At a recent meeting, Pope Francis told a group of foreign diplomats, “It is not possible to establish true links with God while ignoring other people.” Though the pope seemed to be speaking of dialogue with leaders of other faiths, he may also be interested in the message that Rome is sending to people of other faiths who are married to the members of his own church.
About a quarter of Catholics in the United States are married to someone of another faith. But just as the interfaith marriage rate is on the rise for the population as a whole it is likely to grow for Catholics too. In a nationally representative survey of 2,500 people I conducted in the summer of 2010, 30 percent of Catholics said that it was very important in their religion to marry someone of their own faith. But only 14 percent of Catholics felt it was very important for their children to marry a Catholic.
In the early part of the 20th century, “the idea of a Catholic marrying outside the faith was practically unheard of, if not taboo,” acknowledges an article on a marriage website run by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Such weddings took place in private ceremonies in the parish rectory, not in a church sanctuary in front of hundreds of friends and families.” And there were certain conditions for interfaith weddings. First and foremost, the non-Catholic spouse had to promise that any children arising from the marriage would be raised in the Catholic faith.
As it did with many issues, the Second Vatican Council provided the inspiration for the alteration of the Catholic Church’s approach to interfaith marriage. Today, there is little difference between the wedding ceremony of a Catholic to another Christian and a Catholic to a Catholic. Both may be married within the church sanctuary. It is true that Catholics who are marrying other baptized Christians must receive special permission — known as a “dispensation from disparity of cult” — from their local bishop. But there are few cases in which it is not granted. And now it is the Catholic spouse who must promise to raise children in the Catholic faith, while the non-Catholic partner need only be made aware of this promise.
In 1970, Paul VI published an apostolic letter called Matrimonia Mixta, in which he instructed Catholics on their obligation to raise children in the Catholic faith even if they were in a mixed marriage. “[A]lthough the Church somewhat relaxes ecclesiastical discipline in particular cases, she can never remove the obligation of the Catholic party . . . The faithful should therefore be reminded that the Catholic party to a marriage has the duty of preserving his or her own faith.”
Vatican II had another point of influence on the Catholic view of intermarriage. In particular, because the church affirmed that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was not “superseded” by Christianity and that Jews were not responsible for the Crucifixion, the church began to take a more sensitive view of Catholic-Jewish relations in general and Catholic- Jewish marriages in particular. Bishops now give dispensation for Catholic- Jewish marriages to be held at “neutral” sites — that is, outside of churches. They also allow for a rabbi to preside, though again, a dispensation must be given in order for the church to recognize such a marriage as valid.
Despite what is theologically speaking a relatively open attitude toward intermarriage — certainly when compared with other religious groups in America — many Catholics do not see their parishes as particularly welcoming to interfaith couples. Of those respondents to my survey who have a regular place of worship (roughly 50 percent), two-thirds say that their congregation is “very welcoming to interfaith couples.” Between 69 and 71 percent of evangelicals, mainlines, Black Protestants, Jews, and Mormons say that their congregation is very welcoming toward interfaith couples.
Yet, oddly, only 54 percent of Catholics say the same. What is the reason for that larger than 15-point gap? One possible explanation is that people who are not Catholic may find the mass or other rituals to be foreign. (Though that would also be true for many synagogues.) Or they may be put off by the idea that only Catholics can take communion in Catholic Churches, leaving those of other faiths sitting in the pews as the rest of their row proceeds down the church aisle.
There are other, less formal issues that may enter into someone’s assessment of how welcoming a particular religious institution may be. Do others come up to you after services to chat? Is there a coffee hour? A couple of veteran reporters on Catholic matters told me that many parishes seem large and impersonal and that some are put off by the fact that roles for the laity are few in number. For people who did not grow up in that kind of religious environment, these factors can make one uncomfortable.
Given the fact that the number of Catholics married to non-Catholics is on the rise, the church would do well to think of the impression they are making on the latter. Sometimes the “other people” God wants us to talk to are sitting closer than we think.