VI. STATEMENT AND DISCUSSION OF THE NORMS OF THE
CATHOLIC CHURCH REGARDING MIXED MARRIAGES
The Commission was able to note in many matters a great deal of
agreement between the views of the Churches. These agreements exist,
above all, in dogmatic matters and in the practical and theological
aspects of pastoral care of spouses and families in mixed marriages.
In other matters, however, differences have come to the fore and
appear to be rather complex. The Catholic Church sees certain matters
against a different horizon, or on a completely different plane
from the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. This is particularly true
in the field of canon law relating to marriage. This is not only
a matter of the function and the weight that the Catholic Church
on the one hand and the Lutheran and Reformed Churches on the other
attribute to such a juridical system. Each of the two sides, quite
obviously, sees the juridical system in a different dimension, as
belonging to an altogether different plane. The two sides therefore
treat canon law in completely different contexts, assess it in different
ways, and assign altogether different task and functions to it.
But the subject of canon law on marriage is of great importance
for ecumenical dialogue about the theology of marriage and, above
all, of mixed marriages. The Lutheran and Reformed members of the
Commission therefore deem it desirable for the present report to
include a detailed statement about the present state of legislation
regarding mixed marriages in the Catholic Church. This provides
occasion for illustrating the different ideas of the Churches in
this matter and thus of beginning a dialogue between them.
Norms Of The Catholic Church On Mixed Marriages
Like all ecclesiastical laws and rules, the norms on mixed marriages
have a pastoral function whose primary and fundamental goal is the
salvation of souls. The principle "salus animarum suprema lex"
expresses the final end of all the normative activity of the Church.
On the other hand the regulations on mixed marriages, like other
ecclesiastical laws, are an expression of theology, which makes
it necessary to examine their motives and their deep roots in relation
to the Gospel message and its theological explanation.
The Catholic regulations at present in force may be found in Paul
VI's Motu Proprio "Matrimonia Mixta," of 31 March, 1970.
This document contains a synthesis of the resolutions passed, after
prolonged discussion, at the first Synod of Bishops in 1967. It
is generally known that the Fathers of Vatican II, unable to treat
the question of mixed marriages in a definitive manner, requested
the Pope to reform canonical discipline in this regard. This is
what the Pope in effect did, after meeting once again with the Bishops
and in answer to their wishes.
The Pope's document is a kind of general law for the whole Catholic
Church which leaves to the episcopal conferences the power of filling
in the details in regard to certain aspects such as the concrete
form of the promises to be made by the Catholic party, the reason
for which a dispensation may be obtained from the canonical form
of the marriage ceremony, the way of registering mixed marriages,
and the different forms of pastoral care to be adopted in this matter.
To learn about these aspects it is essential to have recourse to
the complementary norms issued by the various episcopal conferences.
69. Paul VI's Motu Proprio is in two parts, one doctrinal, the other
normative. The first underlines certain general principles of primary
importance for the understanding of the Catholic Church's position
on mixed marriages.
The Catholic Church, like other Churches for that matter, advises
against mixed marriages in so far as they can easily cause difficulties
in families, since in such cases living together can endanger the
faith, and divisions in the faith can create problems in married
The Catholic Church reaffirms as fundamental and primordial the
right of all men to marry and to have children. Respect for this
right leads the Catholic Church to take into special consideration
the difficulties encountered by Catholics in finding a Catholic
partner in countries where Catholics are a small minority.
"The Church does not place on the same level, either from a
doctrinal or from a canonical viewpoint, a marriage contracted between
a Catholic and a non-Catholic who is baptised, and a marriage between
a Catholic and a non-baptised person. In fact, as was affirmed at
Vatican II, those who, among non-Catholics, believe in Christ
and are validly baptised, may be said to be in communion, even if
an imperfect one, with the Catholic Church'. There exists therefore
in a marriage between two baptised persons-which is a true sacrament
- a certain communion of spiritual goods which is lacking in a union
where one partner is baptised but not the other"(MM, §
73. With regard to the communion of spiritual goods, the Catholic
Church distinguishes in theology and in canon law between three
kinds of mixed marriages among its members: 1) with members of the
Oriental Orthodox Churches; 2) with other baptised persons; 3) with
Baptism is a fundamental and precious bond of union. It forms the
basis of the sacramental character of marriage. The identity between
the bond of marriage and the sacrament and sacramental reality of
Christian marriage is the reason for the (Church's) pastoral concern
for the marriage of Catholics as regards its essential presuppositions,
its conditions, its preparation and celebration, and for the development
of married life.
