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Oil and Water: Catholic Mixed Marriages

June 4, AD 2014 8 Comments

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about mixed marriages–from friends, from Catholic bloggers, etc etc.  I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a little about them before but always hesitated because I didn’t want to write something like a diatribe, or something painfully tangential.  And I will say at the beginning of this article that

  • This is my application of what the Church has given us on this topic, and probably not an all-encompassingly correct one–I just want to present some food for thought;
  • My personal experience with non-Catholic relationships was dating and discerning potential marriage with a Protestant-in-name-only for 2 or so years; when contrasted with my current relationship with a strong Catholic, there is frankly no comparison in terms of unity, fulfillment, and peace of heart;
  • I do know a few successful mixed marriages (most notably my future mother-in-law), although most of them are successful because the non-Catholic has converted since the marriage began.

I’ll also state what I hope is the takeaway right here, up front: For a Catholic to enter into a mixed marriage is to put themselves into the almost-impossible position of balancing their Faith and their marriage, with their eternal salvation as the possible casualty.


Yesterday the Facebook page for Ignitum Today directed me to this article, about dating and potentially marrying non-Catholics.  This section stood out:

“In my experience, interfaith marriages only work if one or both of the persons involved have no serious commitment to their religion prior to marriage. If one or both get serious about religion after the marriage, that has its own set of risks and problems.  So best to know where you both stand prior to

Marriage is successful primarily if your love is built on close friendship, mutual respect, mutual sacrifice, and compromise rather than religious affiliation.  But when it comes to religion, the non-Catholic party has more to compromise and concede to.  I know that’s a lousy deal, but that’s the way it is.  Much is demanded of Catholics, and the Catholic Church does not allow its members to decide what and what not to believe.” (emphasis mine)

This got me thinking about my own attitudes towards my Faith when I was dating a Protestant, and the attitudes of Catholic people I’ve known over the years in mixed relationships/marriages. Although the Church and moral law clearly require that if there are any real compromises of religion, they come on the part of the non-Catholic (Casti Connubi, Matrimonia Mixta, and the Catechism, among others, back this up–more on that later), it is sadly often the Catholics who end up watering down their Faith or losing it altogether.

But what I was thinking about, and what I’d like to write about here, is why. Why is a mixed marriage so dangerous?

Unity Recap #1: The Church & the Catholic Faithful

Casti Connubii (1930), section 82: “They, therefore, who rashly and heedlessly contract mixed marriages, from which the maternal love and providence of the Church dissuades her children for very sound reasons, fail conspicuously in this respect, sometimes with danger to their eternal salvation…If the Church occasionally on account of circumstances does not refuse to grant a dispensation from these strict laws (provided that the divine law remains intact and the dangers above mentioned are provided against by suitable safeguards), it is unlikely that the Catholic party will not suffer some detriment from such a marriage.”

Matrimonia Mixta (1970): Nevertheless, one cannot ignore the difficulties inherent even in mixed marriage between baptized persons. There is often a difference of opinion on the sacramental nature of matrimony, on the special significance of marriage celebrated within the Church, on the interpretation of certain moral principles pertaining to marriage and the family, on the extent to which obedience is due the Catholic Church, and on the competence that belongs to ecclesiastical authority. From this it is clear that difficult questions of this kind can only be resolved when Christian unity is restored.

The faithful must therefore be taught that, although the Church somewhat relaxes ecclesiastical discipline in particular cases, she can never remove the obligation of the Catholic party, which, by divine law, namely by the plan of salvation instituted through Christ, is imposed according to the various situations.

The faithful should therefore be reminded that the Catholic party in a marriage has the duty of preserving his or her own faith. Nor is it ever permitted to expose oneself to a proximate danger of losing it.

The Catechism (1985), section 1634: “Difference of confession between the spouses does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle for marriage, when they succeed in placing in common what they have received from their respective communities, and learn from each other the way in which each lives in fidelity to Christ. But the difficulties of mixed
marriages must not be underestimated. They arise from the fact that the separation of Christians has not yet been overcome. The spouses risk experiencing the tragedy of Christian disunity even in the heart of their own home…The temptation to religious indifference can then arise.”

Thus, whether before or after the Second Vatican Council, with the slight relaxation of the Church’s complete forbidding of mixed marriages, the Church has been clear in issuing a grave warning against the marriages of Catholics and non-Catholics–even baptized non-Catholics.

