ASK FATHER: Catholic wishes to marry “non-denominational Christian”

From a reader…


When a nondenominational Christian wishes to marry a Catholic, what must that Christian do if they do not wish to convert to Catholicism?

First, I must say that marrying a non-Catholic isn’t the very best of situations.  Yes, yes.  I know that this happens all the time.  However, I’ll bet that if the Catholic and non-Catholic are in anyway serious about their respective identities, they would rapidly admit my point, especially as children come along.

If the “non-denominational Christian” … by the way, what an odd notion that is – “non-denominational Christian”!  In one sense, Catholics are “non-denominational” because, as members of the Church founded by Christ, Catholics are not a mere denomination.   We ARE Christians in the fullest sense of the word. Catholics are the denomination.  We have it all.  But I digress.

If the non-denominational Christian has received valid baptism, then, in order to marry a Catholic, the couple will need to participate in marriage preparation at the Catholic party’s parish. Subsequently, the pastor, if he believes the couple is adequately prepared for marriage and if he has the well-founded hope that this union will have sacramental potential, he will then request of the local ordinary (usually the bishop or vicar general) permission to perform an interfaith wedding.

Before that takes place, the Catholic party will need to promise to retain his or her Catholic Faith and to do all in his or her power to ensure that that Catholic Faith is handed on to the children of the union.  The non-denominational Christian will not be asked to make these promises.  Instead, he or she must be informed that his or her intended spouse has made them.

The marriage should not take place in the context of a Mass.

If the non-denominational Christian was not validly baptized, all of the above is the same, except that, instead of asking the local ordinary for mere permission, the pastor will need to ask the local ordinary for a dispensation from the law. Canon law (can. 1086 of the Latin Code and can. 803 of the Eastern Code, among other canons) requires that Catholics marry baptized persons. The bishop can dispense from this requirement, if there is a good reason.

By the way, I’m not convinced that, “I’m in love with Harvey, he’s sooooo cute and, and, like, he’s my souuulmaate” is a good reason, especially since many interreligious marriages fail.  But the local ordinary is the one who gets to make that call!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JesusFreak84 says:

    I once read that the divorce rate for mixed-faith couples actually triples once children show up. I personally wish marrying outside the Church still had the same “stigma,” (hate that loaded word, but I can’t think of anything better yet still brief,) that it had 100 years ago.

  2. Imrahil says:

    It occurs that some office-holders are delegated to grant the permission which are not delegated to grant the dispensation.

  3. Thorfinn says:

    “The non-denominational Christian will not be asked to make these promises. ”

    This may be policy but is not always the case.

    Regardless, it is sound practice for the engaged couple to agree on how the children will be raised. If one spouse will be raising the children Catholic, what will the other be doing? They should be united. Of course many couples, even many Catholic couples, do not meet the ideal in this regard. Without that unity, the children receive a mixed message, the Catholic (or observant Catholic) parent particularly is stressed, and the marriage is likely to be put under additional stress. Families today do not need additional stress! but families in these situations do need our prayers. And we should be grateful if we do not have that particular trial.

  4. Michael in NoVA says:

    Fr. Z says, ” I’m not convinced that, “I’m in love with Harvey, he’s sooooo cute and, and, like, he’s my souuulmaate” is a good reason…”

    This is true, whether or not it is an interreligious marriage or a Catholic-Catholic marriage!

    One of the previous priests at my parish (who was also a Military Archdiocese priest for the Marines) had an interesting homily about marriage preparation. He would ask the couple individually, “Why do you want to get married to this person?” And when he received the usual answer (“Because we love each other/We want to spend our lives together/I can’t imagine my life without him/her”), he would answer “Wrong! Try again!” Sometimes a couple would get it within a few tries. Most of the time, Father had to explain that the reason to marry someone was that you had prayerfully discerned that this was the vocation to which God was calling you.