This sacramental character is also one of the reasons for the different
attitude adopted by the Catholic Church in connection with different
kinds of mixed marriages. Those of Catholics with baptised persons
cannot be licitly contracted without first obtaining a dispensation
from the diocesan authority. For marriages of Catholics with un-baptised
persons the dispensation is required for validity.
Ecclesiastical regulations touch on the following aspects of mixed
The promises made by the Catholic partner.
The canonical form of the celebration.
The liturgical form of the celebration.
Regulations concerning pastoral care of mixed marriages.
Catholic regulations underline the responsibility in conscience
of the Catholic partner to profess his (or her) faith and to transmit
it to the children as a requirement inherent in the faith itself.
From this there follow these rules:
a) "The Catholic partner should declare himself ready to remove
any danger to the loss of his faith," even dangers that may
result from a mixed marriage.
b) The Catholic partner "has a grave obligation to promise
sincerely to do everything he can so that his children are baptised
and educated as Catholics."
To provide a religious education for the children is viewed as a
requirement that derives from the nature of the faith. This obligation,
however, is conditioned by circumstances which may escape the control
of the Catholic parent. That is why it is stated that he is obliged
to do all that lies within his power, all that is possible.
81. c) Abiding by the principles laid down at Vatican II, the Catholic
Church does not wish to impose on the non-Catholic partner anything
contrary to his conscience. But the Church has the duty to support
and enlighten the conscience of the Catholic partner (and so also
his freedom of conscience), since it is directly responsible for
his salvation. Consequently, the Church requires that the non-Catholic
partner be in formed of the moral obligations of the Catholic spouse,
without, however, asking him to make any promises.
The canonical form of the celebration of marriage
If a marriage, even a mixed marriage, is to be recognized as valid
by the Catholic Church, the Church requires its own faithful to
celebrate it according to the canonical form. The canonical form
consists in the celebration of the wedding in the presence of a
Catholic priest or deacon empowered to do so, and in the presence
of two witnesses. This law applies to all marriages of Catholics.
It was introduced at the Council of Trent, but not with any polemical
intention or any wish to defend the Catholic faith against the Reformers.
At the Synod of Bishops of 1967, a large majority of the world's
episcopate delegates agreed that this law was still necessary for
mixed marriage also, since it offered a greater safeguard of the
sacred and sacramental character of marriage, a greater guarantee
of the indissolubility of marriage, a greater certitude of the validity
of marriage and the respect for its essential qualities, and finally,
greater possibilities for the pastoral care of married life. These
are reasons which in the course of time have become more important
than the original aim of the avoidance of clandestine marriages.
Whenever, in the case of mixed marriage, serious difficulties arise
in the implementation of the canonical form, local Ordinaries have
the right to grant dispensation from it. But it is the task of each
episcopal conference to establish the rules according to which this
dispensation may be granted in a licit and uniform manner throughout
their region or territory, with due attention to the fact that the
celebration should possess a certain public character.
It is evident that dispensation from the canonical form does not
mean that the Catholic partner is dispensed from the other obligations
concerning the faith and mentioned above.
The liturgical form
The canonical form normally coincides with the liturgical form of
the celebration of marriage. In the case of a marriage of a Catholic
with a baptised person, two possibilities are envisaged:
A celebration without a Mass, according to the rite of the "Ordo
celebrandi matrimonium" of 1969, nos. 39-54, in the framework
of a liturgy of the word, followed by the exchange of promises and
the blessing of the spouses;
alternatively, with the consent of the local Ordinary, a celebration
during Mass, according to the same Ordo nos. 19-38; but in this
case for the distribution of Communion the rules concerning intercommunion
must be observed.
