Dale and Kim Schaecher take a selfie during the 2017 Mount Angel Oktoberfest. The couple was married 27 years ago but recently had their marriage convalidated. Kim does not belong to a specific religion, but Dale recently returned to his Catholic faith. “Despite our religious differences, we love each other unconditionally,” said Dale. (Courtesy Dale Schaecher)
Dale and Kim Schaecher take a selfie during the 2017 Mount Angel Oktoberfest. The couple was married 27 years ago but recently had their marriage convalidated. Kim does not belong to a specific religion, but Dale recently returned to his Catholic faith. “Despite our religious differences, we love each other unconditionally,” said Dale. (Courtesy Dale Schaecher)

Their holiday gatherings may bring a deluge of relatives’ earnest questions about one faith and harsh judgments about the other. Large chunks of each Sunday might be spent at two services, with hours shushing small children.

And those are among the easier challenges.

Marriages between individuals with different religious beliefs have their own set of burdens. But they also can include unique gifts.

“My wife would ask, ‘Why do you do this, Jason?’ and ‘Why does the church do that?’” recalled Catholic Jason Kidd, whose been married for 15 years to his wife, Sarah, a Methodist. “Her questions challenged me and helped me grow in my own understanding of my faith.”

In the past few decades, mixed-faith marriages have become more common. A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found only 19 percent of Americans married before 1960 reported being in an interfaith marriage, but nearly 39 percent of those married since 2010 have a spouse of another faith. In some U.S. regions, as many as 40 percent of married Catholics may be in an ecumenical or interfaith marriage, according to the U.S. bishops’ website on dating and marriage.

The church recognizes the difficulties of mixed-faith marriages but attempts to support couples in such relationships.

Father Robert Hater writes in his 2006 book, “When a Catholic Marries a Non-Catholic,” “To regard mixed religion marriages negatively does them a disservice. They are holy covenants and must be treated as such.”

Navigating a new mixed-faith marriage

Like many of their peers, Kelsey and Adam Bell met online.

Kelsey, 30, is coordinator of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office for People with Disabilities. She was upfront about the importance of her faith early in the courtship and wanted a partner who similarly prioritized spiritual life.

Kelsey found such a partner in Adam, 35, who also was willing to join her at Mass, even when initially “it was scary and different and he didn’t like it,” she said.

Adam has since grown to appreciate and respect the Catholic liturgy, and the two attend Methodist and Catholic services each Sunday.

The lectionaries are similar at both churches, “so we get different perspectives on both readings,” said Kelsey, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Beaverton. “It provides great conversations.”

The couple was married last April and soon will face new territory for their religiously blended family; their first baby is due in early February. 

The plan is to baptize the boy Catholic.

“Trying to explain that to my family — it’s one of the things that once we get through it will be fine, but it will be a challenge,” said Adam.

His advice to couples entering a mixed marriage is to “come in with an open mind and be open to communicating what you’re thinking.”

“You have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable and get to the core of what’s important to you,” he said.

Church teaching

For marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, there are two kinds, or levels — valid and nonsacramental or valid and sacramental. (The church believes marriages entered into by non-Catholics are valid. In the eyes of the church, even an atheist man and woman who are married civilly enter into a valid marriage.)

If the non-Catholic spouse is a baptized Christian, the marriage may be a sacrament as long as the Catholic party obtains official permission from the archdiocese or diocese. In cases where a Catholic marries someone who is not a baptized Christian — known as a “marriage with disparity of cult” — the church exercises more caution and a more rigorous form of permission must be given by the local bishop.

The need for permission “shows how seriously the church takes the idea of a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic,” said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Divine Worship.

A local bishop may delegate the authority to grant permission for both levels of marriage to pastors, which Archbishop Alexander Sample has done in the Portland Archdiocese.

Prior to marriage, the church requires the Catholic party to “make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power so that all offspring are baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church.” This provision of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is a modification from the 1917 version, which required an absolute promise to have children raised as Catholics.

The non-Catholic spouse is no longer required to promise to take an active role in raising the children in the faith, but instead should “be informed at an appropriate time of these promises which the Catholic party has to make … .”

Msgr. O’Connor said the spiritual well-being of children should be a serious consideration in mixed-faith marriage preparation, and he encourages the non-Catholic spouse to show respect for the “beautiful teachings of the church.” One way to show respect is by attending important spiritual events. “You’d do it for something like a basketball game,” said the monsignor. “So, when your kid starts reading at Mass or serving at Mass, show up for that.”

‘Grace abounds’

Kidd, director of the Portland Marriage and Family Life Office, said one of the things that drew him to his wife was her love of God. “She has a faith that makes mine look way less good,” he said with a laugh.

While his wife inspires him and her inquiries deepened his knowledge of Catholicism, Kidd views mixed-faith marriages as a cross for couples.

“I want to stress the caution and the need for discernment in mixed marriages,” he said.

He believes it’s much easier to have an ecumenical or interfaith marriage when no children are involved. “When kids come, it gets messy,” he said.

His family attends two church services each weekend with the couple’s four children. “My kids are better for it probably, but it’s difficult,” said Kidd.

For those considering a marriage with an agnostic or atheist, Kidd said it’s wise to reflect upon how they will cope with tragedy and suffering. If something horrific happens, such as the death of a child, he said, “how will they deal with that without faith?”

Prior to his marriage, Kidd didn’t foresee certain difficulties, such as receiving the Eucharist without Sarah.

“There are two instances of a one-flesh union: in Communion, where we are united with the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord, and in the conjugal act with our spouse,” he said. “To get up at Mass during Communion and my wife doesn’t get up with me — it’s tough.”

Kidd offers encouragement to Catholics in mixed marriages. “Lean on the sacraments,” he said. “When things are difficult, grace abounds all the more. And remember prayer for our spouse is powerful.”

Both Kelsey and Kidd admit they’d love their partner to become Catholic one day, but they recognize it’s a profoundly personal journey, and ultimately the Holy Spirit is in charge.

“But it’s good to remember,” said Kidd, “that heaven is not going to be just Catholics; our marriage prefigures heaven. Heaven will be Catholics and Protestants alike worshipping God together, and also those who’ve never heard the Gospel.” The catechism states that every person “who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved” (No. 1260).

 

That doesn’t mean, Kidd said, “that I don’t have a responsibility to do my best to get my wife and myself to heaven.”

 

Resources

— “When a Catholic Marries a Non-Catholic,” by Robert J. Hater (St. Anthony Messenger Press), available on Amazon.com

— Portland archdiocesan Office of Marriage and Family Life website, famlife.archdpdx.org

— Association of Interchurch Families, interchurchfamilies.org

— “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” section on “Mixed marriages and disparity of cult,” Nos. 1633 to 1637