Ecumenical and Interfaith Marriages

Until recent decades, the idea of a Catholic marrying outside the faith was practically unheard of, if not taboo. Such weddings took place in private ceremonies in the parish rectory, not in a church sanctuary in front of hundreds of friends and family.

These days, many people marry across religious lines. The rate of ecumenical marriages (a Catholic marrying a baptized non-Catholic) and interfaith marriages (a Catholic marrying a non-baptized non-Christian) varies by region. In areas of the U.S. with proportionately fewer Catholics, as many as 40% of married Catholics may be in ecumenical or interfaith marriages.

Because of the challenges that arise when a Catholic marries someone of a different religion, the church doesn’t encourage the practice, but it does try to support ecumenical and interfaith couples and help them prepare to meet those challenges with a spirit of holiness. Theologian Robert Hater, author of the 2006 book, “When a Catholic Marries a Non-Catholic,” writes: “To regard mixed religion marriages negatively does them a disservice. They are holy covenants and must be treated as such.”

A marriage can be regarded at two levels – whether it is valid in the eyes of the Church and whether it is a sacrament. Both depend in part on whether the non-Catholic spouse is a baptized Christian or a non-baptized person, such as a Jew, Muslim or atheist.

If the non-Catholic is a baptized Christian (not necessarily Catholic), the marriage is valid as long as the Catholic party obtains official permission from the diocese to enter into the marriage and follows all the stipulations for a Catholic wedding.

A marriage between a Catholic and another Christian is also considered a sacrament. In fact, the church regards all marriages between baptized Christians as sacramental, as long as there are no impediments.

“Their marriage is rooted in the Christian faith through their baptism,” Hater explains.

In cases where a Catholic is marrying someone who is not a baptized Christian – known as a marriage with disparity of cult – “the church exercises more caution,” Hater says. A “dispensation from disparity of cult,” which is a more rigorous form of permission given by the local bishop, is required for the marriage to be valid.

The union between a Catholic and a non-baptized spouse is not considered sacramental. However, Hater adds, “Though they do not participate in the grace of the sacrament of marriage, both partners benefit from God’s love and help [grace] through their good lives and beliefs.”

Marriage Preparation

Good-quality marriage preparation is essential in helping couples work through the questions and challenges that will arise after they tie the knot.

Questions that the engaged couple should consider include in what faith community (or communities) the couple will be involved, how the couple will handle extended family who may have questions or concerns about one spouse’s faith tradition, and how the couple will foster a spirit of unity despite their religious differences

Of all the challenges an ecumenical or interfaith couple will face, the most pressing one likely will be the question of how they raise their children.

“The church makes clear … that their marriages will be more challenging from the perspective of faith,” Hater writes. “… Special challenges exist as well when it comes to raising children in the Catholic faith.”

Because of these challenges, the church requires the Catholic party to be faithful to his or her faith and to “make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power” to have their children baptized and raised in the Catholic faith. This provision of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is a change from the 1917 version, which required an absolute promise to have the children raised Catholic.

But suppose the non-Catholic party insists that the children will not be raised Catholic? The diocese can still grant permission for the marriage, as long as the Catholic party promises to do all he or she can to fulfill that promise, Hater writes. The marriage may be legal, he notes, but is it a wise choice? Those are questions that may also need to be explored in marriage preparation.

If children are raised in another faith, he notes, “the Catholic parent must show children [a] good example, affirm the core beliefs of both parents’ religious traditions, make them aware of Catholic beliefs and practices and support the children in the faith they practice.”

The Wedding Ceremony

Because Catholics regard marriage as a sacred event, the church prefers that ecumenical interfaith couples marry in a Catholic church, preferably the Catholic party’s parish church. If they wish to marry elsewhere, they must get permission from the local bishop. He can permit them to marry in the non-Catholic spouse’s place of worship or another suitable place with a minister, rabbi, or civil magistrate – if they have a good reason, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. This permission is called a “dispensation from canonical form.” Without it, a wedding not held in a Catholic church is not considered valid.

It’s popular, and acceptable, for an ecumenical or interfaith couple to invite the non-Catholic spouse’s minister to be present at the wedding. But it’s important to note that, according to canon law, only the priest may officiate at a Catholic wedding. A minister may offer a few words, but he or she may not officiate or preside at a joint ceremony.

“The reception of Communion is a sign of unity with the ecclesial community,” he explains. “On a wedding day, the fact that one-half of the congregation does not belong to the Catholic community [and, hence, does not receive Communion] cannot be a sign of welcome or unity on a couple’s wedding day.” It might be “likened to inviting guests to a celebration and not allowing them to eat,” he adds.

Catholic-Jewish Weddings

Jews and Christians share a view of marriage as a holy union and symbol of God’s bond with his people.

Stricter branches of Judaism, such as Orthodox and Conservative, forbid or strongly discourage Jews from marrying non-Jews and prohibit their rabbis from participating in interreligious marriage ceremonies.

Catholic-Muslim Marriages

Marriages between Catholics and Muslims present their own particular challenges.

Islamic men may marry outside of their faith only if their spouse is Christian or Jewish. In fact, the prophet Muhammed had a Christian wife and a Jewish wife. A non-Muslim wife is not required to adopt any Muslim laws, and her husband cannot keep her from attending church or synagogue. However, Islamic women are forbidden from marrying non-Muslim men unless the spouse agrees to convert to Islam.