    He was just as hard on the parents. He would ask parents of the bride/groom, “Do you support this marriage?” According to him, if he received the trite reply, “Well, as long as they are happy…” he would respond, “That’s sweet. You’re going to hell. You failed as a parent.” (Note, I don’t believe he ever actually said this to parents. However, he would not mince words, during either homilies or every day conversation. He made it clear that the particular duty of parents in their vocation as a parent was to teach their children the Faith and to model it in their lives. If offspring, whether as children or adults, made decisions that endangered their souls, Father expected parents to correct and admonish them in love, not enable them and condone the behavior.)

    I hope his new parish appreciates him as much as we did!

  5. CCS says:

    Hmmm… at the time of my marriage in 2006, I was not baptized and had no intention of converting. All of that change post marriage and I was received into the church at the Easter Vigil in 2007. I have absolutely no idea if the rather liberal priest in the rather liberal diocese in which we were married would have troubled with a dispensation. I wonder if it is worth even finding out? Would the lack of a dispensation have any impact on the validity of our marriage? [Asking for a clarification, or confirmation, of the dispensation is a reasonable request.]

  6. anilwang says:

    My own experience is that if both are committed and strong in their faith traditions and have yet worked it out without killing each other and agree on how to raise their children and are committed to the marriage, it can work (e.g. Mike Voris’ parents), assuming that the children are brought up solidly Catholic with the strong devotional practises of the non-Catholic (e.g. scripture study, prayer, evangelization, etc).

    But more likely, one of the spouses will likely be weaker in their faith. That’s a ticking time bomb. What will happen is either one will convert to the other faith (usually the Catholic since it’s easier to become a C&E Catholic that unofficially leaves that Church than a non-Catholic officially join the Church), or the other is forces to re-examine his or her faith tradition by the more committed spouse. When (not if) that happens, all hell can break lose since everything from devotionals, family life (children, contraception, etc) and finances (i.e. where charitable donations go), and social relationships is on the table. It places an enormous stress on the marriage and if there are already worldly stresses on the marriage, it can end very badly. Alternately, if the newly fervent spouse is afraid of conflict, that spouse can suffer silently for years waiting for the right time to bring up the topic and try to practise their faith clandestinely.

  7. mimicaterina says:

    This happened twice in my family and both cases ended in divorce. None of the children were raised Catholic although the first two were baptized Catholic at my brother’s insistence. Moreover my sister-in-law even “converted” to Catholicism but quickly renounced it after the wedding. My brother is now gone, his children are grown, abd there is little practice of any religion. I pray for them daily.

    The other case in the family didn’t produce any children but that marriage too ended in divorce.

    If you are serious about your Faith, you will want it to be central to your marriage, your family, to every aspect and detail of your life. This is nearly impossible in a marriage in which one party is a serious, devout Catholic and the other party does not share your Faith, your convictions, the most important core of your life.

    Do not rush into such a union. Stop. Pray. Go to Adoration. Petition Heaven for guidance. I personally think that you would do much better for your martiage and your immortal soul to seek a committed Catholic spouse.

    Just my thoughts.

  8. APX says:

    Do bishops/vicar generals ever actually refuse permission anymore? It has been my understanding that these dispensations are treated as more of a formality that one has to go through. It seems to me like the, “well, at least they want to get married in the Church. We should be happy. If we don’t allow them to marry in the Church, they’ll just go somewhere else and live in an invalid marriage that will have to be blessed.” Sadly, if one goes online to the online wedding forums for brides to be, many are quite content to advertise that they lied to the priest about things such as being open to children and not using ABC, as well as their intentions to raise their children Catholic, etc. I know nothing of what actually happens when a couple seeks marriage, but it seems to me a little more scrutiny could be helpful.

  9. CrimsonCatholic says:

    I agree, especially with the last part. I’ve seen more and more interreligious marriages, and marriage between atheists and Catholics. Some have this notion that marrying their significant other will make them convert later on. I just wonder how many people actually consider how hard it will be to raise children in the Catholic church. How hard will be to teach little Jimmy the faith when his father doesn’t go to Mass, or pray, etc. “Mommy, why do I have to go to Mass/pray/etc. if daddy doesn’t have to do it?”, little Jimmy will say.

