Friday, August 28, 2015

Mixed Marriages

Fifth in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood

 Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard

The Church, in her dispensation of the Sacraments, always acts as a good and kind mother. She has regard to the weakness, as well as to the strength of her children. Her divine message is all-beautiful. The ideal which she sets before her children is a perfect ideal. She ever emphasizes this ideal even though she knows that in many cases it will not be realized. She wishes her children to conform to the ideal as nearly as possible. Consequently, she condescends to them, and where in her wisdom she finds that the weak ones cannot realize what she wishes, she allows, within certain limits, that which is less good. She knows that the Sacraments were made for men, not men for the Sacraments. She prefers, then, to administer the Sacraments with certain accidental imperfections rather than allow her children to go without the grace which the Sacraments convey. For this reason, she tolerates what are known as mixed marriages.

Strictly speaking, mixed marriages are those which take place between baptized persons, of whom one is a Catholic and the other a non-Catholic. Thus, the ceremony performed between a Catholic and a Jew would not be a mixed marriage in the sense of the word as we use it. A mixed marriage, generally speaking, is that which takes place between a Catholic and a Protestant. Now, although the Church tolerates such marriages under certain conditions, yet she ever deprecates them. They fall below her ideal. In order, then, to understand clearly why the Church looks so unfavorably on such marriages, we must keep before our minds the nature of her ideal. The bond between man and wife is as the bond between Christ and His Church.

The chief characteristic of the bond between Christ and His Church is its intense intimacy and absolute perfection. Christ, indeed, by another comparison, likens it to the substantial union between Himself and His eternal Father. Nowhere can distinctness and unity be so complete as in the bosom of the blessed Trinity. The distinctness is infinite, and thus enables the Father and the Son each to receive an infinite love. Their unity is that of one infinite substance, which enables them to communicate to each other an infinite love, a love which issues in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is a type of the union between Christ and His Church. The Church, of course, is a finite creature and incapable of giving an infinite love to Christ. Nor again is the union between Christ and the Church a substantial union. The Church and Christ do not make up together one substance. But since that union has been likened to the substantial and infinite union of the Father and the Son, we conclude that it must be of a nature far more intimate and far more perfect than we can ever hope to comprehend. And since the union of man and wife has been likened to the union of Christ and the Church, we conclude that that also must be of a nature far more intimate and far more perfect than we can ever hope to comprehend. The Sacrament of marriage is a great mystery, a shadow of the mystic union of Christ and His Church, a shadow of the eternal and substantial union of the Father and the Son in the blessed Trinity.

The first and foremost reason why the Church deprecates mixed marriages is because they spoil God's ideal. Christ came on earth to speak the mind of the eternal Father. The Church exists to speak the mind of Christ. Any suggestion of difference of thought between the Father and the Son, or between Christ and His Church, carries with it the evident mark of its own absurdity. From this absurdity, however, we may gather something of the imperfection of a marriage union in which the parties profess different faiths. The Catholic faith is the most precious treasure, the most illustrious adornment, which a man can possess. It is a possession, moreover, which is unique of its kind. It cannot combine or make terms with any other faith. If one article be changed only in the slightest degree, the whole faith is rendered vain. A marriage union, therefore, in which one party makes profession of Catholicism and the other of Protestantism cannot be but an ungraceful thing in the eyes of God.

Indeed, there are few people who do not recognize the irregularity. It is only the immediately interested couple, who, for the time being, cannot see that it is a matter of the highest importance. They are madly in love, and where it is a question of so much love, the faith must accommodate itself to circumstances. Yet, if they could only see the connection between faith and love, they would have to recognize that diversity of faith in the marriage union must eventually tell against love in the marriage union. Faith is the gift by which we believe in God and in His word. Without belief in God, we cannot love Him. Without the full acceptance of His word, we cannot follow His commands and ordinances. We cannot live in sympathy with that wonderful system of morality by which He adjusts and fosters the love between man and man.

Thus it is that the Protestant married to a Catholic cannot avail himself of the teaching and the Sacraments of the Catholic Church which might be so effectual in fostering love between man and wife. Real love is that only which has faith for its foundation. But, in the mixed marriage, the faith is all on one side. It does not flourish with that fecundity which would be present were the parties united in one and the same belief. Further, this absence of faith-informed love on the part of the non-Catholic partner must in a measure react on the Catholic partner. Grace is very powerful, but it needs a nature upon which to act. And if the faith-informed love of the Catholic partner finds no response in the non-Catholic partner, if It receives an inferior love in return, or if it discovers itself misunderstood and unappreciated, then, if it does not dwindle away, it at least fails in its possible measure of fruitfulness.

