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Ecumenism in interchurch marriage.

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. "The problem is not their marriage, but the division between churches into which they've been baptized. We need to start putting the emphasis where it belongs: Christian churches' indifference to unity"

The Second Vatican Council's "Decree on Ecumenism" speaks of the scandal of baptized Christians and churches being divided, according to Kilcourse. "For that reason, the church irreversibly committed itself to the visible restoration of full communion. In the same way, the council's reference to 'the separated brethren' suffers from misunderstanding. Such a separation or division of Christians implies an anomaly It is a situation which ought not to exist among baptized persons."

It's not that Protestants have arrogantly separated themselves from the Catholic church; Catholics and Protestants alike are victims, Kilcourse said.

He cited the words of the "Decree on Ecumenism," which said: "The children who are born into these communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection."

Kilcourse said that a pair of steps could move the church toward healing this division with regard to interchurch marriages. "First, Catholics need to recognize the integrity with which interchurch families constitute a 'domestic church,' a church of the home that responds to Christ's universal call to holiness."

Second, bishops need to embrace and put into practice all the pastoral possibilities envisioned in the Vatican's 1993 "Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism."

"The extraordinary possibility of limited eucharistic sharing is pastoral care especially relevant for authentically interchurch couples. They are very different from 'mixed marriage' couples because they conscientiously remain active in their own church, participate to varying degrees in their spouse's church, and both take an active role in the religious education of children. They bring both extraordinary gifts and unique needs to the church."

Newly married interchurch couples benefit from open-mindedness, listening to one another's religious story, and making visible in their relationship the unity that Christ wills for the church, according to Kilcourse.

"I often remind such couples that in the marriage rite we affirm, 'What God has joined, we must not divide.' In that sense, we priests and deacons who witness interchurch marriages are defenders of the bond in a special ecumenical sense. The church even delegates to the Protestant spouse a special ministry in the church--to see that children are raised according to the law of Christ and the church. In light of Vatican Council II's 'Declaration on Religious Liberty' a Protestant spouse is free to make an equivalent promise as the Catholic about baptizing and then raising the child in his/her own church.

"So couples need to work out, in the context of their unique relationship, the religious identity of children in a way that respects their ecumenical, or interchurch, identity"

The council reminded us, Kilcourse said, that "whatever is truly Christian never conflicts with the genuine interests of the faith; indeed, it can only result in more ample realization of the very mystery of Christ and the church."

[Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His email address is]
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Author:Heffern, Rich
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 27, 2009
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