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Interchurch Marriages:
How to Help
Them Succeed

by Elizabeth Bookser Barkley

Although this Catholic Update often focuses on the two partners in an interchurch marriage, it is a valuable tool for all of us—family members, friends and fellow parishioners—as 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 to unity."

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 conferences.

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, interchurch—each 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 out—giving 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 aids—not obstacles—in developing a family's religious practices.

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 Protestant church.

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 arrive.

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 ideal—that the children be baptized and reared Catholic—they 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 you."

Couples need to anticipate potential problem spots—such as sacraments and holiday celebrations—before 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 your marriage?
  • 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 Churches."

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 Cincinnati.

 
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