As Catholics, we are blessed to have the Catechism of the Catholic Church to provide us with answers to questions about faith, morality and doctrine. Consequently, we have a clear answer to the question of whether Catholics can marry non-Catholics. The short answer: yes, but there will be some challenges.
So, let’s look straight to the source. What exactly does the Catechism say? (Skip ahead to find a summary).
Mixed marriages and disparity of cult
(emphasis added in bold by me)
1633 In many countries the situation of a mixed marriage (marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic) often arises. It requires particular attention on the part of couples and their pastors. A case of marriage with disparity of cult (between a Catholic and a non-baptized person) requires even greater circumspection.
1634 Difference of confession between the spouses does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle for marriage, when they succeed in placing in common what they have received from their respective communities, and learn from each other the way in which each lives in fidelity to Christ. But the difficulties of mixed marriages must not be underestimated. They arise from the fact that the separation of Christians has not yet been overcome. The spouses risk experiencing the tragedy of Christian disunity even in the heart of their own home. Disparity of cult can further aggravate these difficulties. Differences about faith and the very notion of marriage, but also different religious mentalities, can become sources of tension in marriage, especially as regards the education of children. The temptation to religious indifference can then arise.
1635 According to the law in force in the Latin Church, a mixed marriage needs for liceity the express permission of ecclesiastical authority.137 In case of disparity of cult an express dispensation from this impediment is required for the validity of the marriage.138 This permission or dispensation presupposes that both parties know and do not exclude the essential ends and properties of marriage; and furthermore that the Catholic party confirms the obligations, which have been made known to the non-Catholic party, of preserving his or her own faith and ensuring the baptism and education of the children in the Catholic Church.139
1636 Through ecumenical dialogue Christian communities in many regions have been able to put into effect a common pastoral practice for mixed marriages. Its task is to help such couples live out their particular situation in the light of faith, overcome the tensions between the couple’s obligations to each other and towards their ecclesial communities, and encourage the flowering of what is common to them in faith and respect for what separates them.
1637 In marriages with disparity of cult the Catholic spouse has a particular task: “For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband.”140 It is a great joy for the Christian spouse and for the Church if this “consecration” should lead to the free conversion of the other spouse to the Christian faith.141Sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer can prepare the non-believing spouse to accept the grace of conversion.
Let’s summarise: the Catechism tells us that it is licit for a Catholic to marry a non-Catholic Christian (mixed marriage), or a non-Christian (disparity of cult). In both cases, a special dispensation is required for the marriage to be sacramentally valid. The non-Catholic spouse must assent to supporting the Catholic spouse in preserving their faith, and to the baptism and education of any children in the Catholic Church.
The Catechism believes that the challenges presented by such marriages are not insurmountable, but are present and must be addressed. We are warned against “religious indifference” (CCC §1634) arising as a result of tensions, and are encouraged to focus on commonalities and respect differences. Whilst we should pray for the conversion of spouses, such conversions must be the free choice of the non-Catholic spouse. In the meantime, “sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer” (CCC §1637) should guide the actions of the Catholic spouse.
What a gift! The Church gives us a pretty clear model here. First of all, we can rejoice that the Church in Her wisdom believes that marriage to a non-Catholic is possible without compromising our own faith. Furthermore, we are given clear instructions for how we should conduct ourselves within such a marriage: we should be truly loving and respectful of our spouse and their beliefs, praying for them and their conversion, and practicing virtues. Importantly, we are reminded that we must not push conversion, and that whilst it is certainly joyous if it occurs, we must seek it through prayer and lived example of our faith.
I’ll end this post here because the content is dense, but in future posts I hope to discuss the ‘how’ of all this: how should we pray for our spouses? How should we practice virtue in our families? How can we be loving and faithful witnesses to the Truth without aggressively pushing conversion?