(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.