Paragraph 13 of MM is intended to prevent a form of celebration
which might be to the detriment of sound ecumenism instead of promoting
it; or else one that might cause doctrinal confusion. This paragraph
forbids a simultaneous celebration in two different rites, or a
non-Catholic celebration preceding or following the Catholic one,
if this includes a fresh expression or renewing of the marriage
vows. In fact, since the Church considers as valid the exchange
of vows of the spouses in the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon,
another exchange of vows, either before or after, would be like
performing a second marriage, for a marriage is made effective through
a single act.
Regulations concerning the pastoral care of mixed marriages
Paragraph 14 of MM lays down that diocesan authorities and parish
priests should give special attention to mixed marriages, since
this pastoral care in the course of the preparation, celebration
and the entire development of such marriages, can help to prevent
and to resolve numerous problems. More particularly, those who have
the care of souls should:
- offer the Catholic partner and the children born of the mixed
marriage the spiritual support they need to accomplish their duties
offer this support especially to help him to give witness to his
- offer such help so that the unity of the couple and of the family
should grow above all on the basis of their common baptism in Jesus
finally, this paragraph supports the wish of the 1967 Synod of Bishops
that in mixed marriage ceremonies there should be a loyal and sincere
collaboration with the ministers of other religious communities.
Local Ordinaries and parish priests should take care that the Catholic
partner and the children born of a mixed marriage should not lack
the spiritual help they need to perform the duties they have in
conscience. They should also encourage the Catholic partner to always
take care of the divine gift of the Catholic faith and to give witness
"with gentleness and reverence and with a clear conscience"
(1 Pt 3, 16); and they should help the spouses to strengthen the
unity of their conjugal and family life which, since they are Christians,
is founded also on their baptism. For this reason it is desirable
that those responsible for souls should establish with ministers
of other religious communities relations of sincere loyalty and
enlightened confidence. This regulation has encouraged fruitful
collaboration at various levels.
The norms in the Apostolic Letter "Matrimoni Mixta" are
general laws for the Catholic Church. In different countries these
laws are embodied in regulations laid down by the appropriate episcopal
conference. From an ecumenical viewpoint these regulations may often
be of more interest since they go into detail, facing diverse situations
and suggesting possible solutions in particular cases. But particular
regulations laid down for a given territory cannot go beyond the
limits stated in the general law.
In the Lutheran and Reformed Churches we are accustomed to marriages
between spouses who belong to different ecclesiastical traditions
such as our own and the Anglican, Methodist and Baptism communions:
and although at one time these presented problems, and although
even yet it is impossible to make unqualified universal judgements,
by and large the problem has disappeared, and conventions have arisen
to govern situations of this kind. One such convention, for example,
which operates in some areas, is that whereby the wedding takes
place according to the form of the bride's Church and the married
Couple thereafter attach themselves to the husband's Church. There
is no doubt that a major factor in bringing about this state of
affairs is the growth of mutual understanding and recognition within
the ecumenical movement and the family of Churches it has produced.
In the past there has been, however, a serious and a difficult problem
where one of the intending partners was a Catholic: and it can hardly
be disputed that the difficulties stemmed from the legal norms imposed
on the situation by the Canon Law of the Catholic Church. This idea
of legal norms in this connection is foreign to the spirituality
of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches. From their point of view
these norms seemed to place the first importance upon the fulfilment
of the Catholic spouse's obligations on the part of the children:
whereas it has been possible for Lutheran and Reformed ministers
and Churches to give the first priority to the Christian good and
growth in grace of husband and wife together as a married couple
and so of the whole family.
