Christ is the mortar, not the wedge, between our lives."
5. Find a worship pattern that fits
your faith, your family. Finding the appropriate rhythm of worship
can be one of the thornier issues facing interchurch families. Because
they don't want to hurt their spouses by the decisions they make,
some couples slip out of church attendance and into religious indifference.
But married couples who've been through the pain of similar decisions
caution that once you stop going to church, it's even more difficult
to pick up Sunday commitments later.
Many interchurch couples worship at two
separate churches. Some even manage to share rides to Sunday services,
so that the ride home becomes an opportunity to enrich one another
with the inspiration each gained that morning.
Other couples, who want to preserve both
traditions but not further cut into their time together, attend
Saturday evening Mass, saving Sunday morning for worship at the
Church attendance and religious education
become stickier once children enter the picture. Even in a Catholic-Catholic
marriage, religious education of children is no easy task. In interchurch
marriages, marriage ministers contend that decisions about the religious
education of the children cause more rifts than any other religious
issue. It's an issue couples should confront before the children
6. Take religious education of children
seriously. In an earlier era, when the Macks and Schweitzers
married, the Protestants in the union signed a commitment to raise
the children in the Catholic religion even if the Catholic partner
died. Now the burden of the promise has shifted to the Catholic
partner. Church policy today is that only the Catholic partner makes
a formal reaffirmation of faith, often worded like this: "I reaffirm
my faith in Jesus Christ and, with God's help, intend to continue
living that faith in the Catholic Church. I promise to do all in
my power to share the faith I have received with our children by
having them baptized and reared as Catholics."
Although many Catholic pastors today
might promote the idealthat the children be baptized and reared
Catholicthey usually acknowledge that the other partner might
be just as fervently committed to passing on his or her faith and
that religious education of children is a dual responsibility. Preserving
the marriage bond is of paramount importance in an era when divorce
rates hover around 50 percent. It seems obvious, therefore, that
the phrase, "to do all in my power," is not to be taken so absolutely
that it would jeopardize the marriage itself.
Passing on some strong tradition seems
a value that most interchurch couples would encourage. As Father
Byers observes, "If you don't begin early giving them a depth of
religion, you'll end up with children with no religious identity.
Parents who don't lay a religious foundation for their children
are making it easy on themselves, not their children."
In the past, many couples raised children
in the religious tradition of the mother, arguing that she would
have more influence over their daily lives. But that approach doesn't
sit well with many of today's families, in which mothers and fathers
share child-care duties more evenly.
It is difficult in the situations of
marriages in which the partners belong to different denominations
to reconcile the parents' obligations of sharing their faith with
their children. Nevertheless, there still remains a serious responsibility
on the Catholic party to do all in his or her power to share the
faith he or she has received with their childen by having them baptized
and reared as Catholics.
7. Pray together as a family in your
home. Whether it's the Sign of the Cross followed by the traditional
mealtime prayer, "Bless us, O Lord," a rousing chorus of a sung
blessing or shared Scripture before bed, couples stress that common
prayer binds interchurch families together.
One obvious common thread in Christian
religions is the Bible, which often becomes the focus of faith for
interchurch families. In the Mack home, for example, liturgical
seasons have become appropriate times for the family to memorize
psalms together. Their family prayer also takes the form of the
daily lighting of the wreath during Advent, spontaneous graces or
prayers from books of both denominations.
Some families try to invite ministers
from both Churches into their home during the year, to reinforce
their commitment to allow both faiths to flourish.
8. Don't stop talking. Whether
you're planning you wedding ceremony, working out logistics of Sunday
worship or coming to grips with the issue of family planning, keep
the lines of communication open, couples urge. "The bottom line
is communication," say the Macks. "Each person has to realize that
your spouse's faith is as important to him or her as yours is to
Couples need to anticipate potential
problem spotssuch as sacraments and holiday celebrationsbefore
they emerge as full-blown marital crises. That's why many dioceses
urge couples entering interchurch marriages to examine together
some key questions aimed at fostering dialogue.
Among questions posed in Your Marriage
and the Catholic Church (a pamphlet published by the Diocese
of Cleveland) are these:
- How much in fact do you care about God and religion
at all as a dimension of your marriage?
- What are your attitudes on abortion? The unplanned
pregnancy? What about adoption, should this become necessary in
- Have you considered how your religious traditions
color your idea of family?
Whether discussion involves Midnight Mass verus Sunrise
Service, or the Bible versus the Missal, anyone living a happy interfaith
marriage will testify that without a lot of give-and-take, the marriage
won't survive. For Tom Mack, a line from the Prayer of St. Francis
capsulizes attitudes interchurch couples must daily incorporate
in their lives if their marriages are to thrive: "O Lord, grant
that I may seek not so much to be understood as to understand."
Laying the foundations of unity
Interchurch couples daily model what
Father Byers terms "the Church of tomorrow." "When
respecting each other's traditions and sharing that respect with
their children, they lay the foundation for the reconciliation of
And, though they may never have read
Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, they're affirming what
the authors of that work also believed: "Whatever is truly
Christian never conflicts with the genuine interests of the faith;
indeed, it can only result in more ample realization of the very
mystery of Christ and the Church."
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley is
a free-lance writer, and teaches writing and literature at the College
of Mount St. Joseph. She lives with her three young daughters in