Into the Laboratory

I will admit to being bothered by some posts on this thread. I think they betray an untutored view of interchurch marriages. Maybe a lack of awareness of how God works. Fr Michael’s posts also ignore the other many pitfalls which beset Catholic priests and others who represent the Church. I can appreciate if his personal experience leads him to this conclusion. But only to a degree:

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.

Children bearing the brunt of denominational differences: that’s an interesting observation. I suppose if one means that Catholic children of a non-Catholic parent might attend a non-Catholic school, or worship at a non-Catholic service, or perhaps wed a non-Catholic, I can see that might be alarming to some.

Personally, I have faith in the Catholic faith. I worry less about the interior temptations of such peripherals as the BCP or Word and Table services or even intercommunion. The external and individual forces that drive denominational loyalty, especially the careless wrongs perpetrated by those who repersent the Church: we have far more to worry about on that score. If we searched our experiences, we might find the lab results to be discouraging on that score.

Each year about the time of my baptismal anniversary (22 August) I reflect on the many graces that brought me to the Church. I’ve retold the story countless times, mostly with friends, sometimes with RCIA groups, and once at an evangelical convention. (You can imagine the reception it got there!)

What I did not realize in 1970 was that my family had flirted with the Catholic Church long before I had those first stirrings to become a Catholic. Rather surprising for a family that had absolutely no Catholics in it. None whatsoever. Many years after my baptism, I learned that the girl who had been placed with my parents in foster care (years before I was born) was Catholic. There was adoption in the air, as my parents to that point were childless, except for my brother from my dad’s first marriage.

My mother told me more of that tale. She and my father said they would ensure the girl was raised Catholic. When she came of age, they would enroll her in a parish school and my mother pledged to take her to Mass each Sunday and holy day. Not satisfactory, according to the priest at Catholic Charities. My parents would have to convert.

I suspect there was or is some impediment on the marriage end of things. My dad may have had strong feelings against it. My mother, close-lipped about many personal aspects of her life, never hinted at what the blockage might have been. I know better than to probe directly. Needless to say, the girl was moved elsewhere. She would visit occasionally through the years, remaining somewhat close to my parents. The last time I saw her was at a breakfast chat at my mom’s home more than twenty years ago. She had become a born-again Christian. We had a very interesting conversation about religion that morning.

I wonder what that priest would have thought of that conversation. The Catholic girl he was so zealous of protecting was now an evangelical Christian. The woman he refused adoption ran pilgrimages to Catholic shrines and was a past-president of the parish Altar Society. And still not Catholic. And the woman’s son was Catholic, soon to be heading off to study at the former diocesan seminary.

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.

Fr Michael doesn’t know of what he wrote. Indifferentism is hardly the word I would use to describe my sister’s sense of service to children and teens. My older brother, who has never been Catholic, found his way to Lutheranism, only to switch to the Episcopal Church in Iowa to find a place that offered Communion each Sunday. While it is true none of us began as Catholics, the lure of faith, service, and the sacraments run pretty strongly in a family criticized for indifferentism. I can only offer my own story as a fuller part of the picture.

I had begun attending Catholic school in the sixth grade. The pastor called one day and I heard my mother’s end of the conversation, “No the children have never been baptized,” then a pause. “Let me ask Todd and see what he says.”

Prayers answered, for I had considered telling my mother I wanted to be Catholic. The possibility of my parents saying no steered me into praying instead. I prayed that God would work it out so that I could become Catholic. Amazingly, it happened. In my eleven-year-old brain, I realized that God had arranged it all through Father McCarthy. And my mother was letting me choose. No one was more clever than the Lord for making this work.

The laboratory can’t predict what would have happened were my parents both Baptists or both Presbyterians. Nor did it predict that the Catholic child would be “lost” to the born-agains after a placement more “safe.”

On one hand, these examples are meaningless from a scientific view because they are single snapshots. One priest blundered while the other was inspired. One child walked out of the sheepfold while another walked in. They do not prove in a scientific way that I’m right and my honorable commenter is wrong. Except for one family’s instance.

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.

My worthy guest was speaking of children of a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. Not my situation of Catholic children of non-Catholic parents. Even today, that’s a pretty whacked-out experiment.

I will concede that my sister, who used to be Catholic, is now Lutheran. She has her own reasons, and I have my private opinion on some of them. But when my father was dying, it was a cousin’s Lutheran pastor, not a Catholic priest, who visited our dad and served our family.

I’m sure that my pastor would have visited the family, too. But I was working several hundred miles away. I have no doubt that Fr Michael would have been a comforting presence as well. But the laboratory of pastoral ministry is also littered with obstacles.

Fr Michael is concerned that the lab burner will catch someone’s coat on fire. Or that a chemical will spill and somebody might get injured. Thing is, those kinds of accidents can happen in a kitchen, or even a sacristy.

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.

After considering the laboratory of my own family, paint me doubtful. The stronger Church of the 50’s chased away my parents before I was even born. And for what? It couldn’t even hold on to one girl.