The Church has her eyes wide open to the weakness of human nature when she tolerates a mixed marriage. A mixed marriage is a real Sacrament, and all the graces of the Sacrament are capable of being conveyed through it, though these graces may often fail in their effects through the want of disposition in the non-Catholic party. The Catholic party may do his or her best, as the case may be, but as human nature is so weak, there is naturally an ever-present danger of the Catholic losing the faith. Over and above the certainty of spoiling God's ideal, there is the disadvantage of risking the loss of faith altogether.

Therefore it is that the Church, when she allows a mixed marriage, insists on the condition that the Catholic partner shall not be hindered in the practice of the faith. The non-Catholic must give an explicit promise to this effect. He may not make any contrary conditions, either before or after the marriage. Any attempt to compel or persuade the Catholic to go to a Protestant Church, to stay away from Mass, or to abstain from Confession, is a dishonorable violation of the condition and promise.

The Church, by a long experience, knows that such attempts are only too common. Sometimes they are done openly and menacingly. Oftener, perhaps, they are done quietly and in a friendly way. Numberless are the occasions when the danger creeps in. The Catholic is perhaps too late for Mass on Sunday. Then the obvious suggestion of the non-Catholic is: "Oh, well, come to our church for a change." Or it may be merely a social gathering under Protestant auspices, a bazaar, a tea party, an excursion - surely one cannot be so narrow as to object to these! There would be less danger in them for a Catholic who was out and out a Catholic, a Catholic joined to a Catholic in marriage, and generally subject to Catholic influences. But for the Catholic who is the partner of a Protestant, and who is without all those helps which an entirely Catholic family provides, these social functions are so many pitfalls. They seem harmless enough in themselves, but they lead from one thing to another, from the social to the religious. Indeed, wherever one partner is Protestant, the opportunities of perversion are as persistent in their frequency as they are subtle in kind and degree. In this, as in all other dangers, prevention is better than cure.

Foster a strong dislike for mixed marriages. Avoid company where you are likely to meet a partner of another religious persuasion. Reject the first overtures made by one who is not of your faith. Then, if circumstances have been too many or too strong for you, make up your mind at once that only by strict observance of the conditions laid down by the Church can your faith and your hope and your love be saved.

The fostering of mutual love, however, even the most perfect and most spiritual love, is not the chief end of marriage. The chief end of marriage is the begetting, and educating, of children for the kingdom of heaven. The Church, therefore, in her legislation for mixed marriages has a special care for the children that may be born of them. The child pertains to the ideal of the great Sacrament. In the mystery of the blessed Trinity, it is the united love of the Father and the Son, in the person of the Holy Ghost. In the mystery of Christ and His Church, the one is bridegroom, the other the bride, and they are united for the purpose of bringing forth children for the kingdom of heaven.

So, if the Sacrament of marriage must be true to its mystic types, it must be so ordained as to be an apt principle for the bringing forth and for the educating of children in the Catholic faith. The faith is so important for the child that its influence should be felt at the first dawn of reason, and all through those impressionable days of childhood and youth. No demonstration is needed to show that only when both father and mother are united in the faith can those early impressions be efficiently imparted. A different faith, in either one or the other, must inevitably tell on the character of the child. In the interest then of the offspring the Church looks askance on the mixed marriage.

When, however, she permits it as something less good, and for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, then she places a special condition in  favor of the children. The non-Catholic party must explicitly promise that all the children must be brought up in the Catholic religion. There must be no compromise. Oftentimes the non-Catholic party proposes to meet the Church half way, and suggests that the girls shall follow the mother while the boys follow the father. And the idea prevails in some quarters that the Church is willing to allow this. Let it be clearly made known that the Church knows nothing of such half measures. According to her law, every child of a mixed marriage must be brought up a Catholic. The soul of a boy is just as valuable as the soul of a girl, and the soul of a girl is just as valuable as the soul of a boy, for both have been bought with an infinite price. In their education, therefore, there must be no compromise. All, without exception, must be brought up in the Catholic faith.

Further, the Church has also a cure for the non-Catholic party. He has already received the Sacrament of baptism and now he receives the Sacrament of matrimony. He is a subject of the Church, albeit a rebellious subject. His rebellious state may be due to no fault of his own, and he may not recognize his rebellious state. The Church, however, recognizes it and consequently makes a special effort to win him back to her obedience. She places a third condition to a mixed marriage - the Catholic party must strive to bring about the conversion of the non-Catholic.

