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Mixed Marriages And Disparity Of Cult

February 3, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


Preparation for reception of the Sacrament of Matrimony, as portrayed by Pope St. John Paul II in his landmark apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, encompasses three stages: remote, proximate, and immediate.
As we saw last week, it is a gradual and continuous process that should ideally begin during a child’s formative years “in the heart of their own families [where] young people should be aptly and seasonably instructed in the dignity, duty, and work of married love” (Gaudium et Spes, n. 49 § 4).
“Parents and families have the primary duty to provide this preparation by their example and teaching,” affirms Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. In today’s society, however, “pastors and the Christian community are especially to help when the marrying people come from broken homes. What young people need is to develop the virtue of chastity in order to make the transition through an honorable engagement at a suitable age” (The Faith, p. 251).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) now transitions to a topic where marriage preparation takes on even greater importance. Not too many decades ago, it was uncommon for a Catholic to marry outside the faith; when such a wedding did take place it was usually in a semi-private ceremony.
In today’s society, Catholics are often being joined in marriage with persons of other religions in mixed marriages or marriages with disparity of cult in public ceremonies (a “mixed marriage” is defined as a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic and “disparity of cult” refers to a marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person).
Mixed marriages “require particular attention on the part of the couples and their pastors . . . [and] marriage with disparity of cult requires even greater circumspection” (CCC, n. 1633). Why is this true? Simply put, the couple is entering into a sacred lifelong union without being fully united in the most important aspect of their lives — their relationship with God.
“Tensions and conflicts in matters of religion, especially with regard to divine worship and the education of children,” explains Fr. Hardon, “may make the practice of the Faith difficult. And so, while acknowledging and respecting the natural right to marry and have children, the Church does all in her power to ensure the faithful observance of the principles of Divine Law regarding marriage” (Basic Catholic Catechism Course [BCCC], p. 182).
In his 1970 apostolic letter Matrimonia Mixta (MM), Blessed Paul VI taught that Holy Mother Church “discourages the contracting of mixed marriages, for she is most desirous that Catholics be able in matrimony to attain to perfect union of mind and full communion of life.” Yet, as the Catechism affirms, “difference of confession between the spouses does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle for marriage” (CCC, n. 1634).
This is precisely where more rigorous preparation and ongoing support becomes indispensable. As Paul VI solemnly proclaimed, the Church vigilantly concerns herself with “preparing for marriage those who intend to contract a mixed marriage and in caring for those who have already contracted such a marriage” (MM).
The 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) specifies that the liceity of a mixed marriage requires “the express permission of the competent authority” (CIC, canon 1124). Generally given by the diocesan bishop, this permission is necessary because of the inherent obstacle that exists toward full spiritual communion due to differences in religious beliefs. The bishop is only to grant his permission if there is “a just and reasonable cause” and certain conditions are fulfilled:
1) The Catholic party declares his or her intention to remove all dangers of falling away from the faith and sincerely promises to do all in his or her power to ensure all offspring are baptized and raised in the Catholic faith; 2) the non-Catholic party, at an appropriate time, has been made aware of the Catholic party’s promises and obligations; and 3) both parties are instructed about the purposes and essential properties of marriage (cf. CIC, canon 1125).
In addition to obtaining express permission to marry a non-Catholic Christian, “the Catholic party is bound to the proper canonical form of having the marriage ceremony before an authorized bishop, priest, or deacon and two witnesses [cf. CIC, canon 1108 § 1]” (BCCC, p. 183).
In other words, if a Catholic person attempts marriage in a non-Catholic ceremony without a dispensation from canonical form, the couple does not enter into a valid marriage. On the other hand, if a Catholic marries a baptized non-Catholic with proper canonical form but for some reason failed to get permission, the marriage would be valid but illicit (unlawful).
“Permission differs from dispensation,” states Fr. John McAreavey, “inasmuch as it is ‘according to the law’ and may be presumed when the competent authority cannot be approached” (The Canon Law of Marriage and the Family [CLMF], p. 157).
Under what circumstances might a diocesan bishop grant a dispensation from canonical form?
Suppose a Catholic man and a Methodist woman wish to marry, they complete preparation as specified by the Catholic Church, and they agree to all the conditions set forth in canon 1125. Furthermore, suppose the uncle of the woman is a minister in the Methodist church and she was close to him as she grew up.
The Catholic man’s pastor, under these conditions, might petition his bishop for a dispensation from canonical form. If approved, the Methodist minister could validly witness the couple’s marriage at the church in which he serves (cf. CIC, canon 1118).
The Church is very clear, however, that “the celebration of marriage before a Catholic priest or deacon and a non-Catholic minister, performing their respective rites together, is forbidden. Nor is it permitted to have another religious marriage ceremony before or after the Catholic ceremony, for the purpose of giving or renewing matrimonial consent” (MM, n. 13; cf. CIC, canon 1127 § 3).
In the example given above, “a Catholic priest or deacon may, at the invitation of the minister of the other church or ecclesial community, offer other appropriate prayers, read from the Scriptures, give a brief exhortation, and bless the couple” (CLMF, pp. 162-163).
Interesting to note is that although an intended marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic is considered invalid if proper canonical form is lacking, “the Catholic Church considers marriages conducted among members of other churches or ecclesial communities to be valid and sacramental…since only baptized Catholics are bound by canonical form” (Fr. Paul Haffner, The Sacramental Mystery [TSM], p. 251).
Thus, a marriage between two Lutherans or a marriage between a Methodist and an Anglican would be seen as valid and sacramental. Consequently, if a party in either of these unions separates from his or her spouse and wishes to marry a Catholic, a new union is impeded by the existing bond. Only if a declaration of nullity is declared (based on lack of capacity or defect of consent) can the new union be entered into.
The Church treats marriage with disparity of cult in a more strict way. While “a mixed marriage needs for liceity the express permission of ecclesiastical authority (cf. CIC, canon 1124), . . . [for] disparity of cult, an express dispensation from this impediment is required for the validity of the marriage (cf. CIC, canon 1086)” (CCC, n. 1635).