The Church of the 70’s tried to lasso in my mother. It didn’t matter that she didn’t convert or couldn’t receive Communion. She brought us to Mass when we were young. She studied for CCD certification in case she needed to respond to questions about Catholicism. She headed up the Altar Society and any number of parish groups. She worked bingo. She ran trips to Canadian shrines until she was almost seventy years old, doing so on her own after a later estrangement from the parish finance committee who accused her of mismanaging money. (The departed pastor and his vacations and luxuries were beyond reach at that point.)

My brother wonders why I bother with the Church. I’ve shared with him my perils-of-pauline history with pastors alcoholic, sexually jealous, and otherwise mismanaged types. That’s largely changed for the better over the past decade, especially since I got married.

Like me, my wife came from a family entirely non-Catholic. I don’t know that we’re so much a laboratory of unity. We certainly have our own pitfalls.

For a person who sees the world as black or white, Catholic or non-Catholic, I can see that interchurch marriage has all the allure of growing weeds. Maybe being unmarried makes it more boring to consider this particular laboratory.

Up to now, I had not considered Neil’s point of these marriages being domestic churches of Catholic and non-Catholic mixture. We really are farther ahead than the clergy and the theological ecumenists. Half-empty or half-full? I pick the latter, and by a longshot.

I’m also glad Neil reminded us of the Holy Father’s metaphor. It’s easy enough to see the marrige itself as a laboratory and focus on the “mixed-breed” children as the experiments, but I don’t think that’s where the pope is going on this one. The laboratory is also conducted in the surroundings of the interchurch marriage, the parish especially.

Even if we take the black/white view, the test isn’t only on the couple and their children, but on the parish that surrounds them. Including the clergy. Truly, I think the situation is far more subtle and complex. I didn’t start with any Catholics in my family and see how my tale has turned out so far.

I hope Neil explores this more with us in the future. It would be worth a series on this blog, if not a separate effort dedicated to the cause. Shorter posts than this one, of course.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Ministry, My Family, spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Into the Laboratory

  1. freder1ck says:

    Great post, Todd!

    My kids are products of 3 or 4 generations of mixed marriages. My maternal grandfather went Protestant; my mother came to the Catholic Church to marry my father; my wife came into the Catholic Church during our engagement. On my father’s side, I think it skipped a generation.

    My experience is this: mixed marriages are problematic. But I see problems as a good thing rather than something to be avoided at all costs.

    Fr. Luigi Giussani wrote that “a problem is an invitation to discover a new good, a new truth, to extract a more mature and deeper sense of satisfaction.” And he was the son of an anarchist father and a Catholic mother.

    Far worse than a mixed marriage is a marriage in which religion is not a problem – for example, the marriage of two nominalists (Catholic or otherwise).


  2. FrMichael says:

    “Aye self, I hadly recognized ye.”
    Don’t recognize myself in Todd’s argument here at all.

    It sounds like your pastor from the 70s and I have the same attitude: make lemonade out of lemons. So when, which has happened a good many times in my years as a priest, non-Catholic parents have asked to have their children baptized while they remain non-Catholic (almost always for marriage irregularities), I have gladly said yes once I have explained their spiritual responsibilities in raising the children Catholic.

    I’m not sitting here in my rectory covering my eyes and ears and denying the existence of mixed marriages. Far from it. They are a situation which requires active involvement by the clergy– particularly during marriage preparation. And I assure you, I address the issue with gusto in preparing such couples.

    I object to the claim that these are some sort of ideal and that marriages are a proper laboratory for ecumenism, as if that were a good thing to impose on the sacrament. Nowhere in the Rite of Marriage or in our Tradition is the phenomena of mixed marriages addressed as inherent to the sacrament. Their existence stems from the sad circumstance of Christian division. They need to be dealt with out of pastoral necessity so as not to tear marriages apart and for the spiritual well-being of the children.

    “Children bearing the brunt of denominational differences: that’s an interesting observation. I suppose if one means that Catholic children of a non-Catholic parent might attend a non-Catholic school, or worship at a non-Catholic service, or perhaps wed a non-Catholic, I can see that might be alarming to some.”

    The “some” here would be any conscientious pastor of souls.

    For in a mixed marriage, the temptation to substitute Protestant practices for Catholic is a constant temptation even if the Catholic spouse is well-formed in the Faith. In my case, I was fortunate enough to have a devout mother, so I never had the prospect of attending Protestant Sunday worship in place of Sunday Mass. My Sundays were spent either attending both (rarely) or solely the Mass. OTOH my father never tried to impose that on his children either. I could imagine the war that would have developed if my dad was more fervent in his own tradition and tried more strongly to inculcate that in us children. Fortunately for his marriage and our spiritual well-being, he took his oath seriously of agreeing to raise his children Catholic (as was done under the old Code of Canon Law). But the spiritual Cold War that developed in our domestic church (no grace, no religious images, no family prayers except at holidays) was a hindrance to the formation of the domestic church.

