“A Practical Laboratory of Unity”: Interchurch Marriage

(This is Neil.) I hope that you have been reading Todd’s excerpts from the 1969 Rite of Marriage. I thought that I would post something on marriage, as well. I’d like to post on interchurch marriages, since it is a subject that concerns me rather directly. Furthermore, there is a very interesting article on the subject in the Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, written by the Catholic theologian Jason E. King, on which the following will be based.

Dr King notes that interchurch marriages are usually discussed in terms of the difficulties and possible conflicts that need to be overcome or at least negotiated. It is true that interchurch couples need to face such obvious and potentially thorny problems as the celebration of sacraments and raising children in an interdenominational home. But we should not, King says, imagine that interchurch marriages are defined by these difficulties and possible conflicts and their management.

If we do, we miss three important things. First, if we simply relegate interchurch marriages to some sort of separate and “problematic” category, we fail to notice that these marriages are by no means unusual. Ecumenical marriage rates, Dr King tells us, are no less than 36% for Catholics and 28% for Catholics who attend church regularly. Second, if we regard interchurch marriages as themselves “irregular,” we fail to realize that this perceived “irregularity” has come about because of the preceding and unavoidable woundedness of the Church itself.

On this, Dr King quotes Fr Thomas Ryan, CSP, the director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations:

We are quick to forget though that this anomaly [ecumenical marriages] only arises on account of a prior and greater one: the division between churches. These couples have not asked to have the historical divisions of the churches laid on them as they try to live an experience of unity and communion of life in their marriage, but that is what the churches bequeath them.

Finally, and most importantly, if we define interchurch marriages as essentially “problematic” marriages, we will tragically overlook the particular vocation of these marriages. In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, the late Pope John Paul II, speaking of “numerous elements” in interchurch marriages, noted the “contribution that they can make to the ecumenical movement.” He had earlier told interchurch families in York in 1982, “You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity.” Similarly, last year in Warsaw, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the decision of members of different Christian traditions to marry, saying, “thanks to the spread of ecumenical dialogue on a larger scale, the decision can lead to the formation of a practical laboratory of unity.” (See here for a relevant excerpt from the April 2006 issue of One in Christ.)

How can interchurch marriages be “practical laboratories of unity”?

We must first ask how a marriage works – a complicated question. Obviously, one answer is that romantic or erotic love binds a couple together. As King writes, “The spouses’ values, understanding of the world, cares, and concerns are all transformed as their horizons start to intermingle and shape one another.” But, perhaps not as obviously, erotic love cannot be permanently and continuously sustained. Eros needs to be supplemented and purified by agape, which, as King also writes, more securely “grounds the interactions of the couple in a mutual disposition to do what is truly good for each other,” even in times of sickness or distress (and they will come). Given this unity, as Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, “Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”

The couple will then be united physically (sex, believe it or not, is meant to be unitive – see, inter alia, CCC n 2369), but also in the course of sharing daily life. Secondly, the couple will be united through their interpersonal relationships. Their interpretations of their roles as parents and relatives, as well as their own pasts and hopes for the future, will necessarily develop through communicating with one another. After all, we derive the word “communication” from the Latin communis, meaning “mutual participation.” Furthermore, the unity achieved in marriage has a social dimension. The most obvious form of this is the raising of children. But the transformative effects of the unity of marriage will also extend to those encountered by the now “changed” couple in the course of their social and professional lives. King writes:

The key is to realize that a marriage rooted in genuine love not only transforms the couples but also transforms children, neighbors, strangers, enemies, and societies. In and through these transformations, the couple is not only united but also creates an environment that is more conducive to being united.

Finally, marriage unifies a couple theologically. The sacrament of marriage commits a couple to a specific form of Christ-like love, so that it becomes the primary way of living out Jesus’ commands to love one’s neighbor. A couple must also find the language to pray together. Finally, marriage binds two people to discover and obey the plan of God for their lives together, which means that their beliefs about themselves and their world will inevitably be formed mutually. Thus, marriage creates what Pope John Paul II called a “domestic church” (see Familiaris Consortio, n 21, etc.).

But what about interchurch marriages? And how do they contribute to ecumenism?

