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A Catholic Priest's Perspective on Interfaith Marriage

Republished January 26, 2011. Originally published July 2002.

Not too long ago, it was very uncommon for people to marry outside of their religion. Jews married Jews and Catholics married Catholics. In fact, there was a time when even a marriage between an Irish Catholic and an Italian Catholic was frowned upon. But that world is long gone. Today it is very common to find our children wanting to marry someone of a different faith. In fact, the very first wedding I ever performed, over 30 years ago, was a Catholic-Jewish celebration.

hands together representing harmony
"When people of radically different yet connected traditions marry, perhaps they are imaging a new way of viewing life. It may seem disconcerting, but could it not also be a call to greater religious harmony?"

How do we deal with this challenge? I would like to offer a few points for reflection based on my 30 years of experience as a priest who has been involved in many interfaith weddings. These points don't exhaust the issues, but do illustrate some of the areas that need to be addressed.

1. All decisions about ceremony and children need to take second place to the love relationship of the couple. If that is weakened, then no matter how the children are raised, they will not benefit from the strong love of the couple.

2. You cannot be a Jew and a Christian at the same time. You can be open to the other faith and appreciative of its values and traditions, but you cannot be both. This truth is part of the limitation of life and part of the beauty of the diversity of the human experience. I have found that many young couples who may not be that connected to their faith traditions think that the religious issue will not be a problem. Unfortunately, they don't appreciate how these matters may crop up later to present very difficult challenges. For example, many people begin to rediscover the importance of a faith tradition when they start having children.

3. The wedding ceremony, which in some ways is less important than the issue of children, should reflect the traditions of both because both are involved. This is sometimes more difficult for the Jewish partner than the Catholic, because on this issue the Catholic Church allows great freedom. (I fully empathize with my Jewish colleagues on this because it is easy for the Catholic Church, with 1 billion members, to be liberal on this point in comparison to the Jewish community with 15 million.) For the Catholic, the ceremony can take place in a non-religious setting, and a priest is not even required. It is even possible for the marriage to be done simply by a civil minister, and the church will still recognize it as a valid marriage. This is not the same for the Jewish faith. While there are some rabbis who will celebrate a joint ceremony, most rabbis of local congregations will not. This poses a dilemma for some priests who feel that by our taking part we are undermining our local colleagues. On the other hand, some of us see the value in keeping a connection with the couple by performing these marriages.

4. On the issue of raising children, I repeat what I said earlier: A child cannot be a Jew and a Catholic at the same time. It is very important for me that the couple comes to a decision about which way they will raise the child. Sometimes that decision needs to be based on whichever of the two is the practicing person. Who is the one who will be mainly responsible for the religious upbringing of the children? Whatever tradition children are raised in, hopefully they would be exposed to the other faith and share to some extent in the rituals of that tradition. But as they do that, they need to know their own identity.

The Catholic Church used to require those who were not Catholic to sign a document promising that the children would be raised Catholic. This was true also when Catholics married other Christians. That is no longer the case. Canon Law today requires that the Catholic parties promise that they will not give up their faith due to the marriage and that they will do "what is in their power" to share the Catholic faith with their children. These words were carefully chosen and mean what they say. It may be that some Catholics who are not strong in their faith can only share it by their example. The Church recognizes that there may be cases in which the children will be raised in another faith. But the marriage can still go forward.

It is always a greater challenge when both parties are well connected to their faith. In some of these situations, when no possible agreement can be reached as to the children's religion, it may even be best if the marriage is postponed or even rethought. In my experience, if there are major divisions over the religious upbringing of children before the marriage, then these issues will only be greater and more troublesome when the children arrive.

It also seems to me that we need to appreciate the good that can come from interfaith marriages. In a strange sort of way, these marriages do remind us that God's call for the human family transcends all religious boundaries. There is no religion that has the only path to God. While we find great benefit in our own faith traditions and want to see them passed on to future generations, no one tradition has an exclusive hold on God's attention. When people of radically different yet connected traditions marry, perhaps they are imaging a new way of viewing life. It may seem disconcerting, but could it not also be a call to greater religious harmony?

Reverend Walter H. Cuenin

Reverend Walter H. Cuenin is the Catholic chaplain and the coordinator of the Interfaith Chaplaincy at Brandeis University. He was ordained a Roman Catholic priest at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in 1970 and received his doctorate in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome in 1977. He is a panelist on "Talking Religion" a regular interfaith radio program each Sunday, sharing the program with a Jewish and Muslim leader. He is President of the Massachusetts Bible Society.

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