    All too often parents will make the decision along the lines of “Well, we only have time for one service this Sunday: is it my turn or yours?” This is an ever-present spiritual danger of indifferentism applied to mixed marriages where both partners practice their respective faiths. Maybe I should define the term indifferentism: the attitude that one religion or Christian denomination is as good as another.

    You seem to think that I accused your family of indifference to the Christian faith. I can see how you might think that since I didn’t define the term (thinking we were all in agreement on the definition). No, that wasn’t the case: I fully accept your assertions that your siblings are good Christians. My point is that “being a Christian” is not a good-enough spiritual goal for Catholic children. Being a Catholic Christian is the only legitimate spiritual goal for Catholic parents to have for their children, since it is only in the Catholic Church are the full means of salvation found.

    Think I’ve said my peace for now on the subject.

  3. Todd says:

    “I object to the claim that these are some sort of ideal and that marriages are a proper laboratory for ecumenism…”

    I don’t think anyone insinuated interchurch marriages are “ideal.” They are a reality. I don’t think “proper” is the appropriate adjective either. If I were being snarky, I might say they are the “most advanced” laboratory for ecumenism. Certainly there are very, very few “churches” of any kind that live with Christian division on a daily basis. In that sense, interchurch couples have outdistanced their brothers in the clergy, both in living with disunity and struggling and praying for unity and also in building bonds on the local level, which most parishes rarely see outside of a secular holiday.

    The many challenges you describe here don’t strike me as inherent to an interchurch marriage. Not taking time for worship, not praying, not taking seriously the role of forming children in a domestic church: all of those misfortunes can take place in a Catholic family. The common sins of each? Stubbornness, fear, insecurity, settling for the good-enough. While those lamentable qualities might be in the groundwork of any marriage, they do not logically follow from an interchurch marriage.

    My peace on the subject: a little less negativism and a little more concession that any sacramental marriage centered on Christ is “ideal” in the best sense of the church’s understanding.

  4. Marilyn says:

    Sunday Mass and the first sacraments for our 4 children were major upheavals in our home…not the joyful celebrations they should have been if both parents were active Catholics…hardly anything day-to-day is worth squabbling about but the sacraments are non-negotiable for a Catholic which was very difficult for my (former) husband to grasp.

  5. Todd says:

    Not knowing your husband, unless his religion was creating upheaval, I don’t see anything particularly non-Catholic in squabble. The presumption is that a person is going into a marriage ready to work. Marriage to a trouble-maker is a bigger challenge even before religion enters the scene.

  6. Tony says:

    I spoke with a man at our church picnic and he said something interesting. He said: “If my children wanted to follow some other form of Christianity, I’d be ok with that.”

    I thought about it and I tended to agree with him. I would prefer my daughters, when grown, attended weekly services at a Protestant church than no church at all.

    I believe that defective worship is orders of magnitude better than no worship.

  7. Young single mothers are just like any other teens. They eat poorly, sometimes drink, or smoke. They’re influenced by peer pressure to become sexually active and then when they become pregnant, those same influences can be damaging to her child. After the baby is born a young single mother and friends may part ways. The mother may face alienation and ridicule from the same friends that helped to influence the same behavior that got her in trouble.

  8. lehall says:

    Fr. Michael’s comments got me thinking. I’m the non-RCC in an inter-church marriage, but I don’t recognize my family in his comments.
    On indifferentism: It’s not that I think any communion is just as good as any other. We have strengths and weaknesses, places we shine and places we fall short. I understand that the RCC understands itself to be fully and completely church in a way my church is not. I’m not so sure about that. It’s not a case of indifferentism. There are points at which my husband and I disagree. And we live together in mutual love and respect.
    On conflict: We’ve had lots of long difficult conversations about church, liturgy, sacraments, and their place in our lives. We have at times been angry. But we pray through these conflicts together. I respect that his desires for our family and our son come from his deep faith in Jesus Christ. He offers me the same respect. It’s not easy, but I think our home and our relationship are relatively peaceful.
    On worship: The RCC in its own documents recognizes that other Christians are in fact brothers and sisters in Christ. Our baptism is valid. Our worship seeks to honor and praise the triune God. No it’s not RCC. And yes according to RC doctrine it is deficient in important ways. But it is not harmful. It will not contaminate you. You might even learn to worship God in a new way that will make you better able to offer true worship in Mass.
    On war: I have prayed long and hard about what are the riches of my tradition I want to share with my child. My husband has done the same. We work together on the ones we hold in common. When I put my son to bed I often sing the hymns and songs of my tradition. When it’s my husband’s turn he often prays the rosary with him. It’s not a turf war. We are offering our son the gifts we have received. I am glad my husband offers those gifts and I am determined to offer mine as well. I am sure there are ways to insist that would be conflict-driven, but that’s not the way it works in our family.

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