Interchurch marriages create “domestic churches” where, according to our frail theological concepts, none should exist. That is, they create churches comprised of divided Christians. As such, according to King (and other writers), they serve as a “sign” or “instrument” of Christian unity – a “foretaste of the eventual reunion of all Christians.”

Practically speaking, an interchurch couple has to shape a shared spiritual life from two traditions, “from the icons of the Orthodox to the simplicity of the Shakers, from Gothic cathedrals to Quaker meetinghouses, from austere, treatise-like homilies to charismatic, dynamic preaching, from gospel choirs to Gregorian chant, from ritualized congregational responses to spontaneous glossolalia, and from altar calls to orderly processions.” This very obviously means that they will have to learn, appreciate, and grow from the concrete experience of once foreign Christian traditions. As Cardinal Mercier, who presided over the Malines Conversations between Anglicans and Catholics, once said, “In order to unite with one another, we must love one another; in order to love one another we must know one another; in order to know one another we must go and meet one another.” The search for institutional Christian unity, then, can obviously draw from the practical experiences of interchurch couples, who already have had to love, know, and truly encounter one another.

An interchurch couple’s attempts to truly live a unitive life together mean that they will have to surrender unnecessary biases and prejudices about another Christian tradition. King quotes the Salvatorian priest Jude D. Weisenbeck, “Married couples are better able than most to see their spouse’s tradition in the most favorable light. … Stereotypes and prejudices melt and flow away when other persons open their hearts to us and we to them in love. … This capacity to break down barriers can and will reach into future generations.” It can also reach priests and pastors.

King quotes the late Lutheran theologian Timothy Lull to provide an example of this:

Imagine a Matthew Marvin who is a member of St Thomas Lutheran Church and his wife Susanna Marvin who is a member of Sacred Heart Parish. When Matthew Marvin’s pastor speaks about “those Catholics,” he confronts in Matthew a considerable reality factor. His information had better be accurate and current, or Matthew may well challenge him. And if pastor, priest, or rector is less than charitable about that which is preached and taught, then the continuing presence of Mr Marvin is a sign not only of a person in need or of a sensitive issue, but also of an ecumenical reality which every pastor or priest needs to address.

Perhaps we might remember that phrase “a considerable reality factor.” Interchurch families show the reality of Christian division when we would pretend that it either does not exist or is relatively insignificant. There are “domestic churches” comprised of Christians who cannot celebrate the Eucharist with one another. There can be real spiritual lives that, despite what we might think, involve both Gothic cathedrals and Quaker meetinghouses. And, should we try to easily define ourselves against caricatures of other Christian traditions, we might have to face the physical “reality” of representatives of those traditions in our pews.

So, interchurch marriages are not “problematic,” but “signs” and “witnesses” to a unity not yet achieved and perhaps barely even imagined.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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16 Responses to “A Practical Laboratory of Unity”: Interchurch Marriage

  1. FrMichael says:

    Interchurch marriages certainly are problematic. Married life is difficult enough without the added burden of denominational differences thrown into it. Interesting that none of the quotes above regard children, for they are the ones who usually bear the brunt of the differences.

    Despite notable exeptions, these marriages breed indifferentism among children.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Fr Michael,

    Thanks for writing.

    Obviously, interchurch marriages do present certain problems. But they should not be *defined* as “problematic.” As I wrote above, such a definition would lead us to ignore the fact that the “problem” is not with the marriage but the woundedness of the Church (which the couple did not cause), that these marriages are rather common, and that these marriages have a particular vocation – to serve as “laboratories of unity,” in the Pope’s words.

    I would suggest that experiencing the “problems” of interchurch marriages is actually an essential part of this vocation. As Giuseppi Chiaretti, the Archbishop of Perugia, movingly told a gathering of interchurch families, “In fact, you carry very visibly in your story a sort of ‘sign of contradiction’ which can be a warning to all Christians, a bit like Jacob’s ‘limp’ or Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’. You are in effect a continuous living and painful memorial of the torn robe of Christ … But even suffering is also a way of ecumenism, perhaps the most precious one!”

