by Nicholas L. Gregoris

One of the most significant critiques of the "Instrumentum Laboris," which is the working document at the Synod of the Bishops on the Family, is that it does not take into adequate consideration the perspectives of local Churches outside of Europe and the Western hemisphere in general.

It is to be hoped that the present work of the small language discussion groups will be able to bridge that gap, so that the Final Document of the Synod will succeed in expressing both the unity of our Catholic Faith and its splendid diversity as it is lived in a multitude of global cultures with particular languages and traditions.

Surely while seeking to solidify this unity in diversity, and diversity in unity, the Synod Fathers, strengthened by the presence and input of other participants, clerical and lay, will address important issues like "mixed marriages" and "disparity of cult." There is often confusion, at least in common parlance, when dealing with these realities that, at the same time, are profoundly rooted in the theology of the Church and, therefore, likewise in the Church's Code of Canon Law.

Years ago, when I was a seminarian studying at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the renowned Jesuit canonist, Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda taught us that for every canon one must seek out its theological underpinnings.  I also learned from the Jesuits to define one's terms before doing anything else.  It is with this principle in mind that I write this article.  I trust that Pope Francis, our Jesuit Pope, can appreciate this theological approach!

For the purposes of this article, let us turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which incorporates into its marvelous text the canons of the 1983 code as well as the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1633, offers us clear definitions of "mixed marriages" and "disparity of cult."  A mixed marriage is one contracted between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic.  We can note here that a mixed marriage, by its very nature, constitutes a sacramental union and that therefore it is a valid marriage whose bond is indissoluble.

"Disparity of cult," on the other hand, refers to a non-sacramental union, that is a marriage between a Catholic and a non-baptized person.

In the case of a mixed marriage, according to CCC 1634, priests are counseled to be attentive lest their difficulties be "underestimated."  For example, a priest who prepares a couple to enter into a mixed marriage (e.g., a Catholic man wants to marry an Anglican woman), must take into due consideration the problem that Christian disunity, per se, proposes.  That reality  is a very sad one; it is a reality that the Lord Jesus predicted on the night before He died when He prayed for those outside the fold. 

The Catholic Church is wholeheartedly committed to prayer for Christian unity in accordance with Our Lord's will as well as to authentic and frank ecumenical dialogue, especially with our Orthodox and Protestant brethren, as called for by the documents of the Second Vatican Council (e.g., Unitatis Redintegratio).  Nevertheless, the sacred ministers of the Church must exercise pastoral care, first and foremost, for members of the Catholic fold, making sure, to the best of their ability, that they do not enter into a marriage with a non-Catholic Christian that will in any way serve to diminish the practice of their own Catholic Faith, let alone serve as an obstacle to their children in this regard.

Then CCC 1634 adds that "disparity of cult can further aggravate these difficulties."How? The Catechism explains that different visions of marriage and different "religious mentalities" of non-Christians can become a source of tension in a marriage, especially when it comes to the Catholic education and upbringing of children.

In the United States of America, this has proven to be true as statistics well attest that over the past 40 years, in mixed marriages and marriages involving disparity of cult, the Catholic spouse with great regularity ends up suffering some loss of faith and religious identity; and consequently, their children whom, before consenting to marriage, they promised the Church to raise as practicing Catholics.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the same paragraph 1634, wisely admonishes that "the temptation to religious indifference can then arise." In other words, as we often hear said by people in contemporary society:  "It doesn't matter what religion you are because they are all equal, leading us to the same final realities, God, Heaven, etc." This is a very dangerous notion which Catholics cannot embrace as orthodox. The Catholic Church still holds and will always teach that she and she alone is the universal sacrament of salvation (see Vatican II's Lumen Gentium). All other Christian churches or ecclesial communities share in the fullness of truth but with various degrees of imperfection. 

When it comes to non-Christians, there needs to be even more caveats because the Catholic Church cannot pretend to accept the premises of those religions which do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the world's sole Redeemer and Savior (see the Declaration Dominus Iesus, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).  While, as the Second Vatican Council instructs us, there are certainly "elements of truth" in all religions, only the Catholic Church teaches the fullness of truth as contained in Sacred Scripture, and Sacred Tradition and as faithfully safeguarded and handed on by the Magisterium, that is to say, by the living teaching office of the Church comprised of the bishops in communion with the Pope.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1635, notes, in conformity with the Code of Canon Law, that Mixed Marriages are only "licit" if the express permission of ecclesiastical authority is given. As concerns "disparity of cult," an express dispensation from this particular impediment is required for the actual validity (and not just the liceity) of the marriage.

In conclusion, I would like to make the following suggestions and clarifications:

(1) Of primary importance, but far beyond the scope of our present article, are the teachings of St. Paul on marriage, especially when it involves a Christian and a pagan (Cf. Ephesians 5; 1 Corinthians 7:14-16).

(2) Readers should consult canons 1124, 1086, and 1125 on mixed marriages and disparity of cult.

(3) To put our present discussion of marriage into a greater historical perspective, I refer our readers to the masterful encyclical of Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii, in particular nn. 81-83.