Ecumenism in Interchurch Marriage

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, November 27, 2009 | Go to article overview

Ecumenism in Interchurch Marriage


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


When Steve and Jo Ann Schweitzer, a Cincinnati couple in a Catholic-Presbyterian marriage, first presented a workshop 13 years ago on what canon law still refers to as "mixed marriages," one couple attended. Today similar workshops draw 75 couples or more.

Deacon Fred Merritt of the Cincinnati archdiocese's family life office told NCR he estimates that nearly 40 percent of marriages there are interchurch.

"We approach these marriages like any marriage. The couple requests a wedding date at the parish and then they enter into the parish's specific marriage preparation process."

He said many times a deacon is asked to prepare and preside at the wedding, since they are usually marriages outside of Mass.

In those cases where a couple would like to be married in a non-catholic facility, permission from the archbishop must be obtained. The Catholic party in the wedding is asked to sign a document indicating the intention to teach the children about the Catholic faith. In those cases where the non-Catholic party is not baptized, a dispensation must be obtained through the chancery, according to Merritt.

Merritt said that there are as many interchurch marriages between Catholics who seldom attend Mass as there are with those who frequently attend. "I find that many times the interchurch engaged couples attend each others' liturgy together on a regular basis to try to better understand how it could affect their own practice in the future.

"Unfortunately many couples who do this tell me they feel more welcomed at the non-Catholic liturgy than at the Mass. The non-Catholic often feels like an outsider while the Catholic is welcomed at the non-Catholic liturgy.."

In the Savannah, Ga., diocese, an area where Catholics are fewer in numbers, the split between Catholic and interfaith marriages is about even, said Pat Brown, a sister of St. Mary of Namur and director of the family life office. "From 1998 to 2009 pretty consistently we have had almost 50/50 Catholic and interfaith marriages. In 2009 there were 236 Catholic marriages and 178 interfaith marriages. In the Hispanic community we fmd most of the marriages are Catholic."

She said marriage preparation in the diocese does not focus specifically on or offer a special session for interfaith couples, "although that would be ideal. Many of our couples find it difficult to schedule even the one-day workshops since many are military, students or young professionals, so we haven't offered an additional workshop for them. We do encourage discussion of spirituality,, religious values and decisions around raising children while respecting each other's faith."

Interdenominational, ecumenical, interreligious, interchurch--all these terms are used. "Some involved in ministry prefer 'interchurch' because it defines each partner's commitment to remain true to his or her religious heritage while working to restore unity among Christian churches," said Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, professor at Cincinnati's Mount St. Joseph College who writes about Catholic marriage.

"Whatever you call them, these marriages can enrich both partners and their churches if couples, along with their faith communities, acknowledge early on that they'll have to work to keep both faiths intact."

Couples in interchurch marriages "don't like to see their marriages treated like problems," says Fr. George Kilcourse, professor of theology at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Ky., and founder of the American Association of Interchurch Families. …

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