The making of a mixed marriage

Picture of Lindy McNamara

Lindy McNamara

Lindy is a freelance journalist

It wasn’t that long ago, certainly within living memory for many, that the happy occasion of a wedding could be the source of great disharmony and friction within families.


Until post-war migration brought different faiths and cultures into the mix of society, Australia was predominantly divided between the Anglo Protestants and the Irish Catholics. The latter were in the minority and often from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.


Back then, religious differences were a big part of everyday life and mixed-faith marriages between a Catholic and non-Catholic were frowned upon and discouraged in some circles. It wasn’t uncommon for parents who were so vehemently against such a union to refuse to attend their child’s wedding, and often deep, long-lasting rifts within families never healed.


Fortunately, times and society’s opinions have changed and now a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic or non-Christian is a common occurrence. 


In fact, 2021 Census figures show that of the 1,338,990 registered marriages of Australian Catholics, 583,211 were a union where both parties were Catholic and 419,662 were mixed-faith marriages of a Catholic and non-Catholic (but Christian). A further 336,117 marriages were between a Catholic and a partner identifying as non-Christian, or not stated.


Today, there continues to be a few requirements in relation to mixed-faith-marriages taking place in the Catholic Church.


For a wedding to be celebrated in the Catholic Church both parties must be free to marry and one must be a baptised Catholic. The other person might be baptised in another Christian denomination or may not be baptised at all, and it is not a requirement for the non-Catholic to become Catholic in order to marry in the Catholic Church.


If a Catholic wishes to marry a non-Christian in the Catholic Church then it is necessary for he/she to speak with the parish priest and obtain a dispensation, which is readily given.


With the requirements for a mixed-faith marriage fulfilled, the priest celebrant will then turn his attention to the engaged couple participating in a marriage preparation program, where religious differences can be further explored.


Family educators Adriana Loro and Clare Bowyer help to run Relationship Education programs at Centacare Catholic Family Services in South Australia. There are several offerings to cater for different needs and situations – from one educator working solely with a couple in the ‘Time For Us’ program, through to groups attending ‘Is Love Enough’ classes.


Religion is just one of the areas of focus for the couples, many of whom are about to enter a mixed-faith marriage.


“By the time we see them, the decision to marry in the Catholic Church has usually been made and they have already met with their priest/deacon and discussed the impact a mixed-faith marriage may have,” Adriana says.


“It is our experience that the non-religious partner, as an example, has made a conscious decision to honour their partner or partner’s family around the value they place on the marriage taking place in the Catholic Church.


“As educators, we focus on the importance of respecting differences in relationships.”


In the Relationship Education sessions, Centacare educators are informed by the principles of Catholic Social Teaching and openly explore with the couple their thoughts on the religious upbringing of any future children.


Clare adds that one of the dilemmas the couple may face is wanting any future children to be part of both churches. “However, church structures don’t always allow a child to be part of two denominations (both Christian). That is, if they are baptised/christened in one they technically can’t have communion in the other,” says Clare.


“This can cause significant angst for the couple especially when they are each committed and attached to their own church.


“In our experience a significant hurdle is often placed on the couple by extended families who are uncomfortable with the different spiritual position of their child’s partner.”


But Adriana and Clare stress there are plenty of tools for building a successful mixed-faith marriage.


“A healthy relationship is based on good communication; validation; shared values; and acceptance where values are different,” they say. “These elements underpin all of the conversations in Relationship Education and as educators we explore strategies which enhance these skills.”


There are also plenty of resources on offer for those wanting support.


For example, the Catholic Enquiry Centre offers a free copy of the book, Discovering God and what it means to be Catholic, which is helpful for non-Catholics entering a mixed-faith marriage to understand Catholic beliefs.


Some parishes and dioceses have organisations such as Teams of Our Lady and Marriage Encounter, which support married couples throughout their journey.


Whatever the dynamic of your union – Catholic/Catholic; Catholic/non-Catholic; Catholic/non-Christian – it’s reassuring to know that the sacrament of marriage is a source of grace and of God’s presence and blessing every day of your marriage.


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