As Casti Connubii makes apparent, this is not out of a harsh desire to limit or hurt the matrimonial chances or happiness of the Faithful, but rather, out of a deep respect for the sacrament of matrimony as the vessel for the physical transmittal of the Catholic Faith through the generations, and out of love and care for the salvation of the individual Catholic.

The attitude of the Church on this subject has not really changed, and I think a misunderstanding of this on the part of Catholic educators, marriage preparers, and individuals, is the first part of the issue common today in which the Catholic remits part or all of their Faith.  There is a perception that, after the 1970’s, the Church suddenly decided to take the stigma away from mixed marriages.  Sure, you can’t have a Nuptial Mass, and you have to jump through some administrative hoops to receive your dispensation, but those things are formalities that show respect for the tradition of the Catholic Faith, with no real modern application.

This is a strange and disproportionate understanding of the shift that occurred after Vatican II.  The Church did not make mixed marriage ‘ok’, it simply underscored the fact that dispensations existed, and that, in the interest of pastoral sensitivity to the needs of the flock, it would be less grudgingly granted than earlier times.  ‘Less grudgingly’ does not mean ‘without misgivings’ or ‘with enthusiasm’, but that is how this movement has been interpreted almost universally.  ‘The Church used to forbid mixed marriages but now it’s ok’.

But the Catechism and Matrimonia Mixta are far from enthusiastic about the marriage of a Catholic and a non-Catholic, and both reemphasize their warnings that Catholics avoid such unions.  This is not, in my opinion, something to take lightly, because the Church doesn’t generally issue moral warnings ‘lightly’ or for fun.


Unity Recap #2: The Catholic Faithful and the non-Catholic Spouse

So, if the Church is willing to grant dispensations for mixed marriages now more than in past years, why the continued warning? Why the attempt, in official Church documents on the topic, to preserve the stigma?  In short–why is it such a big deal? What is it about a mixed marriage that is intrinsically incompatible with the Catholic understanding of matrimony?

Having dated a non-Catholic very seriously, and now, engaged to a strong Catholic and going through the marriage preparation process with him, I have begun to understand at least one possible answer to these questions.  The summarized version is: the Catholic sacrament of Matrimony is intended to be as a complete a unitive sublimation of self as the union and sublimation of the Church with Christ.  You can’t have that between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, even if he or she is ‘Christian’.

The most common response I hear to my misgivings about mixed marriage is “He/she is going to support me in raising the kids Catholic; he/she totally respects my Faith and understands I am not going to change it, and is completely ok with that, so it’s all going to be fine.”

Even if those things are 100% true (and if they are, your Protestant betrothed is probably more of a saint than you are), you are still kidding yourself if you think this is going to be ‘fine’.  Entering into a mixed marriage with your eyes truly open should excite caution, steeling of the will for a kind of emotional battle, and a hunger for the strength that comes through prayer and resignation to God’s will–not complacency or nonchalance.  Saying “I know this will be tough sometimes” is not good enough.

Think about the unity of spirit that spouses are meant to have.  As Casti Connubii says, “By matrimony, therefore, the souls of the contracting parties are joined and knit together more directly and more intimately than are their bodies, and that not by any passing affection of sense of spirit, but by a deliberate and firm act of the will; and from this union of souls by God’s decree, a sacred and inviolable bond arises” (section 7).  Your souls are knit together in the bond of marriage!  This is why the Biblical description says “And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh.” (Mark 10:8)

The Scriptural passage is key because it helps us understand the Church, and vice versa.  ‘Knit together’ highlights the individualism of the two who are married together.  They are two separate people, with two separate souls.  But the bond ‘more intimate’ than the union of their bodies makes them “not two, but one”.  Thus, the spouses are called to a a total sublimation of self in marriage.  This does not mean that they lose their personalities, or their individual soul, but that they should strive to unite their souls and hearts so completely that they move as one flesh towards salvation, where God and God alone will dissolve the bond.

But how can you achieve that kind of unity with someone who is not Catholic? To be sure, there is much merit in Christian unity–just read the words of Pope Francis or John Paul II.  That unity, however, is by nature limited, until the two become one in Faith.  A Catholic life–the kind we are supposed to strive for, the kind the saints have–gives you a Christo-centric perspective that places everything else in submission to Him and to His service and glory.  Since the Church transmits to us Christ’s instructions for how to live this kind of life, both in its generals and its particulars, only the Catholic Faith can properly focus your gaze.  A Christian–no matter how devout–will always diverge from a devout Catholic (though not always in terms of personal sanctity).  There are certainly Protestants who live a better example of Christianity than do some Catholics.  Yet no matter how well or poorly a Catholic executes his Christian life, the template which he is following is always more complete and correctly focused than his Christian brethren.

