The Catholic Church is prepared for a scenario where a Catholic wishes to wed a non-Catholic. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

The Church can help overcome challenges of interfaith marriage

  • February 27, 2014

TORONTO - Julie Wright met her husband Doug during her second year in university. She had enrolled in an introduction to philosophy class and he was her teaching assistant. But they only started dating once the course was over. It was an ethics class, after all, she jokes.

On a date, the two talked about all the big themes surrounding life and religion. She was a devoted Catholic and, at the time, he was agnostic. At the end of the night, Doug walked Julie home — and was shocked.

Julie was a campus student minister living at the Newman Centre, a Catholic hub on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, located right next to the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel.

“When you said you lived at church, I thought you meant you went to church often. Not like it’s your mailing address,” said Julie, quoting Doug’s reaction. But Doug fit right into the faith-filled, intellectual atmosphere of the Newman Centre. After all, his mother is a minister in the United Church.

Doug went on to graduate with his PhD in philosophy and continued on a path that would lead him to atheism. In 2002, Julie worked as an assistant technical director at World Youth Day in Toronto and then moved to New York for a year to work for the Holy See mission at the UN. On her Easter visit back home, Doug decided to propose.

They were married on Jan. 3, 2004, at the Newman Centre chapel.

“One of the challenges we were going to have as an interfaith couple, one of faith and one of no faith, is trying to come up with a wedding day ceremony that would reflect both of us and with which we’d both be comfortable,” said Julie.

The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics are obligated to be married in a church. And so the Church is prepared for scenarios like the Wrights, and many more.

If both Julie and Doug were baptized Catholic, even if Doug professed atheism, they could be married in the Church with the typical marriage preparation procedures.

“Once you’re baptized, you’re always baptized... Once you’re Catholic, you’re always Catholic,” said Fr. Ivan Camilleri, Chancellor of Spiritual Affairs in the archdiocese of Toronto. “You may have relinquished your faith or abandoned it, but still the sacrament of baptism marks our soul.”

Doug, however, was raised Baptist. Baptists baptize adults, not infants. If Doug was baptized, the Wrights would have had the option to petition for a “mixed marriage” in the Church.

“It’s a mixed marriage where you have two baptized people, but one is Catholic and one isn’t,” said Camilleri.

“When two people who are baptized get married, that marriage is sacramental. Moreover, they are the ministers of the sacrament because they each offer and receive marital consent to and from each other. The priest is there only as a witness of the Church and to grant the nuptial blessing upon the couple,” Camilleri said.

Camilleri said when a Catholic weds a non-baptized person, “they need a dispensation because they’re entering into a non-sacramental marriage.” The official title is a dispensation for disparity of cult, and through preparation with their pastor and the necessary paperwork, the couple receive a dispensation to be married in the Church. Disparity of cult applies to any couple where one person is Catholic and the other has never been baptized.

If the Wrights had decided to marry outside of the Church, they could have applied for a convalidation.

“Convalidation is the liturgical act by which a couple who have married ‘outside’ the Church (for example, by a non-Catholic minister and) have their marriage blessed by a priest, so that they are now considered married ‘in’ the Church,” said Camilleri.

As for the Wright’s wedding, the priest, a friend of both Julie and Doug, gave a unifying homily. Julie describes it as “very intellectually engaging and very personal.” She said it touched upon the differences that strengthened their relationship, instead of weakening it.

“For both of us, we have these other centres in our lives. For Doug, it is pursuit of wisdom and pursuit of truth. And for me, it is Christ and the Church. Those differences become the foundation that we can then love each other and respect each other.”

Following the theme of unity, when only one party is Catholic, the Eucharist is not part of the wedding ceremony.

“The whole symbolism around a wedding is about unity and about two people becoming one,” and so only allowing the Catholics to share in the Eucharist would represent disunity,” Camilleri said.

Julie and Doug have been married for a decade, and she realizes that having kids would be another challenge to balance, respecting one another’s beliefs and teaching the children faith.

“The other party has to understand the obligation of the Catholic party to continue to build up their faith, to be able to raise their children in the faith,” said Camilleri.

“I don’t know how to raise non-Catholic kids. My kids would go to church and they would learn to pray and they would learn all the stories,” Julie said. “Our kids would grow up seeing a respectful and spirited debate around matters of faith. They would see their parents who love each other and have differences of opinion on this. And not see this as an insurmountable challenge to family life and living relationships.”

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