Against this historical background the Lutheran and Reformed Churches
welcome the changes in the legal norms which have taken place in
recent years and which are expressed in Matrimonia Mixta; and they
appreciate the intention of the Catholic Church to seek the Christian
good of the whole family. The Lutheran and Reformed Churches recognize
further that the legal norms seek to express a pastoral concern
and that they have their roots in underlying theological convictions
regarding such topics as the nature of the Church and of divine
It is necessary, however, to affirm that the legal norms continue
to create problems especially in connection with the provisions
concerning the promises and the canonical form. We must raise the
question whether especially at these two points the legal norms
do not hinder a fully ecumenical solution to the problem of mixed
marriages. In other words, in view of the undoubted intention of
the Catholic Church to seek the Christian good of the whole marriage
and in view of the pastoral concern behind the Canon Law we would
ask whether that pastoral concern is fully and adequately expressed
by the legal norms. It is significant to note that the conversations
on marriage between Anglicans and Catholics found difficulties at
the same points and we venture to suggest that the question may
be raised whether the degree of consensus which our own dialogue
has achieved does not justify some modification of the legal norms.
A Catholic Reply
The difficulties of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches mentioned
above seem to derive from the fact that the theological roots and
the eminently pastoral function of the Catholic regulations have
not been studied deeply enough. This could lead to two forms of
that of thinking that the various Churches are united in faith and
doctrine concerning mixed marriages and of regarding ecclesiastical
regulations as the sole source of differences in this matter;
that of viewing ecclesiastical laws themselves as "the law"
in the formalistic and legalistic Old Testament sense, and of pushing
divergent ideas of law to the point of giving the impression that
one wishes to reduce the radical character of the Gospel to a mere
invitation by Christ which is not binding and which vanishes when
confronted with the failure of man's weakness.
In the Catholic view, on the contrary, the laws of the Church are
a function of theology and an expression of pastoral concern. They
express in a practical manner the requirements of the doctrine of
faith, and are intended to introduce Christian values into the life
of the faithful. It is therefore true that theological convictions
about the nature and obligatory character of the faith, as well
as about the nature of the Church, influence the characteristic
spirit of Catholic regulations: the conception of the Church as
both visible and invisible, the role of Bishops as doctors and guides
of the faithful, what in the faith binds believers, the very conception
of the Incarnation of Christ and the sacramental nature of His Church
(as institution and mystery, sign and instrument, of the grace of
Christ)..., all this implies a fuller embodiment of theological
insights in ordinary practical life, even by means of numerous and
detailed rules of behavior.
The pastoral concern of the Catholic Church is expressed in various
ways: through the liturgy, through a great variety of means of evangelization,
through the personal contacts of bishops and parish priests with
the faithful, as well as through juridical rules. These regulations
then do not exhaust the pastoral activity of the Church: but their
purpose is still profoundly pastoral.
Therefore it may be true that pastoral concern is not totally and
fully expressed in juridical rules. Yet it remains true that they
have a pastoral function, that of guiding bishops and parish priests
and the faithful toward a conduct which introduces into the daily
Christian life of married couples values brought by Christ and communicated
to us by the Church. These regulations, moreover, can at times help
to give direction to other pastoral activities (of a non-juridical
kind), and in this sense they serve a doubly pastoral purpose.
Apart from the differences in doctrinal and theological convictions
on the nature and authority of the Church, on the obligatory nature
of the faith, and on the sacramental and indissoluble character
of marriage, there are certain other differences which create difficulties
with regard to mixed marriages. These concern chiefly moral principles.
The Catholic Church possesses a single general law for mixed marriages,
which can be applied in a highly flexible manner in different situations
in accordance with the directions of national episcopal conferences.
But the Church is now in relation with the numerous Churches that
came from the Reformation, Churches with diverse theological convictions
and sometimes also different legal principles regarding mixed marriages.
Hence agreements arrived at by a commission need to - be very closely
studied, while at the same time seeking their practical expression
at various levels.
In spite of difficulties that persist, the present dialogue and
the partial progress already made by this Commission would seem
to indicate, not that dialogue should be brought to a close, but
that it should be continued and made more effective at various levels.