Thus, trying to have a marriage with a non-Catholic, and trying to get that unity of vision and Faith that the Bible and the Church described above, is almost impossible.  Like oil and water, the two individuals can never really sublimate; there will always be a membranous barrier that keeps them separate, at best floating within one another discretely, like a bubble.  The logical extension of this thought is that a ‘mixed marriage’ can only surmount that barrier of Faith and become truly unified through the conversion of the non-Catholic party.  This certainly happens. But it can only happen when the Catholic in the marriage has the right attitude and understanding of what a mixed union is, and lives a heroic example of their Faith.

So what is the right attitude?

First and most important, the Catholic in a mixed marriage must understand that they are obliged to be the spiritual leader in the relationship.  This is tricky if the wife is Catholic, because she feels the pull of traditional gender roles urging her to defer to her husband as the leader and head of the household.  But regardless of which spouse is the Catholic, they must shoulder the responsibility of spiritual leadership. This is not because the  Catholic is holier or smarter, but because respect and love for Christ and His Church require it.  If a Catholic would not be ashamed by their Faith in a public sphere, nor compromise or pretend about how Catholicism fits into ‘the world’, so much more so should they refrain from hiding, subjugating, or politely restraining their Faith in order to defer to the leadership of a Protestant in marriage.

Which leads to the second facet of a Catholic attitude within a mixed marriage.  How seriously do you want to keep and cultivate your Faith?  For a Catholic married to an agnostic or a weak Christian, like the ex-boyfriend I dated, it is easy to express a desire to staunchly keep your Faith, but hard in practice to care on a daily basis.  Obviously, if you avail yourself of the sacraments, frequent Mass, etc, God will sustain you, but it is difficult to be the only Catholic in as intimate a relationship as a marriage, receiving no encouragement or true support from your spouse.  Can you imagine being a mother or a dad, passionately serious about raising your children well, and knowing that your spouse was totally indifferent to your parenthood, unsupportive at best and deliberately sabotaging you at worst?

Even harder, if you are marrying a devout Protestant, you are faced with two alternatives:1. You deliberately and prayerfully choose to embrace the kind of marriage in which you know you will not have as complete or fulfilling a unity, and instead choose unity with Christ at the expense of the ideal Catholic marriage.  This sounds harsh, but if you are Catholic and your spouse is not, you can either choose your spouse or choose your Faith.  The two are certainly not totally mutually exclusive, but there will and must be a hierarchy, and a more pronounced one than the normal ‘God–family–country’ ladder that Catholics understand anyway.  This is a difficult choice to make, to understand that you will be a little lonely, a little less fulfilled on a marital level.  It may be relatively peaceful, and you may not notice it often, but be assured there will be times when it will feel unbearable. This is the “tragedy of Christian disunity” that the Catechism mentions. Catholics and Protestants, while linked, are not equal. Sadly, the kind of resolve necessary to very precisely choose salvation over spouse is nearly unnatural and therefore, at least nowadays I think, rare.  As human beings, our inclination is towards marital unity with our spouse, and sacrificial love for them.  While the first alternative definitely does not and should not preclude self-sacrifice and care for your spouse, it is the less comfortable of the two choices.2. The second choice is to try to fool yourself into thinking you have equitably balanced God and non-Catholic spouse.  You tell yourself you are respectful when you go to your spouse’s non-Catholic services, even taking your children.  You tell yourself you are being self-sacrificing when you don’t speak out for your Faith, or when you submit to the non-Catholic spouse as spiritual leader of the family.  You tell yourself you are fulfilling your duty to God and husband or wife by making your Faith utterly internal and personal.  In other words, you are watering down your Faith and lying to yourself.

Again–sounds harsh? It is. But it is also true.  While there is no need to aggressively shove your Catholic Faith down your spouse’s throat, compromising on ‘the little things’ that ‘don’t matter’ is, in essence, giving up and saying  ‘My Faith matters to me but it’s ok if it doesn’t matter to you’. In plain speech, “My Faith doesn’t matter as much to me as you.” 

