Ecumenical Guidelines for Catholics Marrying Other Christians
These guidelines are intended to help couples live the covenant of marriage as understood in the Christian faith. The goal is to acquaint you with the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and to help you live the Christian life in love and unity.
Your common Christian heritage provides the basis of your spiritual bond and personal faith. This common Christian calling should be the starting point from which all decisions and considerations of your spiritual lives are made.
How does the Roman Catholic Church view marriage between Catholics and persons of other Christian denominations?
In the past, there seemed to be a tendency to view spouses of interfaith marriages as not fully committed to their individual denominations. However, today there is an awareness that it is not the couples love, but the division in the Church itself that is at fault. To quote from the Decree on Ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council:
Certainly, such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.
The Catholic Church looks at interfaith marriages in a positive way. Emphasis is placed on what unites us, not on what divides us. Again, our common Christianity joins us to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church wants you to realize that your marriage is meant to be deeply spiritual. As partners in an interfaith marriage, you can play an important and positive role in the ecumenical movement.
How do Catholics view marriage?
Marriage has always been understood by Christians as a sacred covenant between a man and woman to live a life of holiness. Even the Old Testament can find no better word to describe the total gift of husband and wife to each other than the term covenant. This means a union of life in love. It is the way God expresses the divine relationship to us. At Mount Sinai, the covenant between God and His people established a common life between the Creator and the People of Israel.
The deepest meaning of covenant is not a bargain or a contract, but a mutual pledge of faithful love which actually nurtures a community of life. We understand this community of life to be the Church, the People of God.
Your marriage, in the Christian sense, is the creation of a new partnership of life in God, a life of holiness. As Christians, we believe that a new covenant community, the Church, was created through the blood of Christ, poured out for all. This is why St. Paul declares that giving yourself freely to each other in marriage is a living sign of the union of Christ with the Church (Ephesians 5). The love of Christ for his people becomes the model for Christian married love — in fact, we believe the love of Christ becomes alive in the union of wife and husband, that is, in the marriage covenant.
Christian marriage presents a call to holiness together with Christ. That call challenges you to share the spirit of God through your inner life of generosity, compassion, and loving kindness. The main difference between Catholics and other Christian denominations is that the Catholic Church views marriage as a sacrament. As Bishop John Kinney wrote in Marriage in Christ: The Sacrament of Faithful, Lifelong Love, a pastoral letter to engaged couples,
The love between husband and wife is meant to be as great as the love of Christ for each one of us and for his Church; the love between husband and wife is meant to be so great that “the two will become one flesh,” (Mt.19:6) and these two will give their lives for each other, just as Christ gave his life for us. The even greater mystery is that marriage — the lifelong faithful, committed love between one man and one woman — is so sacred that Christ, the eternal bridegroom, chose it to be nothing less than a sign to the world of his love for his bride, the Church. It is a sacrament.
How do we grow together in faith if our faith beliefs are different?
Your family is a little church in your home— a ‘domestic church’ — where Christ is truly present. It is to be a place of love and prayer, a place where all members seek to love and respect each other by word and example. It is here that Christian virtues are best practiced.
By prayer and adopting a Christian attitude toward each other, your children, and other believers, you will be contributing in a unique way to better understanding and harmony among Christians and all people. Seek to help one another grow in a healthy, strong faith. You will be able to accomplish this without compromising to your own religious convictions, and without giving the impression of shallow religious indifference. You both must bring to the marriage your individual goodness and values. The commonality of the Christian faith can deepen your love for God and respect for the Word of God, the Scriptures. That same faith will strengthen your daily family prayer and public worship in your respective churches. That faith calls for obedience to the law of God as expressed in the Scriptures.
What do we do about our differences?
Respect what each regards as holy. Ecumenical couples need to live together with deep respect for their common belief in Christ and for what each spouse regards as holy. By seeking to understand the traditions of another Christian church, you and your children will come to a better understanding about what it means to be united in Christ.
Learn together about each other’s church. A common study of your religious tradition will help you mature in your spiritual life together. Through conversation and reading, you can become familiar with your spouse’s church.
Learning about each other’s traditions will facilitate a free exchange of ideas, and you will discover how different church communities search for God’s will in today’s world. Try participating in joint activities such as meeting each other’s pastors and attending events at each other’s churches, including discussion groups and Bible studies. On occasion, worship together. Listen to God’s word and participate in the service to the extent your faith tradition permits. Consider participating in events meant to foster a good ecumenical spirit, such as Reformation Sunday commemorations that invite Catholic participation.
Pray together as a family. Your marriage and home will be sustained by family prayer. In every Christian family, prayer and Scripture reading have a part, and there is a special need for this in an interdenominational family. Because public worship may often be separate, table prayer, bedtime prayers and family Bible reading become even more important. Learn the popular prayers of your spouse’s denomination — such as the Hail Mary for Catholics — and pray them together if you both feel comfortable. All of these forms of family worship can be a source of great unity and grace.
Let all those entering your home see some signs of your faith. Have the family Bible occupy a central place. Devotional symbols: the cross, crucifix, Christmas crib, pictures and statues are suitable to the extent you are comfortable with them.