  10. Indulgentiam says:

    My prayers go out to these folks. Matrimony is like climbing into a very small canoe with another person. If your partner refuses to row in the right direction, either because they don’t know where they are going or b/c they don’t think you do, y’all are going to spend a lot of time going round and round. Marriage is hard enough. No matter how well you think you know somebody you don’t really know them till you get up close and personal for long periods of time. And they drop the good manners and revert to default mode. We all have bad habits that can be grating. Add to that money problems and on top of that the fights you’ll have on how to raise your children and that’s a mighty long road to hoe. The Catholic Faith is the one true faith. If your spouse doesn’t believe that and you happen to be the man then be prepared to fight the world all day and your wife when you get home. If your the wife then your signing up to follow a man who does not have all the tools to make the best decisions for you and your children. There is no way out of a marriage that’s been entered into with full knowledge. I hope they have a really good Priest helping them out.
    The Lord bless them and keep them,…
    Our Lady guard them and guide them.

  11. John Grammaticus says:

    The Right Honourable Rex Mottram MP, an appalling, conniving gauche little man was at least sane enough upon his engagement to the Lady Julia Flyte to note that “there isn’t enough room in one house for two religions”.

    Enough Said

  12. Michael_Thoma says:

    I have it on good authority that my (Eastern Catholic) bishop has refused to dispense when it comes to certain protestant sects. He does allow Orthodox and give permission for the Latin or other Eastern ritual, if requested.

  13. The Right Honourable Rex Mottram MP, an appalling, conniving gauche little man was at least sane enough upon his engagement to the Lady Julia Flyte to note that “there isn’t enough room in one house for two religions”.

    Engagement, my foot. He was still married to someone else at the time.

    I’ve never thought of Rex as ‘little’, but then I follow the traditional interpretation of the late lamented Charles Keating.

  14. dominic1955 says:

    I think this all gets confused with general human nature. Regardless of the religion of the people involved, it ALL depends on temperament and personality of the two individuals. I’ve see the marriages of two “good Catholics” crash and burn not to mention numerous “regular Catholics”, as well as those in which the non-Catholic party converted, etc. etc. I’ve seen the children of good Catholic parents fall away from the Church, seemingly after having been raised as Catholic as possible. Even when all the things “on paper” should have worked out swimmingly, they don’t always. Actually, a lot of times things don’t happen perfectly.

    I’ve also seen the non-Catholic party convert and become great Catholics. I’ve seen the children of a Catholic and non-Catholic grow up to be strong Catholics. I’ve seen the non-Catholic party convert even late in life. I’ve seen a lot of different people on different journeys and I think its naive to issue blanket condemnations on this matter, among other ones.

    It just really and honestly depends on a case by case basis. I’m married to a non-Catholic, I picked her on her natural virtues, our temperamental compatibility, and the fact that when I made it clear early on that if our relationship goes on to marriage we will be open to children, absolutely will raise those kids Catholic and she agreed to it without protest. In general and in the realm of principle, I was against getting married to a non-Catholic but when things weren’t working out in that field and she came along and things panned out correctly, I made use of the permissions the Church has always seen fit to grant. We even got married in the old rite, which I think is easier because the marriage ceremony isn’t an integral part of the Mass itself so it was like getting married and then attending Mass together as we’ve often done and continue to do.

    Marriage, along with all the Sacraments, are not magic. They are intended for all peoples, not just the ones who find themselves in the Super Catholic boat as many of us do. By Super Catholic I don’t mean anything derogatory, I just mean the people who read about their faith voraciously, know it inside and out, go to more Mass than just Sunday and Holy Days, etc. I look at my family, none of whom are Super Catholics and some of whom were in mixed marriages, and I see both success and failure with both depending on the personalities involved.

