Inter-Church marriages some surprising truths

Why do Catholic and non-Catholic Christians decide to marry, given their different denominations? In this article, Sally and John Faisandier discuss this issue, and describe how some couples deal with it.

Sally and John Faisandier

We have noticed that a number of our Catholic friends are puzzled by our comments about inter-church issues. It is not easy for them to understand what all the fuss is about. It seems fairly straightforward: if the religious differences are significant enough, then the couple are not an ideal match, and shouldn’t get married.

The converse may also be true: if religious beliefs are not an important part of the relationship, then why do people make a problem out of their differing church backgrounds?

Finally, some people suggest that inter-church couples should just ignore the Catholic church’s teachings, and believe the non-Catholic partner should participate in communion along with everybody else – in the knowledge that their relationship is with God, and not with the bishop or the priest of that parish.

So why don’t the couple resolve their inter-church issues before they get married?

For some, this is not an easy question, and we know of some couples who have met, got engaged, and then decided against marriage because of the difficulties raised by their differing denominational backgrounds.

The majority, however, are like Fran and Ben [all names in this article have been changed to protect identity]. They were delighted to meet each other, had many interests in common, shared the same values and beliefs, were attracted to each other, and were pleased that they had found a partner who was a committed Christian.

You will not be surprised to hear that Fran and Ben are happily married. In the end, they saw their religious beliefs as highlighting how close their values were, rather than being divisive.

Their strong belief is that God didn’t think the difference in Christian denomination was an important factor, either!

It is not well-known that 68 percent of Catholics living in New Zealand (and also in Australia) marry non-Catholics. In other words, it is normal and common in New Zealand for Catholics to marry non-Catholics.

However, Fran did have some insight into some of the difficulties marrying a Catholic might bring and she now faces these difficulties every Sunday. Unfortunately, interchurch couples generally don’t feel ‘normal’ at a Catholic Mass, and the non-Catholic partner is treated differently.

When the priest welcomes everybody with the words, ‘Welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist’ it feels to Fran as though he is actually only welcoming Ben, because she is not permitted to receive the Eucharist. She finds this hurtful. It is difficult for her to willingly attend a Catholic Mass week after week with Ben, but she does it to support him, and to express their ‘domestic church’ together.

However, they both attend her church, too, where they are both welcomed and where Fran knows that the Eucharist (the most significant event for any Christian in a church service) is freely available. However, Ben knows that the Catholic Church frowns on him taking Communion in a non-Catholic service, so it is difficult for him there.

It is important to remember that the difficulties are imposed by the Catholic Church, not by the couple themselves. When Pope John Paul II addressed the interchurch family group in York in 1982 he said,

You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes.

We appreciate the acknowledgement of the difficulties the pope alluded to. We celebrate the pope’s indication in other speeches that Christian unity is a goal we are all hopefully praying for and moving towards. But it is dangerous to ever hope or imagine that the answer is for Protestants to all become Catholics one day. Unity must represent a creative solution that acknowledges the value of all Christian denominations, and the Catholic Church cannot afford to dictate to the others.

If religion wasn’t important when they got married, then why do couples subsequently make a problem out of their differing church backgrounds?

Susan and James can answer this. Getting married was easy. James was quite happy to go along with Susan to Catholic Mass (somehow it was always more ‘important’ to her that she go to her own church) – until they had children. Then, suddenly, a whole set of emotions kicked in for James, and he realised that he wanted his children to know his traditions, his background, his culture as much as Susan’s. When his son was born, James realised that his religious traditions were about his identity. It wasn’t just about going to Susan’s church because he loved her, it was now about bringing their child up in a community of faith that represented both parents.

We believe that this scenario is very typical – and potentially a very divisive moment for an inter-church couple. We have written about the baptism of our own child in an earlier article – but our key recommendation is that both partners should make sure that whatever they decide about their child’s spiritual upbringing – it must be a mutually agreeable one.

So why don’t inter-church couples just ignore the Catholic church’s teachings, and work out their own relationship with God?

We know that many take their own path by no longer attending church. We have also heard stories overseas where a number of Catholics have simply surrounded a non-Catholic family member, or close friend, and taken them up for communion – as an expression of their own support for that person, and their beliefs. Sometimes, a priest takes their own authority to give communion because of some special conditions that have been met (such as a significant occasion for the couple).

However, the large majority of us desperately want the church (especially the Catholic church) to welcome the non-Catholic partner in a significant way that acknowledges the Christian unity that the couple live within their marriage. We are heartened by developments overseas where some Catholic bishops have given permission for their priests to offer communion to inter-church couples. Where this has occurred, the couples themselves have experienced support and encouragement in their spiritual journey, and found it much easier to both attend church, and express their faith to their children.

Our conclusions

The interchurch movement is made up of many couples like Fran and Ben, Susan and James, and others who want to maintain both their religious traditions, but find it extremely challenging. The support we gain from each other keeps us going – we remind ourselves that we are normal, and encourage each other not to give up on church altogether. We know that many do, in fact, find it too hard, and don’t attend church anymore.

We were hugely grateful to learn that Archbishop John Dew acknowledged the difficulties faced by interchurch couples at the synod of Bishops in Rome last year. He said, “We acknowledge them to be baptized in Christ in the sacrament of marriage, but not in the reception of the Eucharist.” ‘≈°√É‚Äû’¬†We are sustained by the knowledge that our difficulties are at least recognised, and discussed by our church leaders. We pray for the day that it may be possible for all Christians to worship together in one church – as we are sure God intended.