Your family will be richer, more intimate and have a greater source of spiritual life when prayer is natural in your home, and when parents and children can together easily call God, Our Father, who art in heaven.
What do we do when we attend each others Churches?
Even though you worship in your respective church every Sunday, there will still be occasion for family attendance together. At the present time, the norm is that intercommunion is not permitted. At the end of this document, guidelines developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on receiving Communion are included to help you understand this issue.
Please resist any temptation to stop attending the services of your respective denominations, believing that such non-attendance is a good compromise that does not favor one spouse over the other. It is never a good compromise. Each spouse must be true to his or her Christian tradition, and both must resist the temptation to become complacent in their public worship of Christ.
What part are we expected to play in bringing up our children as Catholics?
How you give effective religious education to your children is something about which it is difficult to give universal advice. Yet, there is the reality and responsibility of religious education. All Christian denominations vigorously uphold the primacy of parents in the education and formation of their children. For you, this may be one of the most challenging responsibilities of all.
The biblical admonition to parents for the teaching and guidance of their children is accepted by all Christian churches. The combined efforts of both parents are called for in this challenging, exciting venture. It is commonly agreed that before you enter marriage, you should make the decision about the religious training of your children.
At the time of the marriage, a Catholic spouse is asked to make the following promise:
I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ, and, with God’s help, intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church. At the same time, I acknowledge the respect I owe to the conscience of my partner in marriage. I promise to do all that I can to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and educated as Catholics.
It is also required that the spouse of the other Christian tradition be made aware of, understand and respect that promise.
Because you are choosing to marry in the Catholic Church, the church assumes the Catholic partner is committed to the teachings and sacramental life of the faith. The church asks the Catholic partner to promise to educate their children as Catholics because it wants to ensure the children have the same opportunities as their Catholic parent to experience the richness of this faith.
That said, both share responsibility for passing on the Christian faith.
Just as important as the formal religious education your children receive are your attitudes and faith as parents. Faith is caught as much as taught. Your total religious education as a family is a God-given responsibility as well as a gift.
What are some pitfalls that we might encounter as interfaith couples?
- Indifferentism, where one or both do not participate in their faith tradition.
- Avoidance of working through the challenges by not participating.
- Finding a third tradition. Trying to find a neutral ground, in theory, sounds like a good option. In practice, frequently this leads to disconnectedness, religious indifference and a decrease in church involvement.
- Arguing about whose religion is right. No one will win this one.
What do we do if our parents are not supportive?
Do not press a discussion into an argument. The preference of parents to have their children marry someone of their own faith is understandable, yet your marriage is not to be discouraged or criticized, but rather supported. Some interfaith couples experience outright rejection or subtle condescension from parents, family members or friends. The couple that senses this ought not press a discussion into an argument. Arguments may harden the lines of difference into walls that separate. Your personal inner peace will be visible proof of harmony and joy despite religious differences.
Should I insist that my spouse convert to my faith?
Do not pressure your partner to join your church. Your goal should be a mutual deepening of Christian faith without alienation from your respective churches. As each of you live your faith with deep and sincere conviction, good example is given. Your mutual goal is to grow closer to God, to let his will be more dominant in your lives, and to show more clearly your mutual love in service to the world by showing the presence of Christ in the way he loves all people. If there is need for more personal support in your spiritual life, consult with a pastor or another interfaith couple.
Any last words of wisdom?
Involve yourselves in service to the world. No marriage exists only to serve itself. A basic purpose of marriage is the strengthening of the partners to better serve others. Wherever signs of religious prejudice, bitterness, or ignorance begin to divide, you can provide enlightenment and give testimony of harmony despite religious differences. The strength of your marriage is a call to bring this strength into many areas of the community where prejudice and suspicion have separated people from one another. Rich-poor, educated-uneducated, black-white, employer-employee — all these can become painful relationships similar to an unenlightened interfaith marriage.
The pain may not always be eliminated, but Christian love, hope, and understanding can always become a part of the situation. The way in which you serve the community (the world God loves) and the way you support your churches or other areas of service can be an inspiration to others of belief in the unity of Christians and the service of all peoples.
Your family, like other families, is called by God to be a blessing to others. As this call is answered, you will find life and meaning that is everlasting.
What are the guidelines for receiving communion?
The following guidelines are from the National States Catholic Conference, 1996.
For Catholics: Catholics fully participate in the celebration of the Eucharist when they receive Holy Communion in fulfillment of Christ’s command to eat His Body and drink His Blood. In order to be properly disposed to receive Communion, communicants should not be conscious of having committed grave sin, have fasted for an hour, and seek to live in charity and love with their neighbors. Persons conscious of having committed grave sin must first be reconciled with God and the Church through the Sacrament of Penance. Catholics are encouraged to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently.
For Other Christians: We welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist those Christians who are not fully united with us. It is a consequence of the sad divisions in Christianity that we cannot extend to them a general invitation to receive Communion. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is an action of the celebrating community signifying a oneness in faith, life, and worship of the community. Reception of the Eucharist by Christians not fully united with us would imply a oneness which does not yet exist, and for which we must all pray.
For Non-Christians: We also welcome to this celebration those who do not share our faith in Jesus. While we cannot extend to them an invitation to receive Communion, we do invite them to be united with us in prayer.