    Fr Weisenbeck’s quote did address children directly – “Stereotypes and prejudices melt and flow away when other persons open their hearts to us and we to them in love. … This capacity to break down barriers can and will reach into future generations.”

    I feel that children can learn two very important spiritual lessons from being raised in an interdenominational home: first, that the woundedness of the Church (which most Catholics ignore) is very real, and, second, that (as John Paul II writes) “the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities” so that they will have to continually repent of “certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the ‘other side’, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption.”

    These are not unimportant lessons – today, children and young adults live in an inevitably ecumenical world: Christians of different denominations cooperate in social justice efforts and college Bible studies, and theologians no longer restrict their source material to a single tradition. Children raised in an interchurch family will be better able to navigate in such a world.

    Furthermore, children raised in an interchurch family will not fall prey to one of the temptations of today – to deny the reality of sin.

    Interchurch marriages should not lead to indifferentism, because children will see their parents, as I have written above, accept the cross of Christian division – a cross that could be simply put down if all churches and communities were the same.

    Actually, from what I have read, heard, and experienced, one of the greatest difficulties affecting interchurch families is a lack of pastoral support. I have almost never heard sermons on ecumenism. In the Catholic side of our own wedding preparation, my (Methodist) wife and I were led by a very generous, well-informed, and experienced couple that was apparently well-prepared with brochures and advice to deal with all sorts of non-practicing Catholics, but had no real understanding of interchurch marriages or even Methodism. (There are, of course, helpful groups of interchurch families, but one has to find them.)

    Thanks again.


  3. Todd says:

    “Despite notable exeptions, these marriages breed indifferentism among children.”

    I admire Neil’s calm and reasoned reply to this statement, but I think I would have to resort to an amywelbornism to it: Prove it!

    My parents were of different Protestant traditions, Baptist and Presbyterian, and yet I was led to Catholicism. My sister is now a part-time youth minister in a Lutheran church. My older brother has been a liturgical assistant in Lutheranism, and now an Episcopal parish. I would hardly call this a result of an experience that fostered indifferentism.

    Naturally, personal observations–mine or yours–do not make for a definitive and authentic discernment or judgment on the issue. But it seems that Catholic children of two Catholic parents are often in grave danger from indifferentism: taking for granted their Catholic faith.

    An interesting thought experiment occurs to me. What would it be like for a Catholic priest to be assigned to a non-Catholic parish? Imagine being unable to celebrate the sacraments, of being a solitary witness for the Roman tradition, struggling to maintain personal spirituality with none of the accustomed support systems. Of course, there would be the plus side: encountering new traditions, being challenged to discernment, pruning away the peripherals.

    In a sense, married couples have blazed the way for almost all you priests on ecumenism. Our laboratories have produced results. It seems the only thing the Roman hierarchy can do is regurgitate what it said ten years ago. When are you guys going to get serious about it? What are you afraid of?

  4. Neil says:

    Thanks for writing, Todd.

    In fairness to Fr Michael, I will readily concede that interchurch marriages can lead to indifferentism if the husband and wife are not committed and well-informed members of their churches. Perhaps that reflects his experience?


  5. FrMichael says:

    “Prove it.”

    Well, I fully admit to arguing out of personal experience here. I myself am a product of a mixed marriage (devout Catholic mother, non-practicing Protestant father). I know several mixed marriages: the healthiest ones are where the non-Catholic became Catholic. In the few cases I know of strong Catholics marrying strong non-Catholics, disputes have arisen over religion. Don’t know about you, but I consider unnecessary fighting in a marriage negative for the children.

    As far as I’m concerned, these marriages generally serve as “laboratories of unity” in either a positive or negative sense: either the non-Catholic partner becomes Catholic or indifferentism among the parents and/or children rules the roost. In older days with a stronger Church, I’m guessing the former was more prevalent. It sure isn’t now.

    Your personal example proves my point: indifferentism run amuck. You and your siblings learned early that denominations were not that important and acted accordingly. That is the last thing we want to teach Catholic children. Christianity is not a smorgasbord from which we pick and choose according to our tastes. It is the Truth, best preserved in the Catholic Faith, to which we conform ourselves.

