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Catholic-Protestant Wedding: Yes or No?

The Church allows what it calls 'mixed marriages.' But Catholics must discern carefully.

Once upon a time, the Church was vocally adamant in its opposition to mixed marriages—i.e., marriages involving a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian. Though that opposition today perhaps seems less vocal, it doesn’t mean the Church has changed its mind. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear (1634): although differences of Christian confession are not “insurmountable” in marriage, they do pose difficulties that “must not be underestimated,” including the “tragedy of Christian disunity” even within the domestic Church that is the home, leading to “sources of tension” (especially when it comes to raising children) and the possibility of “religious indifference.”

Most discussions about mixed marriages focus on issues of Church law. There are a number of obstacles in canon law to mixed marriages, the most basic of which is that when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic Christian, he must obtain the Church’s permission. Why? Because a Catholic is required to promise that any children born of the marriage be raised Catholic, and the Church needs to secure that commitment from the affianced Catholic first.

Canon law is important. But canon law is ultimately only a tool: the purpose of Church law is not to create hoops to jump through, but to raise important issues about our faith. They need to be considered, not just treated as boxes check.

I’ve heard lots of Catholics say that “a Protestant wedding is just like ours.” Don’t let appearances deceive you!

Take the stereotypical wedding you see in the movies. Some minister gets up and says something like, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and of this congregation to join John and Mary in holy matrimony, which is an estate . . .” Then, of course, there are vows.

First, okay—the ceremony maybe looks “similar.” But the minister calls matrimony an “estate.” What does that little word mean?

No Protestant considers marriage a “sacrament.” For Protestants, marriage is an “estate.”

Po-ta-to, po-tah-to? Well, no.

When the Reformers called marriage an “estate,” they had a clear meaning: marriage is not inherently religious. Marriage has nothing to do with your salvation. Marriage is simply a state in life. Yes, God may have created it, but the ultimate authority over marriage is the state, not the church (because it has nothing intrinsically to do with your spiritual life).

That’s why all those TV weddings end with “By the power vested in me by the Great State of California, I now declare you man and wife!”

Now, don’t imagine that this is just a question of who gets to make the rules about marriage, church or state. People tell me the Episcopalian wedding looks very Catholic.

Well, the Episcopal Church (the American offspring of Anglicanism) does not regard marriage as a sacrament, either. It also deems the state to have authority over marriage. It has to: it was a church invented by a king who wanted a divorce, couldn’t get it from the Church, and so essentially gave one to himself.

As a Catholic, you learned that there are seven sacraments and that marriage is one of them. You also hopefully learned that the sacraments are not just “celebrations,” but in fact, they cause grace in your soul. Every time you go to confession, God forgives your sins. It’s not a “celebration” of reconciliation; something happens that makes you different after you leave the confessional from how you were before you entered it.

So, bottom line: Do you believe that marriage has something to do with your spiritual life or not? Is it a sacrament or just an estate?

And what does your prospective spouse think? Is marriage just a ceremony that creates civil effects? Yes, maybe somebody says a nice prayer, but is the real effect of marriage that the law says you are married? That you get a tax deduction?

And if your prospective spouse primarily thinks of marriage as something civil, is (s)he really going to believe that “what God has joined together,” the Family and Domestic Relations Court of New York should not put asunder?

Let’s get to the weekend after the wedding. Where do the two of you go that Sunday? Every Sunday for the next maybe fifty years? Do you go to one place and (s)he to another? Can you honestly say your religion is important enough to sustain that kind of cognitive dissonance for a half-century? Or will you end up going with your spouse wherever (s)he goes? Or, more likely, will the dissonance lead to mutual attendance at Our Lady of the Bedcovers, perhaps assuring yourself that you are at least “spiritual” by lighting some candles in the apartment?

What happens when the kids arrive? Will your faith be strong enough for you to raise them—as you promised—as a “spiritual single parent,” independently of what your spouse does or doesn’t do on Sunday?

Baptism. First Communion. Remember—most Protestant churches do not understand the Eucharist to be body and blood of Christ really and truly present. That’s why most Protestant churches celebrate “the Lord’s Supper” once a month or once a quarter. That’s why your Protestant wedding service will have no Communion attached to it (and you said it “looks” so Catholic!). So how does your non-Catholic spouse share in the meaning and significance of a child’s First Communion? Of confirmation, given that no Protestant regards it as a sacrament but, at best, a ceremony?

By the time your kids are your age, do you honestly think any religious marriage is going to be in the picture for them? Or will they just announce that it’s a “piece of paper” or “license” they don’t really need to “prove” their “love”?

As I said, we can examine mixed marriages from the perspective of Church law, but canon law is trying to protect deeper values. I’ve been blunt because we need to spell out the real-life implications of those deeper values. I invite you simply to step for a moment beyond the immediate romantic gaze and be honest enough to ask whether your faith is important enough to you that you will be able—amid all the practical weekly challenges—to pass it to another generation.

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