When you consider martyrs like Maria Goretti, or the mother in Maccabees (2 Macc. 7) who watches her sons tortured and martyred, you realize that your Faith should be more valuable than the life of your most beloved human companion, be it spouse, son, daughter, mother, father, sibling–and more valuable than your own. There aren’t exceptions. To view a mixed marriage with nonchalance, therefore, and painlessly let go of things like Catholic ceremonies and traditions, to sit quietly by out of respect for your spouse’s ‘different opinions’ on moral issues or on the Church, etc, is a careless endangerment of your own Faith at best.  At worst, after years of daily compromise on the small things, you will lose the big thing–your commitment to your Faith.  You’ll find yourself asking if you really need to go to Church every Sunday, of if you can just have a hamburger with your family on that Friday during Lent–or use a contraceptive after you’ve had a few kids. It’s a slippery slope.

“But that’s not fair”, I have had friends say to me.  Well…ok. It isn’t about ‘fair’.  Not if ‘fair’ means going to your non-Catholic spouse’s church service on Sundays because he or she chooses to come to yours.  Not if ‘fair’ means nixing every nearly semblance of Catholic symbolism or tradition in your wedding (as a friend of mine did) so as not to make your non-Catholic spouse uncomfortable. Preserving the limits of your Faith means being uncompromising on certain issues, and that isn’t a bad thing.

St. Thomas Aquinas says (Summa, Question 58, article 9) that justice is not about passions (feelings getting hurt) but about operations–about what you do. True justice or fairness involves respecting your non-Catholic spouse, but it also involves respecting your Faith enough to be firm about what you can and can’t do.  I think the attendance at non-Catholic churches thing is probably one of the most insidiousness instances of ‘fairness’ that hurts Catholics in mixed marriages, because it scandalizes and confuses any children involved, and lulls both you and your spouse into a comfortable space of false ecumenism.

The more devout your spouse is about their religion, the more disenfranchised they are going to feel, and that’s unfortunately one of the costs of maintaining your Catholicism in a mixed marriage, which is why the article I linked at the beginning says it’s easier for couples neither of whom have a serious religious commitment.

Happy Ending?

So, can there be a happy ending to a mixed marriage, or will it always end in a loss of Faith for the Catholic, or the loneliness of spirit so painful that you might as well have not gotten married?

The simple answer is yes, but the work that is involved is much more complicated.  There are mixed marriages like St. Monica to St. Augustine’s father, which was difficult and painful for her for thirty years, but resulted in the conversion of her son and husband.  There are marriages like those of medieval queens and kings who separated for one or both to live in monasteries when their children were grown.  There are marriages like my in-laws, in which the example of my fiance’s Baptist mother converting to fervent Catholicism ended up reawakening her spouse’s lukewarm Catholic Faith to bring them both closer.

The caveat to the ‘yes’, then, is that you can live a fulfilling life of grace in the married state (should that be your vocation) with a non-Catholic spouse, if you are willing to embrace the consequences and to see them in realistic terms.  Your marriage cannot be about romantic love, or ‘how much you want to be with the other person’ if it is at the expense of your firm adherence to your Faith.  All the sincere love, desire, and self-sacrifice in the world are pointless if at the expense of your salvation.

For some, this is not news.  For others, this means a serious self-examination, and maybe even a very, very hard choice: choosing to trust the most faithful Lover to guide you to a spouse who He has chosen for you.  Not everyone who is in a serious relationship with a non-Catholic is called to a mixed marriage (no matter how ‘sure’ you feel!). Those who find themselves in one already and regretting it need to look to the grace of the sacrament to help them re-evaluate how they live their Faith in that marriage–to the benefit of all!  And those who are considering it should evaluate their intentions and their attitudes towards all of the above without excuses.  Walking away from a dangerous marriage is far less painful than waking up in one unprepared.

St. Monica & her son


About the Author:

Meghan is a 25 year old graduate student of English Literature. She has a passion for reading and writing, in tandem with a big mouth (though you'd never guess that). She has four younger siblings, a wonderful fiance, two dogs, and a penchant for Scottish accents, fairy tales, and baking. She overachieved in undergraduate by also majoring in Medieval History. She's also Catholic, a woman, and, thanks to a combination of homeschooling and college, prone to logic, and so is in the unique position of being sensitive to moral/cultural issues like feminism, abortion, marriage, etc, and being able to comment clearly, if not insightfully, on them.