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Catholics Dating Non-Catholics

Yea or nay? The Church has some advice, but you have to work backwards to find it.

So you’re a single Catholic who hopes to get married. You meet someone kind, smart, and attractive . . . but not Catholic. Should you date him anyway? What does the Church say?

The Church says little about dating, but a lot about marriage. So what does the Church say about marriage, and marrying non-Catholics? After answering that, we can work backward to dating and decide whether it’s a good idea to date someone who doesn’t share your Catholic faith.

The Catechism (CCC) says marriage is a “covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life . . . ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring . . . raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (1601).

This means, firstly, that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Same-sex unions and polygamous relationships don’t count! (See Gen. 2:21-24, Deut. 17:17, 1 Kings 11:3, and CCC1605.) Second, all marriages, and all sex within marriage, must be open to children. Any form of artificial contraception is gravely evil—including barrier methods, hormonal methods, sterilization, and “pulling out” (Gen. 38:8-10, CCC 2370). Thirdly, marriage is lifelong; divorce doesn’t exist in the Catholic understanding, because God never intended it (Matt. 19:6-9). Separation is possible in grave circumstances like abuse, and a marriage can be declared null (or “annulled”) if it was invalid from the beginning, but a valid marriage never ends except by death. Lastly, marriage between two baptized persons is a sacrament that provides the grace to carry out the lifelong vow and makes the couple an image of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5).

So can a Catholic marry a non-Catholic? Yes, but there are several requirements that both parties need to fulfill. These requirements ensure that both people know what marriage is before getting into it. (Two people can’t share a hamburger if one wants a veggie patty and the other wants meat.)

First, marriage to a non-Catholic—which is technically called a mixed religion marriage if both people are baptized Christians and a disparity of cult marriage if one is unbaptized, but which I’ll call “mixed marriage” here for simplicity—is always invalid unless the bishop gives special permission for it, called a dispensation (Code of Canon Law, can. 1124). This is easy to get, however, and is requested through your parish when you get engaged and start marriage preparation.

Second, you must be married “in the Church,” meaning with the Catholic Church’s blessing. This means the wedding must happen in a Catholic parish, witnessed by a Catholic priest or deacon, and using the Catholic ritual, unless the bishop gives special permission to use a different location, minister, or ritual (another dispensation). Also, having two religious celebrations for the same marriage, or blending two religious rituals, is forbidden (can. 1127).

Third, both parties must be prepared to love each other until death (no divorce), and to accept children from God and bring them up in the Church (no contraception). The couple declares these intentions as part of all Catholic weddings, but they’re particularly important in a mixed marriage, because most non-Christian individuals and even most non-Catholic Christian denominations accepted divorce and contraception as they became legal. Again, both people need to have the correct understanding of marriage in order to marry.

For a mixed marriage, the Church also requires that the Catholic spouse promise to do everything in his power to raise the children Catholic, and he must inform the other spouse of that promise (can. 1125).

The Church allows you to marry a non-Catholic, if you can both meet these criteria. But mixed marriages are only tolerated by the Church, not encouraged. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Church was reluctant to green-light these unions and allowed for dispensations only in order to “avoid greater evils.” In 1869, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith declared that, even if the couple meets all the conditions for a valid marriage, there must be “some grave necessity, which cannot otherwise be avoided, for allowing the faithful to expose themselves to the grave dangers inherent in these unions.”

What are these grave dangers? Canon 1125 clarifies by saying that the Catholic spouse must “be prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the Faith.” This is strong wording! But it makes sense: if you unite so intimately with someone who doesn’t share your faith, you’re likely to be tempted to abandon your faith. Your children may be, too: a 2015 Pew study showed that children with one Catholic and one non-Catholic parent were much less likely to remain Catholic in adulthood than children with two Catholic parents.

If marrying a non-Catholic is allowed, but not encouraged, what about dating a non-Catholic? You could date someone who isn’t Catholic with the hope that he will convert before you get married. But that’s not guaranteed. Before getting into a serious dating relationship, it’s worth considering whether you would be willing to marry this person as he is, with your religious differences.

If you’re not willing to marry a non-Catholic, your relationship will turn out in one of two ways: either you will have to end the relationship at some point, which would be painful, or your love interest will convert after all. In the second case, you’ll need to be sure he is converting sincerely, for love of God and truth, not because you have manipulated him into it!

But plenty of people have genuine conversions to the Catholic faith through a dating relationship. I personally know several couples in which a non-Catholic member ended up converting before their weddings. In all these cases, the Catholic member was devout and communicated from the beginning of the relationship how important the Catholic faith was to him.

In two cases, the converts told me they were grateful that their now-spouses never issued an explicit ultimatum: “I won’t marry you unless you’re Catholic.” They appreciated being given the space to follow God’s lead and convert for his sake, rather than just for their love interest. But then another husband told me he issued exactly this ultimatum to his then-girlfriend, and six years later, they are both Catholic, and happily married! So each couple’s story is different, and God is the only one who can guide you with perfect reliability.

Of course, it’s always important to stay close to God and prioritize him above anyone else—even a potential spouse. Frequent the sacraments of confession and Communion, pray daily, and be ready to answer any questions about Catholicism from your love interest. (Brush up on your apologetics!)

Ultimately, only the Holy Spirit can convert hearts, but we can help, if we remain faithful, humble, and joyful. These practices will also help you “remove dangers of defecting from the Faith.” And they are good things to do, whether you end up marrying this person or not.

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