Sources Of Tension

As suggested earlier, disparity of cult can further exacerbate common problems attending married life beyond those experienced by baptized Christians. “Not only differences of faith, and indeed differences in defining the very notion of marriage, but also differences in culture and religious mindset are sources of tension in families, particularly in relation to the education of children,” states Fr. Hardon. “From this arises, in nearly every case, a dangerous tendency to religious indifference” (BCCC, p. 183).
Fr. Hardon goes on to explain that if a dispensation is granted by proper ecclesiastical authority, the union between a Catholic and a non-baptized person “is a non-sacramental legitimate marriage” (ibid).
Or as expressed by Fr. Haffner, the marriage “results in a natural bond only, which nevertheless is to be respected since it has something of a sacred nature” (TSM, p. 253).
The basis for this teaching can be seen in a remark made by Blessed Paul VI in Matrimonia Mixta:
“Neither in doctrine nor in law does the Church place on the same level a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic and one between a Catholic and an unbaptized person. . . . Undoubtedly there exists in a marriage between baptized persons, since such a marriage is a sacrament, a certain communion of spiritual benefits which is lacking in a marriage entered into by a baptized person and one who is not baptized.”
Canon 1126 of the 1983 Code stipulates that it is the duty of the bishops’ conferences to establish the method and manner by which the required declaration and promise that a Catholic who wishes to enter into marriage with a non-Catholic (in either a mixed marriage or a marriage with disparity of cult) is bound to make before marrying.
We close this installment by citing the words put in place in 1970 for the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops:
“I reaffirm my faith in Jesus Christ and, with God’s help, intend to continue living that faith in the Catholic Church” and “I promise to do all in my power to share the faith I have received with our children by having them baptized and reared as Catholics” (Statement on the Implementation of the Apostolic Letter On Mixed Marriages).

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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is a Consecrated Marian Catechist.)

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