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Canon Law for Today

By Rev. Frank Morrisey

Rev. Frank Morrisey

What is the current law of mixed marriages?


Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, before ecumenism became a real value for the church, mixed marriages were “most seriously” prohibited. They could not even be celebrated in the church building, but had to take place in the sacristy or elsewhere.

At the time of the Second Vatican Council, a strong call was made for the church to revise its legislation on the matter. This was in line with the renewed opening of the church toward ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

Following the Council, then, Pope Paul VI simplified the norms considerably. They were again adjusted in 1983, and the canons then entrusted to conferences of bishops the responsibility for drawing up norms for each country, taking into account the situations to be faced in each place, especially in those countries where Catholics were in the minority.

The current Canadian norms were promulgated on March 8, 1990, and are in effect in the Latin Church throughout the country.

The norms distinguish between two types of mixed marriages: first, where a Catholic marries a non-baptized person, and secondly, where a Catholic marries another baptized person who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church. The first type of marriage is not considered to be sacramental, since both parties are not baptized; the second, one, however, is considered to be sacramental.

Because of the fact that a Catholic party to a mixed marriage can, at times, feel inclined to leave the church and join the partner’s community, the church wishes to impress upon Catholics the need to remain faithful to one’s faith. For this reason, the Catholic is to make a declaration to the effect that he or she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith.

In addition, after discussing the matter with the other party, the Catholic party is to make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power to see that children born of the union will be baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church.

Both the declaration and the promise are made by the Catholic party. The other party is to be informed of this and is invited to co-operate in the faith education of the children, but is not required to make any promise.

These promises are made orally in the presence of the parish priest or his delegate who conducts the prenuptial inquiry. The presence of witnesses is not necessary.

The Catholic education of the children must be placed in a context of mutual respect for the faith and doctrine of both parties, which must not be forced or manipulated. Likewise, the good of the marriage itself must not be placed in jeopardy.

If the Catholic party is not sincere in making the promises, or even refuses to do so, the marriage cannot be authorized in the Catholic Church. Indeed, there would be a major contradiction — wishing to be married in a church without any intention of adhering to its teachings and practices.

The application of the promise must be considered in the context of the marriage itself, especially when dealing with a sacramental marriage. We note that the promise entails doing “all in his or her power” to see to the Catholic baptism and education of the children. This is not an absolute.

This, of course, can lead to tensions at times, especially in the case of a non-sacramental marriage (that is, with a non-baptized person). There are family traditions and pressures that must be taken into account. At times also, unfortunately, the Catholic party is not that strong in his or her faith and does relatively little to make the promise a reality.

As far as the actual celebration of the wedding is concerned, the church now allows for different possibilities. A decision of the Canadian bishops, June 26, 1987, allows, in certain instances, for a dispensation from canonical form in the case of a mixed marriage, so that the marriage may be celebrated validly in the church of the non-Catholic party.

The reasons that would justify this include the spiritual well-being of the parties, especially if the non-Catholic party is attached to the familial faith; the peace and harmony of personal or family relationships; the special relationship that the non-Catholic party has to a minister or place of worship.

It must be recognized that there are practical difficulties to be met along the way, and the church’s present legislation is trying to remove as many obstacles as possible so that family life can be lived in peace and harmony. At the same time, though, it would be unrealistic for the church to state simply that this doesn’t matter and the parties can do as they please.

A mixed marriage is a privileged moment for both parties to re-commit themselves to their faith, and to each other, striving to do their best to demonstrate how inter-religious and inter-faith dialogue can begin at home and be soundly grounded in personal convictions.

Morrisey is a professor emeritus of canon law at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, and has been very active over the years in the field of canon law, especially as it applies to dioceses and religious institutes. This is his 24th article in a series.