  15. YoungLatinMassGuy says:

    One of the reasons I could never be a priest (Aside from the fact that I don’t feel called to that vocation) is that I could never be “pastoral” to save my life.

    In addition to the fact that marriage is hard enough with the same Faith, why make it harder? There’s also a lot of people who are not ready for marriage, and will never be ready for marriage.

    “If their face burned off in a horrible car crash, or if their face got blown off with a shotgun, their eyes, nose, jaw, etc are now all gone, and you are now facing the next 40-60 years waiting on this disfigured and now totally helpless human being hand and foot, would you still stay with them?”

    If the answer isn’t an immediate and totally serious “Yes.” Then they’re not ready for marriage.

    (I’ve actually asked that of people… I am not exactly Mr. Pastoral…)

    “Would you rather live in a cardboard box with this person, or live in a mansion with someone else?”

    If the answer isn’t “The cardboard box”, then you’re not ready for marriage.

    Life’s going to throw you a really crappy situation every now and then, car accidents, job accidents, kids having to go to the ER, or kids dying, spouse being paralyzed from the neck down, etc. etc., and it’s those times that separate the strong from the weak.

    For the record, I’ve asked my mother those questions, and her answer is indicative of her nearly 30 years of marriage to my dad. She said “Yes.” and “The Box.” before I even finished the question, and in a way that showed she was kinda insulted to even be asked such a simple question that had such a simple answer.

    I also asked that question in a little group setting the other night, and they were shocked, and it was clear that none of them had even thought of any kind of horrible possibility, one was even married to a cop, and hadn’t even thought of such a thing happening to her husband.

    The best way to deal with bad situations is to think about different types of “What if…” scenarios before they happen and figure out what to do in those crappy situations. Most people don’t want to do that, or even know that doing something like that is a possibility.

  16. templariidvm says:

    I married a woman who is by her words “Christian” but has not been baptized. I was born into a Catholic family and have been a strongly practicing Catholic my whole life. I did not know about the dispensation need. The priest who officiated at our wedding had been the rector of a high school seminary, so I had assumed there were no obstacles to clear when he agreed. We did go through marriage classes. We have been married more than 22 years. Our 3 children have been raised Catholic and are confirmed, active Catholics. Sometimes, my wife is the odd man out and that does pain me, as I worry for her soul. I admit that in my young days, I had visions of her becoming Catholic. She comes to church with the family on Easter, Christmas and occasional other Sundays. It hasn’t always been easy with the religious divide, but if nothing else, being married to a non-Catholic has forced me to examine my beliefs and understand them more than I probably would have otherwise. Would I do it all over again? Yes. Do I recommend it for others? No. Both of the boys say that they will only marry Catholic girls. My daughter says she will probably only marry a Catholic.

  17. bsjy says:

    Father, for your next Z-swag:
    THE denomination.
    We have it all.

    On cups and t-shirts soon! (I hope.)

  18. little women says:

    My in-laws have a mixed marriage. They are both very serious about their different faiths. But all the (Catholic) children, who, by the way, married Catholics, feel sorry for them. They love each other immensely, but they cannot speak about what is most important to both of them — God — without getting into a fight. So they just don’t talk about it. How sad is that?

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  20. Xmenno says:

    As my screen name suggests, I became Catholic from a Mennonite background. In my case, I prayed with all my heart for a good husband, and along came my cradle Catholic man. I accepted him as the answer to my prayer, and against some family attitudes, married him 22 years ago. We argued theology for 8 years, until I had no more arguments left, and I came into full communion with the Church in 2002. I currently direct RCIA in my parish, and I try to communicate the faith that I love beyond words to those wishing to come in. It has become clear that my becoming Catholic was instrumental in securing a “good death” for a lapsed step father, and further, I believe that many generations of my anabaptist ancestors are benefiting from my prayers for them. Sometimes, a “mixed marriage” is God’s way of accomplishing His purposes.

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