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  8. I came across your blog this evening, and am delighted to see it. I run interchurchfamilies.org, a website for groups and associations of interchurch families around the world. As a active Catholic married to a deeply faithful and practicing Anglican, I’ve come to experience first-hand that we can in fact be gifts to our churches in their journey toward unity. I’ve seen the children of interchurch families express their love of God and faith in Christ across denominational lines, and have concluded that the Church is in good hands with them. I’ve also come to see that what unites us is much greater than what divides us – even if there’s a tendency to focus much more on what divides!
    Well done.

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Ray,

    Thank you for your very kind message. It means a great deal to me. My wife and I are members of the Association of Interchurch Families. We are in a similar situation to you are your spouse: I am an active Catholic married to a practicing and faithful Methodist.

    If you have any suggestions for future blog posts on interchurch families, I would be happy to hear them. This is a topic that is often misunderstood and needs more attention.


  10. Helen says:

    Are you resident in the UK?

    I’ve had a little look around the site and I found it very interesting.

    My husband and I are members of AIF and also the List that Ray organises.

    Great comments!

  11. lehall says:

    Thanks for your post. And thanks Ray for the link to this blog. What I’ve read is good and I hope I can join the conversation.

    I am United Methodist. My husband was confirmed in the RCC as and adult. I completely echo the sentiment that being members of churches divided from one another is tough. And that it is the division of the churches that makes it tough.

    I was loved and nurtured and taught to seek true life in Jesus Christ in a particular community. That community is the United Methodist Church. Neither I nor any of the people with whom I have learned to follow Christ participated in the controversies adn lack of charity on both sides that resulted in the split between Rome and England. Nor were we parties in the rivalries between revivalists and traditionalists that eventually resulted in Methodists becoming a separate community rather than a movement within Anglicanism.

    I don’t think that denominations are unimportant. I do think that we need to be ready to accept the gifts and strengths of other communions as we look toward full and visible unity.


  12. Neil says:

    Dear Helen and lehall,

    Thank you for your kind comments. I’m actually in the United States.

    Regarding lehall’s comments, as I’ve written above, my wife is a practicing United Methodist. It is difficult to be members of churches divided from each other, particularly when churches still define themselves against one another, which sometimes occurs when Catholics define themselves against misconstruals of Protestant doctrines of scriptural authority or justification, or when Protestants (often ex-Catholics) define themselves against what they see as Catholic irrationality or repression. But the role of interchurch families is to be a witness against such misrepresentation and also to offer the gifts that are present among separated brothers and sisters (e.g., the Wesleyan hymns).

    Lehall’s statement about the division preexisting today’s Christians is very true. In fact the Pope would agree – he has said that present-day Protestants have never made “a personal decision against the unity of the Church” and cannot be dismissed as “heretics” (The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, p.87-88).


    PS The other ecumenical comments that lehall has commented on were written by Todd, who is on retreat. He will respond, I’m sure, upon his return.

  13. Hi Neil,

    It’s been interesting reading the comments posted here. We are an InterChurch couple (Episcopalian / Roman Catholic) and are CoChair of an Association dedicated to supporting in many different ways both InterChurch couples (both Christian) and Interfaith couples (one Christian, one not). In our experience where there has been Pastoral care for us we have flourished; where there has been indifference or outright prejudice it has been difficult to worship together. Father Michael says he is the product of an InterChurch home…. however, he says that his father was a non-practicing Christian. Even when you find a same-tradition couple, where one is not practicing you will find dissent, arguments etc. However, we have found that we have become even more deeply involved in our own traditions because we have been open enough to learn about our spouse’s tradition.

    As far as the children go…. as others will also tell you…. it’s the norm for them to be from two traditions and they do not find it difficult or hard. In fact, some children we know think it’s neat that they have TWO Church Families.

    As a comparison, when you are brought up in a military home, the children don’t think it’s strange that they often move, one of their parents isn’t there some of the time. It’s just something they grew up with.

    Same with InterChurch and Interfaith kids. It’s something they have grown up with.

    We hope some of the other clergy and InterChurch couples who see this sight will follow up and try and find as much as they can about other InterChurch couples / families.

    Barb & Michael+

  14. Neil,

    Could you please contact us directly.

    Thanks, Barb & Michael+

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