The condition tends to the perfection of the ideal, tends to the preservation of the faith of the Cathohc partner, tends to the preservation of the faith of the children, tends to the eternal salvation of the non-Catholic partner. The reasonableness of the condition is evident. Its application, however, seems at first sight to be fraught with considerable difficulty. How is one to know whether there is any hope of a professing Protestant becoming a Catholic? Does not the Spirit breathe where He will? Must the non-Catholic have already entered upon a course of instruction? The practice of the Church does not require the manifestation of such clear signs as suggested in the last question. But the two conditions concerning the faith of the wife and the children, if generously fulfilled, would seem to go a long way toward fulfilling the third condition. If the non-Catholic party willingly signs the declaration that his wife may have the free exercise of her religion, and that the children may be brought up Catholics, then that may be deemed sufficient grounds for hoping that he, too, may some day become a Catholic. Evidently he is not fighting against the Church. Evidently he has some good will toward it. Presumably he is not resisting grace. Under such conditions one may reasonably hope that the grace of God will some day prove effectual.

We must strive, then, to keep three things well to the front of the Catholic consciousness. First, the union of marriage is a great Sacrament, having its ideal likened to the union between the Father and the Son, and to the union between Christ and His Church. Secondly, mixed marriages are discountenanced by the Church because they spoil God's ideal, because they endanger the faith of the Catholic party, and because they endanger the faith of the children. Thirdly, they are sometimes tolerated in order to avoid greater evils, and then only on the three conditions that the Catholic shall have free exercise of religion, that all children shall be educated as Catholics, and that there shall be a reasonable hope of the Protestant becoming a Catholic.


  1. While this article is very good, some of the information is outdated. The Catholic has to promise that his/her faith is not in danger if married to a non-Catholic. Also has to promise to do everything in his/her power, while not endangering the marriage, to have the children baptized and raised Catholic. The non-Catholic is informed of the promises made and what they mean but they do not have to promise anything.

  2. Dear Gabby,

    Part of the reason I re-publish these articles is to give people a first-hand look at how the Faith was preached and practiced in the century between the First and the Second Vatican Councils. That there are certain discrepancies is par for the course. Nonetheless, I thank you for the information on the current practice. In my diocese, Non-Catholic spouses were still required to promise not to interfere in the Catholic upbringing of children as recently as 15 years ago. But it wouldn't surprise me to hear that even this minimum has been dropped.


  3. The rules changed with the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Some dioceses may have still been requiring it but they were going above and beyond what the Church asked for. In fact, 1993's DIRECTORY FOR THE APPLICATION OF PRINCIPLES AND NORMS ON ECUMENISM says this:
    150. When, for a just and reasonable cause, permission for a mixed marriage is requested, both parties are to be instructed on the essential ends and properties of marriage which are not to be excluded by either party. Furthermore, the Catholic party will be asked to affirm, in the form established by the particular law of the Eastern Catholic Churches or by the Episcopal Conference, that he or she is prepared to avoid the dangers of abandoning the faith and to promise sincerely to do all in hisher power to see that the children of the marriage be baptized and educated in the Catholic Church. The other partner is to be informed of these promises and responsibilities.142 At the same time, it should be recognized that the non-Catholic partner may feel a like obligation because of hisher own Christian commitment. It is to be noted that no formal written or oral promise is required of this partner in Canon Law.

    Those who wish to enter into a mixed marriage should, in the course of the contacts that are made in this connection, be invited and encouraged to discuss the Catholic baptism and education of the children they will have, and where possible come to a decision on this question before the marriage.

    In order to judge the existence or otherwise of a "just and reasonable cause" with regard to granting permission for this mixed marriage, the local Ordinary will take account, among other things, of an explicit refusal on the part of the non-Catholic party.

    151. In carrying out this duty of transmitting the Catholic faith to the children, the Catholic parent will do so with respect for the religious freedom and conscience of the other parent and with due regard for the unity and permanence of the marriage and for the maintenance of the communion of the family. If, notwithstanding the Catholic's best efforts, the children are not baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church, the Catholic parent does not fall subject to the censure of Canon Law.143 At the same time, hisher obligation to share the Catholic faith with the children does not cease. It continues to make its demands, which could be met, for example, by playing an active part in contributing to the Christian atmosphere of the home; doing all that is possible by word and example to enable the other members of the family to appreciate the specific values of the Catholic tradition; taking whatever steps are necessary to be well informed about hisher own faith so as to be able to explain and discuss it with them; praying with the family for the grace of Christian unity as the Lord wills it.


Comments are moderated according to both content and form. If you would like to keep your comments private, please indicate this, and include your email if you would like a personal response. Thank you for commenting.