A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

What is an Interchurch Marriage?

I'd like to claim that people ask me the question above all the time. However, I don't think anyone has ever asked that question. I suspect this is because for the most part, few people have heard the expression "interchurch marriage" except those who are actually IN interchurch marriages. I also suspect that people who hear the phrase assume that they know what it means, perhaps equating it with the much more common expression "mixed marriage."

However, there's a very specific meaning to the term "interchurch marriage." And that's what today's post is about. It's probably long past time that I addressed the subject, given that the unstated background to many of my posts on Catholic and Protestant unity is the tension (and sometimes hurt or anger) that can result from trying to carve out space for an interchurch marriage in Christian communities that often have never even heard the term. This is not, however, going to be a confessional post. I'm not going to talk about specific problems we have faced. I am, instead, going to talk more generically about what interchurch marriages are, and what they are not.

Let's start with the textbook definition. For my purposes, I'll assume that the textbook is George Kilcourse's Double Belonging: Interchurch Families and Christian Unity, published in 1992. Kilcourse says that an interchurch family is one in which: "the wife and husband each participates in his or her respective church, and to various degrees in one another' s church; and each takes a conscientious and active role in the religious education of his or her children" (1).

Technically, an interchurch marriage does not have be a Protestant-Catholic marriage. It could refer to an Eastern-Orthodox - Roman Catholic marriage, or an Orthodox - Protestant marriage. In theory, it could even refer to a marriage between a Lutheran and a Baptist. In practice, however, the term most commonly ends up being applied to Catholic-Protestant marriages. These marriages pose unique problems, primarily (in my opinion) because the Catholic and Protestant parties share such different ecclesiologies. Because I'm a member of a Catholic-Protestant intermarriage, the points below primarily address those sorts of marriages.

There are a lot of different ways of having an interchurch marriage. But it be more helpful to see, first, what kinds of things don't qualify as interchurch marriages.

1) Marriages in which one spouse "converts" or formally becomes a member of another church are not interchurch marriages.

This seems to me as if it should be a "duh" point. What makes it tricky is that well-meaning friends, family members, and even church leaders may not understand that conversion is not an option for everyone. Those who identify themselves as interchurch couples generally have strongly held beliefs about their churches. They are intellectually and spiritually committed to their own tradition. Converting simply for the sake of marital unity may seem to these couples to be a denial of important religious truths, or it may seem to be a wrenching loss. There are some cases where conversion is an option (and in practice, it is probably the best solution). These cases, in which one partner is genuinely drawn to the other's faith, are not what I mean by "interchurch marriage."

2) Marriages in which one spouse continues to identify with his/her church, but ceases to maintain an active part in that church, are not interchurch marriages.

I have heard stories of couples in which one party, while refusing to actually convert, simply quit attending his or her own church and took an active role in the spouse's church. For example, a Catholic wife might attend Protestant services with her family without formally joining that church, but also without maintaining a sacramental life as a Catholic. Or a Protestant husband might go to mass with his family, rarely or never attending "his" church, but also choosing not to enter the Catholic Church.

3) Marriages in which neither spouse actively practices his or her faith are not interchurch marriages.

Sadly, I have heard of cases (you may have too) where a Catholic and a Protestant marry, and decide that rather than choosing between one church or another, they just won't go to either church. Sometimes this is a deliberate decision, made perhaps out of a desire not to "influence" the children. Other times it may happen gradually as the couple just quits going to church.

4) Marriages in which the couple chooses a compromise church in which to raise their family are not interchurch marriages.

When we married, for example, some people recommended that we both just join an Episcopalian or Lutheran church, as it would somehow be "half-way between" Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. On the surface, this looks like a reasonable solution. However, those who offer this as advice need to realize that expecting a Catholic party to leave the Catholic Church --even for a "compromise" church-- means asking him or her to abandon a core principle of Catholic ecclesiology.

The next point seems to me to be the trickiest and most controversial. If one uses the term "interchurch marriage" as Kilcourse defines it, though, it is an unavoidable conclusion.

5) Marriages in which both spouses are active in their respective churches, but are never involved in each other's churches, are not true interchurch marriages.

Suppose, for example, that I went to my own church every weekend, while also attending Leopoldtulip's church regularly-- but he never attended mine. Suppose my Catholicism remained something private that I had to practice on my own time, but which was not allowed to influence our life as a family. Or suppose, conversely, that Leopoldtulip regularly attended mass with me, but that I was never willing to attend his church. Suppose that he were made to feel like the Protestant outsider in a Catholic household. In either case, we could not be said to have an interchurch marriage. Only if both spouses are willing to participate to some extent in each other's churches can they be said to have an interchurch marriage.

That "to some extent" implies an important qualification, which is that different interchurch couples come up with different solutions as to how to be active in each other's churches. Some will be more or less involved with their spouse's church than others. Some couples attend both a Catholic mass and a Protestant worship service every weekend. (The fact that most Catholic churches offer Saturday evening masses, very early Sunday morning masses, and sometimes Sunday evening masses makes this possible.) For other couples, attending worship together might be more like a once-a-month deal.

Further complications surround the issue of church attendance beyond Sunday worship. Both Catholics and Protestants are fond of pointing out that God deserves more than just an hour on Sunday. Many congregations --both Catholic and Protestant-- assume that committed members will be active in Bible studies, volunteer groups, adult education classes, or Sunday school. (In a Catholic church, participating in such activities is often the only opportunity for "fellowship" with fellow parishioners-- we don't tend to linger around after church socializing the way our evangelical brothers and sisters do.) But participating in such activities becomes far more complicated when one spouse is a member of another church, and does not share the specific viewpoint of the congregation in question. Sunday school and adult education classes are not designed to be ecumenical; they quite reasonably intend to teach a specifically denominational approach to Christian living and thinking. This may mean that a Protestant spouse would feel out-of-place or uncomfortable at a Catholic Bible study or adult education class. Likewise, a Catholic spouse might not be comfortable in a Protestant Sunday School.

Interchurch families may have to make compromises as to how they approach these kinds of events or groups. And different couples are likely to make different compromises, depending both on individual personality and the character of the congregation. The bottom line, then, is that though two different interchurch couples may take very different approaches to involvement in each other's churches, a common factor is that they will try to be involved, at least to some extent. That is what makes it an interchurch marriage.


Blogger La Mama Loca said...

I read this. I thought it was interesting, but I don't know anything else about it.


10:08 PM  
Blogger Teresa H.T. said...

Well, at least I know that someone read it! I was starting to wonder if it was too lecture-y or confrontational or something.

10:20 PM  
Blogger La Mama Loca said...

No, I just think there wasn't much else to say about it. It was interesting information, but I don't have any other comments about it. Go read my blog!

2:17 PM  
Anonymous said...

Please join other interchurch married couples, pastors and the extended families at the 2012 AAIF Biennial Conference to be held from July 13-15, 2012 in Collegeville, MN.... We need your input and the fact that you are willing to address this topic indicates... well that you can write and that we would greatly appreciate your participation.

3:01 PM  

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